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Balder The Beautiful, Vol. I. by Sir James George Frazer

Part 4 out of 8

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new fire was obtained direct from the sun by concentrating his beams on
a highly polished concave plate and reflecting them on a little cotton
wool. With this holy fire the sheep and lambs offered to the sun were
consumed, and the flesh of such as were to be eaten at the festival was
roasted. Portions of the new fire were also conveyed to the temple of
the sun and to the convent of the sacred virgins, where they were kept
burning all the year, and it was an ill omen if the holy flame went
out.[328] At a festival held in the last month of the old Mexican year
all the fires both in the temples and in the houses were extinguished,
and the priest kindled a new fire by rubbing two sticks against each
other before the image of the fire-god.[329] The Zuni Indians of New
Mexico kindle a new fire by the friction of wood both at the winter and
the summer solstice. At the winter solstice the chosen fire-maker
collects a faggot of cedar-wood from every house in the village, and
each person, as he hands the wood to the fire-maker, prays that the
crops may be good in the coming year. For several days before the new
fire is kindled, no ashes or sweepings may be removed from the houses
and no artificial light may appear outside of them, not even a burning
cigarette or the flash of firearms. The Indians believe that no rain
will fall on the fields of the man outside whose house a light has been
seen at this season. The signal for kindling the new fire is given by
the rising of the Morning Star. The flame is produced by twirling an
upright stick between the hands on a horizontal stick laid on the floor
of a sacred chamber, the sparks being caught by a tinder of cedar-dust.
It is forbidden to blow up the smouldering tinder with the breath, for
that would offend the gods. After the fire has thus been ceremonially
kindled, the women and girls of all the families in the village clean
out their houses. They carry the sweepings and ashes in baskets or bowls
to the fields and leave them there. To the sweepings the woman says: "I
now deposit you as sweepings, but in one year you will return to me as
corn." And to the ashes she says: "I now deposit you as ashes, but in
one year you will return to me as meal." At the summer solstice the
sacred fire which has been procured by the friction of wood is used to
kindle the grass and trees, that there may be a great cloud of smoke,
while bull-roarers are swung and prayers offered that the Rain-makers up
aloft will water the earth.[330] From this account we see how intimately
the kindling of a new fire at the two turning-points of the sun's course
is associated in the minds of these Indians with the fertility of the
land, particularly with the growth of the corn. The rolling smoke is
apparently an imitation of rain-clouds designed, on the principle of
homoeopathic magic, to draw showers from the blue sky. Once a year the
Iroquois priesthood supplied the people with a new fire. As a
preparation for the annual rite the fires in all the huts were
extinguished and the ashes scattered about. Then the priest, wearing the
insignia of his office, went from hut to hut relighting the fires by
means of a flint.[331] Among the Esquimaux with whom C.F. Hall resided,
it was the custom that at a certain time, which answered to our New
Year's Day, two men went about from house to house blowing out every
light in the village. One of the men was dressed to represent a woman.
Afterwards the lights were rekindled from a fresh fire. An Esquimau
woman being asked what all this meant, replied, "New sun--new
light."[332] Among the Esquimaux of Iglulik, when the sun first rises
above the horizon after the long night of the Arctic winter, the
children who have watched for his reappearance run into the houses and
blow out the lamps. Then they receive from their mothers presents of
pieces of wick.[333]

[The new fire in Wadai, among the Swahili, and in other parts of

In the Sudanese kingdom of Wadai all the fires in the villages are put
out and the ashes removed from the houses on the day which precedes the
New Year festival. At the beginning of the new year a new fire is lit by
the friction of wood in the great straw hut where the village elders
lounge away the sultry hours together; and every man takes thence a
burning brand with which he rekindles the fire on his domestic
hearth.[334] In the Bahr-el-Ghazal province of the Egyptian Sudan the
people extinguish their old fires at the Arab New Year and bring in new
fire. On the same occasion they beat the walls of their huts, the grass
thatches, and the walls of their enclosures in order to drive away the
devil or evil spirits. The beating of the walls and roofs is accompanied
by the firing of guns, the shouting of men, and the shriller cries of
the women.[335] Thus these people combine an annual expulsion of demons
with an annual lighting of a new fire. Among the Swahili of East Africa
the greatest festival is that of the New Year, which falls in the second
half of August. At a given moment all the fires are extinguished with
water and afterwards relit by the friction of two dry pieces of wood.
The ashes of the old fires are carried out and deposited at cross-roads.
All the people get up very early in the morning and bathe in the sea or
some other water, praying to be kept in good health and to live that
they may bathe again next year. Sham-fights form part of the amusements
of the day; sometimes they pass into grim reality. Indeed the day was
formerly one of general license; every man did that which was good in
his own eyes. No awkward questions were asked about any crimes committed
on this occasion, so some people improved the shining hour by knocking a
few poor devils on the head. Shooting still goes on during the whole
day, and at night the proceedings generally wind up with a great
dance.[336] The King of Benametapa, as the early Portuguese traders
called him, in East Africa used to send commissioners annually to every
town in his dominions; on the arrival of one of these officers the
inhabitants of each town had to put out all their fires and to receive a
new fire from him. Failure to comply with this custom was treated as
rebellion.[337] Some tribes of British Central Africa carefully
extinguish the fires on the hearths at the beginning of the hoeing
season and at harvest; the fires are afterwards rekindled by friction,
and the people indulge in dances of various kinds.[338]

[The new fire among the Todas of Southern India and among the Nagas of
North-Eastern India.]

The Todas of the Neilgheny Hills, in Southern India, annually kindle a
sacred new fire by the friction of wood in the month which begins with
the October moon. The ceremony is performed by two holy dairymen at the
foot of a high hill. When they have lighted the fire by rubbing two dry
sticks together, and it begins to burn well, they stand a little way off
and pray, saying, "May the young grass flower! May honey flourish! May
fruit ripen!" The purpose of the ceremony is to make the grass and honey
plentiful. In ancient times the Todas lived largely on wild fruits, and
then the rite of the new fire was very important. Now that they subsist
chiefly on the milk of their buffaloes, the ceremony has lost much of
its old significance.[339] When the Nagas of North-Eastern India have
felled the timber and cut down the scrub in those patches of jungle
which they propose to cultivate, they put out all the fires in the
village and light a new fire by rubbing two dry pieces of wood together.
Then having kindled torches at it they proceed with them to the jungle
and ignite the felled timber and brushwood. The flesh of a cow or
buffalo is also roasted on the new fire and furnishes a sacrificial
meal.[340] Near the small town of Kahma in Burma, between Prome and
Thayetmyo, certain gases escape from a hollow in the ground and burn
with a steady flame during the dry season of the year. The people regard
the flame as the forge of a spectral smith who here carried on his
business after death had removed him from his old smithy in the village.
Once a year all the household fires in Kahma are extinguished and then
lighted afresh from the ghostly flame.[341]

[The new fire in China and Japan.]

In China every year, about the beginning of April, certain officials,
called _Sz'hueen_, used of old to go about the country armed with wooden
clappers. Their business was to summon the people and command them to
put out every fire. This was the beginning of a season called
_Han-shih-tsieh_, or "eating cold food." For three days all household
fires remained extinct as a preparation for the solemn renewal of the
fire, which took place on the fifth or sixth day of April, being the
hundred and fifth day after the winter solstice. The ceremony was
performed with great pomp by the same officials, who procured the new
fire from heaven by reflecting the sun's rays either from a metal mirror
or from a crystal on dry moss. Fire thus obtained is called by the
Chinese heavenly fire, and its use is enjoined in sacrifices; whereas
fire elicited by the friction of wood is termed by them earthly fire,
and its use is prescribed for cooking and other domestic purposes. When
once the new fire had thus been drawn from the sun, all the people were
free to rekindle their domestic hearths; and, as a Chinese distich has

"_At the festival of the cold food there are a thousand white stalks
among the flowers;
On the day Tsing-ming, at sunrise, you may see the smoke of ten
thousand houses_."

According to a Chinese philosopher, the reason for thus renewing fire
periodically is that the vital principle grows weaker and weaker in old
fire, whereas in new fire it is young and vigorous. This annual renewal
of fire was a ceremony of very great antiquity in China, since it is
known to have been observed in the time of the first dynasty, about two
thousand years before Christ. Under the Tcheou dynasty a change in the
calendar led to shifting the fire-festival from spring to the summer
solstice, but afterwards it was brought back to its original date.
Although the custom appears to have long fallen into disuse, the
barbarous inhabitants of Hainan, an island to the south of China, still
call a year "a fire," as if in memory of the time when the years were
reckoned by the annually recurring ceremony of rekindling the sacred
fire.[342] "A Japanese book written two centuries ago informs us that
sticks resembling the wands used for offerings at the purification
ceremony were part shaven and set up in bundles at the four corners of
the Gion shrine on the last day of the year. The priests, after prayers
were recited, broke up the bundles and set fire to the sticks, which the
people then carried home to light their household fires with for the New
Year. The object of this ceremony was to avert pestilence."[343]

[The new fire in ancient Greece and Rome.]

