Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter
Director: Ari Aster
“A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.”(IMDb)
»Currently streaming on Amazon Prime«
What to Expect
Brimstone (AKA carbon monoxide)
Why You Should Watch It
Though touted as a horror movie, there is not much actual horror to be had in the traditional sense. Jump scares and chases through the woods are replaced with more subtly disturbing scenes and exotic folklore (because things we don’t understand are SCARY! Especially other cultures!). The true grabbing point, though, is following the main protagonist as she tries to hold on to her relationship in the wake of tragedy. The situation pulls at your heart and gives a depth to the story that not all scary movies have.
Worth Checking Out (B)
There are a lot of great cultural references sprinkled throughout this movie. So many. Like, I had no idea what I was getting into when I started researching. This has been a crazy dive into a Scandinavian rabbit hole and it’s only made me appreciate Midsommar more. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without plot explanations sprinkled throughout as well, so enjoy cherry picking those out of the tangle of Swedish history and folklore.
Midsummer & May Day
Midsummer festivals are popular in many European countries, and can include dressing in traditional garb. The Swedish midsummer celebration is a huge holiday and lasts for five weeks. People head out into the country and there is much drinking and merriment to be had. Separately, Swedes (and other Europeans) also celebrate Valborg on April 30 (Walpurgis Night) and May 1 (May Day) to welcome spring. There is usually a bonfire and singing with the maypole at the center of the festivities.
The May Queen
The May Queen is part of traditional Swedish culture as well and is chosen on May Day. She represents purity, fertility, and springtime. Although it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that Dani (Pugh) is destined to become May Queen (c’mon, she’s the ONLY major female character in the whole dang movie), her fate is foreshadowed a few times; from the John Bauer artwork “Poor Little Bear!” hanging over her bed that shows a girl in a crown kissing a bear to when she was trippin’ on shrooms and saw grass growing on her skin. When Dani is again high and wins the title, the flowers in her crown are breathing with her, her throne is made of vines, her ankles are made of grass, and she is subsequently dressed as a great big pile of flowers after blessing the crops. There is a clear connection the May Queen has with nature. The ritual of dancing around the maypole to select the May Queen is another pagan tradition, but the real Hårga has its own connection with the movie’s ritual.
The song Hårgalåten tells the story of the devil who comes to Hårga disguised as a fiddler (presumably before going down to Georgia and losing his fiddle to Johnny) and entices the good townsfolk to dance to death with his excellent musical talents. This is appropriately reflected in Midsommar‘s May Queen competition, where contestants run in circles until they stumble or collapse from exhaustion. All to the tune of a string band.
The Use of Nine
Nine was a magical number for the Vikings, and its multiples keep showing up throughout this film. Pelle (Blomgren) explains in Hårga, a person’s life is divided up like the seasons: 0–18 is Spring, 18–36 is Summer, 36–54 is Fall, and 54–72 is Winter. All multiples of nine. The festival is nine days long, and nine sacrifices are burned on the final day. The only confusing part is when Siv declares the “great feast” is held every 90 years, because the midsummer festival still happens each summer. The May Queen is selected every year, and Pelle’s parents dying in a fire implies that the sacrifices happen every year as well. If that’s the case…what makes the feast part so special?
Midsommar appears to be a conflation of three Swedish traditions: May Day, midsummer, and blót, the Norse pagan term for sacrifice. According to this sparsely cited Wikepedia entry, blót was the medieval Scandinavian practice of worshipping through sacrificing both animals and humans. There is some dispute over the legitimacy of these accounts, but it is said in Uppsala there was a nine-day blót every nine years with a sacrifice of – you guessed it – nine males of each species. The yellow temple where the sacrificial burning took place in the movie would be the hov.
Skin the Fool
As in many a horror film, the laughable but disturbingly named children’s game turns out to be a terrifying custom. After Mark (Poulter) urinates on a sacred ancestral tree, he is skinned, and we see one of the Hårgans wearing Mark when they find Josh (Harper) in the chapel. When we see Mark again, his empty skin is placed in the temple, and he is wearing a jester’s hat. Aside from a Reddit comment claiming this practice to be a Viking custom, going Hannibal Lecter on your victims doesn’t seem to have a place in Scandinavian folklore.
When the gang first arrives to Hårga, Josh notes the runes on a stone, and Pelle’s brother Ingemar confirms that it is the Elder Futhark, the oldest of runic alphabets consisting of 24 characters. Runes are so prolific throughout Midsommar that it warrants its own article, but here’s a breakdown of some of the more obvious ones:
The more prominent rune on Christian’s (Reynor) traditional clothes is the Tīwaz (ᛏ), with sacrifice as one of its meanings. Dani has two inverted runes on her tunic; the Raidō (ᚱ) and Dagaz (ᛞ). Normally these mean journey and day, respectively, but The Week speculates their inversions can be interpreted as crisis, death, and hopelessness. Siv, the head matriarch, wears an Ansuz (ᚨ) on the front of her dress, representative of the god Odin, who is a symbol of wisdom and leadership, among other meanings.
Though the festival lasts nine days we see the villagers feasting only four times, and every time the tables are configured as a different rune. The first day the rune is clearly in the shape of an Odal (ᛟ), meaning heritage. The following two feast scenes are hard to make out, but appear to be in shaped something like an inverted Peorð (ᛈ: mystery; initiation) and Laguz (ᛚ: water). The final table configuration is a bit of a head scratcher. It’s just a straight line, which is the rune for ice; an odd thing to invoke during a celebration of summer. But if you consider they feasted twice a day for nine days, they will have had to go through nearly the entire alphabet. (A weak explanation, I know, but it’s all I got.)
