The Midsummer festival marks the change from the waxing to the waning year. The God shows His other face and becomes Arthur, who at the Hallows acts as Lord of the Dead. The core of the ceremony deals with this change. Robin is replaced in a ritual killing. This sham killing can be managed in a number of ways, some of which can still be seen in many of the long sword dances performed by folk dancers. The robin, as we know, is Robin’s bird, and the old rhyme, ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’ almost certainly has something to do with the matter. We will recall that at Yule Arthur’s spirit was incorporated in the wren and that there were, and still are wren hunting rituals at that time.
However we manage it Robin disappears, becomes transformed as Arthur, and claims the favour of the Goddess, to rule over the waning year. This idea of the two Gods being one is typified in pagan sculpture where the God may have three faces, one being Himself as unity, the other two being aspects of Himself.
As will be seen in the sermon, the ritual embodies some crucial points of religious thought. That our expression of those thoughts may seem to be just simple play-acting is not to make our ritual any less cogent, for to the percipient, apparent simplicity of ritual overlays much deeper matter. Each can take what he needs, or what he is capable of comprehending.
We have noticed how important in our rituals is the dance. From the simple round dance others evolve. It should be possible to invent dances, as I have previously indicated, that express the rite. There are still plenty of folk dances which can provide us with a core of ideas.
This time our ritual deals with the rejection of Robin. His devotion and bravery lead him to a hero’s end. He is taken away and killed. In order that the year may continue to unroll He is, as it were, made a sacrifice of to Himself. It must be emphasised that this ceremony deals in first part with killing, but not murder. This will be more fully discussed in the sermon; but we may here note that we all kill, directly or indirectly, in order that we may live; and this whether or no we are vegetarians. Life may, as Blake puts it, “delight in life,” but it also depends on death. Midsummer is inherent in May Day through its sexual glorification that leads to this other grimmer consummation.
Its other symbols are fire and water. They typify the ordeals that the God has to suffer and, by extension, serve to remind us that we too have to face ordeals and suffering in our lives. Through His suffering Robin changes to Arthur, who is the Lord, not only of Death, but of wisdom and secret things, and it is part of our ceremony to oversee that change as a lesson for us, so that we too can learn wisdom from the trials and sufferings inherent in our lives.
This is a God festival and all our libations should be poured in red wine. It was traditionally a fire festival, and if possible a fire can be lit as part of the ceremony.
As at Yule the main celebration is not till some few days after the Winter Solstice, so at Midsummer the ritual is performed a few days after the Summer Solstice proper on the 24th June, when it is clear beyond doubt that the day’s length is declining.
Despite its initially sombre character and its lamentations, the ceremony nevertheless ends on a cheerful note as Arthur takes up His reign and leads the dances round the fire.
As with most of our rituals, an outdoor setting is preferred. However, that is as matters make it; so two areas or rooms should be prepared; one for the core of the rite, the other as a retiring area.
As usual in the making of a rite there will be room for improvisation and ritual thought to embellish the simple story. The election of a ‘Ringleader’ to oversee and give continuity to the ceremonies will be found helpful.
The ceremony should begin at the still beribboned oak, or around Robin’s decorated staff, the attenders having gathered previously at the retiring area to prepare themselves. Make up and dress should be as before with obvious seasonal changes, flowers etc, except that the Lady now carries a bouquet of red flowers tied with a blue ribbon. These are the flowers of maturity and high summer, but the blue is now on open display and declares the deadly nature of the game.
The Lady stands in the centre of the ritual ground, and on either side of Her another of the ladies takes up her position. The Lady then calls forward each man to drink from Her libation bowl, Robin going last. The men return to their places and are seated. The three ladies, who represent the Goddess as Triad, now advance upon the men, and take up their places in front of Robin, who is called upon to stand up. As He does so the Lady presents Him with a red flower tied with a blue ribbon. One of Her attenders hands Her an apple, which though apparently whole has been halved across. This, when opened displays two five pointed stars, and is one of the reasons that an apple has such a sacred image in folklore and magical belief. It is this which makes the apple a star tree. Also it is one of the trees upon which that most magical of trees can grow, i.e. the Mistletoe, and therefore it has always been considered as a tree of power; its contained stars holding the mysteries of life and death, and the wisdom that goes with such knowledge. Now Her other attendant brings the libation bowl, which in ancient custom held a potent and soporific drug. He is asked to empty it, and then the Lady presents Him with the apple held in Her left hand, asking Him to choose which half He wishes. As He indicates the half of His choice, the Lady opens Her hand and the apple divides into two. She transfers the rejected half to Her right hand, and turns His chosen half so that the star pattern it contains is presented to Him reversed. The ladies then take three steps backwards, turn and process to the retiring area.