In classical antiquity the Greek island of Lemnos was devoted to the
worship of the smith-god Hephaestus, who was said to have fallen on it
when Zeus hurled him from heaven.[344] Once a year every fire in the
island was extinguished and remained extinct for nine days, during which
sacrifices were offered to the dead and to the infernal powers. New fire
was brought in a ship from the sacred isle of Delos, and with it the
fires in the houses and the workshops were relit. The people said that
with the new fire they made a new beginning of life. If the ship that
bore the sacred flame arrived too soon, it might not put in to shore,
but had to cruise in the offing till the nine days were expired.[345] At
Rome the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta was kindled anew every year
on the first of March, which used to be the beginning of the Roman
year;[346] the task of lighting it was entrusted to the Vestal Virgins,
and they performed it by drilling a hole in a board of lucky wood till
the flame was elicited by friction. The new fire thus produced was
carried into the temple of Vesta by one of the virgins in a bronze

[The new fire at Hallow E'en among the old Celts of Ireland; the new
fire on September 1st among the Russian peasants.]

Among the Celts of Ireland a new fire was annually kindled on Hallowe'en
or the Eve of Samhain, as they called it, the last day of October, from
which the Irish new year began; and all the hearths throughout the
country are said to have been relighted from the fresh fire. The place
where this holy flame was lit bore the name of Tlachtga or Tlactga; it
has been identified with a rath or native fort on the Hill of Ward near
Athboy in the county of Meath. "It was there," says the old Irish
historian, Geoffrey Keating, "that the Festival of the Fire of Tlactga
was ordered to be held, and it was thither that the Druids of Ireland
were wont to repair and to assemble, in solemn meeting, on the eve of
Samhain, for the purpose of making a sacrifice to all the gods. It was
in that fire at Tlactga, that their sacrifice was burnt; and it was made
obligatory, under pain of punishment, to extinguish all the fires of
Ireland, on that eve; and the men of Ireland were allowed to kindle no
other fire but that one; and for each of the other fires, which were all
to be lighted from it, the king of Munster was to receive a tax of a
_sgreball_, that is, of three pence, because the land, upon which
Tlactga was built, belongs to the portion of Meath which had been taken
from Munster."[348] In the villages near Moscow at the present time the
peasants put out all their fires on the eve of the first of September,
and next morning at sunrise a wise man or a wise woman rekindles them
with the help of muttered incantations and spells.[349]

[Thus the ceremony of the new fire in the Eastern and Western Church is
probably a relic of an old heathen rite.]

Instances of such practices might doubtless be multiplied, but the
foregoing examples may suffice to render it probable that the
ecclesiastical ceremony of lighting a sacred new fire on Easter Saturday
had originally nothing to do with Christianity, but is merely one case
of a world-wide custom which the Church has seen fit to incorporate in
its ritual. It might be supposed that in the Western Church the custom
was merely a survival of the old Roman usage of renewing the fire on the
first of March, were it not that the observance by the Eastern Church of
the custom on the same day seems to point back to a still older period
when the ceremony of lighting a new fire in spring, perhaps at the
vernal equinox, was common to many peoples of the Mediterranean area. We
may conjecture that wherever such a ceremony has been observed, it
originally marked the beginning of a new year, as it did in ancient Rome
and Ireland, and as it still does in the Sudanese kingdom of Wadai and
among the Swahili of Eastern Africa.

[The pagan character of the Easter fire appears from the superstitions
associated with it, such as the belief that the fire fertilizes the
fields and protects houses from conflagration and sickness.]

The essentially pagan character of the Easter fire festival appears
plainly both from the mode in which it is celebrated by the peasants and
from the superstitious beliefs which they associate with it. All over
northern and central Germany, from Altmark and Anhalt on the east,
through Brunswick, Hanover, Oldenburg, the Harz district, and Hesse to
Westphalia the Easter bonfires still blaze simultaneously on the
hill-tops. As many as forty may sometimes be counted within sight at
once. Long before Easter the young people have been busy collecting
firewood; every farmer contributes, and tar-barrels, petroleum cases,
and so forth go to swell the pile. Neighbouring villages vie with each
other as to which shall send up the greatest blaze. The fires are always
kindled, year after year, on the same hill, which accordingly often
takes the name of Easter Mountain. It is a fine spectacle to watch from
some eminence the bonfires flaring up one after another on the
neighbouring heights. As far as their light reaches, so far, in the
belief of the peasants, the fields will be fruitful, and the houses on
which they shine will be safe from conflagration or sickness. At
Volkmarsen and other places in Hesse the people used to observe which
way the wind blew the flames, and then they sowed flax seed in that
direction, confident that it would grow well. Brands taken from the
bonfires preserve houses from being struck by lightning; and the ashes
increase the fertility of the fields, protect them from mice, and mixed
with the drinking-water of cattle make the animals thrive and ensure
them against plague. As the flames die down, young and old leap over
them, and cattle are sometimes driven through the smouldering embers. In
some places tar-barrels or wheels wrapt in straw used to be set on fire,
and then sent rolling down the hillside. In others the boys light
torches and wisps of straw at the bonfires and rush about brandishing
them in their hands. Where the people are divided between Protestantism
and Catholicism, as in Hildesheim, it has been observed that among
Protestants the Easter bonfires are generally left to the boys, while in
Catholic districts they are cared for by grown-up persons, and here the
whole population will gather round the blazing pile and join in singing
choral hymns, which echo far and wide in the stillness of night.[350]

[The Easter fires in Muensterland, Oldenburg, the Harz Mountains and the

In Muensterland these Easter fires are always kindled upon certain
definite hills, which are hence known as Easter or Paschal Mountains.
The whole community assembles about the fire. Fathers of families form
an inner circle round it. An outer circle is composed of the young men
and maidens, who, singing Easter hymns, march round and round the fire
in the direction of the sun, till the blaze dies down. Then the girls
jump over the fire in a line, one after the other, each supported by two
young men who hold her hands and run beside her. When the fire has
burned out, the whole assembly marches in solemn procession to the
church, singing hymns. They go thrice round the church, and then break
up. In the twilight boys with blazing bundles of straw run over the
fields to make them fruitful.[351] At Delmenhorst, in Oldenburg, it used
to be the custom to cut down two trees, plant them in the ground side by
side, and pile twelve tar-barrels, one above the other, against each of
the trees. Brushwood was then heaped about the trees, and on the evening
of Easter Saturday the boys, after rushing about with blazing beanpoles
in their hands, set fire to the whole. At the end of the ceremony the
urchins tried to blacken each other and the clothes of grown-up
people.[352] In Schaumburg the Easter bonfires may be seen blazing on
all the mountains around for miles. They are made with a tar-barrel
fastened to a pine-tree, which is wrapt in straw. The people dance
singing round them.[353] In the Harz Mountains the fire is commonly made
by piling brushwood about a tree and setting it on fire. At Osterode
every one tries to snatch a brand from the bonfire and runs about with
it; the better it burns, the more lucky it is. In Grund there are
torch-races.[354] In the Altmark the Easter bonfires are composed of
tar-barrels, bee-hives, and so forth, piled round a pole. The young folk
dance round the fire; and when it has died out, the old folk come and
collect the ashes, which they preserve as a remedy for the ailments of
bees. It is also believed that as far as the blaze of the bonfire is
visible, the corn will grow well throughout the year, and no
conflagration will break out.[355] At Braunroede, in the Harz Mountains,
it was the custom to burn squirrels in the Easter bonfire.[356] In the
Altmark, bones were burned in it.[357]

[The Easter fires in Bavaria; the burning of Judas; burning the Easter

Further south the Easter fires are, or used to be, lit in many districts
of Bavaria. Thus on Easter Monday in some parts of Middle Franken the
schoolboys collect all the old worn-out besoms they can lay hands on,
and march with them in a long procession to a neighbouring height. When
the first chime of the evening bell comes up from the dale they set fire
to the brooms, and run along the ridges waving them, so that seen from
below the hills appear to be crested with a twinkling and moving chain
of fire.[358] In some parts of Upper Bavaria at Easter burning arrows or
discs of wood were shot from hill-tops high into the air, as in the
Swabian and Swiss customs already described.[359] At Oberau, instead of
the discs, an old cart-wheel was sometimes wrapt in straw, ignited, and
sent rolling and blazing down the mountain. The lads who hurled the
discs received painted Easter eggs from the girls.[360] Near Forchheim,
in Upper Franken, a straw-man called the Judas used to be burned in the
churchyards on Easter Saturday. The whole village contributed wood to
the pyre on which he perished, and the charred sticks were afterwards
kept and planted in the fields on Walpurgis Day (the first of May) to
preserve the wheat from blight and mildew.[361] About a hundred years
ago or more the custom at Althenneberg, in Upper Bavaria, used to be as
follows. On the afternoon of Easter Saturday the lads collected wood,
which they piled in a cornfield, while in the middle of the pile they
set up a tall wooden cross all swathed in straw. After the evening
service they lighted their lanterns at the consecrated candle in the
church, and ran with them at full speed to the pyre, each striving to
get there first. The first to arrive set fire to the heap. No woman or
girl might come near the bonfire, but they were allowed to watch it from
a distance. As the flames rose the men and lads rejoiced and made merry,
shouting, "We are burning the Judas!" Two of them had to watch the
glowing embers the whole night long, lest people should come and steal
them. Next morning at sunrise they carefully collected the ashes, and
threw them into the running water of the Roeten brook. The man who had
been the first to reach the pyre and to kindle it was rewarded on Easter
Sunday by the women, who gave him coloured eggs at the church door.
Well-to-do women gave him two; poorer women gave him only one. The
object of the whole ceremony was to keep off the hail. About a century
ago the Judas fire, as it was called, was put down by the police.[362]
At Giggenhausen and Aufkirchen, two other villages of Upper Bavaria, a
similar custom prevailed, yet with some interesting differences. Here
the ceremony, which took place between nine and ten at night on Easter
Saturday, was called "burning the Easter Man." On a height about a mile
from the village the young fellows set up a tall cross enveloped in
straw, so that it looked like a man with his arms stretched out. This
was the Easter Man. No lad under eighteen years of age might take part
in the ceremony. One of the young men stationed himself beside the
Easter Man, holding in his hand a consecrated taper which he had brought
from the church and lighted. The rest stood at equal intervals in a
great circle round the cross. At a given signal they raced thrice round
the circle, and then at a second signal ran straight at the cross and at
the lad with the lighted taper beside it; the one who reached the goal
first had the right of setting fire to the Easter Man. Great was the
jubilation while he was burning. When he had been consumed in the
flames, three lads were chosen from among the rest, and each of the
three drew a circle on the ground with a stick thrice round the ashes.
Then they all left the spot. On Easter Monday the villagers gathered the
ashes and strewed them on their fields; also they planted in the fields
palm-branches which had been consecrated on Palm Sunday, and sticks
which had been charred and hallowed on Good Friday, all for the purpose
of protecting their fields against showers of hail. The custom of
burning an Easter Man made of straw on Easter Saturday was observed also
at Abensberg, in Lower Bavaria.[363] In some parts of Swabia the Easter
fires might not be kindled with iron or steel or flint, but only by the
friction of wood.[364]

