I Fell Under the Drunken Spell of Midsummer's Pagan Magic

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I Fell Under the Drunken Spell of Midsummer's Pagan Magic

The old pagan sun-worshiping festival known as Midsummer is often plagued by bad weather in Sweden, but we make up for it by eating a smorgasbord and drinking enough aquavit to forget the songs we sing dancing around a pole.
June 23, 2015, 4:00pm

All forecasts had predicted utterly shitty weather all over Sweden for Friday the 19th of June, which meant that it was indeed going to be a traditional Midsummer's eve, the day that Swedes celebrate the summer solstice. Only six Midsummer's eves have brought warm, sunny weather in the past 20 years. That doesn't bode well for (what may be) an old pagan sun-worshiping festival. Perhaps the gods are dissatisfied with the Swedish celebrations of binging, banging, and boogying, or maybe the rain and cold are just the meteorological consequence of living near the Arctic Circle. Nobody knows for sure.

READ: Swedish Midsummer Is the Only Time You'll See Your Grandparents Drunk

In the olden days, Midsummer was considered one of the most magical times of the year. Some of the folklore is still applicable, like silently picking seven different kinds of flowers and putting them under your pillow to dream about your future spouse. Nervous about who might show up in my dreams if I attempt the ceremony, I ask my occasional photographer, Frans Ljus ("France Yous"), who is staying in the same countryside cabin as me, to go through with the divination the night before Midsummer's eve. He makes it clear that his goal this year is to not get as drunk as last year, when he stole a rowing boat and somehow got stuck in the middle of a lake, and that any kind of magic might jeopardize his undertaking.

Midsummer-flowers

Gathering flowers for pillow magic.

I join a pair of silent ladies in gathering plants, and try to think of desirable women during the whole process. Unfortunately, the only woman I can recall from my dreams the next morning is my mother. There was obviously some heavy Freudian shit going on. Untreated disturbances from the phallic stage were seeping out from my subconscious, which was suitable because I was soon to dance around the most indiscreet phallus in all of contemporary Swedish tradition.

The Midsummer pole is, like many of our most beloved idols—Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, Sigmund Freud—of German origin. The pole is more of a cross, ornamented with flowers and leaves, with two garlands hung from the vertical bar, making the installation resemble an erect cock stuck in the ground. It is, according to popular belief, a part of an ancient fertilization ritual, but—as with most rites of Midsummer's eve—there isn't much historical evidence to support the claim.

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The ceremony consists of a session of humiliating circle-dancing around the pole, to songs with obscure meanings. These are predominately children's songs that point out the obvious, e.g. that frogs don't have ears and that everybody likes their mothers. The adult population, however, tries to put deeper meaning into them by discussing possible symbolism of fornication and prostitution, and further consolidate the idea of the pagan fertility ritual.

Midsummer-pole

All hail the pole. The food of Midsummer.

Frans Ljus is reluctant to join in the Midsummer dancing. "It feels weird. I haven't done that since I was a little munchkin and had to dance a few laps to get my bag of candy." Instead, we return to the cabin to eat the same food Swedes eat for every holiday feast: the smorgasbord.

The smorgasbord traditionally includes bread, butter, potatoes, salmon, and herring pickled in vinegar, sugar, and spices (almost like fish marmalade). Additionally, many smorgasbords feature meatballs, sausage, and a variety of pies and gratins. Specific for Midsummer are chives and sour cream, and summer berries. This is accompanied by beer, cider, and shots of aquavit (schnapps) that are occasioned by short, silly drinking songs.

The Midsummer weekend is essentially a couple of days in the mid-end of June when almost all Swedes know that they are going to be leisured. So they drink copious amounts of booze and play games. "Oooh, pilsners!" croons Frans Ljus during a game of Kubb. "Shit, I'm getting a stitch from all this drinking. I have to take a piss with the penis," he remarks before he abandons his teammates and disappears behind a shed. The next few hours are spent in similar manner.

Midsummer-kubb

Playing Kubb. Drunk on Midsummer.

Shortly before midnight, when the last rays of the sun have just faded, I realize that Frans Ljus is missing. Remembering his affection for small boats, I immediately head for the closest lake. There I find him sitting on a small jetty, facing the water, waving his arms around, and muttering inaudibly as if casting a sinister spell. Wicked, wicked Frans Ljus! He is trying to doom us all by summoning some kind of dangerous lake creature. Without considering my own wellbeing, I hurry down to the water to intervene. Luckily, Frans Ljus isn't the high-powered wizard I had mistaken him for. His witchcraft was merely fragments of a drunken monologue, recited while swatting mosquitoes. "I am incredibly drunk," he says when I sit down next to him, though not drunk enough to show any interest in the tied-up boat that is floating enticingly next to him.

When the sun rises again a couple of hours later, Frans Ljus is still well preserved on land—tired, but relatively respectable and well-behaved.