History of St John's Eve

By Terry John Sunset at Bluestone Village

If you are staying at Bluestone on 23rd June, St John’s Eve, prepare yourself for the unexpected, especially as darkness falls. As our ancestors knew, it is one of the most powerful and supernatural nights of the year, one of the three y tair ysbrydnos or spirit night of the year. (The other two are May Day Eve and Halloween.)

This belief has its origins far back in our history. The pagan Celts celebrated the mid-point of summer, as the year turned slowly back towards autumn, by the lighting of huge bonfires. These were believed to be a protection against the evil spirits that were thought to roam abroad in the darkness on that night. Domestic beasts were walked round the fires in a sun-wise direction as a blessing and people leaped through the flames. The highest jump was thought to indicate the height of the corn at harvest time. The custom of lighting bonfires continued well into the Christian era and is still practised in some areas of Britain and on the Continent.

In Wales, St John’s Eve was known as Gwyl Ifan or Gwyl Ifan Ganol Haf, St John’s Night of Midsummer, to distinguish it from Gwyl Ifan Ganol Gaeaf, St John’s Night of Midwinter. Great Agricultural fairs were held, there was dancing and merrymaking and in some areas of south Wales, the trunk of a birch tree was specially decorated and was raised and decorated in the same way as the May Pole.

These festivities sometimes got out of hand. A 14th century monk, John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire, recorded that:

At first men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony, turning the good, holy devotion into sin.

The church authorities quickly ordered the feast of St John to be observed by fasting and prayer. John Mirk did however take special note of the custom of lighting fires:

In the worship of St John the Baptist, men stay up at night and make three kinds of fires; one is of clean bones and no wood and is called a bonnefyre; another is made of clean wood and no bones and is called a wakefyre because men stay awake by it all night and the third is made of both bones and wood and is called St John’s Fyre.

The men who stayed awake all night watching the St John’s Fire were observing another well established custom. The braver members of a community might chose to sleep overnight at some sacred site, but there were dangers. During the dark hours there was the chance of being spirited away by fairies, never to be seen again. If you survived that, you awoke either with the powers of a bard, or raving mad.

It was wise to protect yourself from harm by gathering the herb known as St John’s Wort, which came into flower during the month of June. It was best gathered on St John’s Eve and it was placed over doors and windows to ward off witches and evil spirits. It was regarded as so powerful that it was known as Fuga daemonium, or ‘devil’s flight’ because its scent was abhorrent to the devil, who would flee from it.

Even its botanical name Hypericum fortunatum indicates its special qualities. It is thought that Hypericum is derived from the Greek for ‘over a picture’ as the flowers used to be placed over a religious icon to ward off evil.  

To the medieval mind, a close examination of the plant revealed even more of its sacred nature. The red spots on its leaves, said to become visible on 29th August, the reputed anniversary of the death of St John, represented the blood spilled when the saint was beheaded. The dots or perforations around the edges of the leaves were believed to have been caused by the devil when he attempted to destroy the plant by piercing it with a needle. 

St John’s Wort had medicinal properties, too. It was used in the treatment of nervous exhaustion, depression, insomnia, catarrh and stomach complaints. It was also a cure for external wounds such as sword cuts, sores, burns, bruises sprains and haemorrhoids. It could be left overnight in a container of water, exposed to the night dews and in the morning people washed their faces in the resulting flower water.

If, however, you went out at dusk to gather in the herb, you had to be very careful not to tread on it in the gloom. To do so meant that you would be carried away by a fairy-horse on a wild and terrifying journey that lasted until the first light of dawn. Medieval healers, both men and women, went out into the fields on St John’s Eve to collect the special herbs they would need through the coming year as cures for a wide range of complaints. Fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallow, laburnum, foxglove, elderflower and yarrow all had medicinal properties that were enhanced if harvested on that night. 

Fennel was reputed to ward off evil and a facial pack of fennel and honey removed wrinkles. Rue, known as the Herb of Grace because it was a symbol of sorrow and repentance that led to God-given grace, was thought to improve eyesight. It was believed to have the power of bestowing second sight on those who used it frequently; both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo claimed to have resorted to it for that purpose.

Mallow was a counter measure against love potions, whilst foxglove leaves, if placed in a child’s shoes and worn for a year, would prevent scarlet fever. Yarrow healed wounds and its essential oil was thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. It was traditionally burned on St John’s Eve to ward off evil.

Perhaps the most useful plant to be gathered on St John’s Eve was bracken. The minute spores along the leaves were best collected when they first became visible  - thought to mark the exact moment of the saint’s birth - and they would confer invisibility on those who carried them.

Categories:History

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