The wheel of the year has turned once more, and we’re at Litha now. Something I assumed I did not know about as I don’t hear it referred to as Litha too often, but it turns out to have a very simple and common alternative name: Midsummer.
We’re at the longest days of the year, the sun is at its highest point, and the bittersweet is mixed in as from here the wheel begins to turn to the dark again. The brightest days of the year are passing.
Unless you’re on the Southern hemisphere. Blessed Yule down under, in that case.
Minor confusion due to our insignificance compared to the wider cosmos aside, on with Litha!
SECTION BREAK – Here comes the sun
Litha is the Summer solstice, and the longest day of the year. Celebrated on the 21st of June most commonly, and in line with the usual date this year, the longest day of the year can wobble either side of this day because the sun mocks our feeble attempts to master time and space. The actual traditions of Litha are pretty hard to draw a solid bead on for the simple fact that the longest day of the year is significant in every culture, not least of all the further North humans traditionally settled. Harsher winters led to cultures more heavily celebrating the highest point of Summer.
Midsummer is frequently a bonfire festival, although not strictly one of the Celtic Cross Quarter festivals. Likely still a tradition though, with the inhabitants of the British Isles understandably being in extra awe of the sun given how relatively little they get to see it. Bonfires were set the night before the longest day and the sunrise was welcomed by celebrants as the longest day came alive. Jumping over bonfires for luck was present again, seeming to be a common tradition at any given bonfire festival. Plus, it can’t hurt to try and impress onlookers, provided you didn’t mess up and end up a little on fire. There doesn’t appear to be a hearth renewal ceremony with this bonfire festival, which makes sense as it isn’t specifically one of the four Celtic bonfire festivals, although don’t rule that out on a region to region basis. What does instead seem common instead is that the coals of the Litha fires get scattered across the farm fields to promote the growth of crops. Some celebrants really get into the Wheel of the Year idea and build giant wheels they set fire to then roll into a body of water. This feels like a literal interpretation of the brightest day being a blaze of glory inevitably extinguished, but was also probably just as much a good laugh during a festival in the days before television.
Growth and life are the key points of Litha. While the Wheel may be turning to dark tomorrow, today the brightest light. Herbs are considered at their peak power for herbcraft, infused with the sun and plentiful to harvest. The first full moon on or after the solstice is the Honey Moon, anything involving the peak of bee productivity and collection of honey is extra significant here. Honey cakes and mead are the order of the day, although conveniently delicious whenever they can be whipped up.
Handfastings were popular at Litha, a pagan marriage rite. I’m not a handfastings expert, but do recall the interesting fact that there was more than one type of them. A handfasting, or marriage, that’s a promise for life (excluding divorce or death), and a more temporary one for only a year and a day. The handfasted couple were free to part ways after the year and a day were up, or else continue the relationship. A marriage with a self annulment clause if it isn’t working. They’re not currently legal binding in places like the United Kingdom were they predated Christian traditions that got passed into law, but they’re popular as a part of the modern Wiccan revivals either being honoured informally or incorporated into engagement and civil law marriage processes.
Without any more modern tradition papering over it, and the origin traditions all blending across cultural boundaries anyway, Litha or Midsummer is a bit of a pagan free for all. If there’s anything going on to enjoy the summer sun at its peak, you’ve got yourself some Litha.
SECTION BREAK – The Warring Kings
One way in which Litha is viewed through a folklore lens is the war between the King of Oak and the King of Holly. The King of Oak rules from the nights becoming shorter after Yule through to the peak of Midsummer, then the King of Holly takes over for the dark half of the year which begins to grow in power from after Midsummer through to the longest night at Yule on the 21st of December. Stories view this as a battle between the Kings of the Light and the Dark.
The trees they are associated with bring a whole lot of mythological baggage to put weight behind this dichotomy. The Oak tree in pagan Europe was linked to gods of thunder and lightning, quite often the head of their respective pantheon; Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun, and Thor. This association likely comes from how oak trees are most likely to be struck by lightning, between a high water content and generally being the tallest target around. Druids are thought to have skipped the god bit and gone directly to revering the oak trees themselves, with oak groves being innately sacred as well as being chosen to perform holy rites in. This reverence bled through into the Christianity which displaced the older traditions, sometimes somewhat awkwardly as oak trees got chopped down to make a church on an old druidic place of power - but other times in the celebration of preserving a tree as a Gospel Oak: An oak tree used as a gathering place to hear the gospel read back when an area was still rural enough to not have a church raised yet. Mistletoe is known to grow on oak trees, and is considered the most powerful when it is gathered one. Mistletoe is interesting in how it is held to be powerful enough to kill the magically unkillable, from the otherwise invincible god Baldur to werewolves before silver bullets caught on as an alternative. Symbolism of oak and mistletoe got bound up in local kings trying to invoke the power of the gods, the might that they carry in the minds of people and the association they further had with life giving rainfall.
