St Johns Eve

(23/24 June) The most widely held view was that all herbs, even poisonous ones, lose their evil on St John's Eve - they are all purified by St John's dew (Gubernatis). In fact, they actually gain power. See the Portuguese proverb:

Todas ces erbas tem prestimo

Na manha de Sao Joao.

That is, all herbs have power on St John's Morning (Gallop), for in Spain, Portugal and Brazil, herbs for curing should be gathered on the eve of Midsummer, for the season is at its most powerful on that day (P V A Williams). Even NETTLES, gathered tonight from the premises of a suspected witch, and put under milkpails, would undo any mischief that the witch had done (Marwick). There were a few, a very few, beliefs that tended to belie the generally held opinion; for example, it is said that German witches chose St John's Eve to gather Hexenkraut, ENCHANTER'S NIGHTSHADE, that is, for their nefarious purposes (Runeberg). In some parts of the Continent, it was believed that all poisonous plants came up through the ground on Midsummer Eve (Grimm), the inference here being that they would not be purified by St John - just the opposite. Lastly, it was said that gathering herbs on St John's Day could be dangerous. In Altmark, they say it would give you cancer (Gubernatis). These, though, are very much minority opinions. Far more widespread is the belief that the plants themselves acquire protective qualities because they are in bloom at this season. Midsummer is the time when the power of the fairies is at its highest, and only flowers and herbs can then protect the people (Moore); they were often worn on the person; Penzance children, for instance, used to wear garlands of flowers on the afternoon of Midsummer Eve (Courtney). Among gypsy marriage customs was one that required the bride to burn flowers gathered on St John's Eve as a protection against sickness (Starkie).

There are many charms and superstitions connected with the name of St John, and his day was often spent in collecting herbs for some secret purpose or other (W G Black), but usually a medicinal one. According to the Anglo-Saxon Herbal, many plants used for a medicine had to be gathered at Midsummer (Bonser), and see the Lacnunga (an 11th century collection of medical lore):

"Gather all those herbs together three nights before summer comes to town (i.e., before midsummer) ...

And then in the night when summer comes to town in the morning, then the man who wishes to take the drink must keep awake all night; and when the cock crows for the first time, then he must drink once, a second time when day and night divide (i.e., at the first streak of dawn), a third time when the sun rises, and let him rest afterwards" (Storms).

"a sovereign medicine for madness and for men that be troubled with wicked spirits. Upon midsummer night betwixt midnight and the rising of the sun, gather the fairest green leaves on the walnut tree, and upon the same day between sunrise and its going down, distil thereof a water in a still between two basins. And this water is good if it be drunken for the same malady" (Dawson. 1934).

The herbalists recognised that herbs gathered on Midsummer's Day had special powers: "Against liver complaint gather this same herb (he was talking about VERVAIN) on midsummer day" (Storms). A complicated charm cure:

Iarum Origanum Herba benedicta Allium Nigella

Excrementa diaboli Succisa.

(The initial letters spell the name Iohannes). These were plants to be collected on St John's Day (Bergen. 1899). Similarly, young people of the Abruzzi, Italy, used to gather the galls on ELM trees on this day, for then they contained the oil of St John, to be put on the hair to make it grow strongly and quickly. The insects of the gall were used with oil as an ointment for wounds (Canziani. 1928).

St JOHN'S WORT, as its name implies, is one of the plants associated particularly with this festival. In Germany, it was worn as an amulet on this day, the idea being that it would expose the work of witches (Dyer. 1899); the inference must be that anyone with the plant could then see them. It was hung up in houses and barns to keep the people and cattle free from enchantment (Runeberg). Stow, Survey of London, 1598 says it was hung over the house doors in his day, together with green birch, long fennel, orpine, white lilies, etc. Some also had wrought iron baskets, containing lights (Brand). The herb was gathered before sunrise, with the dew, itself a magical substance, still on it. They would be smoked in the Midsummer fires, and so became more potent for medicine and protection from evil (Grigson. 1955). In Wales, there used to be a custom for young girls to go out at midnight to gather the plant by the light of a glow-worm held in the palm of the hand. The bunch was taken home and hung in the bedroom. Next morning, if the leaves were still green, it was a good sign - the girl would marry that year; but if the leaves were dead, she would not be married (some said she would die) (J C Davies; Owen).

WORMWOOD was a St John's herb in France - the old French saying, "Herbe Saint Jean, tu portes bonne encontre", refers to this plant (Beza). Its close relative, MUGWORT, is just as important as St John's Wort at this time of year. It is known as Johannesgurtel, or Sonnenwendgurtel, in Germany (Storms). "Muggwith twigs" were being used in the south of Ireland as late as 1897 as preventatives against disease, after being singed in a St John's fire (T D Davidson. 1960), and it was widely used as a protection against witchcraft. In the Isle of Man, for instance, chaplets were made of it, and worn on the heads of man and beast, to protect them from evil influences (Moore; Train). Chaplets made of GROUND IVY were worn in France while the people danced round the fires (Palaiseul). MONKSHOOD and LARKSPUR were used in much the same way in Germany (Grimm). Another belief shared with mugwort by PLANTAIN mentions that a rare coal was to be found under the roots of mugwort at noon or midnight today. This coal, if worn on the person, would protect the wearer against the plague, carbuncles, fever and ague (Radford & Radford). Aubrey mentions that this was a current belief when he described it in 1694.

