Donnerstag, 23. Juni 2011

Practicing an ancestral ritual

I don't know if I did mention that although I was born and raised in Germany my family is from Spain, better to say an almost unknown part of it: Galicia. Some of you might know it because of its Road to Santiago. And this little spanish region calls itself the land of witches (terra de meigas). Here it is:

You wanna know why they call it like this? Well, Galicia has celtic roots (the national instruments are not castanets but bagpipes!). Many people believe in witches, evil eye, magic - short to say, mysticism is still alive and especially the power of nature is a basic element of this believes.
As the days around Midsummer are the longest of the year where nature achieves its maximum strength the galicians have developed many rituals to acquire this special force of nature.
At St. John's Eve (June 23) they collect medicinal and aromatic plants, but also such that repell the evil like witches, deseases, maledictions etc., put them into water (at the best water from seven different fountains) and let it stay all night outside (in the moonlight). The next morning they wash themselves with this magical water for protection during the whole year and because of its great medicinal properties. Then the plants are dried and hung up in the house to protect it from tempests.
There are also traditional bonfires and even a special punch - all to purify and protect oneself from evil.
So... I know those rituals from my holidays to Spain and I really love this mystic atmosphere. And as an ethnologist that I am I love to observe this rituals. And I find one of them especially beautiful: I love to collect those plants and to put it into a bucket of water. So I decided to try my best to find all those plants here in Germany. There are many, many plants and I found most of them on a walk this afternoon: St. John wort (of course ;-), roses, ferns, walnut leaves, mallows, chamomile, common mullein, common yarrow, ribwort, elder, blackberry leaves, ... And in my garden I found the other ones (the more mediterranean): rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, lavender, mint, oregano, rue, verbena, catnip, foxglove, lemon leaves and more roses.
I'm really proud, you guys! This are almost all plants they collect in our galician village (you got to know that each region has its special plants but all agree in the basics). And you can't imagine how good it smells... I put the bucket outside and tomorrow I will wash my face with the filtered water. It will be like the best natural fragrance ever. :-) And look how nice it looks. I love it:

And for those of you that have this debility for ethnological contents like me, I'll post some more pictures of the St. John's night. But at first the Wikipedia passage (I think it gives a great overview):
"Midsummer tradition is also especially strong in northern areas of the country, such as Galicia, where one can easily identify the rituals that reveal the pagan beliefs widespread throughout Europe in Neolithic times. These beliefs pivot on three basic ideas: the importance of medicinal plants, especially in relation to health, youth and beauty; the protective character of fire to ward men off evil spirits and witches and, finally, the purifying, miraculous effects of water. What follows is a summary of Galician traditions surrounding St. John's festival in relation to these three elements.
  • Medicinal plants: Traditionally, women collect several species of plants on St. John's eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, different species of fern, rue (herb of grace, ruta graveolens), rosemary, dog rose(rosa canina), lemon verbena, St John's wort (hypericum perforatum), mallows (malva sylvestris), laburnum, foxgloves (digitalis purpurea) and elder flowers. In some areas, these are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways. In most others, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning (o dia de San Xoan -St. John's day), when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.
  • Water: Tradition holds it that the medicinal plants mentioned above are most effective when dipped in water collected from seven different springs. Also, on some beaches, it was traditional for women who wanted to be fertile to bathe in the sea until they were washed by 9 waves.
  • Fire: Bonfires are lit, usually around midnight both on beaches and inland, so much so that one usually cannot tell the smoke from the mist common in this Atlantic corner of Iberia at this time of the year, and it smells burnt everywhere. Occasionally, a dummy is placed at the top, representing a witch or the devil. Young and all gather around them and feast mostly on pilchards, potatoes boiled in their skins and maize bread. When it is relatively safe to jump over the bonfire, it is done three times (although it could also be nine or any odd number) for good luck at the cry of “meigas fora” (witches off!).It is also common to drink Queimada, a beverage resulting from setting alight Galician grappa mixed with sugar, coffee beans and pieces of fruit, which is prepared while chanting an incantation against evil spirits."
And here are the pics:

A big bonfire in the city:

Its dummy:

The Queimada-punch:

And a bagpipe band:


  1. Now I have learnt something new :) - I have heard about Galicia because of the music, there are groups participating in the Celtic Music Festival of Lorient in Brittany, France (every year). We have bonfires in France too of St John's night but we don't burn a dummy. I think in the past in rural areas couples would jump together above the fire to bring them luck or something.

  2. Yes, Brittany and Galicia as Ireland and Scottland have many things in common actually. You can see it in the landscape, the music, the mentality and all of them have an own language.
    In Galicia there's the tradition of jumping above a little bonfire, too. I wrote my thesis about this special night with all its rituals, but I chose the short version for the post :-) ... And I have to visit Brittany some day... it must be beautiful!

  3. Brittany is very nice indeed, so is Cornwall (South-West England). Landscapes are amazing!
    A whole thesis about St John's night? Fantastic! It must be extremely interesting. In English or German?

  4. It's in German and its published so you can find it on amazon buuuuut it's waaay to expensive because it's printed on demand.

  5. The price would not necessarily stop me, but unfortunately at the moment the language does! Not fluent in German yet which is a shame. One day maybe though I'll be able to read it :)

  6. never mind... german is really difficult :-)