[The Easter fires in Baden; "Thunder poles."]

In Baden bonfires are still kindled in the churchyards on Easter
Saturday, and ecclesiastical refuse of various sorts, such as
candle-ends, old surplices, and the wool used by the priest in the
application of extreme unction, is consumed in the flames. At Zoznegg
down to about 1850 the fire was lighted by the priest by means of a
flint which had never been used before. People bring sticks, especially
oaken sticks, char them in the fire, and then carry them home and keep
them in the house as a preservative against lightning. At Zoznegg these
oaken sticks were sword-shaped, each about an ell and a half long, and
they went by the name of "weather or thunder poles" (_Wetterpfaehle_).
When a thunderstorm threatened to break out, one of the sticks was put
into a small fire, in order that the hallowed smoke, ascending to the
clouds, might ward off the lightning from the house and the hail from
the fields and gardens. At Schoellbronn the oaken sticks, which are thus
charred in the Easter bonfire and kept in the house as a protective
against thunder and lightning, are three in number, perhaps with an
allusion to the Trinity; they are brought every Easter to be consecrated
afresh in the bonfire, till they are quite burnt away. In the lake
district of Baden it is also customary to burn one of these holy sticks
in the fire when a heavy thunderstorm is raging.[365] Hence it seems
that the ancient association of the oak with the thunder[366] persists
in the minds of German peasants to the present day.

[Easter fires in Holland and Sweden; the burning of Judas in Bohemia.]

Thus the custom of the Easter fires appears to have prevailed all over
central and western Germany from north to south. We find it also in
Holland, where the fires were kindled on the highest eminences, and the
people danced round them and leaped through the flames or over the
glowing embers. Here too, as so often in Germany, the materials for the
bonfire were collected by the young folk from door to door.[367] In many
parts of Sweden firearms are, as at Athens, discharged in all directions
on Easter eve, and huge bonfires are lighted on hills and eminences.
Some people think that the intention is to keep off the Troll and other
evil spirits who are especially active at this season.[368] When the
afternoon service on Good Friday is over, German children in Bohemia
drive Judas out of the church by running about the sacred edifice and
even the streets shaking rattles and clappers. Next day, on Easter
Saturday, the remains of the holy oil are burnt before the church door
in a fire which must be kindled with flint and steel. This fire is
called "the burning of Judas," but in spite of its evil name a
beneficent virtue is ascribed to it, for the people scuffle for the
cinders, which they put in the roofs of their houses as a safeguard
against fire and lightning.[369]

Sec. 3. _The Beltane Fires_

[The Beltane fires on the first of May in the Highlands of Scotland;
description of the Beltane fires by John Ramsay of Ochtertyre in the
eighteenth century.]

In the central Highlands of Scotland bonfires, known as the Beltane
fires, were formerly kindled with great ceremony on the first of May,
and the traces of human sacrifices at them were particularly clear and
unequivocal. The custom of lighting the bonfires lasted in various
places far into the eighteenth century, and the descriptions of the
ceremony by writers of that period present such a curious and
interesting picture of ancient heathendom surviving in our own country
that I will reproduce them in the words of their authors. The fullest of
the descriptions, so far as I know, is the one bequeathed to us by John
Ramsay, laird of Ochtertyre, near Crieff, the patron of Burns and the
friend of Sir Walter Scott. From his voluminous manuscripts, written in
the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a selection was published in
the latter part of the nineteenth century. The following account of
Beltane is extracted from a chapter dealing with Highland superstitions.
Ramsay says: "But the most considerable of the Druidical festivals is
that of Beltane, or May-day, which was lately observed in some parts of
the Highlands with extraordinary ceremonies. Of later years it is
chiefly attended to by young people, persons advanced in years
considering it as inconsistent with their gravity to give it any
countenance. Yet a number of circumstances relative to it may be
collected from tradition, or the conversation of very old people, who
witnessed this feast in their youth, when the ancient rites were better


"This festival is called in Gaelic _Beal-tene_--i.e., the fire of
Bel.... Like the other public worship of the Druids, the Beltane feast
seems to have been performed on hills or eminences. They thought it
degrading to him whose temple is the universe, to suppose that he would
dwell in any house made with hands. Their sacrifices were therefore
offered in the open air, frequently upon the tops of hills, where they
were presented with the grandest views of nature, and were nearest the
seat of warmth and order. And, according to tradition, such was the
manner of celebrating this festival in the Highlands within the last
hundred years. But since the decline of superstition, it has been
celebrated by the people of each hamlet on some hill or rising ground
around which their cattle were pasturing. Thither the young folks
repaired in the morning, and cut a trench, on the summit of which a seat
of turf was formed for the company. And in the middle a pile of wood or
other fuel was placed, which of old they kindled with _tein-eigin_--
i.e., forced-fire or _need-fire_. Although, for many years past, they
have been contented with common fire, yet we shall now describe the
process, because it will hereafter appear that recourse is still had to
the _tein-eigin_ upon extraordinary emergencies.

[Need-fire kindled by the friction of oak wood.]

"The night before, all the fires in the country were carefully
extinguished, and next morning the materials for exciting this sacred
fire were prepared. The most primitive method seems to be that which was
used in the islands of Skye, Mull, and Tiree. A well-seasoned plank of
oak was procured, in the midst of which a hole was bored. A wimble of
the same timber was then applied, the end of which they fitted to the
hole. But in some parts of the mainland the machinery was different.
They used a frame of green wood, of a square form, in the centre of
which was an axle-tree. In some places three times three persons, in
others three times nine, were required for turning round by turns the
axle-tree or wimble. If any of them had been guilty of murder, adultery,
theft, or other atrocious crime, it was imagined either that the fire
would not kindle, or that it would be devoid of its usual virtue. So
soon as any sparks were emitted by means of the violent friction, they
applied a species of agaric which grows on old birch-trees, and is very
combustible. This fire had the appearance of being immediately derived
from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it. They esteemed
it a preservative against witchcraft, and a sovereign remedy against
malignant diseases, both in the human species and in cattle; and by it
the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature changed.

[The Beltane cake and the Beltane carline (_cailleach_).]

"After kindling the bonfire with the _tein-eigin_ the company prepared
their victuals. And as soon as they had finished their meal, they amused
themselves a while in singing and dancing round the fire. Towards the
close of the entertainment, the person who officiated as master of the
feast produced a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped round the
edge, called _am bonnach beal-tine--i.e._ the Beltane cake. It was
divided into a number of pieces, and distributed in great form to the
company. There was one particular piece which whoever got was called
_cailleach beal-tine--i.e._, the Beltane _carline_, a term of great
reproach. Upon his being known, part of the company laid hold of him and
made a show of putting him into the fire; but the majority interposing,
he was rescued. And in some places they laid him flat on the ground,
making as if they would quarter him. Afterwards, he was pelted with
egg-shells, and retained the odious appellation during the whole year.
And while the feast was fresh in people's memory, they affected to speak
of the _cailleach beal-tine_ as dead.

"This festival was longest observed in the interior Highlands, for
towards the west coast the traces of it are faintest. In Glenorchy and
Lorne, a large cake is made on that day, which they consume in the
house; and in Mull it has a large hole in the middle, through which each
of the cows in the fold is milked. In Tiree it is of a triangular form.
The more elderly people remember when this festival was celebrated
without-doors with some solemnity in both these islands. There are at
present no vestiges of it in Skye or the Long Island, the inhabitants of
which have substituted the _connach Micheil_ or St. Michael's cake. It
is made at Michaelmas with milk and oatmeal, and some eggs are sprinkled
on its surface. Part of it is sent to the neighbours.

