Anthropology: The History and Evolution of Pre-Christian Celebrations of Midsummer

The Midnight Sun
Beautiful cascading waterfalls flow out to the sea in the form of a river with the setting midnight sun in the background.

To the far north of mainland Europe is Scandinavia, the furthest northern sub-region of Europe with a rich and vibrant history, culture, and people. While the greater Scandinavia consists of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, the main Scandinavia Peninsula is made up of the three main kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. What separates Iceland and Finland from the rest of Scandinavia, aside from their geographic positioning, is the fact they speak a different dialect, whereas the Scandinavian peninsula speaks a North Germanic dialect. 

Regardless of this small distinction, the greater Scandinavia area is Europe’s gateway to the Arctic circle and, much like the US state of Alaska, is a vast remote wilderness of natural wonder and beauty. Whether it be from the towering peaks that look as though they were forged by the hammers of the Norse Gods, to the majestic fjords with cascading waterfalls due to the glacier runoff, the people who descended from the Bronze Age Norse live in a natural wonderland that has been carved out by the awesome forces of Mother Nature over thousands of years.

At that time, a long-standing culture emerged under the Northern Lights, from the sea-faring Vikings to their worship of the Norse Gods and the tales of Ragnarok. Many of the old sites that date back to the Bronze Age are remnants of the old Nordic civilization that paint a picture of how their lives were led. Like with that of the Roman Empire, their old ways of religion and faith were deemed as Paganism by the Christian and later Roman Catholic church because of their faith in more than one god.
An artist’s rendition of the mythical World Tree of Norse Mythology.

Once greater Scandinavia became Christianized and more modernized, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland would be molded into the nations they are today. They are one of the most friendly and welcoming peoples on the globe and are deemed as some of the happiest people on the planet, even in spite of being so close to the Arctic circle. Whether you’re visiting Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, or Reykjavik, going out to venture into the Scandinavian countryside is a majestic experience with all the wildlife and beautiful scenery that surrounds you on all sides.

The 2019 folk horror film Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, shows a more twisted version of one of the oldest cultural rituals and traditions on the planet. The film follows the misadventures of a cultural anthropology student attending an original Midsummer festival in Sweden that turns rather awry for the protagonist. But do not let the demented nature of Midsommar turn you away from what the real Midsummer tradition is all about. While many cultures celebrate or recognize the cultural value of Midsummer, in the far northern region of Europe in the ancient land and subregion of Scandinavia which is made up of the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, Midsummer is an important event celebrated by Scandinavians for centuries and generally falls around the Summer Solstice. 

Long before the Scandinavian region converted to the arrival of Christianity or anywhere else in the world, Midsummer festivals have been held since the Bronze Age some 2500 years ago. During that time, Vikings sailed across the Barents Sea, Baltic Sea, and the North Sea, raiding and pillaging like 18th century pirates scattered across the Caribbean Sea. This was a period of shifting ideologies and faiths with a new wave of Christianity spreading across the rest of Europe. 

As Christianity spread across Southern Europe, it took a little bit more time for Christianity to reach Scandinavia. Because of this, the Vikings and the people of Scandinavia still held on to their faith in the Norse Gods, from the likes of Odin, Loki, to the infamous God of Thunder, Thor. Made famous, of course, by Chris Hemsworth’s role as the comic book hero based off the same Thor in ‘The Avengers’. Unlike Marvel, who have to adhere to a panel of parents which dictates the content being released in cinema, ergo making Thor and the Norse mythology attributed to him a bit sugar coated, actual Norse mythology is far more brutal and darker than what Marvel makes it out to be. 

According to their mythology, human beings inhabit the world of Midgard and the gods inhabit the world of Asgard. There are a total of nine worlds that the Norse believed in that were held up by the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. According to their beliefs, if a viking or warrior died in battle, their soul would pass on to Valhalla, an eternal enormous hall of slain heroic warriors ruled over by Odin himself in Asgard. Those who died a regular death by way of illness, old age, or by other means in Norse mythology wound up going to Niflheim, the misty underworld of the dead ruled over by the Goddess Hel. 

While the old gods of Norse myth served a pivotal role in the faith of Scandinavians, in the neighboring kingdom of Finland, one of their gods is directly associated with the significance behind Midsummer. Before their conversion, Finnish belief associated the Midsummer festival with the Finnish God of the Sky and Weather Ukko. Before it became known as Midsummer, to the Finnish it was known as Ukon juhla or “Ukko’s Celebration”. Once the holiday was Christianized, the festival became known as Juhannus, which was named after John the Baptist.
A depiction of John, one of the three big apostles

Up until the arrival of Christianity in the mid 13th Century, the next four centuries would see Norse mythology flourish under the beliefs of the nine worlds; gods, giants, and elves. In that mix was the Midsummer tradition. In Bronze Age Finland, their ancient god Ukko is responsible for the festivals surrounding Midsummer and the folk magic attributed to the event. Most of the folk magic associated with Midsummer has a lot to do with how long the day lasts and the potency of the night. Many young maidens take part in small rituals to determine their future husbands and fertility. For instance, one ritual in Sweden involves maidens leaving flowers under their pillows which will grant them a dream or form of precognition of who their future husband’s reflection will be.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Midsummer is the Midnight Sun. Due to Scandinavia and Finland’s close proximity to the Arctic circle, sitting along the same lines of latitude and longitude as the state of Alaska, during the summer months, especially near the Solstice, there can be up to 24 hours of sunlight and 24 hours of darkness in the wintertime. Because of the prolonged days and the Midnight Sun, the festival brings many to the countryside of these Norse kingdoms to escape the trials of urban life. 

