Horror auteur Ari Aster described his 2019 film Midsommar as a "breakup movie," but the film does a lot more than delve into the feelings of isolation and confusion that come after a relationship ends. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Raynor), learn this, along with the other tourists visiting the remote Swedish village of Hårga, during their midsommar celebrations.
Many of the rituals performed in Midsommar, like the dancing around the maypole and the crowning of the May Queen, were drawn from a mix of Swedish, German, and Christian traditions. Others, like some of the ritualistic sacrifices, are a mixture of Aster's imagination and Viking folklore.
The Midsommar Celebration Is Christian-Based, Not Pagan
Though the citizens of Hårga partake in disturbing pagan rituals centered on the eponymous event, most of the customs in Midsommar come from a Christian background. Swedish author Po Tidholm, who studies the pagan practices and other traditions of his country, told Esquire that many of the film's rituals are actually based in Christianity:
The Swedish "midsommarstång" or "maypole" is said to be of German, Christian heritage. The day used to honor John the Baptist, but today it is a totally secular holiday where we celebrate the arrival of summer. This has somewhat older roots from the pre-industrialised Sweden. Villages got together, danced around the maypole - mostly romantic or very silly songs - and ate herring - which we tend to do on every festive occasion.
True, the celebration is now more secular, but its roots are primarily Christian. It is known as the Saint Day of John the Baptist, and the actual day is a popular choice for weddings and christenings.
The May Queen Selection In The Film Is Based On An Old Legend Involving A Fiddle-Playing Devil
The traditional Swedish folk song "Hårgalåten" may have provided some inspiration to writer/director Ari Aster, especially for the selection of the May Queen. The song tells of the Hårga Dance, which is fitting, considering where Dani and her friends end up. Although the song was supposedly intended for children, the lyrics are fairly dark. They describe how the Devil came to town disguised as a fiddler. He then made all of the children dance themselves until they perished:
They were dancing to the Harga song
High up on the Harga mountain peak
Tears aren't far off
While dancing, they wore through both body and soul.
Stop your bow fiddler, before we
Dance life and soul and all the bones out of our bodies
No, he won't stop the dance before
Everyone falls down dead.
While Dani and the other women in the film don't literally dance to their demises, many do collapse from exhaustion. Once Dani is the only one left, she is crowned the May Queen.
Ritualistic Senicide May Or May Not Have Been Practiced
After the initial feast, the citizens of Hårga migrate to a tall cliff to perform a ritual they ominously call Ättestupa. While Dani and her friends are unsure of what the ritual entails, they follow their hosts and witness two senior members of the community ritualistically sacrifice themselves by flinging themselves off the cliff. According to filmmaker Ari Aster, he did not pull this horrifying ceremony out of the recesses of his mind. While promoting the film, he explained to GQ Magazine his choice to include the act, which he says is based in Nordic folklore:
This [scene] isn't being pulled from historical fact, but it is part of Swedish folklore that people once committed ritual suicide this way, with an audience present. And even the hammer that they use to put the second man out of his misery, at the folk museum in Stockholm you can find a thing called a "cudgel," which is a large hammer almost exactly like that, and a family would use it together to kill an elder member of their family when it was time to pass. It was a sort of brutal euthanasia.
The scene marks a dramatic turning point for the American tourists. Before this ritual, everything was bright and innocent; afterward, they are forced to acknowledge the danger and darkness around them.
The Climactic Sacrifice Might Be Inspired By An Ancient German Custom
Filmmaker Ari Aster made sure to study the midsommar traditions of several cultures in order to create his idyllic horror. The film's final - and arguably most harrowing - sacrifice claims nine people in total. Four of the Hårga's own, four outsiders, and one unfortunate soul picked by the May Queen are burned alive in a tradition that happens once every 90 years. Dani, the newly minted May Queen, has to choose between a randomly selected member of the Hårga or her inattentive boyfriend, Christian, to be a part of the ritual.
Even though Midsommar takes place in Sweden, this ritual was likely plucked from supposed pagan German practices. During the summer solstice, German pagans allegedly built massive bonfires to honor the Sun Goddess Saules. These bonfires also acted as the means of human sacrifice.