Beholdings on the Heathenness of Midsummer: Wyrms and Wells

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

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

Amid the leafs of Robert Plot’s The Natural History of Oxford-Shire (1686 CE), there is found an odd betelling of a yeartidely rite held at Midsummer.  In his delving into the lore of that land, Plot learned that the town of Burford had “within memory” kept “the custom…of making a dragon yearly and carrying it up and down the town in great jollity on Midsummer Eve.”  As to the wellspring of such a rite, Plot offered his own guess.  Near the town was a battlefield upon which Cuþræd of Wessex had fought Æðelbald of Mercia in 750 CE. Plot put forward the thought that the dragon-likeness borne about Burford on Midsummer’s eve was a remembrance of Cuþræd’s mighty win over Æðelbald and of his taking of the Mercian king’s gold wyrmbanner. Yet Plot himself acknowledged as much to be guesswork, adding that he did not know why the likeness of a giant was also borne about the town at this time.[I]

Yet Plot’s writing is not the only reckoning of an English Midsummer rite wherein wyrms are to be found.  As betold by John Mirk of Lilleshall, Shropshire in his work Festial, also known as A Book of Festivals (14-15th hundredtide):

But yet, in the worship of Saint John, men waken at evening, and make three manner of fires: one is clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire [bone fire]; another is of clean wood and no bones and is called a wake-fire, fore men sit and wake by it, the third is made of bones and wood and is called Saint John’s Fire…The first fire was made of bones, as Jon Bellet [Jean Belleth 1162 CE] says, for in that country is great heat. It is the heat which excites dragons that they gather together, and fly in the air, and then falls down into water the froth of their kind, and so venometh (poison) the waters, that much people take their death thereby and many others [are with] great sickness…. The wise clerics knew well that dragons hate nothing so much as burnt bones.  Wherefore they taught the people how to gather all the bones that they might find, and set them on fire; and so with the stench of them they drive away the dragon…[ii]

Mirk, when he wrote that wyrms frothed into wells, was kind to his gentle English readership.  Belleth, who Mirk drew upon, was less seemly in his betelling.  As wended from Latin:

This, I say, that these wights fly in the wind, swim in the water, and walk on the land. However, in the sky they are lusty, as oft happens, spilling their seed (sperm) into wells or into river waters which, in the next year grows deadly. To this, such a remedy may be found, that is to say a balefire of bones was set up, the smoke of which drives these wights away.[iii]

Writing of a thew then found in Germany, Johann Boemus in his Omnium Gentium Mores, Leges et Ritus (1520 CE) offered another insight into the bond between flying wyrms and the Midsummer fire.  As betold by Boemus,

They cause a great fire to be made before the tower, which standeth upon a hill above the city, of Herbipolis (Würzburg), and throw into the fire many wooden hoops bored full of holes which, when they be all them on a red fire [once the all hoops are on the red fire], they put crooked sticks into the holes of the hoops, and cunningly and forcibly heave them up into the air [to] a great height, so as they, flying from the top of the hill over the river Moganus, which runneth under the hill,  seem to be fire dragons to those which never saw the like before.[iv]

Here, it would seem, that Boemus has taken two Midsummer thews and twined them into one: the belief that dragons flew about on Midsummer’s eve and the lighting of a fire or the rolling of fire-wheels, which was believed to be a remedy against such wyrms.  Yet that the heavens were at Midsummer haunted by ill-wights was a belief known to the Irish as well.  As late as the 18th hundredtide, Irishmen were beheld to bear burning brands about the land on Midsummer’s Eve to drive away unseen sickness-bearers.  As bewritten by a thentidely witness,

On the vigil of St.John the Baptist’s Nativity, they make bonfires, and run along the streets and fields with wisps of straw blazing on long poles to purify the air, which they think infectious, by believing all the devils, spirits, ghosts, and hobgoblins fly abroad this night to hurt mankind.[v]

