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Between 11 and 12 on John’s day, the unbetrothed girls gather nine sorts of flowers; they are twined into a wreath, of which the twiner must have spun the thread in the same hour. Before the fateful hour is past, she throws the wreath backwards into a tree; as often as it is thrown without staying on, so many years will it be before she is married. All this must be done in silence.
Among the notes in Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm, English translation, 4th edition, 1882.
Summer solstice was once a high holiday celebrated all across Europe and the British Isles. The early Christian Church adopted the festival dedicating the longest day of the year to St. John the Baptist. Despite the change of name and strong opposition, the old ways persisted. The thrill of Midsummer-fires when the people “rub the sacred flame, run through the glowing embers, throw flowers into the fire, and join hands in the circular dance” was too pleasurable to be abandoned. Jacob Grimm viewed the event as the survival of a once dominant religion which sought to awaken latent psychic powers and perceptions by means of traditional rituals.
Flowering sweet herbs were a most vital part of the ceremonies and Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the lore. The plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream centers around a plant shot by Puck’s arrow.
The flower is the Viola tricolor, our popular garden heartsease, wild pansy, or Johnny-jump-up so called because of its delightful habit of self-sowing. Shakespeare’s Oberon, king of the fairies, describes its properties:
St. John’s wort, the bright golden wildling, takes its name from the holiday and along with daisies, clover, feverfew, rue, vervain, meadowsweet, orpine (Midsummer Men), and lavender make up the “nine sorts” of flowers; the traditional bouquet and an essential part of the Midsummer festival of our ancestors.
And while we have the art of Shakespeare, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen to remind us of the glory of June enchantment, every year the same flowers gathered ages ago bloom in our gardens or forgotten meadows perpetuating the magic of Midsummer.