Holly, then, comes into opposition to the mighty oak thanks to how it is a plant that thrives into the darkest days of the year. Holly will stay a verdant green long into the coldest season with bright red berries only beginning to ripen in the autumn and continuing through into the Winter. Poisonous to humans, they are still valued as they’re something alive in the dark times. This led to holly being a popular Yule, and then Christmas, decoration. Pagan druids believed that holly had the power to ward off evil spirits and any malevolent curses, to bring holly indoors not only represented life as well as general fertility in otherwise dead times - but it was also supposed to allow fairy creatures shelter from the cold, something that in turn they would repay with kindness to a household offering this sanctuary. Holly is also paired with all the same old storm gods as oak thanks to how it acts like a natural lightning conductor protecting anything else around it in a storm. As oak is paired with mistletoe, holly is paired with ivy. Evergreen ivy plants get tangled up with holly both symbolically and at times literally should they grow together, with the contrasting dark berries of the ivy mythologically linked to the night.
This symbolic weight all infers the struggle in folklore of the King of Oak and the King of Holly. The Kings are brothers locked in eternal struggle, representing the turning seasons. Neither able to exist without the other, each having their time and place. The depictions can be pretty awesome. The Oak King is an aspect of The Green Man, a folklore figure who gets an Arthurian turn as an immortal warrior. Their counterpart, then? A badass Santa Claus figure turning up in red robes and a sprig of his holly in his wild woodsman’s hair to throw down with his rival avatar. Each are considered to be aspects of a wildwood ur-god archetype, although each in their own way much kinder than the horned nature gods of the wilds. The fertility god rises with the sun, to be cast down into the winter by a King who rules over the midwinter feasts and gift giving, to in turn be cast down by the Oak King bringing life back to the land. The death and renewal of nature not inherently being a battle we lose out in, but it is one we have to respect.
SECTION BREAK - Gawain and the Green Knight
Let’s have some Arthurian myth where the Oak King gets a role!
So the story goes that during a New Year’s Eve feast, not entirely dissimilar to the Oak King turning up at Yule (if you see what the original storytellers did there), a mysterious giant pays Camelot a surprise visit. The huge figure clad in green rides out of the dark on an equally massive horse to challenge the court to a test of bravery. Anyone who takes up the challenge will be allowed to take the Green Knight’s axe and strike him with it. He won’t resist, and will even show his neck for the attack. This is on the condition that in exactly one year and a day the favour will be returned and the challenger who struck him must show the same courtesy: To show his neck and take the returning axe blow with no resistance.
Speechless at the strange sight, King Arthur hesitates. In this silence the Green Knight laughs and goads Arthur as a coward too afraid to take up the challenge. The mockery works and Arthur goes to take up the weapon, but the knight Gawain intervenes and begs to take the king’s place. Sir Gawain is given the axe, and the Green Knight kneels down to offer the back of his neck as promised. With one incredible swing of the giant’s oversized weapon Gawain chops the stranger’s head clean off. There’s no time to celebrate, or just process what the hell has happened, before the decapitated giant picks his head up off the floor and takes his weapon back of the stunned knight. Before riding away, the severed head is still able to talk and goes over the pact he has entered with Gawain again. In a year and a day, Gawain owes the Green Knight his return strike, and must come seek the giant at the Green Chapel.
Somehow everyone goes back to celebrating. Gawain is understandably a little uneasy.
Come Autumn the next year, Gawain readies to set off in search of the Chapel of Green. He begins his quest by setting off to the darkest and most terrible of lands, filled with strange beasts and the even stranger inhabitants who share these inhospitable wilds with them:
The original poems then gloss over what happens as a series of terrible battles, probably on the assumption that everyone knows what the Welsh vales are like so can fill in the gaps themselves. As Christmas approaches, Sir Gawain spots a castle appearing from the desolation of darkest and most terrible North Wales, and he stops for a reprieve as well as hopefully directions before his Quest times out and everyone back at court makes fun of him. Luckily, in a stroke of chronic foreshadowing perhaps TOO luckily, the Lord of the castle welcomes Gawain with open arms and reassures him the Green Chapel is not only just two miles away, they even have a convenient safe path to it. Relieved to be free of his nightmare that was adventuring across Wales, Gawain just takes this at face value and accepts the offer to rest. Gawain is introduced to the beautiful wife of the Lord of the castle, all under the auspices of a mysterious old and ugly lady who goes without introduction but everyone appears to respect without question. Gawain is then given an extraordinary offer, and I begin to think Gawain may not be the smartest of Camelot’s knights.
