I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.
— A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Woah, what a scorcher of a week we’re in. I write this from my train back to Somerset after a few jam-packed days in London. It was joyous to be back in museums and theatres again especially, and for the weather to be somewhat drier than May…
More than that, it’s just nice to look out the window late in the evening and see the surrounding houses and gardens awash with pale blue, instead of pitch black. We might only start properly appreciating the longer days just as they’re about to get shorter again but there’s a lot of daylight to enjoy between now and autumn.
As summery as it feels, summer doesn’t officially start until 21st June, the sun rising around 4.32am and setting at about 9.30pm. In those early morning moments, across northern hemisphere time zones, the summer solstice begins and is celebrated. Some people call it the estival solstice (estival derives from the Latin word for summer, aestas) — but the most popular name is midsummer.
A question I asked myself that I’m surprised I never asked myself before: why is it called midsummer at the start of summer? Well, the ‘mid’ in midsummer is actually because this longest of days in the year is sandwiched in the middle of the spring equinox (which I wrote about recently) and the autumn equinox. Then there’s the meaning behind the word ‘solstice’, I hadn’t really thought of that either.
Solstice is a Middle English word, shortened from the Latin solstitium, which takes the word for sun with the verb meaning ‘to stand still’. This is because the sun stops as it is progressing on its daily path and starts to go back on itself which, in the case of the summer solstice, means the days start getting shorter again from midsummer onwards.
Despite my love of writing about such things, I’ve got to admit that I have never myself actually attended a solstice celebration, even if I have been to Glastonbury. Here is one such ritual I would love to experience one day.
Bulgaria’s Enyovden, Rila Mountains
Because I’ve harped on about the specific date and time midsummer begins, I should start by mentioning that this Bulgarian celebration of midsummer doesn’t actually take place on 21st June! It takes place from the evening of 23rd into the day of 24th June.
And before I get into the details of this fascinating festival, I realise that some of what I’m about to relay will sound a little cult-like — the ‘Universal White Brotherhood’ especially! But when I learned about their particular solstice celebrations in Michael Palin’s New Europe series, the setting and the spirit of it captured my imagination completely.
How old is Enyovden?
As is the case with so many festivals, pagan rituals have over the centuries combined with religious festivals. 24th June is the day that many Christians celebrate St John the Baptist’s feast day, but there have been folk rituals on that day for far longer.
Beyond the myths of how Enyovden may have developed (see below), it’s known that the Thracians – a tribe of Balkan people dating from around 1500 BC and first mentioned in Homer’s Illiad – had numerous festivals centred around the sun. It’s natural to assume that this was one of them.
What are some of the traditions?
The origins of how Enyovden grew into the midsummer celebration it is today seem to owe a lot to searching for herbs and looking for husbands.
Women healers would often walk through forests to pick herbs at the time we now call summer solstice, giving them enough to use in the forthcoming year. Their walks through the forests sparked local folklore and gave rise to the idea of 1) seductive samodiva forest fairies) and 2) witches scouring the forest to perform wicked deeds. Yes, it’s depressing that adult women effectively taking on the role of early doctors were transformed this way in folklore, but I suppose it’s a positive that at least the wicked deeds bit got dropped over time.
Added to this, it varies, but unmarried girls would often throw rings tied with flowers into water. A fortune teller would pull the rings out and tell the fortunes of each girl, not knowing whose ring belonged to whom.
Don’t forget the sun
The sun being such a powerful force in the imagination, it was thought that as the days reached their longest, the sun developed strong magical powers. Those powers, passing into the air, the water and the ground could be gathered from the sun by watching the sunrise, going for a swim or by picking herbs at midnight just before the sun rose. Taking part in these actions meant you would be healthy in the year ahead, and using herbs gathered at that time of year, likewise.
Bulgarians continue to take part in midsummer across the country. Unmarried women can still have husbands predicted for them if they like, but the ritual of herb picking together on their midsummer eve seems to take centre stage of proceedings, following by eating and drinking.
When picking herbs, people search for a magic number of 77 and a half herbs to weave into a wreath, to then hang on their front doors. The half-a-herb is meant to be an ‘unknown’ medicinal plant, that everyone searches for and that can cure all ills on earth. We may be a while finding that one, but it’s a nice symbolic gesture.
Catching the sight of sunrise and swimming in sun-bathed waters is also still very much observed — often in national dress, of which I’m highly enviable.
But who on earth are the Universal White Brotherhood? What do they have to do with midsummer?
Ah yes, we’ve gotten all this way without a second mention of the Universal White Brotherhood. So what are they about? I’m sorry to turn to Wikipedia in this instance, but for a moment let’s appreciate what a fantastic resource it can be:
‘Universal’ refers to humans’ ability to understand universal concepts about life. It speaks to the idea that people can expand their consciousness with these concepts that extend to more than just one person or group.
‘White’ refers to ‘the highest spiritual symbol, which is the synthesis of all [colours], being the manifestations of the soul’s virtues.’ ‘Brotherhood’ is meant to indicate that the Universal White Brotherhood’s teachings are for every human no matter what community, religion, or group they belong to. The Universal White Brotherhood believes that their teachings are for everyone so that they can expand their consciousness and embrace a virtuous spirituality.
The Bulgarian midsummer that captured my attention so thoroughly is not the same midsummer everyone partakes in across the country. It’s a little different because, as you can see above, it features hundreds if not thousands of members of the Universal White Brotherhood moving and swaying together, in practice of their beliefs and in celebration of the coming of the summer solstice.
During midsummer especially but at other times of the year too, the brotherhood (which is actually unisex) sways away en masse to a system of exercises that’s known as paneurythmic dancing. (It looks hard to say, but just think of the pop band!)
The practises undertaken by followers of this religious movement that’s called Dunovism (after its founder) will sound very familiar to a lot of you; dancing is at the core and followers pray, meditate, sing, practise yoga and carry out breathing exercises, to name just a few. Unlike the major religions, members are additionally encouraged to be part of another religion too if they wish. Very ahead of its time, considering it was established in the early 1900s.
Ok, so what do they have to do with the Rila Mountains? Where even are these mountains?
I mean, just look at them! The Rila Mountain range is the highest range in Bulgaria, home to more than 200 glacial lakes — perfect for finding the sun’s magic power. And all only 70km south of the country’s capital Sofia. A phenomenal landscape to visit any time of the year, let alone on the longest day.
So there you have it. My midsummer wish list of one. It might be some time before I can get there, but it couldn’t hurt to iron the tennis whites just in case….