Festivities of Midsummer

With any significant tradition that has stood the test of time over the centuries, the rituals and festivities of the Midsummer event have remained the same in spite of the festival’s archaic history. While the celebration generally lands on different days around the Summer Solstice, much of the celebrations and rituals of Midsummer in Scandinavia have kept their original allure to all the revellers who take part in the holiday.

Generally, at the start of every major Midsummer festival, a large bonfire is lit near the side of a lake or by the sea. In Sweden, alongside the bonfire, those celebrating in Sweden also erect a maypole, a tall wooden configuration upon which people dance around and is used in a variety of European folk festivals, not just Midsummer.
Four women sit around the burning of the bonfire wearing traditional folk garments.

Although highly celebrated in greater Scandinavia, Midsummer is also widely celebrated throughout the rest of the world. Generally with each culture comes different festivals and traditions for the Summer Solstice event, which is the longest day out of the year. From as far away as Brazil to India, Midsummer is commemorated in a variety of different celebrations. For example, in India, they honor the Summer Solstice in an event called Uttarayana where the whole day revolves around celebrating the solstice, which involves a mass practice of yoga. 

Once Midsummer became converted into Saint John’s Day, much more of the western world slowly began to attribute the event to Saint John. Nowadays, many cultures and nations around the world recognize the traditions and history of the Midsummer/Saint John’s Day celebration. Predominantly the most popular in Europe, the festivities and celebrations surrounding this day and eve are memorialized by the traditions presented by these European cultures. 

The Making of A St. John’s Day/Midsummer Event 

Considering in what hemisphere of the Earth you are located in, the summer solstice can vary with summer occurring in the Southern Hemisphere during the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. So, for places like Brazil, the majority of the Midsummer festivals are held in the most northeastern parts of Brazil in an event they call Festa junina, a nationwide festival that, although it is named after the month of June, is held during Midwinter. 

Although held during the wintertime, the events in Brazil harbor the same festivities one would expect to find at a European Midsummer festival event, from maypole dancing, lighting of a bonfire, to drinking hot beverages known as quentao that is made up of fruits and spices. Once the bonfire is hot coals, there is an event which occurs at midnight where those brave enough walk across the coals barefoot. In this ritual it is proposed that those who stride across with strong faith shall not be burned or hurt.
A tranquil bonfire burning aside a gentle beach.

It would seem just like in Brazil, each culture has their own specific variation of the lore surrounding the event, from the maidens in Sweden placing flowers under the pillow to have premonitions of their future husbands, to the coal walk of strong faith in Brazil. Each specific country tends to have its own twist to how they approach certain aspects of the event. For instance in Austria, revellers partition down the Danube river in boats as fireworks erupt from the banks of the river as bonfires guide the way. 

Generally most of these unique celebrations fall around June 20th to the 25th, an entire week devoted to the Summer Solstice. Some celebrations fall on June 4th, like the festivities that occur in Lithuania, which can vary depending on the people and culture. 

Cultural Significance Under the Solstice

Unlike most singular holidays that land on a single day and an eve, Midsummer/Saint John’s or Han’s Day can last for up to an entire week, revolving around the longest day of the year. Seen as public holidays in various nations throughout Europe such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in Sweden, Midsummer is of such great importance that it has been petitioned to be made into the National Day of Sweden. Although not as highly celebrated here in the United States, not even considered as a public holiday, the significance of the Summer Solstice is still of importance. 

Long before the arrival of the Anglo-Americans to the New World, the indigenous Native American tribal nations have always paid great reverence to any sort of celestial event that should occur from Eclipses to the Equinoxes. There is a place in Northeastern Ohio called the Great Serpent Mound that is unlike any other place in the United States. Located here is an almost 2,000 foot long, 3 foot high prehistoric Native American effigy depicted as a snake. Dating back from either 320 BC to 1070 AD, this historical site can really only be seen at its full potential from the air. 

Serpent Mound, Ohio
credit: historynaked; An aerial shot of the historic Serpent Mound in Ohio, built long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The most astonishing feature of this fascinating place is the fact that the head of the serpent is aligned perfectly with the setting sun of the Summer Solstice. Visitors coming here during the longest day of the year can witness this amazing astronomical alignment. It is rather extraordinary that a culture without the advancement of any modern day technology is still able to erect an effigy that is perfectly aligned with the Solstice.

The Great Serpent Mound historical site is one of a very select few places on Earth that is perfectly aligned with the Summer Solstice. While today’s America does not have that much reverence for the longest day of the year, to the indigenous Native Americans it meant so much more to them that they depicted a serpent’s head converging with the setting sun. It is truly a sight to behold.

Whether or not, Midsummer, St. John’s Day, St. Hans day, the Solstice itself, is highly celebrated across the globe due to the astronomical importance of the celestial event that gives us our longest day of the year. To truly experience the significance of the Midsummer festival, especially for someone from a cultural background that does not celebrate the events or views the solstice in the same light, it would be the thrill of a lifetime for any adventurer with an outgoing spirit to partake and bask in the festivities of the Midnight Sun.

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