"It is probable that at the original Beltane festival there were two
fires kindled near one another. When any person is in a critical
dilemma, pressed on each side by unsurmountable difficulties, the
Highlanders have a proverb, _The e' eada anda theine bealtuin_--i.e., he
is between the two Beltane fires. There are in several parts small round
hills, which, it is like, owe their present names to such solemn uses.
One of the highest and most central in Icolmkil is called
_Cnoch-nan-ainneal_--i.e., the hill of the fires. There is another of
the same name near the kirk of Balquhidder; and at Killin there is a
round green eminence which seems to have been raised by art. It is
called _Tom-nan-ainneal_--i.e., the eminence of the fires. Around it
there are the remains of a circular wall about two feet high. On the top
a stone stands upon end. According to the tradition of the inhabitants,
it was a place of Druidical worship; and it was afterwards pitched on as
the most venerable spot for holding courts of justice for the country of
Breadalbane. The earth of this eminence is still thought to be possessed
of some healing virtue, for when cattle are observed to be diseased some
of it is sent for, which is rubbed on the part affected."[370]

[Local differences in the Beltane cakes; evidence of two fires at
Beltane; Beltane pies and cakes in the parish of Callander.]

In the parish of Callander, a beautiful district of western Perthshire,
the Beltane custom was still in vogue towards the end of the eighteenth
century. It has been described as follows by the parish minister of the
time: "Upon the first day of May, which is called _Beltan_, or
_Bal-tein_ day, all the boys in a township or hamlet, meet in the moors.
They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a
trench in the ground, of such circumference as to hold the whole
company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the
consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted
at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they
divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to one
another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company. They
daub one of these portions all over with charcoal, until it be perfectly
black. They put all the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Every one,
blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the bonnet, is entitled to
the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit, is the _devoted_ person who
is to be sacrificed to _Baal_[371] whose favour they mean to implore, in
rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast. There
is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having been once offered in
this country, as well as in the east, although they now pass from the
act of sacrificing, and only compel the _devoted_ person to leap three
times through the flames; with which the ceremonies of this festival are

[Pennant's description of the Beltane fires and cakes in Perthshire.]

Thomas Pennant, who travelled in Perthshire in the year 1769, tells us
that "on the first of May, the herdsmen of every village hold their
Bel-tien, a rural sacrifice. They cut a square trench on the ground,
leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on
which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk; and
bring besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky;
for each of the company must contribute something. The rites begin with
spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that
every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square
knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver
of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real
destroyer of them: each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks
off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders, says, 'This I give to
thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep; and
so on,' After that, they use the-same ceremony to the noxious animals:
'This I give to thee, O fox! spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded
crow! this to thee, O eagle!' When the ceremony is over, they dine on
the caudle; and after the feast is finished, what is left is hid by two
persons deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they
re-assemble, and finish the reliques of the first entertainment"[373]

[Beltane cakes and fires in the parishes of Logierait and Kirkmichael;
omens drawn from the cakes.]

Another writer of the eighteenth century has described the Beltane
festival as it was held in the parish of Logierait in Perthshire. He
says: "On the first of May, O.S., a festival called _Beltan_ is annually
held here. It is chiefly celebrated by the cow-herds, who assemble by
scores in the fields, to dress a dinner for themselves, of boiled milk
and eggs. These dishes they eat with a sort of cakes baked for the
occasion, and having small lumps in the form of _nipples_, raised all
over the surface."[374] In this last account no mention is made of
bonfires, but they were probably lighted, for a contemporary writer
informs us that in the parish of Kirkmichael, which adjoins the parish
of Logierait on the east, the custom of lighting a fire in the fields
and baking a consecrated cake on the first of May was not quite obsolete
in his time.[375] We may conjecture that the cake with knobs was
formerly used for the purpose of determining who should be the "Beltane
carline" or victim doomed to the flames. A trace of this custom
survived, perhaps, in the custom of baking oatmeal cakes of a special
kind and rolling them down hill about noon on the first of May; for it
was thought that the person whose cake broke as it rolled would die or
be unfortunate within the year. These cakes, or bannocks as we call them
in Scotland, were baked in the usual way, but they were washed over with
a thin batter composed of whipped egg, milk or cream, and a little
oatmeal. This custom appears to have prevailed at or near Kingussie in
Inverness-shire. At Achterneed, near Strathpeffer in Ross-shire, the
Beltane bannocks were called _tcharnican_ or hand-cakes, because they
were kneaded entirely in the hand, and not on a board or table like
common cakes; and after being baked they might not be placed anywhere
but in the hands of the children who were to eat them.[376]

[Beltane fires in the north-east of Scotland to burn the witches; the
Beltane cake.]

In the north-east of Scotland the Beltane fires were still kindled in
the latter half of the eighteenth century; the herdsmen of several farms
used to gather dry wood, kindle it, and dance three times "southways"
about the burning pile.[377] But in this region, according to a later
authority, the Beltane fires were lit not on the first but on the second
of May, Old Style. They were called bone-fires. The people believed that
on that evening and night the witches were abroad and busy casting
spells on cattle and stealing cows' milk. To counteract their
machinations, pieces of rowan-tree and woodbine, but especially of
rowan-tree, were placed over the doors of the cow-houses, and fires were
kindled by every farmer and cottar. Old thatch, straw, furze, or broom
was piled in a heap and set on fire a little after sunset. While some of
the bystanders kept tossing the blazing mass, others hoisted portions of
it on pitchforks or poles and ran hither and thither, holding them as
high as they could. Meantime the young people danced round the fire or
ran through the smoke shouting, "Fire! blaze and burn the witches; fire!
fire! burn the witches." In some districts a large round cake of oat or
barley meal was rolled through the ashes. When all the fuel was
consumed, the people scattered the ashes far and wide, and till the
night grew quite dark they continued to run through them, crying, "Fire!
burn the witches."[378]

[Beltane cakes and fires in the Hebrides.]

In the Hebrides "the Beltane bannock is smaller than that made at St.
Michael's, but is made in the same way; it is no longer made in Uist,
but Father Allan remembers seeing his grandmother make one about
twenty-five years ago. There was also a cheese made, generally on the
first of May, which was kept to the next Beltane as a sort of charm
against the bewitching of milk-produce. The Beltane customs seem to have
been the same as elsewhere. Every fire was put out and a large one lit
on the top of the hill, and the cattle driven round it sunwards
(_dessil_), to keep off murrain all the year. Each man would take home
fire wherewith to kindle his own."[379]

[Beltane fires and cakes in Wales.]

In Wales also the custom of lighting Beltane fires at the beginning of
May used to be observed, but the day on which they were kindled varied
from the Eve of May Day to the third of May. The flame was sometimes
elicited by the friction of two pieces of oak, as appears from the
following description. "The fire was done in this way. Nine men would
turn their pockets inside out, and see that every piece of money and all
metals were off their persons. Then the men went into the nearest woods,
and collected sticks of nine different kinds of trees. These were
carried to the spot where the fire had to be built. There a circle was
cut in the sod, and the sticks were set crosswise. All around the circle
the people stood and watched the proceedings. One of the men would then
take two bits of oak, and rub them together until a flame was kindled.
This was applied to the sticks, and soon a large fire was made.
Sometimes two fires were set up side by side. These fires, whether one
or two, were called _coelcerth_ or bonfire. Round cakes of oatmeal and
brown meal were split in four, and placed in a small flour-bag, and
everybody present had to pick out a portion. The last bit in the bag
fell to the lot of the bag-holder. Each person who chanced to pick up a
piece of brown-meal cake was compelled to leap three times over the
flames, or to run thrice between the two fires, by which means the
people thought they were sure of a plentiful harvest. Shouts and screams
of those who had to face the ordeal could be heard ever so far, and
those who chanced to pick the oatmeal portions sang and danced and
clapped their hands in approval, as the holders of the brown bits leaped
three times over the flames, or ran three times between the two fires.
As a rule, no danger attended these curious celebrations, but
occasionally somebody's clothes caught fire, which was quickly put out.
The greatest fire of the year was the eve of May, or May first, second,
or third. The Midsummer Eve fire was more for the harvest. Very often a
fire was built on the eve of November. The high ground near the Castle
Ditches at Llantwit Major, in the Vale of Glamorgan, was a familiar spot
for the Beltane on May third and on Midsummer Eve.... Sometimes the
Beltane fire was lighted by the flames produced by stone instead of wood
friction. Charred logs and faggots used in the May Beltane were
carefully preserved, and from them the next fire was lighted. May fires
were always started with old faggots of the previous year, and midsummer
from those of the last summer. It was unlucky to build a midsummer fire
from May faggots. People carried the ashes left after these fires to
their homes, and a charred brand was not only effectual against
pestilence, but magical in its use. A few of the ashes placed in a
person's shoes protected the wearer from any great sorrow or woe."[380]

[Welsh belief that passage over or between the fires ensured good

From the foregoing account we learn that bonfires were kindled in Wales
on Midsummer Eve and Hallowe'en (the thirty-first of October), as well
as at the beginning of May, but that the Beltane fires in May were
deemed the most important. To the Midsummer Eve and Hallowe'en fires we
shall return presently. The belief of the people that by leaping thrice
over the bonfires or running thrice between them they ensured a
plentiful harvest is worthy of note. The mode in which this result was
supposed to be brought about is indicated by another writer on Welsh
folk-lore, according to whom it used to be held that "the bonfires
lighted in May or Midsummer protected the lands from sorcery, so that
good crops would follow. The ashes were also considered valuable as
charms."[381] Hence it appears that the heat of the fires was thought to
fertilize the fields, not directly by quickening the seeds in the
ground, but indirectly by counteracting the baleful influence of
witchcraft or perhaps by burning up the persons of the witches.

