Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Summer Yule

Yule : Midwinter :: Lithe : Midsummer.

8th century Anglo-Saxon historian Bede of Jarrow calls it Líða: Midsummer. Along with its winter equivalent, Yule, it was one of the two hinges of the Old English year.

Like Yule, we don't know what Líða meant originally. According to Bede, the word denotes “gentle” or “navigable” because at this time of year “the calm breezes are gentle, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea” (Shaw 49). Likely this is just a guess; it's certainly not a particularly compelling explanation.

In the English-speaking pagan world, many today refer to the summer sunstead (solstice) by its Anglo-Saxon name. If the word had continued in current use, as Yule did, we would today speak of Lithe. (Rhymes with scythe.)

Like Yule, Lithe is a multi-day, thirtnight celebration: the Yuledays/the Lithedays, the Thirteen Days of Yule/the Thirteen Days of Lithe. As the moon before Yule is called Foreyule, and that following Afteryule, so too we find Forelithe and Afterlithe for those around Lithe. (Here I follow J. R. R. Tolkien, who updated the old Anglo-Saxon calendar for hobbit use; Yule and Lithe were the hobbits' two major holidays) (Tolkien 479-83).


Count forward thirteen days from Midsummer's Day and you'll come (roughly) to July 4, Independence Day here in the US. This, interestingly, would have been Midsummer's Day on the Old (Julian) calendar. Back before fireworks were readily available, the Fourth of July was a bonfire holiday.

One wonders.

What do witches want? What everyone wants: a country of their own.

Cotton Mather, Salem 1:1


Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of Matrons (2011). Bristol.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (1965). Ballantine.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Thursday, 04 June 2015

    Our best guess is that Litha was a Saxon word that essentially meant June. And "after-Letha" meant July.

  • janette nash
    janette nash Thursday, 04 June 2015

    As a Brit, I have no trouble believing it means smooth, and refers to the water - a lot of old sayings relate to the weather, and the state of the waves...
    Also, in Italy I have often spent Midsummer (the Festa of San Giovanni) in a boat, celebrating, eating, drinking, watching fireworks... A smooth sea is certainly preferable...
    I pronounce it Litha (with a soft th, as in "thin") and relate it to something like Italian liscio/a - Etymology: possibly from Provençal lis, liso, from French lisse, from Old High German lise (Modern German leise), or alternatively from a Vulgar Latin *liseus or *lisius, perhaps from Ancient Greek lissós. Compare Spanish, Portuguese liso, Catalan llis, Sicilian lisciu, Friulian lis, Romansch glisch.
    Not saying this is right, and your explanation wrong, just that it resonates better for me.
    Either way, Happy Solstice!

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 05 June 2015

    Thanks Janette and Greybeard both: the OED confirms that well into early Modern English "lithe" retained its old association with water. For some reason I'd missed this in Bede. We tend to think of Midsummer's as a bonfire holiday, but of course the tradition is deeper and more complex than that: it's a fire and water holiday. In a surprising number of places, Midsummer's Eve is the occasion of the first swim of the year. (In Christian tradition, the connection with J. Baptist is clear.) They say that on that night the Sun and Moon both bathe in the waters. Here in Minnesota, with our 10,00 lakes, it's customary as well, and I can report from personal experience that the waters are generally placid. In tandem with the proverbial "halcyon" days around the w. solstice, and the equally proverbial "equinoctial gales," I'm wondering whether we see an emergent pattern. Hmm.

    Your list of cognates, Janette, made me pick up my dictionary of Indo-European roots, and sure enough they all stem from a (reconstructed) common ancestor *lento-, "flexible," which gave rise both to English lithe and also, interestingly, linden, presumably for its flexible underbark (= bast, hence "basswood"). The linden/basswood being, of course, one of the preeminently sacred trees of Midsummer's, whose spicy flowering perfumes the longest nights of the year. Curiouser and curiouser.

    Just how historical all of this may be, as a strictly amateur linguist I'm certainly not qualified to say. But historical or not, its validity as midrash is unquestionable, and it only makes us richer and stronger. Thanks and Good Lithe/Merry Midsummer to you both!

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