As I reviewed my past Summer Solstice materials, I was deep in thought about community, the upcoming Pride march, which I wrote a bit about last time, and I wanted to learn something new I could share. I had thought to do an article about some aspect of healing used at Solstice time, but all I could find was that some people did pilgrimages to find medicinal herbs- because they were in season and it is time to go get them. Somehow, that just did not spark my interest enough to dig much deeper.
I am a flighty, finicky person, and I write best when inspired by something or another. So, I kept researching, and I found something by accident that not only inspired me and sparked my interest, but it completely blew me away. It is new to me, and has to do with a Pagan celebration of Summer Solstice.
What I learned about was a whole Pagan tradition I’d never heard of before and about their HUGE Summer Solstice celebrations. I also took time and thought about the healing I had read about. It’s simply gathering of herbs.
Healing yesterday as opposed to today
While we may think of ancient Pagan healing rituals as just a bunch of chanting and raising of energies, it was so much more than that. There was use of plant knowledge, lore and dogma to call a god or spirit to help, and then the presence of the trusted healer who had studied with the elder healer, who had studied with a different elder healer and so on and so forth. Plant knowledge is scientific knowledge of which plants chemically counteract infection, injury, or disease to make the body whole again. It’s the same knowledge any modern herbalist, apothecary, doctor, or pharmacist gets in university classes instead of years of study under a trained Pagan healer. It was proven in studies that something called the placebo effect can influence healing. If you believe you will be healed, it helps you feel better. In days past, the village or townspeople had faith in their healers, or healing techniques, whereas these days, if your doctor has a good bedside manner, and assures you all will be well, you will feel relieved, and your stress levels drop, which helps the body to fight disease better.
Ancient healers- especially in small settlements, knew their people quite well. They knew your parents, their parents, your siblings, your friends and neighbors, and everybody else. You might have grown up with them, or maybe your kids grew up with their kids. Not only did everybody know everybody else’s business quite often, but your local healer usually knew what you were allergic to, what you were comfortable with, what old injuries you had, and they likely knew your personality well enough to understand what made each individual tick. Whatever scared you or made you most relaxed were things they kept in mind when treating each individual. Modern doctors, be they medical doctors, or psychiatric doctors do all these things as well. The difference is they no longer call the gods for help in healing.
Infections and diseases that would have wiped out a whole population of people in a matter of weeks have been completely eradicated thanks to modern medicines, and no amount of praying away said infections used to keep people alive. Smallpox is a very good example.
The first evidence of smallpox goes back as early as 10,000 BC, and during the 20th century, as many as 300-500 million people died from just smallpox. Due to vaccination, it was declared eradicated in 1979. While it is common knowledge that Native Americans were contracting and dying from smallpox as early as the 1500’s, some of which was deliberately given to them, it is not common knowledge some people actually had smallpox gods.
A Hindu goddess named Shitala was worshipped, and devotees believed praying to her could cure or prevent smallpox. While some believed she healed or prevented smallpox, others believed she CAUSED it, and put bowls of water on their roofs because they believe it warded her off. To this day, a whole festival day is devoted to her worship in Springtime. Here is an interesting article from Om Ashram about that.
A Time Magazine snippet discusses smallpox pre- vaccinations, and this shows that despite the devotions and prayers, people still got smallpox in India- and vaccinations are what helped.
As a religious individual, I certainly do not advocate to give up faith in healing from the divine and just forego prayers and devotions. But I do know prayers alone can’t assure healing. Nowadays, we have our modern doctors, hospitals, labs, and you name it, but Pre-Christian Pagans did not. And coincidentally, at times of certain religious celebrations, certain herbs that could be used medicinally would be ready to harvest.
Gathering the herbs
As to these healing herbs gathered at solstice time, in Spain for example, this was done by women, who gathered fennel, fern, rue, rosemary, dog rose, lemon verbena, St. John’s wort, laburnum, foxgloves, and elder flowers. (Wikipedia) Each plant has certain healing qualities, but typically, instead of using them herbally, they were either tied in bundles and hung above the door, or dipped in water and left outside all night so they would also have morning dew on them, and people would wash their faces with this in the morning.
