Summer is close. It is not quite here yet on this spring evening when I am penning these words, but I can feel it. More to the point, I can smell it. It’s a Sunday evening about a month and a week before school will be out for the summer, and we’ve decided to have an impromptu cookout. The boys are delighted, as are we. And I can smell the arrival of summer on the waves of its smoke billowing over our back courtyard: fragrant pinion smoke emerging from the crackling fire in our star-studded fire pit. While I encourage my students to open themselves to the seasonal and elemental affinities that naturally arise (for many magical traditions water is most associated with summer), I must say that for me, summer magic is fire magic, and fire magic fills up our summers. I find this to be true summer after summer in at least three different ways.
The first is found in the humble act of barbecuing. Firing up the grill, smoke pit, or open cook fire is a cue all across America that summer has begun. Usually we kick things off on Memorial Day—an honoring of the dead during a season so full of the living—and in my home state of Texas, barbecuing is akin to religion. We are more right than we know.
Having a cookout may seem like the pinnacle of bourgeois American life, but in actuality it is one of the oldest devotional rites we have. It has been passed down in relatively unbroken form through the millennia. Start with Homer, whose stories were themselves based on much older ones: Some of the greatest scenes in The Iliad really boil down to beach barbecues, where offerings of ox fat wrapped around thigh bones were grilled over open flames while libations of wine, barley, and sacred herbs were thrown into the fires, all in an effort to persuade the fickle Olympian gods to grant victory to the warriors.
Then, go back further: Evidence found in Neolithic sites like Göbekli Tepe indicate that our earliest religious experiences occurred not in stationary, permanent temples but were rather more like festivals, with people converging at a single point from many different directions (and cultures) to sing, dance, pray, and, yes, barbecue.
From a practical point of view, the barbecue is an ideal occasion for dovetailing the sacred and the profane. We come together in a spirit of revelry and joy, we cook together, and then we fill the air with sweet aromas as smoke rises up to the sky. Sacrifice, congregation, incense: Some of the key components in ritual and ceremony around the world are the fundamental building blocks of every good cookout. Add prayer and magic, and you have the capacity to be in deep ceremony—just like your ancestors.
The second place that fire magic and summer magic show up is in the grandmother of the humble cook fire, the bonfire. Bonfires appear throughout the year at different seasonal junctures, but in the summer, after a day of swimming in the cool green waters of a limestone spring or as night falls over the desert and a cool wind picks up, there is something about having a large fire beside which we can warm our toes, toast marshmallows, and tell stories together that makes for a certain kind of magic.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the celebrations to commemorate summer solstice or Saint John’s Eve. The span from solstice (usually around June 21) to Saint John’s Eve (June 23) is regarded as some of the most magical nights of the year. Ostensibly celebrating the year’s longest day and the birth of Saint John the Baptist respectively, these days are marked by feasting, festivals, celebrations, fortune-telling—and bonfires. The fires are large and usually close to the top of mountains, places traditionally believed to be gathering places for witches to cast their evil enchantments. The fires of Saint John’s Eve were seen primarily as protective, shielding against malevolent forms of magic.
Meanwhile, magic of a more healing sort would also be made, as this was traditionally a time when women and girls would harvest medicinal plants for use throughout the year, including fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows (like marshmallow, hibiscus, hollyhock, globe mallow, and okra flowers, laburnum, elderflowers, foxglove, and, of course, Saint John’s wort). These all have magical as well as medicinal properties. Gardeners and herbalists often do a great deal of their harvesting around this time of year, as it is believed that the plants are more vital in these heady days of midsummer. In the light of the bonfires, gifts would be exchanged and left for fairies, and all kinds of magic—especially love and sex spells—were highly sought out. Although the fires’ long shadows over the mountainsides were supposedly to keep the witches away, it seems that something else was happening: In fact, everyone gathered around a bonfire finds a bit of a witch in themselves. It is almost as if the flow of the flames draws it out of us. The third place I find fire magic in the summer is in the dark. Specifically, under inky black skies and fleecy blankets as I look up at the stars shining with their own fire, lighting up the heavens.
The Perseid meteor shower, which usually begins in July and culminates in late September, is something most of us can catch if we try. Star gazing, learning constellations, and perhaps most important, telling stories about the stars we see in the sky are some of the oldest magics we have. Any would-be witch would know at least a bit about the stars, their patterns and seasons, and the way that they can describe events down below from their vantage point above.
Soon it will be summer. At sunset, I’ll place crystal jars full of spring-fed water alongside the leafy green herbs in my garden, letting the waters be kissed by starlight and moonshine, working with those potions just as I will with all the herbs we harvest on solstice. I’ll hold the hands of my sons as we dip our toes into cool pools, and I’ll teach them to make wishes on the backs of the silverfish that live in those green depths. We will wander mountainsides finding interesting rocks and butterflies, and we will settle down on baked earth to talk and gaze into ever-changing flames. The question is not where you can find magic in summer but rather where you can’t. Catch the scent of smoke, feel the warmth on your face, utter the words “once upon a time,” and weave your spell, for around the fire we are all witches.
Briana Saussy is an author, storyteller, teacher, spiritual counselor, and founder of the Sacred Arts Academy, where she teaches magic, divination, ceremony and other sacred arts for everyday life. She is the author of Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary, and Star Child: Joyful Parenting Through Astrology. See more at brianasaussy.com.
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