Here we see the dragons betold by Belleth and Mirk made smaller, being but hobgoblins some hundredtide later. Yet this belief that the heavens might become haunted by sickening-wights is one well witnessed in Anglo-Saxon times.  Though fire is nowhere spoken of in the “Nine Worts Gealdor” of the Old English Lacnunga (10th hundredtide), the spell does speak of the “venom” (OE: áttre), “that which flies” (OE: onflyge), and the “loathsome that yond the land fareth” spreading sickness. These “flying venoms” are found in other Anglo-Saxon writings, such as in Bald’s Leechbook (9th hundredtide), wherein a white stone is said to have “might against stitch (pain) and against flying venom (OE: fleogendum attre) and against all uncouth (unknown) illnesses.”[vi] Whilst it may well be thought that these flying-venoms were but diseases, it is worth noting that the “Nine Worts Gealdor” also speaks of a wyrm which is battled by the healing worts (herbs) before it is slain by the god Wóden. Whilst it is not spelled-out in the spell, that the wyrm is the wellspring of the “flying venoms” which fare about the land, such is heavily hinted.  Moreover, the gealdor ends with the leech recalling nine adders who are seemingly driven from a river and from the sea, with the waters parting as their venom is blown away.  As found in the Lacnunga,

I alone wot (know) of a river running
There the nine adders near it beholdeth; (keep watch)
May all weeds now from worts (herbs) spring,
Seas to slip away (part), all salt water,
When I, this venom from thee blow.[vii]

That wyrms should befoul water is a yore-old belief, witnessed throughout Indo-European godlore. The frothing or seeding (sperming) of the waters by wyrms betold by Mirk and Belleth may well be recalled in the English folklore of the Lambton Worm (Roud #2337, 1867 CE). In said story, a wyrm fetched from a stream, when young, was tossed into a well. In time the ill-wight waxed long and broad in its shape so as to harrow the whole land and feed upon both cow and child alike before it was felled by a bold knight.   Such is not so far removed from the Old Norse tale of Þórr who, in the Hymiskviða, sought to slay the great wyrm Jormungandr who haunted the fishing grounds of his host. Likewise Indra, the thunder-god’s Vedic likeness found in the Rigveda (1500 and 1200 BCE), slew the wyrm Vritra, who begirded the sky and held back the rains of heaven.  In eft-shaped Slavic godlore, the thunder god Perun is believed to fight the god-wyrm Veles. Like the Lambtom worm, Veles slithers out from the underworldly waters to swallow Perun’s wife, child, and cows. And, as with the Vedic Vritra, Perun’s slaying of Veles frees the rains that were withheld by the wyrm.   In each story, a god – most often though not always the thunder god – or a mickle man is said to slay a wyrm that has fouled wells, harmed fishing grounds, or brought about drought by withholding the rains of heaven. As such, it may well be that the Midsummer fire betokened the fiery weapon wielded by the Indo-European thunder god who, in his slaying of the sickening-wyrm, both warded the waters and cleansed the wind (air).

As to the withholding of rain or the haunting of fishing grounds, to delve so deep as to fully fathom those waters would be well beyond the breadth of this writing.  I may wend once more to such Indo-European godlore in another Midsummer work, but for now I must fetter my fathoming to Anglo-Saxon thew and the role that wells played in English Heathen belief.[viii]

The worship of wells and springs, known in Old English as willweorþung, is mentioned in sundry Anglo-Saxon writ, such as The Penitential of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (late 7th hundredtide), the De Auguriis of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (10th hundredtide), the Canons of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (early 11th hundredtide), and the Laws of King Cnut the Great (11th hundredtide).  Yet well-worship was known in Britain well before the Anglo-Saxon Heathen came to that land and made it their own.  The Celts, who dwelt there before our coming, were known to worship wells and springs as well.  Yet, though forbidden by church and Christian king, willweorþung did not die out. Indeed, in time, willweorþung was welcomed by the Church. Wells which were once held holy to the Heathen belief were christened to sundry saints.  Indeed, to this day still, “well dressing” rites are found in England wherein Saints’ Wells are bedecked with blossoms during the months of May and June.[ix]

As to why the Celts and Anglo-Saxons worshipped wells, first as Heathens and then as Christians, we know from yore-old offerings which have been unearthed and from Church tradition alike that the waters of such holy wells were held to heal the sick. For some wells, it was believed that such healing was brought about by sipping from the sacred spring. At other, healing was gained by washing oneself with water drawn from the well. Yet always an offering was (and still is) given to thank the god or saint to whom the well is holy -– be it but a penny tossed into the waters, as with wishing-wells, or a ribbon tied to a nearby tree as a bidding (prayer).[x]

That the Anglo-Saxons worshipped holy wells that they believed to bestow healing, yet so too warded wells against wyrms which would sicken the waters, may well speak to a shared Heathen thew from whence they both spring.  This thew, as eft-shapen and understood in the Ealdríce may be betold thus:

