Midsommar. More than Just a Horror Movie.

Every year during the last weekend of the month of June, Sweden celebrates one of its biggest holidays, Midsummer, or “Midsommar.” This year, 2022, Midsommar is celebrated on June 24 and 25. It starts on the evening of June 24 with Midsummer’s Eve, or “Midsommarafton,” and continues with Midsummer’s Day, or “Midsommardagen,” which is a national holiday.

Sweden’s celebration of Midsommar was little known to the world before 2019 when Midsommar, the horror and psychedelic thriller movie by American director Ari Aster went up in the movie theaters. Midsommar is the story about Dani and Christian, a young couple on the verge of a break up who travel to Sweden to attend a once-in-a-century Midsommar celebration in the village of Hårga in the region of Hälsingland.

The location of Hårga is not a coincidence. Hårga is a real place, famous for two things: a legend that involves the Devil and a Swedish piece of traditional folk music called “Hårgalåten.”

First written down in 1785, the Hårga legend tells the story of a dance held outdoors in the summer, which in itself is not unusual; entertainment in the form of formal dances held outdoors is a common thing in Swedish history. But at Hårga, the legend tells us, the music was interrupted when a stranger arrived carrying a fiddler in his case. He began to play and wouldn’t stop until all the couples had danced themselves to death. The stranger with the fiddle was of course the Devil.

“Hårgalåten” is one of the most famous pieces of folk music in Sweden. Artists from all genres have covered and interpreted this piece of music, from musical artists and jazz artists to the death metal band In Flames. Originally an instrumental, “Hårgalåten” is sometimes sung with lyrics telling the story of the Hårga legend.

In Swedish folklore, Midsommar is a night of magic. Research archivist Tommy Kuusela at ISOF (the Swedish Institute for Languages and Folkore), writes on the institute’s blog that Midsummer’s Eve was believed to have been a night of magic because the midsummer solstice marked the transition between spring and summer with summer also being a transition period between sowing and harvest.

Kuusela writes that during this night it was believed the veil is lifted and it becomes possible to look into the future. One way of doing so is to pick seven different types of flowers before going to bed and sleeping with these flowers under the pillow. The flowers will make your dreams predict your future, specifically who you are going to marry. Another way of seeing the future is to fast and not speak during the whole day, and walk the fields at night. The future will then reveal itself to you.

Magic during Midsummer also manifested itself in plants and morning dew. Medicinal plants were believed to be more potent during this night, and the morning dew that fell on Midsummer’s Day was believed to be beneficial to good health and harvests. So, if you stole your neighbors dew and poured it over your own fields, your harvest would be more plentiful than theirs. If you wanted good health for the coming year, it was recommended that you rolled around in the dew. But the dew only works its magic if it touches the skin, so if you want to get a dew miracle cure, you need to roll around on the ground naked.

Midsummer is also a night of evil. The lifting of the veil makes it possible for witches, trolls, and gnomes (“tomte”) to move about. And because the sun doesn’t set, or the night never really gets dark because the sun is below the horizon for only a few hours, when you walk the fields in search of visions of the future or picking flowers to place under your pillow, you are exposing yourself to danger.

All this taken together shows that Midsummer magic is fertility magic. Fertility magic draws on both life and death. For there to be life, there needs to be death. Harvests grow from the soil. The roots of the plants that grow reach into the chthonic realm, that is the realm of the dead, and because of this connection between what is above the surface and what is below, fertility becomes both good and evil.

Seemingly the most obvious example of fertility magic during Midsummer is the Midsummer pole (“Midsommarstång”). The Swedish Midsummer pole looks a phallic symbol. On the day of Midsummer’s Eve, people get together to decorate the pole with leafs and flowers. When it’s done, they raise the pole in an upright position. Then, people dance and sing around the pole.

Raising of the Midsummer pole, Västra Tunhem, Sweden. Film: Erika Harlitz Kern

Because of the look of the pole and the singing and the dancing, Midsummer is sometimes referred to as a pagan ritual that somehow has survived in Sweden into the modern day. The truth of the matter is a bit less enticing. According to ISOF, the Midsummer pole’s origins in Sweden are difficult to trace, but a convincing case can be made for it having been brought to Sweden by German immigrants in the fifteenth century. In other words, the origins of the Midsummer pole in Sweden are neither ancient, pagan, nor native; it’s a medieval import. The tradition to dance around the pole can only be traced as far back as the eighteenth century.

Stories of magic, evil, and the Devil are plentiful in Swedish folklore and are often connected to major holidays such as Midsummer. Daylight is a scarce commodity in a country that divides the year into a winter half and a summer half. Even though Midsummer is a celebration of the light of summer, the Midsummer solstice is also celebrated with the knowledge that winter is coming and that the days will now quickly grow shorter.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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