Imagine a sudden urge to step into the wild, breathe in air full of flower aromas and make love with existence – that’s exactly how Latvian savage souls feel when midsummer is approaching. MÁDARA founder Lotte knows the feeling well and takes us with her into the strange world of Latvian midsummer rituals with the help of folklorist Aīda Rancāne, PhD/MA.
The celebration of fertility
Celebrated during summer solstice, the Latvian word for midsummer – Jāņi –symbolises the cosmic peak of the sun during which it pours generous cosmic energy over the Earth, known as auglība (Latvian for fertility). Latvian folk songs state that during midsummer all nature is full of this divine blessing – even a drop of dew possesses magic abilities. Jāņi celebrates this fertility through the interplay of feminine and masculine aspects which are eventually united through symbolic rituals, like sending a float of fire into the river to unite fire (male) and water (female). These polarizing elements also dominate the Jāņi food scene – a type of fresh cheese symbolizes female fertility while beer worships the male counterpart. Latvians are Indo-Europeans, so some vague parallels can be drawn between Latvian and Hindu traditions. Just take this linguistic resemblance of Latvian word Jāņi (Midsummer, male name, symbol of Sun) with Yoni (vagina, womb), and Līga, Līgo (the day before Midsummer, female name, word for gentle rocking, aka sexual movement) with Hindu word Lingam (phallus).
In antient Latvian worldview, midsummer is when sacred blessings pour over the mundane world, which is subject to destruction. Receptivity is needed to receive these gifts, so cleaning the house and weeding the garden are among the preparatory works for celebration. The worldly environment is transformed into a sacred space also by decorating the house and outdoors – young birch trees are cut to decorate gates, entrances, and rooms while flower crowns are thrown on fences to create gateways for blessings to flow in.
Breaking free of the worldly roles with flower wreaths
Those celebrating Jāņi wear flower wreaths, symbolic masks that set people free from their everyday identity, enabling unmediated interaction with nature and other humans. They’re antient symbols of the feminine but worn by both genders – instead of flowers, bushy male crowns are made from oak leaves symbolizing strength. The braiding ritual consists of a meditative walk though meadows, picking up herbs and flowers that speak to you. A wreath is worn all night long as the gradually fading flowers give their strength to the person. Afterwards they’re hung near the bed, serving as a protective element until next Jāņi, when they are burned in fire.
Transcending darkness with fire
One of the central elements of midsummer, fire is lit right after the sunset. Jāņi traditions say it’s crucial to stay awake and nourish the fire until sunrise to not fall into a metaphorical darkness. There are two types of fires – the phallic bonfire is erected on a wooden column and lit with a burning dart while the feminine bonfire is arranged on ground. And there is so much to do around the fire – singing, dancing, jumping over the earthy fire, searching for the fern flower. The celebration has to be long and intense, as this is believed to help become one with the existence.
The deepest of mysteries – the fern flower
Said to blossom only on Jāņi night, searching for the fern flower is perhaps one of the deepest mysteries as the plant actually has no flowers (or seeds) – it’s neither masculine or feminine. This search is commonly regarded as a sexual adventure, however, folk songs indicate it’s more of an experience of the sixth sense which opens the gate to a journey into subconsciousness. But might be a bit of both – sex remains a great starting point for setting you free and wild, turning on your sensuality and making you so perceptive that you become aware of divinity around and inside you.
Curious about what my midsummer celebrations will look like?
Here’s my bucket list for the shortest and most magical night of the year.
A few days before midsummer, have a Latvian sauna (pirts) ritual – a mysticism tradition which recognizes that the body is integrated with the spirit and helps release all tension
Clean the house, mown the lawn, fix this and that around the house
Make my own Jāņi cheese with fresh milk from my neighbour’s cow. The cheese should be round, like the sun.
Wander into a meadow and smell butterfly lilies – endangered Northern orchids
Make flower crowns for myself and children
Make fire on a small hill with an out-worldly Latvian countryside view over a lake
Sing and jump over a bonfire
Go skinny dipping after midnight (never done it before)
Go into the forest by myself. When I did that last year, an owl suddenly started hooting as if it was telling me a story and it makes me wonder what magical things will happen this time around
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