The Pagan tradition I mentioned earlier is Slavic NeoPaganism often called Rodnovery. They seek to recreate Slavic pre-Christian Pagan traditions and have been around since the early 1900’s. Belaris, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Donbass region, and Estonia are all listed as places that have some form of population of adherents to these traditions. Because some adherents worship Norse gods, some white supremacist and anti-Semitics claim this as their faith- but like modern Norse Heathenry, not everybody adhering to these religions is
anti- Semitic or racist.
An excellent article listing a little history after Christianization as well as the names of some of the specifically Polish Pagan gods is given here.
Interestingly enough, some of these groups seek to restore worship to the way it was in pre Christian times with historical accuracy . I will share two short films from YouTube.
The first is called Pagan Novosibirsk, The Movie- and it is about 20 minutes long. It’s interviews that have subtitles because the speakers do not speak English. It is about these Pagan movements and what some of the adherants have to say about it.
The next is a short clip of Slavic Pagans celebrating Summer Solstice, which is called Kupala Night. This video is under five minutes and shows festivities at the festival. It reminds me of historical reinactments in a lot of ways, and it’s so beautiful to see how devoted these people are.
According to Jacob Grimm, Kupala was what the festival was called, referring to the bonfires lit. Other sources say that is refers to Kupulo, a harvest god, and a feast day of St John the Baptist was substituted because purification by water occurred at the holy day.
Bonfires to drive away evil spirits are burned, and couples leap over fires together, hands joined, and it is believed to prove they will not break up if their hands do not come unclasped during the jump. Single women also don beautiful wreaths of plants in their hair and go into the woods to hunt for the flowers of the fern – a plant that does not flower, by the way. If one were to find this bloom, it would mean they would be blessed with prosperity! The men go in after them…and while a fern might not flower, a relationship just might!
Flower wreaths , as well as floating candles are released by women in hopes of learning about future relationships and men sometimes try to catch the wreaths, in belief they might catch the interest of the girl who released it.
Some of these things are still observed by Christian devotees at St John’s Day, but a lot is done by Pagan adherents.
What the Shrink has to say…
One last thing I will share is a tidbit I came across while researching. It is a scientific article that discusses resurgence of Pagan belief and it’s relationship with mental illness in Russia. While this article had precious few patients involved in the study, and reveals little- it has a lot of information and history listed in it. Plenty about Summer Solstice is in there as well. It will be interesting to see how many mopre studies about mental health and pagan beliefs are conducted over the years as Paganism becomes more widespread.
While these things in Slavic areas may be different than what modern American Neo-Pagans do, I was very excited to share what I learned from our Slavic cousins for this article!
Wrapping it all up…flowers and all!
While an enormous bonfire or fertility workings are not what I am going to put into my ritual, a blessed floral or herbal bundle like some folks from Spain create will. As opposed to the power of water and moonlight and morning dew, I suggest blessing this bundle with the power of the sun.
At Solstice Time, the Sun is at its most powerful. The days are longest, and the nights are shortest. What this means is a lot of sunlight for the development of growing plants, and the plants we eat, but also extended daylight hours give lots of vitamin D and heat to human beings which translates into energy.
On the day you celebrate Summer Solstice, go and gather flowers or greenery someplace. If you don’t have access to hand-picked plants, you can absolutely go buy flowers at the store! Just make sure that whatever plants you get mean something to you- even if you just LIKE the plants. You can use your favorite color, or even just get all greenery to symbolize life and growth. Snippetts from ordinary shrubbery can absolutely suffice. Next, tie your plants or flowers into a bundle together, and once that has finished, hold them up towards the sum, and say something like
“ Hail the invincible sun, bringer of heat, life, and growth.
Bless these blooms with your lifegiving energy on this day
when you are at your most powerful.
May the strength, power, healing, and lifeforce
from you go into this bundle,
where it will be hung in my home/car/office to bless me
and all who enter with prosperity, healing,
new life, growth and progress,
and all things good and blessed.
So mote it be!”
You may leave some form of offering to the sun if you like- something like planting a flower or something you will nurture, burning incense, or a small fire in your firepit, or even just a little flour or perfume released to the wind. Leave the bundle in the sun until nightfall, and then hang it where you want its blessings.