The summer solstice is upon us again, with its endless days and Midnight Sun. It’s an incredible time of year up here by the Arctic Circle, full of energy and mystical powers (and sleepless nights for some, due to the 24 hour daylight).
We’ve already told you about the many events and activities available in Iceland around the solstice, so this time we thought we’d tell you a bit more about the history of the Midsummer and the Norse Mythology and folklore it springs from.
The old Norse calendar only had two seasons; Summer and Winter. In the olden days people took advantage of the long days and warmer weather to tend to things that were harder to do in winter. It was in summer that most foreign trade was conducted, as well other seafaring matters such as shipping, fishing expeditions, and raiding.
While the Summer Solstice is a celebration of the longest day of the year there is a darker side to it too. The days will be getting shorter and winter looms ever near. The Norse god of light and purity, Baldur, is said to have been sacrificed around this time. According to the myth, Baldur foresaw his death in a dream and so his mother, Frigg, made every object in the world swear to do him no harm. Every object took the wow except for the mistletoe. When his brother Loki, the god of mischief, found out about this he made an arrow out of mistletoe and tricked the blind god Höður too shoot Baldur with it. Baldur‘s death caused great grief among the gods and was the first step towards the end of the world, Ragnarök. So, you know, happy summer and all that!
Paganism in Iceland has been on the rise again in the last decade after being abandoned for Christianity in the year 1000. The Icelandic Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Pagan Association) was founded in 1992 and since 2014 has seen a 50% increase in members.
June 24th is known as Jónsmessa (St. John‘s Mass) in Iceland. As with so many customs and traditions in Iceland the day is a fascinating mix of old mythology and Christian influence. Jónsmessa is named after John the Baptist, and is widely celebrated throughout the Christian world, but apart from the name there doesn‘t seem to be any other religious connotations to the day in Iceland. Instead this was the time when the lambing season was over, and most of the spring chores around the farms had been completed. That meant that the chiefs were free to go to the Althing, which took place for two weeks in the summer, around the solstice. Jónsmessa is however, one of the four most powerful nights for supernatural activity in Iceland. Since witches and ghouls are better suited to the darkness, it‘s the fairer creatures that you can expect to see out and about on Jónsmessa: The Huldufólk.
Huldufólk, or the Hidden People, are more commonly known as elves. The belief in their existence is still widespread in Iceland (although it‘s nowhere near as close to 80% as some sources would have you believe) and you can find symbols of that all over the country, in roads that curve around elf rocks and in the casual way people mention their house-elves for example. If you‘re lucky enough to be travelling in Iceland on Jónsmessa be extra careful around crossroads, as this is the time when the Huldufólk are on the move. It is said that if you sit on the crossroads, elves will come to you from all four directions and offer you riches beyond your wildest dreams. But no matter what they offer, you can‘t go with them because then you will be driven mad. However, if you manage to resist them until dawn, then they will vanish and all the treasure will be left. Still, best not risk it eh?
Jónsmessa is also the night when cows gain speech and seals throw off their skin, and wishing stones and magical herbs are especially potent. It is said that if you roll in the dew naked on Jónsmessa night, it will cure whatever ails you. So be prepared for hordes of naked Icelanders everywhere! No, I‘m just kidding…
…or am I?