On Midsummer, The Summer Sunstead, and the Housel of John the Baptist


Woodcut from Olaus Magnus’ History of the Nordic Peoples (1555 CE)

As to the reckoning of the Anglo-Saxon Midsummer, we find that it first shared its daymark with the housel held by Christians to mark the birth of John the Baptist. As witnessed in The Old English Martyrology (800-900 CE), “on the four and twentieth day of the month (the 24th of June) beeth Saint John [the Baptist]’s birth…on the same day is the solstice.”[i] Likewise, The Old English Menologium (1044-1066 CE) binds Midsummer’s reckoning to both the Baptist’s housel and the Summer sunstead when it says that, “About twenty-three nights later (the 24th of June), heaven’s thane, the king’s dear one, John the Baptist was born in days of yore.  We hold that holiday on Midsummer with great honor.” [ii]

Here one might well ask how it was that the Summer sunstead could be said to fall upon the 24th day of June when today it is reckoned to fall on the 20th or 21st of that month. As aforewritten in On the Right Reckoning of Módraniht, Christendom took for itself the old Roman pagan year-reckoning which, in its day-tallying, was in truth 10-11 minutes too long.    When Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (79 CE), reckoned the sunsteads to fall on “the 8th day before the calends of July (the 25th of June) and the 8th day before the calends of January (the 25th of December)”, he wrote true.  Yet as the Roman year-reckoning was slightly off, over time the calendar’s daymarks drifted ahead of the true sunsteads.

So great had this gap grown by the 11th hundredtide that the true sunstead no longer fell upon the 7th or 8th day before the calends of July (the 24th or 25th of June) but rather upon a daymark now reckoned rightly by us to be June 20th or 21st. As betold by Byrhtferþ in his Old English Enchiridion (1010-1012 CE): “On the 7th day before the calends of July (the 20thof June) beeth the sunstead, that is, in Latin, solstitium (solstice), and in [Old] English, midsumor (midsummer).”[iii]  Thus Byrhtferþ, in the 11th hundredtide does not gainsay Béda who, writing in the 8th hundredtide, held that the sunstead fell upon the 25th. Both men wrote rightly for the time in which they lived.

Before faring forth beyond the reckoning of Midsummer itself, it should be said that, whilst the daymark of the Summer sunstead and thus Midsummer was set aright in late Anglo-Saxon Christendom, the Housel of John the Baptist was and is still held upon the 24th of June.  We may well ask why this was.  Though it is ground already gone over in On the Right Reckoning of Módraniht, such may be worth treading again for Midsummer.

The early Anglo-Saxon Church was sped greatly in its trothwending by the nearness of its own holidays to those heathen holytides long held through the land.  In the 6th, 7th, and 8th hundredtides, Módraniht, the heathen housel held to the Mother Goddesses, and Cristmæsse (Christmas), the Mass of Christ, both fell upon the winter sunstead even as the heathen Midsumer and the Housel of John the Baptist were both marked by the summer sunstead.  To worship at the same yeartides held holy by one’s forefathers, to give blót upon those days, and to bid the new god by the old gods’ names would have been a great frover (comfort) to those who, by command of the king, were made to wend their troth.

Yet, after three hundred years of Christian belief, the Anglo-Saxon folk were no longer wed to sun worship as they once were.  That Cristmæsse and John’s Housel no longer fell upon the true sunsteads did not matter to the laymen whose fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers had known no other troth than that of Christ and the Saints. As such, the Housel of John the Baptist and the Mass of Christ were still held upon the 24th of June and 25th of December.

As to the marking of Midsummer, we Théodsmen are not bewildered by the Church’s changes to the Roman year-reckoning.  We do not keep that calendar but, rather, that which was once held by our Anglo-Saxon heathen fore-elders.  Our year-reckonings have always been set by the same two stars, the sun and the moon, and are meted now as they have always been – with the months marked by the moon and the year itself set and reset by the sunsteads.

Anglish Wordhoard
Aforewritten – Witten before
Betold – Described
Blót – The offering of livestock
Daymark – A date
Frover – Comfort, help
Housel – An old word for the Eucharist, itself sprung from the Old English húsel, “sacrificial feast
Hundredtide – Century
Mickle – Great, large, much
Trothwending – To wend (turn) one’s troth, conversion
Wend – Turn, translate, change
Year-Reckoning – Calendar
Yore-days – Days of yore, in ancient times

End Notes
[i] On þone feower and twentigoðan dæg þæs monðes bið Sancte Iohannes acennes. […]
On þonne ylcan dæg byð solstitia… – Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[ii] þænne wuldres þegn
ymb þreotyne,         þeodnes dyrling,
Iohannes in geardagan         wearð acenned,
tyn nihtum eac;         we þa tiid healdað
on midne sumor         mycles on æþelum.
115b-119 – Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[iii] II.I 321 p74
On .xii kalendas Iulius byð sunstede, þæt ys on Lyden solstitium and on Englisc midsumor. – Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht

About Þórbeorht Línléah

Ealdorblótere (chief priest) at Whitthenge Heall of the Ealdríce, an Anglo-Saxon Théodish fellowship. Author of Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo (2014). Author of Þæt Ealdríce’s Hálgungbóc: The Théodish Liturgy of Þæt Ealdríce (2015, 2016). Þórbeorht resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Eþelwynn and two daughters.
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