The eve of St. John was in popular superstition one of the most important days of the mediæval year. The need-fire--or the St. John's fire, as it was called--was kindled just at midnight, the moment when the solstice was supposed to take place, and the young people of both sexes danced round it, and, above all things, leaped over it, or rushed through it, which was looked upon not only as a purification, but as a protection against evil influences. It was the night when ghosts and other beings of the spiritual world were abroad, and when witches had most power. It was believed, even, that during this night people's souls left the body in sleep, and wandered over the world, separated from it. It was a night of the great meetings of the witches, and it was that in which they mixed their most deadly poisons, and performed their most effective charms. It was a night especially favourable to divination in every form, and in which maidens sought to know their future sweethearts and husbands. It was during this night, also, that plants possessed their greatest powers either for good or for evil, and that they were dug up with all due ceremonies and cautions. The more hidden virtues of
plants, indeed, depended much on the time at which, and the ceremonies with which, they were gathered, and these latter were extremely superstitious, no doubt derived from the remote ages of paganism. As usual, the clergy applied a half-remedy to the evil; they forebade any rites or incantations in the gathering of medicinal herbs except by repeating the creed and the Lord's prayer.
As already stated, the night of St. John's, or Midsummer-eve, was that when ghosts and spirits of all descriptions were abroad, and when witches assembled, and their potions, for good or for evil, and charms were made with most effect. It was the night for popular divination, especially among the young maidens, who sought to know who were destined to be their husbands, what would be their characters, and what their future conduct. The medicinal virtues of many plants gathered on St. John's eve, and with the due ceremonies, were far more powerful than if gathered at other times. The most secret practices of the old popular superstitions are now mostly forgotten, but when, here and there, we meet with a few traces of them, they are of a character which leads us to believe that they belonged to a great extent to that same worship of the generative powers which prevailed so generally among all peoples. We remember that, we believe in one of the
earlier editions of Mother Bunch, maidens who wished to know if their lovers were constant or not were directed to go out exactly at midnight on St. John's eve, to strip themselves entirely naked, and in that condition to proceed to a plant or shrub, the name of which was given, and round it they were to form a circle and dance, repeating at the same time certain words which they had been taught by their instructress. Having completed this ceremony, they were to gather leaves of the plant round which they had danced, which they were to carry home and place under their pillows, and what they wished to know would be revealed to them in their dreams. We have seen in some of the mediæval treatises on the virtue of plants directions for gathering some plants of especial importance, in which it was required that this should be performed by young girls in a similar state of complete nakedness.
96:67 See Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, pp. 341-349.