Our Anglo-Saxon Heathen forebears worshipped wells and springs, holy to the gods, into which they made offerings that they might be healed of sickness.  Yet at Midsummer, the winds of heaven were haunted by wyrms, fiends often fought by the gods, which sought to befoul the wells and wend them into sickening-springs.  To ward against this, great fires were lit to drive the dragons away from the healing wells and to cleanse the wind of their unhale sway.  In a manygodded belief such as ours, it is likely that the help of more than one god would have been sought through worship at this time.  That wort-blossoms are woven at Midsummer into wreaths to be hung about a well, set into a river, or heaped upon the Midsummer fire itself, may well hint at Wóden’s worship.[xi] Yet, it may also be that Midsummer fires hurled into the heavens and rolled down hills betokened Þunor’s  (ON: Þórr) fiery axe-hammer with which he is known to fell such fiends. Indeed, we find it fitting to worship both gods at this holytide even as we find it fitting then to worship Sunne, goddess of the sun, and sundry other gods and goddesses. Yet, in our fellowship, the greatest worship that is given at Midsummer is given to Þunor, as there is no god we trust more to make war with wyrms and ward our waters.

Afterwrit (Postscript)
For those nowtidely Heathen who have wondered whether the Housel of Saint John was set upon the Heathen Midsummer for (due to) a great likeness (similarity) between John the Baptist and a given Heathen god, I do not believe this to be so. The church held that tide to be holy some time before the Anglo-Saxon trothwending. This is not to say that some likeness between John and an Anglo-Saxon god was not found. As I have already written in The Heathen Godhood of Saint John, the Baptizer was named the new Éarendel and Wuldor’s thane in Anglo-Saxon Christian laycraft.  Yet the strongest links between the old Heathen holytide and the Christian housel seem to have been the betokenship of the sun and the role that water played in the worship of both beliefs.

As a tide of sun-worship, Midsummer marks the waning of the sun even as Yule marks the sun’s waxing.  As John told Jesus that he (John) must wain so that Jesus (the Son) might wax, the setting of John’s housel upon the Summer sunstead fit well with Christian godlore. The fame of the feast, however, might well have been sped in Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic lands by a link between Heathen water-worship and Christian Baptism.  Indeed, many of the first Christian baptisms among the Germanic folk were performed in what had been Heathen holy springs, as when Bishop Willibrord baptized his followers in waters hallowed to the god Fosite. 

Anglish Wordhoard
Betelling – Description
Betold – Described
Betoken – Symbolize
Betokenship – Symbolism
Bewritten – Described
Bidding – Prayers
Eft-Shape – Reconstruct
Eft-shapen – Reconstructed
Gealdor – Old English for “charm, magical spell”
Godlore – Mythology
Housel – A holy feast. An old word for the Eucharist, itself sprung from the Old English húsel, “sacrificial feast”
Hundredtide – Century
Laycraft – Poetry
Leafs – Pages
Leech – A healer
Manygodded – Polytheistic
Mickle – Great
Nowtidely – Contemporary
Sunstead – Solstice
Thentidely – Contemporary to that time
Thew – Tradition
Trothwending – Conversion
Unhale – Unholy or unwholesome
Wellspring – Point of origin
Wend – Turn, translate
Wight – A spirit or being
Wort – Herb
Wyrm/Worm – A dragon or serpent. Early Germanic dragons were believed to be large snakes.
Yeartidely – Seasonal
Yore-old – Ancient