[Beltane fires in the Isle of Man to burn the witches; Beltane fires in

"The Druidical anniversary of Beil or Baal is still celebrated in the
Isle of Man. On the first of May, 1837, the Baal fires were, as usual on
that day, so numerous as to give the island the appearance of a general
conflagration."[382] By May Day in Manx folk-lore is meant May Day Old
Style, or _Shenn Laa Boaldyn_, as it is called in Manx. The day was one
on which the power of elves and witches was particularly dreaded, and
the people resorted to many precautions in order to protect themselves
against these mischievous beings. Hence at daybreak they set fire to the
ling or gorse, for the purpose of burning out the witches, who are wont
to lurk in the form of hares.[383] On the Hemlock Stone, a natural
pillar of sandstone standing on Stapleford Hill in Nottinghamshire, a
fire used to be solemnly kindled every year on Beltane Eve. The custom
seems to have survived down to the beginning of the nineteenth century;
old people could remember and describe the ceremony long after it had
fallen into desuetude.[384]

[Beltane fires in Ireland.]

The Beltane fires appear to have been kindled also in Ireland, for
Cormac, "or somebody in his name, says that _belltaine_, May-day, was so
called from the 'lucky fire,' or the 'two fires,' which the druids of
Erin used to make on that day with great incantations; and cattle, he
adds, used to be brought to those fires, or to be driven between them,
as a safeguard against the diseases of the year."[385] Again, a very
ancient Irish poem, enumerating the May Day celebrations, mentions among
them a bonfire on a hill (_tendal ar cnuc_); and another old authority
says that these fires were kindled in the name of the idol-god Bel.[386]
From an old life of St. Patrick we learn that on a day in spring the
heathen of Ireland were wont to extinguish all their fires until a new
fire was kindled with solemn ceremony in the king's house at Tara. In
the year in which St. Patrick landed in Ireland it chanced that the
night of the extinguished fires coincided with the Eve of Easter; and
the saint, ignorant of this pagan superstition, resolved to celebrate
his first Easter in Ireland after the true Christian fashion by lighting
the holy Paschal fire on the hill of Slane, which rises high above the
left bank of the Boyne, about twelve miles from the mouth of the river.
So that night, looking from his palace at Tara across the darkened
landscape, the king of Tara saw the solitary fire flaring on the top of
the hill of Slane, and in consternation he asked his wise men what that
light meant. They warned him of the danger that it betokened for the
ancient faith of Erin.[387] In spite of the difference of date between
Easter and Beltane, we may suspect that the new fire annually kindled
with solemn ceremony about Easter in the king of Ireland's palace at
Tara was no other than the Beltane fire. We have seen that in the
Highlands of Scotland down to modern times it was customary to
extinguish all fires in the neighbourhood before proceeding to kindle
the sacred flame.[388] The Irish historian Geoffrey Keating, who wrote
in the first part of the seventeenth century, tells us that the men of
Ireland held a great fair every year in the month of May at Uisnech
(_Ushnagh_) in the county of Meath, "and at it they were wont to
exchange their goods and their wares and their jewels. At it, they were,
also, wont to make a sacrifice to the Arch-God that they adored, whose
name was Bel (_bayl_). It was, likewise, their usage to light two fires
to Bel, in every district of Ireland, at this season, and to drive a
pair of each kind of cattle that the district contained, between those
two fires, as a preservative to guard them against all the diseases of
that year. It is from that fire, thus made in honour of Bel, that the
day [the first of May] on which the noble feast of the apostles, Philip
and James, is held, has been called Beltaini, or Bealtaine
(_Bayltinnie_); for Beltaini is the same as Beil-teine, i.e. Teine Bheil
(_Tinnie Vayl_) or Bel's Fire."[389] The custom of driving cattle
through or between fires on May Day or the eve of May Day persisted in
Ireland down to a time within living memory. Thus Sir John Rhys was
informed by a Manxman that an Irish cattle-dealer of his acquaintance
used to drive his cattle through fire on May Day so as to singe them a
little, since he believed that it would preserve them from harm. When
the Manxman was asked where the dealer came from, he answered, "From the
mountains over there," pointing to the Mourne Mountains then looming
faintly in the mists on the western horizon.[390]

[Fires on the Eve of May Day in Sweden; fires on the Eve of May Day in
Austria and Saxony for the purpose of burning the witches.]

The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and
southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires,
which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all
the hills and knolls. Every large hamlet has its own fire, round which
the young people dance in a ring. The old folk notice whether the flames
incline to the north or to the south. In the former case, the spring
will be cold and backward; in the latter, it will be mild and
genial.[391] Similarly, in Bohemia, on the eve of May Day, young people
kindle fires on hills and eminences, at crossways, and in pastures, and
dance round them. They leap over the glowing embers or even through the
flames. The ceremony is called "burning the witches." In some places an
effigy representing a witch used to be burnt in the bonfire.[392] We
have to remember that the eve of May Day is the notorious Walpurgis
Night, when the witches are everywhere speeding unseen through the air
on their hellish errands. On this witching night children in Voigtland
also light bonfires on the heights and leap over them. Moreover, they
wave burning brooms or toss them into the air. So far as the light of
the bonfire reaches, so far will a blessing rest on the fields. The
kindling of the fires on Walpurgis Night is called "driving away the
witches."[393] The custom of kindling fires on the eve of May Day
(Walpurgis Night) for the purpose of burning the witches is, or used to
be, widespread in the Tyrol, Moravia, Saxony and Silesia.[394]

Sec. 4. _The Midsummer Fires_

[The great season for fire-festivals in Europe is the summer solstice,
Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Day, which the church has dedicated to St.
John the Baptist; the bonfires, the torches, and the burning wheels of
the festival.]

But the season at which these fire-festivals have been mostly generally
held all over Europe is the summer solstice, that is Midsummer Eve (the
twenty-third of June) or Midsummer Day (the twenty-fourth of June). A
faint tinge of Christianity has been given to them by naming Midsummer
Day after St. John the Baptist, but we cannot doubt that the celebration
dates from a time long before the beginning of our era. The summer
solstice, or Midsummer Day, is the great turning-point in the sun's
career, when, after climbing higher and higher day by day in the sky,
the luminary stops and thenceforth retraces his steps down the heavenly
road. Such a moment could not but be regarded with anxiety by primitive
man so soon as he began to observe and ponder the courses of the great
lights across the celestial vault; and having still to learn his own
powerlessness in face of the vast cyclic changes of nature, he may have
fancied that he could help the sun in his seeming decline--could prop
his failing steps and rekindle the sinking flame of the red lamp in his
feeble hand. In some such thoughts as these the midsummer festivals of
our European peasantry may perhaps have taken their rise. Whatever their
origin, they have prevailed all over this quarter of the globe, from
Ireland on the west to Russia on the east, and from Norway and Sweden on
the north to Spain and Greece on the south.[395] According to a mediaeval
writer, the three great features of the midsummer celebration were the
bonfires, the procession with torches round the fields, and the custom
of rolling a wheel. He tells us that boys burned bones and filth of
various kinds to make a foul smoke, and that the smoke drove away
certain noxious dragons which at this time, excited by the summer heat,
copulated in the air and poisoned the wells and rivers by dropping their
seed into them; and he explains the custom of trundling a wheel to mean
that the sun, having now reached the highest point in the ecliptic,
begins thenceforward to descend.[396]

[T. Kirchmeyer's description of the Midsummer Festival.]

A good general account of the midsummer customs, together with some of
the reasons popularly alleged for observing them, is given by Thomas
Kirchmeyer, a writer of the sixteenth century, in his poem _The Popish

"_Then doth the joyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
When bonfiers great with loftie flame, in every towne doe burne;
And yong men round about with maides, doe daunce in every streete,
With garlands wrought of Motherwort, or else with Vervain sweete,
And many other flowres faire, with Violets in their handes,
Whereas they all do fondly thinke, that whosoever standes,
And thorow the flowres beholds the flame, his eyes shall feele no paine.
When thus till night they daunced have, they through the fire amaine
With striving mindes doe runne, and all their hearbes they cast therin,
And then with wordes devout and prayers, they solemnely begin,
Desiring God that all their illes may there consumed bee,
Whereby they thinke through all that yeare from Agues to be free.
Some others get a rotten wheele, all worne and cast aside,
Which covered round about with strawe, and tow, they closely hide:
And caryed to some mountaines top, being all with fire light,
They hurle it downe with violence, when darke appeares the night:
Resembling much the Sunne, that from the heavens downe should fal,
A straunge and monstrous sight it seemes, and fearfull to them all;
But they suppose their mischiefes all are likewise throwne to hell,
And that from harmes and daungers now, in safetie here they dwell_."[397]

From these general descriptions, which to some extent still hold good,
or did so till lately, we see that the main features of the midsummer
fire-festival resemble those which we have found to characterize the
vernal festivals of fire. The similarity of the two sets of ceremonies
will plainly appear from the following examples.

[The Midsummer fires in Germany; the celebration at Konz on the Moselle:
the rolling of a burning wheel down hill.]

