Arctic Midsummer – party time with pagan roots

In the European Arctic Midsummer nowadays marks mostly the start of the summer holidays. But at the roots of this big holiday, celebrated on or close to the longest day of the year, are pre-christian traditions. Asking from the spirits for a good harvest and for protection from evil forces were at the centre of the celebrations. In this connection bonfires were lit at night and rituals performed. For the vikings the midsummer was an important thing, too, as well as for slavic people. And of course for the Sakha, for whom Ysyakh is the principal new year’s holiday, attracting huge amounts of people to the open fields to attend the main ritual, algys.

The Ysakh official celebration in Sakkyryr, Eveno Bytantay, Yakutia, 21 June 2022. Photo by Innokenti Ammossov, a long standing friend of our team from there.

In several northern European countries, such as Finland, misdummer is a state holiday, with all shops and services closed. Since the main part of the population in the Arctic countries converted to christianity long ago, the ‘pagan’ roots of the holiday merged with the religious calendar, in which midsummer is connected to the birthday of St John the Baptist. Correspondingly, in many of the languages the name is connected to that: Juhannus (Johannes Kastajan is the name for John the Baptist), Sankt Hans (Danish, Norwegian), Jónsmessa (Icelandic) Jonsok (vigil for Jon, Norwegian) and Ivan Kupalo (Slavic – from kupat’sa – bathing). However, in all the Skandinavian languages the holiday is also just called midsummar.

Among the Sakha the holiday retained its original roots which were not merged with Christian traditions. But the meaning is basically the same: the word “Ysyakh” means something like “abundance”, and signifies the worshipping of the spirits for abundant gifts from the environment in the short and hot summer.

Fire and water as elements have played and continue to play a crucial role in the ritual part of the celebrations, no matter where we go, mostly in the form of large bonfires.

In Finland the misummer is top news every year, and a national holiday, including fire and water

Around that various ritual practices are carried out, purification with herbs, feeding the fire with horse milk, burning of witches (among the vikings). In 2022 in the White-Sea town of Kandalaksha in Murmansk region they celebrated the viking holiday through a middle-age party called Gandvik, with reconstruction of traditional boats, and re-staging viking life altogether.

Most importantly, what unites all these holiday traditions is that people meet for picknick outdoors, and host each other with abundant food and drink, be in among relatives or the whole community, or even big city.

Now many of us in the West have less access to the Russian Arctic; we are not able to pursue the same kind of research on such Arctic traditions as we used to do, e.g. with the articles of our colleague Eleanor Peers from SPRI in Cambridge. But this does not mean that we lose track of what happens in the Russian half of the Arctic! Because politics won’t destroy our people-to-people contacts, and friends keep sending their news and we talk on the phone. So in the following, some images from Kandalaksha and Yakutia:

The site of the Kandalaksha (Murmansk region) 2022 viking summer festival “Gandvik”. Mentioning the christian roots as well as the Seidi at this place, Saami sacred stones
beautiful Russian / Pomor village at the shore of the White Sea, Kandalaksha: photo courtesy of Anna Smirnova
Anna found a great spot to relax on the shore of the White Sea
The Sakha Ysyakh is also a place for friends to meet. In the big city of Yakutsk, each of the regions of the huge area has their own Tyusylge – their own site. Our friend Ekaterina met there her classmates, in the Tyusulge of Bulun, our field site at the Laptev Sea.
There they enjoyed traditional Siberian frozen white fish – stroganino, an Arctic delicacy , at plus 30 temperatures! (photo courtesy of Ekaterina Alekseeva)
Ekaterina holds solemnly the choron of her grandma from 1972. The traditional wooden vessel of which the Sakha drink kumys (fermented horse milk) at the Ysyakh festival, and feed the spirits with it.
The Yakutsk Ysyakh may be the North’s biggest midsummer party. And it continues all night with concert and the like. In the last 20 years with ever less alcohol being consumed there! (see Eleanor’s article). (photo courtesy of Ekaterina Alekseeva)
In Sakkyryr they started paying specific attention to kids entertainment too… (photo courtesy of Innokenti Ammossov)
… while the traditional stone-carrying competition is the pride of the guys, a celebration of masculine power:) (photo by Innokenti Ammossov)
In Sakkyryr the peak competition at the Ysyakh is the race on Sakha horses. (photo by Innokenti Ammossov)

Of course in the Arctic the midsummer is also connected a lot to animal symbolism. Among the Sakha the horse is crucial for connecting to the spirits (horse milk and horse hair fed to the fire at Ysakh). In Iceland they have a myth that cows start speaking, I have read .

A very warm thank you to the friends who sent me their midsummer reports, Anja, Ekaterina, Innokenti, and wishing everyone a wonderful midsummer!

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