History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Midsummer: Watch Out for Fairies!

The longest day in the Northern Hemisphere is upon us: Midsummer has reached even up here in Scotland where the long days go on and on even when we don't have sun. We've had more than our share lately, which is a bit disconcerting.

I have been deep in Scottish fairy lore for a project I'm working on. It's not my usual bailiwick but I am enjoying the tour immensely. One of the unexpected delights (thanks to a recommendation of the Folk Horror Revival group) is A. D. Hope's A Midsummer Eve's Dream: Variations on a Theme by William Dunbar. I have mentioned the late medieval Scots poet in previous columns like A Headache in Medieval Scotland and A Meditation on Winter.

Hope's book examines his poem The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo with the inkling that they may be either fairy women or -- on Midsummer Eve -- trying to appear as fairy women. The two married women are unhappy but the widow tells them the way to manage their husbands and be happy. The setting of the poem is certainly suggestive of this possibility. 

Apon the Midsummer evin, mirriest of nichtis, 
I muvit furth allane in meid as midnicht wes past

Don't worry: let me give you Hope's translation of the first few lines instead of Dunbar's medieval Scots (though I love it).

Upon a Midsummer's Eve, the merriest of nights,
I went out alone just after midnight
Beside a goodly green enclosure full of gay flowers
and hedged to a great height with hawthorn trees.
A bird on a branch there burst into song
such that no more joyous bird was ever heard upon bough.
What with the sweet sound of her glad song
and with the healing scent of pleasant flowers,
I secretly approached the bank to lie hid and overhear merrymaking
The dew was moistening the dale and birds were singingly loudly.

Here we not only have the propitious time for fairy sighting -- Midsummer's Eve -- but also a winsome bower with flowers and bird singing. Admittedly, with the sun up so early and late, believe me the birds seem to sing night and day this time of year in Scotland. The mention of hawthorn is more suggestive of magic, Hope argues, along with the later mention of holly. And what about the women themselves?

I saw three gay ladies siting in a green arbour
adorned with garlands of choice fresh flowers;
their glorious golden tresses were shining like gold itself
while all the grasses were glittering with cheerful colours...
Their mantles were as green as the grass that grew in May time...
[their faces] full of burgeoning beauty like flowers in June.

It's possible they're just well-to-do women of the town hiding in a private corner of a garden, sipping expensive wines and telling secrets, but if you run into such a gathering you may do well to follow the example of the poet to stay hidden and to merely observe the guid neibours.

Be wary of the fairy folk!

Image: Noel Paton - The Fairy Raid: Carrying off a Changeling - Midsummer Eve (1867)

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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