Midsummer Night's Dream by P. D. White.
I am running late, I hope Titania won't mind. Happy Midsummer! In Roman times, the solstice was celebrated on June 24th and in some places, still is. This year, the solstice fell astronomically on the 21st. Ancient pagans were on to something, with their religious awareness of the ebb and flow of the natural world, the tilt of the planet, the angle of the sun, the length of days, the magnetic pull on the senses.
Here's a report in Time about some 20,000 happy new pagans and Druids at Stonehenge yesterday. When I visited Stonehenge years ago with friends, it was late afternoon, overcast, and lonely. The place was infused with an indescribable, arrested mood that you could almost reach out and touch; it was rivetting, the stones embodied silent eternity, a feeling of thousands of years frozen on one spot. But not yesterday it seems, when Stonehenge was more like Woodstock. I get the same feeling at the solstices as I do at Hallowe'en (even though the autumnal equinox occurs over a month before) - a build up of natural pressure and a release as the seasons turn over. It's strange that ancient peoples who had limited or no scientific explanations for the solstice still understood it so intuitively. With our powerful, ever-nagging awareness of death, human beings have always comprehended the cosmos as parts of a giant clock: our planet, the sun, the universe.
The Romans conceived of the solstice as a point when the sun 'stood still,' suspended above them in the sky. There is a notion that time stands still for a moment - and hangs on and lingers through the longest day of the year as the earth leans toward the sun. Wiki explains this definition:
"Of the many ways in which solstice can be defined, one of the most common (and perhaps most easily understood) is by the astronomical phenomenon for which it is named, which is readily observable by anyone on Earth: a 'sun-standing.' This modern scientific word descends from a Latin scientific word in use in the late Roman republic of the 1st century BC: solstitium. Pliny uses it a number of times in his Natural History with the same meaning that it has today. It contains two Latin-language segments, sol, 'sun,' and -stitium, 'stoppage.'"
Titania. John Simmons (1823-1876).
It is the related idea of time standing still that makes Midsummer fodder for myth and fantasy. You have those few extra hours seemingly mystically granted to you in a day - and anything can happen as the time unfolds. Shakespeare's famous play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, written between 1594 and 1596 and published in 1600, describes the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. You can read it in full here.
Shakespeare named his fairy queen Titania from Roman mythology, based on Greek stories of the divine parents of the Gods. Wiki: "In traditional folklore, the fairy queen has no name. Shakespeare took the name 'Titania' from Ovid's Metamorphoses, where it is an appellation given to the daughters of Titans." The play mixes Roman mythology and paganism, all devoted to England's queen. The Faerie Queene by Spenser had already associated Elizabeth with Titania in the popular mind. In Shakespeare's play, Titania, a deathless fairy, mediates on the mortality that plagues normal humans, and pities their inevitable turn from the golden greenery she inhabits - to winter and death:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
Felix Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, completed 1842. Scherzo. Someone on youtube says: "Go clarinets!"
Why turn down eternity for misery and strife? As Puck says, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Somehow, mortality is the terrible price we pay for knowledge. The fact that eternity is just out of reach makes us dream, think and change. To confirm that our fantasy lives are intertwined with our innate worship of the natural world, as well as our desperate need to break through spirituality by means of exploration and science, take Uranus's moon, named for the fairy queen. It was discovered by the German British astronomer and musician, William Herschel, on 11 January 1787. He first observed Titania's companion moon, Oberon, on the same evening. Herschel had also discovered the planet Uranus on 13 March 1781, originally naming it the 'Georgian star' after England's king, which won him favour at court. The French disliked that idea and called the planet Herschel until everyone decided to name the planet Uranus, or Father Sky, son and husband of Mother Earth herself, the earth goddess Gaia. The moons were named Titania and Oberon much later by Herschel's son John in 1847 and 1852, respectively. The choice of names reflects the feverish High Victorian Gothic preoccupation with Romanticism and the world of sentiment as it clashed with the rise of science. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the music to Shakespeare's play, was also widely played by the late 1840s and may have influenced John Herschel's choice of names for his father's marvellous discoveries.
Uranus's moon Titania. Photographed by Voyager 2 on January 24 1986.