All the men now rise and lay hold of Robin, dragging Him to the central tree, where He is quickly bound to it with a fivefold turn of rope or ribbon. If a fire is available now is the time to light it. The men then dance round it in a figure of eight dance. If they have laths of wood, they can so arrange the dance that they finish with the laths intertwined in the manner seen in some sword dances; the final figure
so made being placed round Robin’s neck. Alternatively sticks or rods can be used symbolically to prod their erstwhile leader.
At the end of these dances, which as can be seen should have had some practice, the God is considered as ritually dead. He is untied and carried away to the retiring area. As the men approach this area so the ladies leave it, the two processions meeting. The ladies, followed closely by the men, then set up a keening and wailing for the dead God. This can be very moving and poignant. When the M.C. or Ringleader deems the time is right, he calls for a cease of sorrow. The processions then reform and proceed, the ladies to the tree, the men to the retiring area.
At this area, the men should have prepared bowls with a little meat, bread and wine. The deposed and supposedly dead God is ignored, being placed facing outwards. During this time if make-up has been used He should replace His reddened face with a black or purple one. The men, meanwhile, seat themselves quietly and taste of the food and drink.
At the tree the ladies prepare the ground. The ribbons are removed from the tree or staff and the place tidied. A further and more copious feast of meat, bread and wine is spread. The path from the retiring area should have been previously set out with candles, and these are now lighted. One of the ladies takes a place halfway along this now lit processional path.
When all is ready the lady who is waiting halfway along the path indicates to the M.C. that all is ready, he calls to the waiting men:
“Come forward you who still have no fear. You have seen our Lady’s power. Are you fit to tread another measure on Her sacred path?”
The first man then approaches. He is stopped by the Lady who demands:
“Stay! Unless you are prepared to pass through fire and water you may not come in.”
When the man accedes to the ordeal, he is dragged forward to the waiting ladies. He has to pass through the fire, or pass his hand three times slowly through a candle flame. He is then very thoroughly sprinkled with water. He is taken to the Lady and told to make his obeisances to Her and then to the other women. When all but the new Lord of the Waning Year have been tested and accepted, the men are charged by the Lady to bring Him in. They proceed to the retiring area and form up a procession with Arthur, as we shall now call Him, in the middle. He may feign reluctance, but nevertheless He is taken past the candles, the men chanting and clapping about Him. He is challenged as before, and receives the same treatment as His followers, only perhaps more so. Finally, at the end of His obeisances He is accepted by the Lady, who brings Him to stand by Her and gives Him a loving kiss.
All the company now give a joyful shout in welcome and process round the couple, 8 times sunwise for the God and 9 times anti-clockwise for the Lady. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Lady hands Him, from Her right hand the other half of the apple, this time with the star the right way up. Libations are poured by the attenders and the ladies invite them to join the feast. Further dances can take place, particularly figure of eight ones, which are naturally suggested if there is a bonfire, as is leaping over it. The celebration then becomes general and informal.
In describing the ceremonies above I have tried to keep to simple ritual points with some suggestion of more elaborate rituals germane to this time. A lot depends on venue (for example, a bonfire can be a difficult matter to arrange) but with a little thought and preparation even the humblest place can be full of magic if thought is given to decoration, lighting and dress. It is also helpful if, as at all ceremonies, a list of needed items is made beforehand, and that all is made ready, thus ensuring that the solemnities of the rite run smoothly.
This is a ceremony of endurance and triumph. We learn that apples are for heroes only; and heroism depends on dedication to and love of the Goddess.
