Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

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The Summer Solstice: Lore and Tradition

This is the second time in the year when the sun appears to "stand still" on its journey across the horizon upon rising and setting. Here, the sun rises at its furthest north-easterly point, and sets in its most north-westerly. It reaches its highest nadir in the sky, and here in the UK that means that the days are exceptionally long, and we may not even see full darkness before the light of dawn begins to permeate the skies. This phenomenon of the sun rising and setting in the same place lasts for three days, just as at the winter solstice. The Summer Solstice is known as Alban Hefin (Welsh) meaning "the light of summer", Medios-saminos (Old Celtic) and Meitheamh (Irish), both meaning "midsummer". Welsh tradition places the summer solstice as one of "three spirit-nights" or tair ysbrydnos, times when the veils between the world were thin, the others being Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf(Beltane and Samhain). This is the longest day, before we begin our descent back into the darkness of the coming winter. It is considered the peak of the power of light, yet a reminder that everything changes.

Our Neolithic ancestors built monuments to track the sunrise and sunset of the winter solstice, and equally each monument would also work in reverse six months later for the summer solstice. Many monuments, such as the Callanish stone circle, also include the equinoxes, and so act as a giant calendar, marking out the time and the season. Four rows or avenues of ancient processional stones meet in the circle at a central stone, much like a Celtic cross. Stonehenge's processional way from the River Avon was marked by the sun's path during the solstices, and the Ring of Brodgar on Orkey is also aligned to the solstices and equinoxes.

Until not too long ago on the Isle of Man, bundles of straw were brought to the top of designated hills at midsummer to honour the sea god, Manannán mac Lir, who would sometimes appear in the guise of a crane, or who was honoured alongside the goddess Aine in Ireland in a similar fashion.  Aine's importance in myth and legend later moved from goddess to fairy queen, and so we see the connection once again to the Fair Folk.

Being one of the three "spirit-nights", the summer solstice has long been connected to the Otherworld and the Fair Folk, or faeries. This is the time of the fairy ride, the faery hunt, when the hosts of Faery emerge from the Otherworld to travel across this world. William Sharp writing as Fiona Macloed in the 19th century conjures up such an image known across the Celtic world:

Where the water whispers 'mid the shadowy


I have heard the Hidden People like the hum

of swarming bees:

And when the moon has risen and the brown

burn glisters grey

I have seen the Green Host marching in

laughing disarray.


Dalua then must sure have blown a sudden

magic air

Or with the mystic dew sealed my eyes

from seeing fair:

For the great Lords of Shadow who tread the

deeps of night

Are no frail puny folk who move in dread of

mortal sight.


For sure Dalua laughed alow, Dalua the fairy


When with his wildfire eyes he saw me 'neath

the rowan-shadowed pool:

His touch can make the chords of life a bitter

jangling tune,

The false glows true, the true glows false

beneath his moontide rune.


The laughter of the Hidden Host is terrible to


The Hounds of Death would harry me at

lifting of a spear:

Mayhap Dalua made for me the hum of

swarming bees

And sealed my eyes with dew beneath the

shadowy rowan-trees. 

 In the poem above, Dalua reminds me of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh Faery King and Lord of the Underworld spoken of previously. Fairy rides are known to ride out across the land at these liminal times, and so it is wise to try to avoid them at all costs. There is a tale of a young woman named Kathleen who sought out the Fair Folk in Knockmaa in Tuam, Western Ireland, having caught the eye of the King of the Connacht faeries. On the eve of midsummer she dressed and went out, dancing among them until the King appeared, whereupon he took her in his arms and she never returned home again. At least, not alive: for she was found dead upon the hillside near the fairy fort, a smile upon her face.

Yet others who have sought out and communed with the Fair Folk return as "fairy doctors", those who could heal as they had learned the wisdom of the faeries. One such lady was Biddy Early of County Clare, who was known far and wide for her healing, charms and remedies through her association with the Fair Folk. Not all encounters with the Fair Folk end badly, and some simply end politely, as in the Irish tale of a young woman meeting the goddess and faery queen Ainé on Knockainey Hill in Country Limerick. The townsfolk were having their solstice celebrations, but then the faery queen asked the young woman to politely tell the townsfolk to leave, as she and her faery troop would like to celebrate. All was very civil, and all's well that ended well. Respect the fair folk!

Fire is another aspect of this festival, and fire or sun wheels were rolled down hillsides by young men of extreme dexterity, chasing after it. It is thought that the cheese-rolling competitions of Gloucester began around this time, and were then moved to nearer the Spring Equinox. I know what I would rather chase down a hill! The hills of Knockainey and Cnoc Gréin were thought to be twin beacon hills upon which fires were lit at this time of year.

Seek out the Fair Folk at this time of year, if you dare! Just be sure to wear some St John's wort in your buttonhole, to keep the nastier ones away. There are many herbs associated with the Summer Solstice, and said to be best collected at this time, such as the above St John's wort, mugwort, vervain and yarrow.

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  For more information, please visit www.joannavanderhoeven.com

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 Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 30 years. She has written many books, including The Path of the Hedge Witch: Simple, Natural Magic and the Art of Hedge Riding, as well as The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker. Find her channels on social media at YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.


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