It’s the longest day of the year followed by the shortest, most magical night. For as long as humans have been on the planet, midsummer’s night has been filled with enchantment and wonder. And what better way to celebrate than with a dawn dip or midnight swim?
Myths and magic
For centuries, water was seen as a gateway to the spirit world. Pools, lochs, tarns, lakes, rivers and the sea contain enchanting and sometimes terrifying stories of other worlds and mythical creatures. Mermaids, selkies, sirens, kelpies – creatures that would lure you in and often seal your fate.
In the Peak District, you’ll find a mermaid pool. The story goes that a man was rejected by a beautiful young woman. So, he accused her of witchcraft and convinced local townsfolk to drown her in a pool high up on the High Peak. As she died, she cursed him and three days later his body was found by the pool, his face covered with claw marks. Ever since, people say that animals won’t drink from it and birds won’t fly over it, and many still claim to have seen the mermaid.
What once scared people away from bodies of water now draws us to them. Loch Ness is a great example – the Loch Ness monster, fondly known as Nessie, draws tourists from around the world. The thrill of swimming where a monster was said to lurk and the wonder at immersing yourself in myth and folklore makes swimming spots with ancient tales more enchanting.
“In Celtic times, small pools and standing waters were viewed as a doorway between the terrestrial and spiritual worlds,” writes Daniel Start in his Wild Swimming Guide. “Generally, these pools were seen as bringers of life and fertility but the spirits could be unpredictable.”
Gateways to another world
Midsummer’s Eve was thought to be when the boundary between our world and the spirit world was thinnest, making people vulnerable to the kinds of ‘fairy tricks’ that Shakespeare wrote about in his play, Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Fire was one of the main elements associated with midsummer because it connected with the sun. To keep their villages safe from the marauding spirits, people would light bonfires and then walk from fire to fire with lit torches. Others would jump over the fire for good luck. Another tradition was to roll a lit barrel down a hill to foretell the success of that autumn's harvest. In the Finnish midsummer celebration, bonfires are burned by lakes and the sea.
As water was considered a gateway to another world and because midsummer is when the sun moves into the astrological sign of Cancer, a water sign, water was hugely significant in midsummer rituals. People would decorate rivers and lakes with flowers as a symbol of fertility and bathe in water to bring them good fortune for the coming year.
In Egypt, midsummer was considered the New Year because the Nile would be in flood, promising a good harvest. In Russia, girls and young women would float flower garlands on rivers their movements telling their romantic fortunes.
“Midsummer is not only a time of fire magic, but of water as well. Now is a good time to work magic involving sacred streams and holy wells,” writes Kate Farrell in her blog, Story Telling for Everyone. “If you visit one, be sure to go just before sunrise on Litha, and approach the water from the east, with the rising sun. Circle the well or spring three times, walking deosil – clockwise – and then make an offering of silver coins or pins.”
How to celebrate the summer solstice
You can join in with celebrating the summer solstice by immersing yourself in tradition. There are organised swims during the week of Midsummer – at dawn, during the night and during the longest day of summer. Some prefer the solitude of a magical solo dip, and if you’re not an outdoor swimmer, you might choose your own bathtub or plunge pool in your garden.
“Solstice night is a perfect time for a ritual bath. Light candles, fill your bath with salts and essential oils, even flower petals (or add essential oils to your shower and hang flowers from the shower head), burn cleansing palo santo or sage, and clear your mind,” writes the Culinary Witch on her blog.
Here are some other modern watery traditions that you can try: