Warning: This post contains spoilers for Midsommar.
The first time Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) really smiles in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she’s high on a mysterious drug and running in a circle at breakneck speed with the young women of Hårga, a pagan community based in the isolated northern reaches of Sweden. After experiencing the crushing loss of her family, Dani has been slogging through life. Finally, she’s running.
In this scene, Dani is participating in one of Hårga’s more energetic Midsommar rituals. Each year, the community whittles down a May Queen through an intense endurance challenge, where dance marathon meets ancient ritual. After drinking a mysterious yellow liquid (it’s definitely drugs!), the women follow an elder’s dancing instructions. They dance in circles, then in pairs, then collapse from exhaustion or crash into each other. The last woman left standing around the May Pole is crowned the May Queen — and Dani is it. Eventually, Dani dons the May Queen’s enormous floral gown like she was destined to be pagan royalty.
As the elder explains, this midsummer dance ritual originates in a legend. Back in the day, she says, a young woman drove out “the dark one” by dancing. This tale didn’t spring purely from director and writer Ari Aster’s imagination. Like much of Midsommar, from the runic alphabet to the art on Hälsingland’s walls, the elder’s legend is rooted in Swedish tradition.
In fact, the legend of Hårga makes for perfect horror movie fodder — it’s creepy. Hårga, which is a real place in Northern Sweden, has long been associated with evil forces. Specifically, with a story about the one time the devil, disguised as a fiddler, forced the town’s inhabitants to dance to death. Casual.
Take a look at the lyrics of the famous “Hårgalåten” folk song (which translates to “The Harga Song” in English). The song begins with the fiddler easily seducing the entire town into dancing: “The fiddler pulled his fiddle out of its case and / Raised his bow to the rising Sunday sun / Then the people of Hårga got excited / They forgot God and the whole world.” With just a few notes, Hårga is cut off from the rest of the world — remind of you of Midsommar ‘s isolated Hårga at all? Once the villagers start dancing, there’s no stopping. The song says the youth of Hårga “wore through both body and soul” and perish from exhaustion.
The story is spooky, but what makes the song most haunting is its perspective. The song is sung by someone who’s in the doomed dance troupe. The awful realization of the fiddler’s identity dawns on her mid-song: “Oh God forbid, he has a hoof.” By the song’s end, the singer is still alive. She’s dancing, knowing what awaits her: “He won’t stop the dance before / Everyone falls down dead.”
“Hårgalåten” continues to have a prominent place in Swedish culture. Each year, people dance from the Hårga meadow to a city three miles away for a dance competition called Hälsingehambon. The song has been covered by classical choirs and metal bands. In 2011, the Swedish band In Flames included a more rock ‘n roll version of “Hårgalåten” on its album Lunar Strain.
Ultimately, though, Midsommar’s Hårga is independent from Sweden’s Hårga legend. Aster told Thrillist that the film’s location was chosen to echo the legend, but not to copy it. “It’s always more fun to tether it to something tangible,” Aster said. “But then, you know, you do run the risk of the real thing being confused for whatever you’ve done.”
Midsommar ‘s Hårga is also distinguished from the song “Hårga” in another major way: Its association with the May Queen. The May Queen isn’t a part of the Sweden’s midsummer festivals, but rather part of May Day, an ancient holiday celebrated around Europe to commemorate springtime fertility and the arrival of warmer weather.
Here’s where Midsommar’s maypole comes in. During traditional May Day celebrations, a young woman from the village is chosen to be May Queen. Wearing a white gown and a crown of flowers, the May Queen is a walking symbol. She represents the archetypal Maiden, the earth’s fertility, purity, the goddess of spring, the defeater of the Winter Queen. Alfred, Lord Tennyson popularized the ancient tradition with his 1855 poem “The May Queen.” Crowning an annual May Queen became a part of Victorian culture, and persists in some places today.
Today, people celebrate May Day on May 1 by dancing around a maypole decorated with colorful ribbons, gathering wildflowers, and sometimes electing a May Queen. Maybe watching Midsommar will be part of the tradition now.