[i] “The Town of Burford, in Saxon Beorford, seems also to have been a place of good antiquity, but most remarkable for a battle fought near if, about the Year 750, perhaps on the place still called Battle-edge, west of the town betwixt it and Upton; between Cuthred or Cuthbert, a tributary king of the West Saxons, and Ethelbald the Mercian, whose unsupportable exactions the former king not being able to endure, he came into the field against him, met and over threw him here about Burford, winning his banner wherein there was depicted a golden dragon; in memory of which victory, perhaps the custom – yet within memory – of making a dragon yearly, and carrying it up and down the town in great jollity on Midsummer Eve, to which  – I know not for what reason – they added a giant, might likely enough be first instituted.” Page 356
[ii] But ȝet, yn þe worschip of Saynt Ion, men waken at evyn, and maken þre maner of fyrys: on ys clen bonys and no wod, and ys callyd a bonnefyre; anoþer ys of clene wod and no bonys, and ys callyd a wakefyre, for men syttyth and wakyth by hyt; the thryd ys made of bonys and of wode, and ys callyd Saynt Ionys fyre.
The fyrst fyre was made of bonys, as Ion Bellet sayth, for yn þat contray ys gret hete þe whech hete encawsut dragons þat þay gedryn ynfere, and fleyn yn þe ayre, and fallyn downe ynto watyrs þe froþe of hur kynde, and soo venemyth þe watyrs, þat moch pepyll takyn her deth þerby and oþer mony gret sekenes…Thes wyse clerkys kneuyn wele þat dragons hatyth nothyng so meche as brent bonys. Wherfor þay tacht þe pepyll forto gedyr al þe bonys þat þay myght fynde, and sett hom on fyre; and soo wyth þe stench of hom þay dryven away the dragon…Wended to Nowtidely English by Þórbeorht
[iii] Haec, inquam, animalia in aere volant. in aquis natant, in terra ambulant. Sed quando in aere ad libidinem concitantur (quod fere fit), saepe ipsum sperma vel in puteos, vel in aquas fluviales eiiciunt ex quo lethalis sequitur annus. Adversus haec ergo huiusmodi inventum est remedium, ut videlicet rogus ex ossibus construeretur, et ita fumus huiusmodi animalia fugaret.
Wended from Latin to English by Þórbeorht. Though, for having read Mirk, the Ealdríce has been faining Þunor at Midsummer for the warding of water from wyrms for some years before this writing, due must be given to the Truefastness blog for first finding the original Latin text for Belleth’s work. The Truefastness blog from which the Latin text was taken may be found here:
http://truefastness.blogspot.com/2017/06/midsummer.html?m=1
[iv] Early Modern English wending taken from a London printing by George Eld in 1611. Spelling arighted to a more nowtidely Modern English by Þórbeorht.
https://ia801406.us.archive.org/24/items/mannerslawescust00boem/mannerslawescust00boem.pdf
[v] From Comical Pilgrim’s Pilgrimage into Ireland (1732) as quoted by John Brand in his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1777) p305
[vi] Se hwita san mæg wiþ stice ⁊ wiþ fleogendum attre ⁊ wiþ eallum uncuþum brocum. Wended from Old English by by Þórbeorht.
[vii] Ic ána wat éa rinnende
þær þá nygon nædran néan behealdað;
motan ealle wéoda nú wyrtum áspringan,
sæs tóslúpan, eal sealt wæter,
ðonne ic þis áttor of ðé geblawe.
Wended from Old English by by Þórbeorht.
[viii] Holy wells are found not only throughout England but in Norse godlore as well.  There the Urðarbrunnr of the Nornir, known to the Anglo-Saxons as the Well of the Wyrdæ (the Well of Wyrd). And there is, as well, that Well of Memory haunted by the head of Mímir and into which Wóden gave an eye to gaze by drinking its water.
[ix] If well-worship or well-dressing is of an older Indo-European thew, we may well find a kinship in the Slavic rites of Kupala, the Slavic name for Midsummer, wherein women still lay blossomed wreathes into waters (rivers).
[x] Here I only touch upon a Heathen thew discussed more deeply by Thomas Rowsell in his Survive the Jive Video on Sacred Water Places for Pagans, which is well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85qlcrVZMwU&t=4s
[xi] Johann Boemus in his Omnium Gentium Mores, Leges et Ritus (1520 CE)
Early Modern English wending taken from a London printing by George Eld in 1611. Spelling arighted to a more nowtidely Modern English by Þórbeorht.
https://ia801406.us.archive.org/24/items/mannerslawescust00boem/mannerslawescust00boem.pdf
Upon Saint John Baptist’s day at night, in every village and street in Germany be common fires, (or as we call them here in England bone-fires) about which all the people gather together, both men, women and children, dancing and singing and having many other superstitions, as wearing upon their heads garlands made of Mugwort and Vervain, and flowers in their hands wreathed and pleated in the fashion of a spur, (which wreaths they call military spurs) and they dare not look upon the fire, unless they look through those spurs, firmly believing that by that means their eyes be preserved all the year after from all pain and disease, and everyone as he goeth away, throweth the garland he wore about his head into the fire, saying this conjuration, “Go the thy way and burn, and all my ill luck perish and burn with thee.”

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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