A writer of the first half of the sixteenth century informs us that in
almost every village and town of Germany public bonfires were kindled on
the Eve of St. John, and young and old, of both sexes, gathered about
them and passed the time in dancing and singing. People on this occasion
wore chaplets of mugwort and vervain, and they looked at the fire
through bunches of larkspur which they held in their hands, believing
that this would preserve their eyes in a healthy state throughout the
year. As each departed, he threw the mugwort and vervain into the fire,
saying, "May all my ill-luck depart and be burnt up with these."[398] At
Lower Konz, a village prettily situated on a hillside overlooking the
Moselle, in the midst of a wood of walnut-trees and fruit-trees, the
midsummer festival used to be celebrated as follows. A quantity of straw
was collected on the top of the steep Stromberg Hill. Every inhabitant,
or at least every householder, had to contribute his share of straw to
the pile; a recusant was looked at askance, and if in the course of the
year he happened to break a leg or lose a child, there was not a gossip
in the village but knew the reason why. At nightfall the whole male
population, men and boys, mustered on the top of the hill; the women and
girls were not allowed to join them, but had to take up their position
at a certain spring half-way down the slope. On the summit stood a huge
wheel completely encased in some of the straw which had been jointly
contributed by the villagers; the rest of the straw was made into
torches. From each side of the wheel the axle-tree projected about three
feet, thus furnishing handles to the lads who were to guide it in its
descent. The mayor of the neighbouring town of Sierck, who always
received a basket of cherries for his services, gave the signal; a
lighted torch was applied to the wheel, and as it burst into flame, two
young fellows, strong-limbed and swift of foot, seized the handles and
began running with it down the slope. A great shout went up. Every man
and boy waved a blazing torch in the air, and took care to keep it
alight so long as the wheel was trundling down the hill. Some of them
followed the fiery wheel, and watched with amusement the shifts to which
its guides were put in steering it round the hollows and over the broken
ground on the mountainside. The great object of the young men who guided
the wheel was to plunge it blazing into the water of the Moselle; but
they rarely succeeded in their efforts, for the vineyards which cover
the greater part of the declivity impeded their progress, and the wheel
was often burned out before it reached the river. As it rolled past the
women and girls at the spring, they raised cries of joy which were
answered by the men on the top of the mountain; and the shouts were
echoed by the inhabitants of neighbouring villages who watched the
spectacle from their hills on the opposite bank of the Moselle. If the
fiery wheel was successfully conveyed to the bank of the river and
extinguished in the water, the people looked for an abundant vintage
that year, and the inhabitants of Konz had the right to exact a
waggon-load of white wine from the surrounding vineyards. On the other
hand, they believed that, if they neglected to perform the ceremony, the
cattle would be attacked by giddiness and convulsions and would dance in
their stalls.[399]

[The Midsummer fires in Bavaria; Cattle driven through the fire; the new
fire; omens of the harvest drawn from the fires; burning discs thrown
into the air.]

Down at least to the middle of the nineteenth century the midsummer
fires used to blaze all over Upper Bavaria. They were kindled especially
on the mountains, but also far and wide in the lowlands, and we are told
that in the darkness and stillness of night the moving groups, lit up by
the flickering glow of the flames, presented an impressive spectacle. In
some places the people shewed their sense of the sanctity of the fires
by using for fuel the trees past which the gay procession had defiled,
with fluttering banners, on Corpus Christi Day. In others the children
collected the firewood from door to door on the eve of the festival,
singing their request for fuel at every house in doggerel verse. Cattle
were driven through the fire to cure the sick animals and to guard such
as were sound against plague and harm of every kind throughout the year.
Many a householder on that day put out the fire on the domestic hearth
and rekindled it by means of a brand taken from the midsummer bonfire.
The people judged of the height to which the flax would grow in the year
by the height to which the flames of the bonfire rose; and whoever
leaped over the burning pile was sure not to suffer from backache in
reaping the corn at harvest. But it was especially the practice for
lovers to spring over the fire hand in hand, and the way in which each
couple made the leap was the subject of many a jest and many a
superstition. In one district the custom of kindling the bonfires was
combined with that of lighting wooden discs and hurling them in the air
after the manner which prevails at some of the spring festivals.[400] In
many parts of Bavaria it was believed that the flax would grow as high
as the young people leaped over the fire.[401] In others the old folk
used to plant three charred sticks from the bonfire in the fields,
believing that this would make the flax grow tall.[402] Elsewhere an
extinguished brand was put in the roof of the house to protect it
against fire. In the towns about Wuerzburg the bonfires used to be
kindled in the market-places, and the young people who jumped over them
wore garlands of flowers, especially of mugwort and vervain, and carried
sprigs of larkspur in their hands. They thought that such as looked at
the fire holding a bit of larkspur before their face would be troubled
by no malady of the eyes throughout the year.[403] Further, it was
customary at Wuerzburg, in the sixteenth century, for the bishop's
followers to throw burning discs of wood into the air from a mountain
which overhangs the town. The discs were discharged by means of flexible
rods, and in their flight through the darkness presented the appearance
of fiery dragons.[404]

[The Midsummer fires in Swabia; omens drawn from the leaps over the
fires; burning wheels rolled down hill; burning the Angel-Man at

In the valley of the Lech, which divides Upper Bavaria from Swabia, the
midsummer customs and beliefs are, or used to be, very similar. Bonfires
are kindled on the mountains on Midsummer Day; and besides the bonfire a
tall beam, thickly wrapt in straw and surmounted by a cross-piece, is
burned in many places. Round this cross as it burns the lads dance with
loud shouts; and when the flames have subsided, the young people leap
over the fire in pairs, a young man and a young woman together. If they
escape unsmirched, the man will not suffer from fever, and the girl will
not become a mother within the year. Further, it is believed that the
flax will grow that year as high as they leap over the fire; and that if
a charred billet be taken from the fire and stuck in a flax-field it
will promote the growth of the flax.[405] Similarly in Swabia, lads and
lasses, hand in hand, leap over the midsummer bonfire, praying that the
hemp may grow three ells high, and they set fire to wheels of straw and
send them rolling down the hill. Among the places where burning wheels
were thus bowled down hill at Midsummer were the Hohenstaufen mountains
in Wurtemberg and the Frauenberg near Gerhausen.[406] At Deffingen, in
Swabia, as the people sprang over the midsummer bonfire they cried out,
"Flax, flax! may the flax this year grow seven ells high!"[407] At
Rottenburg in Swabia, down to the year 1807 or 1808, the festival was
marked by some special features. About mid-day troops of boys went about
the town begging for firewood at the houses. In each troop there were
three leaders, one of whom carried a dagger, a second a paper banner,
and a third a white plate covered with a white cloth. These three
entered each house and recited verses, in which they expressed an
intention of roasting Martin Luther and sending him to the devil; and
for this meritorious service they expected to be paid, the contributions
being received in the cloth-covered plate. In the evening they counted
up their money and proceeded to "behead the Angel-man." For this
ceremony an open space was chosen, sometimes in the middle of the town.
Here a stake was thrust into the ground and straw wrapt about it, so as
to make a rude effigy of human form with arms, head, and face. Every boy
brought a handful of nosegays and fastened them to the straw-man, who
was thus enveloped in flowers. Fuel was heaped about the stake and set
on fire. When the Angel-man, as the straw-effigy was called, blazed up,
all the boys of the neighbourhood, who had gathered expectantly around,
fell upon him with their wooden swords and hewed him to pieces. As soon
as he had vanished in smoke and flame, the lads leaped backward and
forward over the glowing embers, and later in the evening they feasted
on the proceeds of their collection.[408] Here the Angel-man burnt in
the fire appears to be identified with Martin Luther, to whom, as we
have seen, allusion was made during the house-to-house visitation. The
identification was probably modern, for we may assume that the custom of
burning an effigy in the Midsummer bonfire is far older than the time of

[The Midsummer fires in Baden; omens drawn from leaps over the fires;
burning discs thrown into the air; Midsummer fires in Alsace, Lorraine,
the Eifel, the Harz districts and Thuringia; burning barrel swung round
a pole.]

