The Month of June

By Terry John Calendar

The coming of June heralded the true arrival of summer. In the past people refused to believe that summer had begun until the elder was in flower, but they also knew that, once midsummer day was over, the days would begin imperceptibly to draw in. Midsummer day was always celebrated with great bonfires, which blazed in praise of the sun and which strengthened its power as autumn and winter drew inexorably closer.

June was also the month in which sheep-shearing began and when hay-making commenced. In some areas, a soft alkaline clay soil called marl was to be found and it was spread over agricultural land as a form of fertiliser. In late June, when the excavation of the marl came to an end, the clay pits were decorated and anointed and left until they were needed again.

Churches and social clubs arranged walks and rambles through the countryside. In Tenby, a women’s benefit club went in procession to the church, each member carrying a bunch of flowers in her hands. Banners and flags were carried before them and a band  preceded them, playing a variety of jolly tunes. When the service was over and evening drew on, dancing took place.

On St Peter’s Day, 29th June, poor people in Pembrokeshire went from house to house, begging for butter, which they probably couldn‘t afford on a day-to-day basis. Each donation was placed in a jug, which was known as “the jug of St Peter‘s butter”

Many of these customs, especially the fiery ones, had their origin in pre-Christian times. June is actually named after the Roman goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter. She was the patroness of marriage, so June was looked upon as the best time to get married.

The Celtic peoples associated this period of the year with the healing of body and spirit and considered that herbs and plants used in healing were at their most powerful as summer commenced. They were gathered not only for their medicinal uses, but for their powers of divination. Until fairly recent times, young girls would scatter rose petals, chanting  the following charm:

   Rose leaves, rose leaves

Rose leaves I strew

He that will love me

Come after me now.

There were other, more frightening ways in which to find out who your future spouse might be. In some areas of Wales this involved a girl paying a midnight visit to a well. She would have brought with her an article of clothing, which she proceeded to wash, beating it with a flattened piece of wood called a bat staff. As she pounded the cloth she called out repeatedly: He who would my partner be, let him come and wash with me.

Another even scarier method was to visit a church at midnight, walking round it nine times and a half, ensuring that the walk ended at the church door. A knife was placed in the keyhole by the petitioner, who in this case was usually male. The young man would then shout loudly the following words: Here is the knife, where is the sheath.

An alternative version was for a sword to be carried, the scabbard having been placed first under the door of the church. The young man would walk three times around the building, at last pointing the sword towards the door. If he was lucky, his true love would appear, holding out the scabbard. If not, it was the devil.

One plant thought to be especially powerful was St John’s Wort, particularly if it was picked at noon on St John’s Day, Midsummer Day, 24th June. The night before, St John’s Eve, was one of the three spirit-nights of the year, y tair ysbrydnos, when ghosts and demons and the souls of the dead roamed abroad. As a protection, St John’s Wort was placed over the doors and windows of houses, driving out any evil spirits that might have taken up residence within the walls. Sometimes the plant was woven into a garland and was worn as a protection against harm. It could also be infused in hot water, providing a medicinal use.

Another plant which had immense protective qualities was the Rowan, or Mountain Ash.   So powerful was it thought to be that the wood was often used to make the cross beams of chimneys. Spindles and spinning wheels were also made from it, though to be properly effective, the wood had to be cut between Easter and Midsummer Day. Small branches of rowan wood were woven together and were placed around milk and butter churns to ward off any harm to the milk inside. At Easter time people wore crosses carved from rowan sticks.

Even more importantly, a baby’s cradle would have rowan wood worked somewhere into it.  Though the seeds of the rowan are poisonous to children if eaten, protective necklaces of rowan berries were worn by youngsters and fishermen carried rowan amulets to ward off harm whilst at sea.

As the rowan was believed to prevent storms and lightning, ships’ masts were constructed from it and at the very least, sticks gathered from the rowan would be carried on board.

If rowan was known to keep humans safe, then it also worked for animals. Goats were driven through hoops fashioned from rowan wood to ward off the evil eye. Following the same belief, it was also used to make the yokes of oxen and a farmer’s herding stick would be carved from a rowan bough. Garlands of rowan leaves were hung around the necks of sick animals.

There were practical uses too. The bark and fruit of the rowan can provide a strong black dye, so it was used to colour woollen garments. In Wales during the 17th century, the berries were eaten as a cure for scurvy. Preparations of apple and rowan berries were good for whooping cough and the berries pulped and sieved made a soothing gargle for throat ailments.

Rowan trees were often to be seen growing in cottage gardens, though they were never planted near apple trees, as tit was believed that one would kill the other. Because of the fear of encountering ghosts and spirits, they were frequently planted in or near churchyards in preference to yew, as they kept the dead from rising.

The rowan was firmly believed to frighten off witches and so one of its alternative names was witchen or wiggen. A well-known medieval rhyme summed up the belief that witches avoided the tree:

 

Rowan tree and red thread

Hold the witches all in dread.

Categories:Blog, History, Pembrokeshire

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