The symbol you see inside the temple is a bound rune, or the combination of runes. The Gyfu (ᚷ), the rune for gifts, is overlayed with the Yngvi (ᛜ), named for the god it symbolizes. The Week believes the Yngvi is representative of sex and fertility, but I think the bound symbol could be interpreted simply as “an offering to Yngvi.” My Wikepedia-based education on Norse mythology tells me Yngvi was given Sweden by his father Odin, and Swedish kings have since been called Ynglings. Seems fitting that a Swedish cult using an outdated alphabet would give their sacrifices to him.
Is that a Pube?
Simon and Connie, the only other foreigners brought to Hårga besides Dani &Co. are shown a tapestry early on. It tells the story of a woman falling in love with a man at first sight, picking a bouquet of flowers to put under her beloved’s pillow, and putting her pubic hair into food and menstrual blood into a drink which she then feeds to the man to make him fall in love with her. In the last panel of the tapestry the pregnant couple is wed, with the Fe rune (ᚠ: wealth) in a heart above them.
Maja enacts all panels of the tapestry with the exception of the last. Her pagan magic is most memorable when Christian pulls a wiry hair out of his pie and drinks from a cup colored like a peach bellini when everyone else is clearly having bottomless mimosas. Hard to say if he was compelled to have sex with Maja due to her Swedish witchcraft, his Shitty Boyfriend card, the hallucinogenic tea, or a combination of all three.
The Ättestupa Pelle teases the gang about the night before refers to the cliff where the ritual takes place. Killing off the elderly (AKA senicide) has history in cultures all over the world, but the Swedish tradition is considered more of an urban legend than historical fact. Regardless, several Swedish cliffs are variant names of ättestupa, and the term is associated with senicide.
A cursory Google of hallucinogenic plants in Sweden turns up pretty dry. There appear to be one or two species of psilocybin mushrooms native to the land, however, so I like to think the drink Dani and Christian trip on is just some fresh brewed mushroom tea.
When the guys are sitting around a restaurant talking about how Christian should break up with Dani, Mark points to the waitress and tells Christian he could be getting her pregnant. Then Pelle pipes up with, “And don’t forget about all the Swedish women you can impregnate in June.” This suggests that Pelle had already tapped Christian to be a Hårgan sperm donor before he’d even set foot in Sweden.
The only real-life connection to this awkward ritual is how, with so much drinking during midsummer fêting, lots of babies used to be born around late March (nine months later).
After Christian and Maja do the deed, he appears to come to his senses a bit and realize the strange cult that has been using him is…a strange cult. He runs naked from the sex hut, comes across a foot sticking up out of a garden, and flees to a nearby shed. Simon is strung up inside, with flowers in his eye sockets and his lungs pulled out of his back like a pair of wings. A blood eagle.
This is a documented ritual that, similar to blóts, may have fallen victim to hyperbole. A few medieval texts talk of the punished having an eagle drawn on their back before their ribs and lungs are removed, but whether this was a true act of torture or a sensational literary exaggeration remains to be seen.
Dani works hard throughout most of the movie to not let her emotions show. She expresses concern to her friend that she might drive Christian away, and rushes off to the nearest bathroom (or woods) when overcome with grief. Dani tries to isolate herself again after seeing Christian and Maja together, but the village women follow her, putting their hands on her and matching her wails. At first Dani was bewildered, but then she realizes that the women are sharing her pain, and she is free to cry with them. She no longer has to hide what she’s really feeling. She is accepted in her suffering.
Like Dani’s fate as the May Queen, Christian’s fate was similarly foreshadowed to be…a bear. The artwork, “Poor Little Bear!” hanging above Dani’s bed symbolizes her crowned as the May Queen kissing Christian, the bear. And just before getting told he was approved to bump uglies with Maja, Christian stared into a drawing of a bear enveloped in flames, the image of which he mirrors shortly thereafter. Poor Little Christian!
The events leading up to the final scene in Midsommar are a whirlwind. Dani goes and blesses some crops while Christian keeps the family line healthy, there’s a blood eagle and a foot sticking up out of the ground because, why not? Christian is paralyzed by some pixie dust and wakes to see his girlfriend has been transformed into a flowery blob in the center of the dais. Off to the side the oracle finger paints prophesies on a…what the hell even is that, a pile of foam? Two Hårgans were turned into tree people (cuz harvest?). And then the ninth sacrificial Hårgan is selected by an incredibly anachronistic bingo ball cage…okay.
Dani has a (reasonable) fear of being alone. Her family is dead, her boyfriend is shitty, and his friends dislike her. When she sees Christian cheating on her, Dani can no longer maintain the charade of their relationship. Shitty or not, he was the only person she had to lean on. His infidelity was the final nail in the coffin. They were through. And distraught with that knowledge, hurting from the act, and probably still a little high, Dani decides to stuff him in the disemboweled carcass of a bear.
When Christian is inside the bear he is told he represents the wickedness of the Hårgans that needs to be purged. As the temple burns and Dani flops around lamenting, she sees the villagers in various states—Pelle is devastated to lose his brother; some appear to be in celebration; others throw themselves around in a sort of ecstatic worship reminiscent of some Pentecostal churches. They are taken by the ritual and purging themselves. Dani looks on and slowly her frown evolves into a smile. She mourns for Christian, but realizes she is finally free from the torture of their relationship. She releases her grief for her family, her boyfriend, and her feelings of loneliness and ostracization with the flames. And she knows she has finally found a place where she can belong. So, she smiles.