Sunday, June 21, 2015

Midsummer in Brittany

Today it's Midsummer or Summer Solstice. The highlight of summer.

old Breton illustration of the "Feu de la St Jean"

On 24 June, "La nuit de la Saint Jean" as it is called here in France, isn't celebrated like it was in the old days. Except in some places like here in Brittany where it has remained a living tradition. And so it is that the Old cult of the Fire is still existent. Fire, for millennia was honoured as a source of universal life.

Old postcard, Tantad de St Jean du Doigt

In many Breton villages they still have the tradition of lighting a large bonfire around midsummer.
This fire is called "Tantad" in Breton. The firewood is collected one month in advance, it consists mainly of dried gorse (Ulex europaeus) which grows everywhere here in Brittany.

Picture taken a few years ago in St Jean du Doigt
just before lighting the fire

It used to go like this:
After the fire was lit, the villagers, all in festive attire, stand around the fire and began to perform all kinds of dancing and singing. Children were not allowed to participate and could only look at the fire through the windows of their houses, because it was mainly a celebration of adulthood, of love and fertility. When the fire had diminished, tough young men and brave young women jumped happily over the glowing embers. The older village women each took a piece of coal and threw it into the well to cleanse the water for the whole year to come. Towards the end, bystanders threw a small cobblestone in the cooling fire, this stone was called a "anaon" . And thus ended the party and everyone went to sleep. In the morning, the villagers went to see their "anaon" stone, because during the night the spirits came to turn over the stones of the people who would die in the following year! The cooled ash was then spread on the fields in order to promote the fertility of the soil.
Or at least that's how it used to be done. Now it is a popular festival linked to the still very strong Christian faith.

Tantad de St Jean du Doigt

Tantad de St Jean du Doigt

But "la fête de la St Jean" was not only about bonfires, it was also a good time to collect some medicinal herbs. The next day, the people who knew about these things, with bare feet, still groggy from the previous night and with a golden sickle in their hand went to pick the herbs. To ward off demons and to cure fevers. St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) of course, but also vervain (Verbena officinalis), the sacred plant of the Celts. It was picked while singing a mysterious song, a very old charm formula, called "Verven-Dieu" but nobody knows what it actually means anymore.


Happy Summer Solstice

Thanks for visiting


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