The Lord proposes a bargain in the three days left between the winter feasting and Gawain going to see if he too can survive decapitation. The Lord will go hunting, and when he returns he will exchange everything he gained in the hunt for everything Gawain gained in the daytime. This epic then gets weird even by Arthurian standards.
The first day, as soon as the Lord leaves to hunt the Lady of the castle comes to Gawain’s bedchamber and tries to seduce him. Gawain stays mostly chaste, and the day of attempted seduction only results in a single passionate kiss. So the Lord comes back with a deer from the hunt and as per the bargain it is exchanged for what Gawain got during the day: Gawain gives the Lord a kiss.
I just KNOW there’s a fanfic out there somewhere where it went further than a kiss. Oh, no, even worse! If it didn’t exist before it probably will now I’ve said it…
Well, anyway, day two comes, and a full day’s seducing results in two kisses. The Lord comes back with a boar, and Gawain gives him two kisses in exchange for it. Day three, the lusty Lady of the castle seduction hijinks goes even further. She gets three kisses off Gawain, and then tries to offer him a gold ring. As chaste as possible in the midst of this Epic swinging session, Gawain refuses and insists three kisses is more than enough. She then begs of him that if he will not take the ring, then he must take her green bridle to wear as a sash, for it contains a magic that will spare him from all harm. She probably should led with this one, and may have even gotten more than three kisses out of him given that magic invulnerability sounds good when you have a game of Neck Axe to play tomorrow. He gives in and takes the sash, then when the Lord returns with a fox from the hunt he keeps the bridle a secret only giving the Lord the three kisses for the spoils of the hunt.
Thankfully moving on from this strangeness, the next day the knight rides along the super convenient and not-at-all-a-blatant-trap merry path to the Green Chapel, it now being a year and a day since the challenge was taken up. Insert Green Man and oak imagery everywhere here for the Green Chapel, given the older folklore being drawn upon for this story, although it may have just been an earthen mound with a cavern in it. Just outside the chapel, waiting for him, is the giant sharpening his axe. With only a supposedly magic green sash that may have been some sort of sex trick to protect him, Gawain kneels before the Green Knight and presents his neck.
The giant stands, raises the axe high, and swings it down upon the knight only to stop just before striking him. Gawain flinches slightly, causing the Green Knight to laugh at him for it however small a reflex it may have been. Ashamed, Gawain stays as still as a rock for the second swing but once again the Green Knight stops short. This angers Gawain, who insists that the blow is struck as they had agreed. Approving of the bravery of Gawain, the giant goes for a third and final swing. This time not holding back! Only he doesn’t cut off Gawain’s head, he instead only nicks the knight just enough to draw blood, and declares the game is over. Gawain goes through anger and comes out the other side in confusion, wondering what just happened here. The Green Knight reveals he is the Lord of the castle magically transformed, the suspicious nameless hag in the background for the past three days was Arthur’s sworn enemy Morgan le Fay (making this a canon entry to the wider Arthurian saga), and the very slight wound was because the Lord knew about the sash he kept for himself. For all everything else that has gone on, surviving Wales to escaping the sexy trap to the challenge of receiving an axe strike with no resistance, this is what shames Gawain. Everything else was questing as standard, but to lie about the sash was a personal failing that really wounded him. The Green Knight laughs this off though, and tells Gawain to stand tall as the most blameless knight in all the land. How much of this happy resolution was down to Gawain being a good kisser I will leave up to you, the audience. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the green sash as a reminder of his moment of weakness, once again surviving the nightmare wilderness that is Wales along the way. Telling the whole tale earnestly, not hiding his failing, the rest of the Knights of the Round Table agree that Gawain has nothing to be ashamed of. They forgive him unconditionally, and begin to wear green sashes in solidarity with the knight.
I’m going to be honest with you, I remembered this story very differently and had no idea what I was getting in for. Just enjoy the love triangle and take the poem’s word for it Gawain was plenty chaste enough. Maybe don’t go looking for the story of Gawain and Green Knight with safesearch off unless you’re really sure you’re ready for what Archive of Our Own may have in store for you.
Blessed Litha, everyone.
The Oak King got a good run this episode, I’ll have to see how much I can find for the Holly King when we come around to Yule. Random bonus note: If you can catch the horror movie ‘Men’, and don’t mind an absolutely mind meltingly weird movie (something I personally saw as a bonus), you get some Green Man symbolism in there. Plus loads of extreme strangeness besides!
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Goodbye for now.