As we progress further into October and approach Halloween, I thought it might be interesting to talk about another holiday that revolves around magic and witches. In America, we typically think about witches and even dress as them during the month of October as they are closely associated with Halloween. However, the end of June marked a holiday known as Sankthansaften, or Saint John’s Eve in Denmark. It begins at sunset on June 23rd and is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. This event also closely coincides with the June solstice, also known as Midsummer. It can be casually known as the “witch burning festival”.
During this festival, giant witch dolls made out of old bed sheets and other rags are stuffed with firecrackers, put on a broomstick, and mounted on top of a huge bonfire. There are built in fireworks stuffed inside which give the witches a cackling scream when the fire reaches them. According to old folklore, these witches fly away to Mount Brocken in Germany and other places to meet and have a feast.
Families from all over show up to participate in Sankthansaften. Children love hearing the firecrackers and running around the beach as the fires burn. Norway and other European countries also celebrate similar holidays including witches and bonfires. However, it is also a horrifying symbol of the days when women were accused of witchcraft and suffered discrimination and persecutions.
Salem is not the only spot known for persecuting witches. Dating back centuries, Denmark has held a history of persecuting those who were under suspicion of carrying out witchcraft. These “witches” were usually innocent of crime and persecuted by close neighbors or friends who held grudges, jealously, or merely wanted to dispose of them. The fear of punishment also led to fellow neighbors and friends denying the innocence of the accused. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, Hester Prynne had to live out her days constantly mocked and haunted by the symbolism of her letter. For these accused “witches” it may have been the constant persecution, stain against their innocence, and social ostracization that tormented them most. Research shows that there are even accounts of these persecutions in southern Illinois.
Like many events worldwide this year, Sankthansaften has been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak and not enjoyed the same way as previous years. However, that won’t stop many of us from dawning our favorite witch hat and cloak for Halloween this year. Here are some recommendations for books/films that relate to the existence of witches (both the fictional and nonfictional ones):
The Weiser field guide to witches– Join Illes on a midnight ride through the famous and the infamous witches of history, popular culture, and modern day. Learn the difference between a Gardnerian and a Wiccan. Study the Witches’ Travel Guide to visit sacred sites.
The Crucible– The masterpiece of American drama is now a major motion picture from 20th Century Fox, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Paul Scofield. Set during the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, The Crucible recounts the vengeance, mass hysteria, and collective evil that poisoned this small town. photos, some in color.
The Witches: Salem, 1692– The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra analyzes the Salem Witch Trials to offer key insights into the role of women in its events while explaining how its tragedies became possible. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
Witchcraft Trials– Examines the witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village in 1692, including the history of witchcraft, the principal participants in the accusations, the trials and judgment, and its legacy in American history.