Chaplets of VERVAIN were made for the young women in parts of Spain. As with St John's Wort, this was done early in the morning, while the dew was still on the plants. Then the women's fortunes were told, according to the length of time the dew stayed on the plants (Beza). Piedmontese belief was that if young men gathered vervain today, any girl with whom he shook hands while it was in his possession would fall in love with him (Canziani. 1913).

FENNEL was a herb of St John, too, and was put over doors this night (Dyer. 1889). See Stow: "On the vigil of St John the Baptist and St Paul the Apostle, every man's door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John's Wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like ...". ORPINE was hung up inside houses, too. It stays green a long time, if watered a little. A common name for it was Midsummer Men (Brand), and it was used in divinations tonight (see ORPINE). There is a record, too, of a Swiss charm in the form of a cross made from dried pieces of GOAT'S BEARD (Spiraea aruncus) and MASTERWORT (Astrantia major). They were made on St John's Eve, and taken to church on St John's Day to be blessed by the priest, and were reckoned efficacious against lightning, fire and storms. During severe storms, a small piece of the cross would be taken and burned for added protection (Broadwood).

FERNS (according to Bock's Herbal, the Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis) was supposed to bloom at midnight tonight, and to seed shortly afterwards. The seeker must neither touch it with his hand, nor let it touch the ground. A white cloth would be put under the plant (more specifically, in Russia, a white towel that had been used at Easter ) (Gubernatis). This fern seed was the agent that conferred invisibility. Ben Jonson refers to this in New Inn:

No medicine, Sir, to go invisible, No fern seed in my pocket."

And see, too, Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV:

Gadshill: ... We have the receipt of fernseed, and we walk invisible.

Chamberlain: Nay, by my faith, I think you are more beholding to the night time than to fern seed for your walking invisible.

The Lucky Hand was made from the root of Male Fern on St John's Eve (see LUCKY HAND). Herodias, the daughter of Herod, who danced before her father so that she might be rewarded with the head of St John on a charger, was later confused with Herodias, the witch or fairy queen, and it was this confusion that brought the association of fern seed with St John's Day (Spence. 1948), for the queen of the fairies was the custodian of the seed (Wright & Lones), and whoever tried to gather it ran enormous risks from the attacks of the spirits. One way of getting the seed was to shoot at the sun at mid-day today. Three drops of blood would fall, and these had to be gathered up and preserved, because this was the fern-seed (Dyer. 1889) though it was said in Germany that fern-seed shone like gold on this night (J Mason). It was believed in Ireland until quite recently that the roots of BRACKEN and LILIES gathered on St John's Eve, provided they were cut after the proper incantations, would show a young women her true lover's name (Wood-Martin, though he does not say how they were going to do it). But the idea of fern as a love charm is found in England, too. It is said that young people went to Clough, near Moston, in Lancashire, to gather the "seed of St John's Fern", as a love-charm (Wright & Lones). The OAK-TREE had a similar connection - it was believed to bloom on Midsummer Eve, the blossoms withering before daybreak. In Shropshire, a girl was advised to spread a white cloth under the tree, and in the morning she would find a little dust, which was all that remained of the fallen blossoms. A pinch of this dust put under her pillow would make her dream of her future husband (Radford & Radford).

There was a custom in Northumberland and Durham of dressing up stools with a cushion of flowers at Midsummer. A layer of clay was put on the stool, or else it was first covered with calico or silk, and the flowers stuck in to form a cushion. They were put on show at house doors, and the attendants begged money from passers-by (a set rhyme was used in the begging (Denham & Hardy)), so that they could have an evening feast, and dancing (Brand). A similar type of custom existed in the Channel Isles, where the

"jonquière", a sort of divan, made usually of dried ferns, was decorated with flowers, preferably in a formal pattern. It seems to have been the custom once to elect a girl to sit in state on the jonquière, where, as La Môme, she received the homage of all the assembled guests (MacCulloch).

YARROW is a herb of St John, and in Ireland it would be hung up at this time to turn away illness (Grigson. 1955). In one part of Germany (Saxony, perhaps), they used to make wreaths of MARSH MARIGOLDS, to throw one at a time, on to the house roof. If anybody's wreath actually stayed up, then it would be a sign he would die before next summer (Hartland. 1909). It should be said that this happens as part of the St John's Day celebrations, and it is unusual to find death divinations practiced then. In any case, would marsh marigolds still be in flower at Midsummer? Midnight on St John's Eve was the ritual time for Portuguese children to be passed through a split REED to cure their hernia (see under HERNIA, and cf ASH)

It was said that the woodpecker got its strength by rubbing its beak against a plant that flowered only at midnight on Midsummer Eve. CHICORY, against all observation, was one of the candidates for this identification (Hare).

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