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Folklore

Light a fire for Litha

June 23 marks Litha, the ancient midsummer’s eve celebration and the night when horror rises in my new novel, Blood Point.

The quiet Irish village of Kinnity hides a dark history, from the brutal killing of a young woman in ancient Ireland to the mad 19th-century landlord building a pyramid tomb. When widower Josh and his daughter Holly visit in 2023, they encounter a terrifying evil.

Head to my Blood Point web page to find out more and read extracts from one character’s story. If you’d like to know when you can buy Blood Point, sign up for my newsletter.

A bonfire surrounded by people at ancient stones.

What is Litha, and when?

Pronounced “LEE-tha”, the longest day really is long in Ireland, where the sun rises at 5am and sets at 10pm. On these summer nights it feels light for at least half an hour before sunrise and after sunset. Ireland’s long summer days are almost — but not quite — compensation for the short, half-lit winter days.

Although the solstices and equinoxes were important, pre-Christian Ireland gave more importance to the quarter-day festivals in between. These are Imbolc in February, Bealtane in May, Lughnasadh in July and Samhain in October.

Unlike the Christian festivals that celebrate the day, pagan Ireland marked the evening before the big day. Samhain on October 31st, for example, is better known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day. Litha is also St John’s Eve, the feast of St John the Baptist and a major festival for early Christianity.

Smart readers will have noticed that the astronomical summer solstice is on June 20th at 9.51pm (British Summer Time). That’s the date when the Earth’s axial tilt points the northern hemisphere most directly towards the Sun. Ancient peoples almost certainly followed the astronomical calendar, but modern societies have fixed these dates to the calendar.

Apple goodie is a sweet Irish dessert eaten at Litha, or Midsummer's Eve.
Crisp apple goody is an Irish treat cooked for Litha.

Light a fire for Litha

In Irish folklore, the day belongs to humans and the night to the Sí, the fairy folk. The Sí have lived beneath the hills since the first men tricked them into going there. There’s nothing fair about Irish fairies, though, and they’re both feared and respected in all their forms.

The solstices, equinoxes and quarter-days are times when the boundary between the worlds of men and sí grow thin. The fair folk may take their revenge upon people and try to trick their way into your home.

Hilltop fires are a major part of the Litha celebrations (and most others). Attendees would leap over the fires or pass between them, and livestock — particularly cattle — driven between two fires or through the ashes the following morning. Home fires would be doused at dawn and relit from the bonfires.

It’s also a traditional treat to cook goody on the bonfire, a pudding made from bread boiled in milk with sugar and spices. It would be served to children while the adults drank mead.

A crown made of flowers and blossoms.
A crown made from summer flowers and blossoms.

Litha: the feast of Áine

At the height of summer, with livestock out to pasture and crops growing towards harvest, Litha was also a celebration of Áine (pronounced “awn-ya”), goddess of summer, the sun, wealth and sovereignty.

She’s also known to be a fierce female power who exacted revenge on the king of the Sí, who raped her, by biting off his ear. She became queen of the Sí and inherited his lands with their son (Irish mythology isn’t big on moral consequences). But that’s only one of the many folklore versions of Áine, depending on where you are in Ireland.

She’s associated with numerous sites around the country, foremost among them the hill of Knockainey (literally, ‘hill of Áine’). This site has extensive archaeological remains and is a focus of Litha celebration.

Healing goddess Áine is also linked to meadowsweet, St John’s Wort and foxgloves. These were gathered for her festival as ingredients for wards against the Sí and in medicinal potions. Now I love folklore but I’ve no interest in herbalism and other woo, but your mileage may vary.

However you choose to celebrate Litha in 2024 — and exactly when is up to you, I hope that you have fun and enjoy the long days of summer before they shorten into autumn and winter. Before we know it, Lughnasadh will be gone by and Samhain coming up.

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