In Baden the children used to collect fuel from house to house for the
Midsummer bonfire on St. John's Day; and lads and lasses leaped over the
fire in couples. Here, as elsewhere, a close connexion was traced
between these bonfires and the harvest. In some places it was thought
that those who leaped over the fires would not suffer from backache at
reaping. Sometimes, as the young folk sprang over the flames, they
cried, "Grow, that the hemp may be three ells high!" This notion that
the hemp or the corn would grow as high as the flames blazed or as the
people jumped over them, seems to have been widespread in Baden. It was
held that the parents of the young people who bounded highest over the
fire would have the most abundant harvest; and on the other hand, if a
man contributed nothing to the bonfire, it was imagined that there would
be no blessing on his crops, and that his hemp in particular would never
grow.[409] In the neighbourhood of Buehl and Achern the St. John's fires
were kindled on the tops of hills; only the unmarried lads of the
village brought the fuel, and only the unmarried young men and women
sprang through the flames. But most of the villagers, old and young,
gathered round the bonfires, leaving a clear space for the leapers to
take their run. One of the bystanders would call out the names of a pair
of sweethearts; on which the two would step out from the throng, take
each other by the hand, and leap high and lightly through the swirling
smoke and flames, while the spectators watched them critically and drew
omens of their married life from the height to which each of them
bounded. Such an invitation to jump together over the bonfire was
regarded as tantamount to a public betrothal.[410] Near Offenburg, in
the Black Forest, on Midsummer Day the village boys used to collect
faggots and straw on some steep and conspicuous height, and they spent
some time in making circular wooden discs by slicing the trunk of a
pine-tree across. When darkness had fallen, they kindled the bonfire,
and then, as it blazed up, they lighted the discs at it, and, after
swinging them to and fro at the end of a stout and supple hazel-wand,
they hurled them one after the other, whizzing and flaming, into the
air, where they described great arcs of fire, to fall at length, like
shooting-stars, at the foot of the mountain.[411] In many parts of
Alsace and Lorraine the midsummer fires still blaze annually or did so
not very many years ago.[412] At Speicher in the Eifel, a district which
lies on the middle Rhine, to the west of Coblentz, a bonfire used to be
kindled in front of the village on St. John's Day, and all the young
people had to jump over it. Those who failed to do so were not allowed
to join the rest in begging for eggs from house to house. Where no eggs
were given, they drove a wedge into the keyhole of the door. On this day
children in the Eifel used also to gather flowers in the fields, weave
them into garlands, and throw the garlands on the roofs or hang them on
the doors of the houses. So long as the flowers remained there, they
were supposed to guard the house from fire and lightning.[413] In the
southern Harz district and in Thuringia the Midsummer or St. John's
fires used to be commonly lighted down to about the middle of the
nineteenth century, and the custom has probably not died out. At
Edersleben, near Sangerhausen, a high pole was planted in the ground and
a tar-barrel was hung from it by a chain which reached to the ground.
The barrel was then set on fire and swung round the pole amid shouts of

[Midsummer fires kindled by the friction of wood in Germany and
Switzerland; driving away demons and witches.]

According to one account, German tradition required that the midsummer
fire should be lighted, not from a common hearth, but by the friction of
two sorts of wood, namely oak and fir.[415] In some old farm-houses of
the Surenthal and Winenthal, in Switzerland, a couple of holes or a
whole row of them may be seen facing each other in the door-posts of the
barn or stable. Sometimes the holes are smooth and round; sometimes they
are deeply burnt and blackened. The explanation of them is this. About
midsummer, but especially on Midsummer Day, two such holes are bored
opposite each other, into which the extremities of a strong pole are
fixed. The holes are then stuffed with tow steeped in resin and oil; a
rope is looped round the pole, and two young men, who must be brothers
or must have the same baptismal name, and must be of the same age, pull
the ends of the rope backwards and forwards so as to make the pole
revolve rapidly, till smoke and sparks issue from the two holes in the
door-posts. The sparks are caught and blown up with tinder, and this is
the new and pure fire, the appearance of which is greeted with cries of
joy. Heaps of combustible materials are now ignited with the new fire,
and blazing bundles are placed on boards and sent floating down the
brook. The boys light torches at the new fire and run to fumigate the
pastures. This is believed to drive away all the demons and witches that
molest the cattle. Finally the torches are thrown in a heap on the
meadow and allowed to burn out. On their way back the boys strew the
ashes over the fields, which is supposed to make them fertile. If a
farmer has taken possession of a new house, or if servants have changed
masters, the boys fumigate the new abode and are rewarded by the farmer
with a supper.[416]

[Midsummer fires in Silesia; scaring away the witches.]

In Silesia, from the south-eastern part of the Sudeten range and
north-westward as far as Lausitz, the mountains are ablaze with bonfires
on Midsummer Eve; and from the valleys and the plains round about
Leobschuetz, Neustadt, Zuelz, Oels, and other places answering fires
twinkle through the deepening gloom. While they are smouldering and
sending forth volumes of smoke across the fields, young men kindle
broom-stumps, soaked in pitch, at the bonfires and then, brandishing the
stumps, which emit showers of sparks, they chase one another or dance
with the girls round the burning pile. Shots, too, are fired, and shouts
raised. The fire, the smoke, the shots, and the shouts are all intended
to scare away the witches, who are let loose on this witching day, and
who would certainly work harm to the crops and the cattle, if they were
not deterred by these salutary measures. Mere contact with the fire
brings all sorts of blessings. Hence when the bonfire is burning low,
the lads leap over it, and the higher they bound, the better is the luck
in store for them. He who surpasses his fellows is the hero of the day
and is much admired by the village girls. It is also thought to be very
good for the eyes to stare steadily at the bonfire without blinking;
moreover he who does so will not drowse and fall asleep betimes in the
long winter evenings. On Midsummer Eve the windows and doors of houses
in Silesia are crowned with flowers, especially with the blue
cornflowers and the bright corn-cockles; in some villages long strings
of garlands and nosegays are stretched across the streets. The people
believe that on that night St. John comes down from heaven to bless the
flowers and to keep all evil things from house and home.[417]

[The Midsummer fires in Denmark and Norway; keeping off the witches; the
Midsummer fires in Sweden.]

In Denmark and Norway also Midsummer fires were kindled on St. John's
Eve on roads, open spaces, and hills. People in Norway thought that the
fires banished sickness from among the cattle.[418] Even yet the fires
are said to be lighted all over Norway on the night of June the
twenty-third, Midsummer Eve, Old Style. As many as fifty or sixty
bonfires may often be counted burning on the hills round Bergen.
Sometimes fuel is piled on rafts, ignited, and allowed to drift blazing
across the fiords in the darkness of night. The fires are thought to be
kindled in order to keep off the witches, who are said to be flying from
all parts that night to the Blocksberg, where the big witch lives.[419]
In Sweden the Eve of St. John (St. Hans) is the most joyous night of the
whole year. Throughout some parts of the country, especially in the
provinces of Bohus and Scania and in districts bordering on Norway, it
is celebrated by the frequent discharge of firearms and by huge
bonfires, formerly called Balder's Balefires (_Balder's Balar_), which
are kindled at dusk on hills and eminences and throw a glare of light
over the surrounding landscape. The people dance round the fires and
leap over or through them. In parts of Norrland on St. John's Eve the
bonfires are lit at the cross-roads. The fuel consists of nine different
sorts of wood, and the spectators cast into the flames a kind of
toad-stool (_Baeran_) in order to counteract the power of the Trolls and
other evil spirits, who are believed to be abroad that night; for at
that mystic season the mountains open and from their cavernous depths
the uncanny crew pours forth to dance and disport themselves for a time.
The peasants believe that should any of the Trolls be in the vicinity
they will shew themselves; and if an animal, for example a he or she
goat, happens to be seen near the blazing, crackling pile, the peasants
are firmly persuaded that it is no other than the Evil One in
person.[420] Further, it deserves to be remarked that in Sweden St.
John's Eve is a festival of water as well as of fire; for certain holy
springs are then supposed to be endowed with wonderful medicinal
virtues, and many sick people resort to them for the healing of their

[The Midsummer fires in Switzerland and Austria; effigies burnt in the
fires; burning wheels rolled down hill.]

In Switzerland on Midsummer Eve fires are, or used to be, kindled on
high places in the cantons of Bern, Neuchatel, Valais, and Geneva.[422]
In Austria the midsummer customs and superstitions resemble those of
Germany. Thus in some parts of the Tyrol bonfires are kindled and
burning discs hurled into the air.[423] In the lower valley of the Inn a
taterdemalian effigy is carted about the village on Midsummer Day and
then burned. He is called the _Lotter_, which has been corrupted into
Luther. At Ambras, one of the villages where Martin Luther is thus
burned in effigy, they say that if you go through the village between
eleven and twelve on St. John's Night and wash yourself in three wells,
you will see all who are to die in the following year.[424] At Gratz on
St. John's Eve (the twenty-third of June) the common people used to make
a puppet called the _Tatermann_, which they dragged to the bleaching
ground, and pelted with burning besoms till it took fire.[425] At
Reutte, in the Tyrol, people believed that the flax would grow as high
as they leaped over the midsummer bonfire, and they took pieces of
charred wood from the fire and stuck them in their flax-fields the same
night, leaving them there till the flax harvest had been got in.[426] In
Lower Austria fires are lit in the fields, commonly in front of a cross,
and the people dance and sing round them and throw flowers into the
flames. Before each handful of flowers is tossed into the fire, a set
speech is made; then the dance is resumed and the dancers sing in chorus
the last words of the speech. At evening bonfires are kindled on the
heights, and the boys caper round them, brandishing lighted torches
drenched in pitch. Whoever jumps thrice across the fire will not suffer
from fever within the year. Cart-wheels are often smeared with pitch,
ignited, and sent rolling and blazing down the hillsides.[427]

[Midsummer fires in Bohemia; wreaths thrown across the fire; uses made
of the singed wreaths; burning wheels rolled down hill; embers of the
fire stuck in fields, gardens, and houses as a talisman against
lightning and conflagration; use of mugwort; cattle protected against