In our lives we suffer at some times. This is part of our creatureliness, whether our torments are of the flesh or the spirit. At Midsummer we begin to realise that Gods also suffer; that They have feelings akin to ours, being as They are of us, and so They can feel for us. This is one of the mysteries of Midsummer. We can also learn that Arthur is the bringer of wisdom as well as the Lord of the Dead. We learn that Robin accepts the dark places of His death. We do not always like to venture into the dark reaches of ourselves, for the wisdom we may find there is the fruit of tribulation, and so is always near sadness and friend to sorrows. We learn that to rediscover the innocence of Yule we must be prepared to walk through the dark places of our souls, the depths of which we will explore at the Hallows. It is this apparent duality we must resolve. Life and Death as opposites, symbolised by apparently opposing Gods. It is this duality/unity that holds, when properly resolved, the wholeness of personality. It is one thing to understand it in the head, for the idea is not too difficult intellectually, but another to comprehend it in our persons and our lives. We must try to ‘know’, not just know about.
It is all too easy to follow dogma, the light of certainty against the darkness of doubt. No religion or policy is ‘good’, all others being bad. Such things appeal only to those in desperate need of some reassurance, to those in fear of themselves and of the world. Such rigid carapaces of ideas are the ultimate delusion; stasis cannot be achieved without the very death we fear. These delusions lead to, or perhaps worse, are fostered by, closed systems of thought often imposed on the idealistic and credulous by the unscrupulous. The brave ideas of youth are perverted and cramped into narrow and blinkered systems conducted by bigoted opportunists. No pagan can permit his life and his thinking to be ready made like this. His pilgrimage must be a personal one. He alone by thought and work can become a hero of the spirit.
We, at Midsummer, see the diversity of the Gods; yet we also begin to see that Their diversity is resolved in the Goddess. Being dedicated to Her, They become part of one another. Yet the Goddess Herself is infinite in Her manifestations; and herein lies another mystery for us to work upon.
Our God is killed. This killing is another lesson for us. We cannot live without killing. Life depends upon it, as new life depends on sexual union; and as May Day tells us sex leads round to death. This truth, psychological or bodily, we see embodied all around us. We feel it in our own lives, and meet it in this story of the Gods. We are in Them and They in us and we have to deal honestly with the problems so raised.
The Gods have grown with us and embody the opposites in us. We are co-operative in great endeavours, yet we are competitive and combative as well, particularly in groups against other groups. This has led to games and sports of all sorts, many of them with strong territorial overtones. Yet there is a darker side. There can be violence in competition between small groups, and there can be and is greater violence in large ones. Ideas and dogmas can grip nations and lead to the ultimate violence of war. Perhaps this was not too bad for us in the remote past, but now it could prove final. Humanity, despite what many wish to believe, has been, and still is, a warlike species. I do not know how many wars are going on in the world as I write this, it must be at least a dozen; and war is popular, so is violence; witness the number of war films, the number of violent and lurid episodes that are avidly viewed or read. There is a basic problem here, and it must be faced. Dangerous activities are it seems necessary particularly to the young. The rest of us need also that spice of danger, some element of risk, some test of bravery. Peace without conflict is impossible. Much of our drama depends on conflict, though here it is often its purpose to resolve it, as the conflict between the Gods is resolved in the realisation of the Goddess. They can show the way without denial of either of Their aspects. Some danger is good for us. It provides the necessary outside pressure to establish cohesion, co-operation and self-sacrifice for other’s good.
Recent peace has seen the increase of high-risk sports, parachuting, hang gliding, single-handed ocean journeys and mountain climbing. Our need is to prove ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to a goal or a cause. If youth feels unable to act or prove itself, its frustration may, and will, spill over into acts of meaningless violence. There are no heroes there. That image of the God as hero has its place in all mankind, whether man or woman, as the initiator of bold enterprises and devoted service: and the Goddess as heroine is represented in all of us in our caring, loving, and unselfish aspects. We must find those aspects in ourselves, and if through great danger and risk, we can come through to that great calm and mystic sudden understanding that some have found when faced with the certainty of their own deaths, the pilgrimage of our lives will not have been wasted.
These are great matters and require our concentration. There are no easy answers, nor are there others who can remove this burden from our minds and hearts. It is our heritage of humanity. As the year has waxed so have we, and at Midsummer we learn to accept greater responsibility. We must work through our ordeals before we can be welcomed into the temple of the Goddess’s love. As we tread the candlelit path we can only pray for illumination on our journey through the waning year.
Finally, despite these weighty considerations Midsummer is a ritual of deep joy. It is symbolic of the maturity of our powers. Tempered by the fire of experience, and having passed through the deep waters of our own minds, we approach a greater wisdom; the apprehension not only of the unity of the opposites, but of the unity of all things in the Goddess.
© The Estate of Ronald M. White
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