June 24, 2022 — The Icelandic Sagas tell how converted Viking chieftains sought to ban Midsummer rituals and replace them with Catholic celebrations. In more recent medieval sources from the 1500s, Swedish writer, cartographer, and ecclesiastic Olaus Magnus mentions midsummer bonfires. Those are no longer common in Sweden but are still practiced in Finland.
By introducing a saint to be celebrated parallel to the ancient fertility rites of the Nordic summer solstice, which had been established several thousand years earlier, the priestly class’ tried to overlay the tradition by introducing a veneration of John the Baptist which eventually became fixated on June 24. However, the actual time of the summer solstice date fluctuates from year to year.
The veneration of John was, of course, an ill-disguised attempt to take over yet another “Norse” tradition. In medieval times many Goths, Swedes, and other regional “tribes” in what is today Sweden were believers in the Old Gods despite being “Christian” — hence the cultural coup of Midsummer failed.
“May’s climate was unfitting for Sweden’s farmers, which is why the erection of the Irminsul-like “maypole” took place in late June. A correct translation of the maypole, in a modern Swedish context, would be “junepole.”
By contrast, almost all of Europe fell for the “trick” and now celebrates Midsummer on the fixated date of June 24. However, a few countries like Sweden still honor the turning point of the year and its longest day in a far more ancient tradition; namely on Fridays that fall in line between June 20-26.
Does Midsummer Really Hail From Ancient Times?
Some historians believe Sweden’s unusual Midsummer maypole is a German cultural import that came about in recent medieval times, but sources are vague. It is far more likely the Swedish Midsummer pole raised in June is related to the Saxon Irminsul tree — the etymology of which is reasonably clear: The stem -sul translates to “sun” in Swedish, but in Germany, it is considered to mean “pillar” — perhaps there is truth to both. Irmin means large.
Also, more confusion about the origins and the historical validity of Sweden’s Midsummer’s Eve has come about. In bygone days, tribes in continental Europe celebrated a similar event in early May, but about a month and a half before the Nordic tradition. The reason? For sowing crops, May’s climate was unfitting for Sweden; hence, raising the “maypole” by the Norse and other people around the Baltic-Varangian Sea always took place in late June. In a modern Swedish context, it makes a lot more sense to call the maypole “junepole.”
Besides, much suggests that Midsummer is the most Norse of all holidays. For example, rolling naked in the midsummer dew is still considered strengthening for health, and there is a known tradition of saving a summer wreath and putting it in the yuletide bath (that is no longer practiced.) Another remnant from ancient times exclusive to Sweden, which is still alive, is to put seven or nine kinds of flowers under the pillow on a Midsummer night. Then, in the following dreams, people can sense who they will live with for the rest of their lives.
Midsommarblót Seiðr Magic
The summer solstice was the subject of magical performances in pre-Christian times since the vegetation was attributed to supernatural powers. Also, spirit beings were assumed to be particularly active at this time.
Midsummer’s night was considered suitable for collecting healing herbs and foretelling the future. In the harsh conditions of the Swedish peasant society of the Viking Age, the Migration Era, and earlier times, seiðr (magic) was a way to master the unpredictability of life.
Intriguingly, Finnish and Swedish Midsummer is not entirely dissimilar except regarding the symbolic elements. While the Midsummer “junepole” is still used in Sweden, lighting a midsummer bonfire in Finland (and Denmark) is still practiced.
Instead of singing and dancing to the contemporary song “The Little Frogs” in a huge ring hand in hand, in Finland, people sit by the shore and watch a big fire as they enjoy a long, bright summer evening and night. The Finnish fires are called “Juhannuskokko,” They scare away evil spirits that can destroy the harvest.
The bonfire tradition was common in Sweden until late medieval times, as noted by Olaus Magnus in the 1500s. To those tuned in to Draugablíkk, connections to an unconscious and historically inherited fertility cult can be felt, especially by those born with the blíkk.