Beholdings on the Heathenness of Midsummer: The Heathen Godhood of Saint John the Baptist

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

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

The 24th or 25th of June was the daymark upon which the Summer sunstead was fained in early Anglo-Saxon England (6th-8h hundredtide). Known then as Midsumor amongst the Anglo-Saxon Heathen and as the Housel of John the Baptist by Christians, the summer sunstead was a holytide held by both beliefs.  Yet as the Roman year-reckoning used by the Church was a little too long, in time the daymark drifted ahead of the sunstead. As such, by the 11th hundredtide, the sunstead fell upon the 20th or 21st of June, some days before John the Baptist’s housel.   As such, we may well find in Anglo-Saxon Christian writings some hint of the bright and merry heathen Midsummer which was, in time, darkened (eclipsed) by John the Baptist’s housel.

As Christ was bedecked in the guise of a sun god, at sundry times hight Fréa, Bealdor, Wuldor, and Tir, [i] so too was John the Baptist hooded in the likeness of a heathen sky god.  As bespoken in Seo Gebyrd S. Johannes Þæs Fulwihteres of the Blickling Homilies (10th hundredtide), “the new Éarendel is Saint John, and now the leam that is the sooth sun, God himself (Christ), will come.”[ii] That is to say, Saint John is the new Éarendel, the god known to the Norse as Aurvandil, whose name means “dawn wanderer” and who is beheld by men as that bright morning star which is known to some as Venus. Beyond this, the Baptist is further begodded in The Old English Menologium (1044-1066 CE) wherein he is said to be wuldres þegn, the thane of Wuldor (ON: Ullr).

Then, heaven’s thane [lit. Wuldor’s thane]
around thirteen [nights],    the king’s darling,
John in yore-days     was born,
ten nights also;     We, that tide, holdeth
on Midsummer    mickle in nobility[iii]

That John the Baptist is said in one place to be “the new Éarendel” and, in another, “Wuldor’s thane,” speaks to a stow first held by a heathen god which was, in time, filled by a Christian saint. One may well fathom that Éarendel’s name and his thaneship to Wuldor were “royal regalia” won through war and thereafter bestowed as spoils upon a new regalia-bearer.  Such was the trothwending of the Anglo-Saxons, that the new gods were for a time given the garb of the old gods that they might be made more familiar to the folk.

Anglish Wordhoard
Bespoken – Described
Daymark – Date
Fained – Celebrated
Hight – Named, called
Housel – An old word for the Eucharist, itself sprung from the Old English húsel, “sacrificial feast”
Hundredtide – Century
Leam – Sunbeam
Sooth – Truth
Stow – Place
Sunstead – Solstice
Thane – A knight, a sworn retainer
Thaneship – Knighthood
Trothwending – To wend (turn) one’s troth, conversion
Year-reckoning – Calendar

End Notes
[i] As aforewritten of in On the Right Reckoning of Módraniht, On Éastremónaþ, Éaster, and Éastre, and On Éarendel
[ii] se niwa eorendel Sanctus Iohannes; & nu nu se leoma þære soþan sunnan God selfa cuman wille. – Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[iii] 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

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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