All over Bohemia bonfires still burn on Midsummer Eve. In the afternoon
boys go about with handcarts from house to house collecting fuel, such
as sticks, brushwood, old besoms, and so forth. They make their request
at each house in rhyming verses, threatening with evil consequences the
curmudgeons who refuse them a dole. Sometimes the young men fell a tall
straight fir in the woods and set it up on a height, where the girls
deck it with nosegays, wreaths of leaves, and red ribbons. Then
brushwood is piled about it, and at nightfall the whole is set on fire.
While the flames break out, the young men climb the tree and fetch down
the wreaths which the girls had placed on it. After that, lads and
lasses stand on opposite sides of the fire and look at one another
through the wreaths to see whether they will be true to each other and
marry within the year. Also the girls throw the wreaths across the
flames to the men, and woe to the awkward swain who fails to catch the
wreath thrown him by his sweetheart. When the blaze has died down, each
couple takes hands, and leaps thrice across the fire. He or she who does
so will be free from ague throughout the year, and the flax will grow as
high as the young folks leap. A girl who sees nine bonfires on Midsummer
Eve will marry before the year is out. The singed wreaths are carried
home and carefully preserved throughout the year. During thunderstorms a
bit of the wreath is burned on the hearth with a prayer; some of it is
given to kine that are sick or calving, and some of it serves to
fumigate house and cattle-stall, that man and beast may keep hale and
well. Sometimes an old cartwheel is smeared with resin, ignited, and
sent rolling down the hill. Often the boys collect all the worn-out
besoms they can get hold of, dip them in pitch, and having set them on
fire wave them about or throw them high into the air. Or they rush down
the hillside in troops, brandishing the flaming brooms and shouting,
only however to return to the bonfire on the summit when the brooms have
burnt out. The stumps of the brooms and embers from the fire are
preserved and stuck in cabbage gardens to protect the cabbages from
caterpillars and gnats. Some people insert charred sticks and ashes from
the bonfire in their sown fields and meadows, in their gardens and the
roofs of their houses, as a talisman against lightning and foul weather;
or they fancy that the ashes placed in the roof will prevent any fire
from breaking out in the house. In some districts they crown or gird
themselves with mugwort while the midsummer fire is burning, for this is
supposed to be a protection against ghosts, witches, and sickness; in
particular, a wreath of mugwort is a sure preventive of sore eyes.
Sometimes the girls look at the bonfires through garlands of wild
flowers, praying the fire to strengthen their eyes and eyelids. She who
does this thrice will have no sore eyes all that year. In some parts of
Bohemia they used to drive the cows through the midsummer fire to guard
them against witchcraft.[428]

[The Midsummer fires in Moravia, Austrian Silesia, and the district of
Cracow; fire kindled by the friction of wood.]

The Germans of Moravia in like manner still light bonfires on open
grounds and high places on Midsummer Eve; and they kindle besoms in the
flames and then stick the charred stumps in the cabbage-fields as a
powerful protection against caterpillars. On the same mystic evening
Moravian girls gather flowers of nine sorts and lay them under their
pillow when they go to sleep; then they dream every one of him who is to
be her partner for life. For in Moravia maidens in their beds as well as
poets by haunted streams have their Midsummer Night's dreams.[429] In
Austrian Silesia the custom also prevails of lighting great bonfires on
hilltops on Midsummer Eve, and here too the boys swing blazing besoms or
hurl them high in the air, while they shout and leap and dance wildly.
Next morning every door is decked with flowers and birchen
saplings.[430] In the district of Cracow, especially towards the
Carpathian Mountains, great fires are kindled by the peasants in the
fields or on the heights at nightfall on Midsummer Eve, which among them
goes by the name of Kupalo's Night. The fire must be kindled by the
friction of two sticks. The young people dance round or leap over it;
and a band of sturdy fellows run a race with lighted torches, the winner
being rewarded with a peacock's feather, which he keeps throughout the
year as a distinction. Cattle also are driven round the fire in the
belief that this is a charm against pestilence and disease of every

[The Midsummer fires among the Slavs of Russia; cattle protected against
witchcraft; the fires lighted by the friction of wood.]

The name of Kupalo's Night, applied in this part of Galicia to Midsummer
Eve, reminds us that we have now passed from German to Slavonic ground;
even in Bohemia the midsummer celebration is common to Slavs and
Germans. We have already seen that in Russia the summer solstice or Eve
of St. John is celebrated by young men and maidens, who jump over a
bonfire in couples carrying a straw effigy of Kupalo in their arms.[432]
In some parts of Russia an image of Kupalo is burnt or thrown into a
stream on St. John's Night.[433] Again, in some districts of Russia the
young folk wear garlands of flowers and girdles of holy herbs when they
spring through the smoke or flames; and sometimes they drive the cattle
also through the fire in order to protect the animals against wizards
and witches, who are then ravenous after milk.[434] In Little Russia a
stake is driven into the ground on St. John's Night, wrapt in straw, and
set on fire. As the flames rise the peasant women throw birchen boughs
into them, saying, "May my flax be as tall as this bough!"[435] In
Ruthenia the bonfires are lighted by a flame procured by the friction of
wood. While the elders of the party are engaged in thus "churning" the
fire, the rest maintain a respectful silence; but when the flame bursts
from the wood, they break forth into joyous songs. As soon as the
bonfires are kindled, the young people take hands and leap in pairs
through the smoke, if not through the flames; and after that the cattle
in their turn are driven through the fire.[436]

[The Midsummer fires in Prussia and Lithuania thought to protect against
witchcraft, thunder, hail, and cattle disease; the fire kindled by the
friction of wood.]

In many parts of Prussia and Lithuania great fires are kindled on
Midsummer Eve. All the heights are ablaze with them, as far as the eye
can see. The fires are supposed to be a protection against witchcraft,
thunder, hail, and cattle disease, especially if next morning the cattle
are driven over the places where the fires burned. Above all, the
bonfires ensure the farmer against the arts of witches, who try to steal
the milk from his cows by charms and spells. That is why next morning
you may see the young fellows who lit the bonfire going from house to
house and receiving jugfuls of milk. And for the same reason they stick
burs and mugwort on the gate or the hedge through which the cows go to
pasture, because that is supposed to be a preservative against
witchcraft.[437] In Masuren, a district of Eastern Prussia inhabited by
a branch of the Polish family, it is the custom on the evening of
Midsummer Day to put out all the fires in the village. Then an oaken
stake is driven into the ground and a wheel is fixed on it as on an
axle. This wheel the villagers, working by relays, cause to revolve with
great rapidity till fire is produced by friction. Every one takes home a
lighted brand from the new fire and with it rekindles the fire on the
domestic hearth.[438] In the sixteenth century Martin of Urzedow, a
Polish priest, denounced the heathen practices of the women who on St.
John's Eve (Midsummer Eve) kindled fires by the friction of wood,
danced, and sang songs in honour of the devil.[439]

[The Midsummer fires among the Letts of Russia; Midsummer Day in ancient

Among the Letts who inhabit the Baltic provinces of Russia the most
joyful festival of the year is held on Midsummer Day. The people drink
and dance and sing and adorn themselves and their houses with flowers
and branches. Chopped boughs of fir are strewn about the rooms, and
leaves are stuck in the roofs. In every farm-yard a birch tree is set
up, and every person of the name of John who enters the farm that day
must break off a twig from the tree and hang up on its branches in
return a small present for the family. When the serene twilight of the
summer night has veiled the landscape, bonfires gleam on all the hills,
and wild shouts of "Ligho! Ligho!" echo from the woods and fields. In
Riga the day is a festival of flowers. From all the neighbourhood the
peasants stream into the city laden with flowers and garlands. A market
of flowers is held in an open square and on the chief bridge over the
river; here wreaths of immortelles, which grow wild in the meadows and
woods, are sold in great profusion and deck the houses of Riga for long
afterwards. Roses, too, are now at the prime of their beauty, and masses
of them adorn the flower-stalls. Till far into the night gay crowds
parade the streets to music or float on the river in gondolas decked
with flowers.[440] So long ago in ancient Rome barges crowned with
flowers and crowded with revellers used to float down the Tiber on
Midsummer Day, the twenty-fourth of June,[441] and no doubt the strains
of music were wafted as sweetly across the water to listeners on the
banks as they still are to the throngs of merrymakers at Riga.

[The Midsummer fires among the South Slavs.]

Bonfires are commonly kindled by the South Slavonian peasantry on
Midsummer Eve, and lads and lasses dance and shout round them in the
usual way. The very names of St. John's Day (_Ivanje_) and the St.
John's fires (_kries_) are said to act like electric sparks on the
hearts and minds of these swains, kindling a thousand wild, merry, and
happy fancies and ideas in their rustic breasts. At Kamenagora in
Croatia the herdsmen throw nine three-year old vines into the bonfire,
and when these burst into flames the young men who are candidates for
matrimony jump through the blaze. He who succeeds in leaping over the
fire without singeing himself will be married within the year. At
Vidovec in Croatia parties of two girls and one lad unite to kindle a
Midsummer bonfire and to leap through the flames; he or she who leaps
furthest will soonest wed. Afterwards lads and lasses dance in separate
rings, but the ring of lads bumps up against the ring of girls and
breaks it, and the girl who has to let go her neighbour's hand will
forsake her true love hereafter.[442] In Servia on Midsummer Eve
herdsmen light torches of birch bark and march round the sheepfolds and
cattle-stalls; then they climb the hills and there allow the torches to
burn out.[443]

[The Midsummer fires among the Magyars of Hungary.]

Among the Magyars in Hungary the midsummer fire-festival is marked by
the same features that meet us in so many parts of Europe. On Midsummer
Eve in many places it is customary to kindle bonfires on heights and to
leap over them, and from the manner in which the young people leap the
bystanders predict whether they will marry soon. At Nograd-Ludany the
young men and women, each carrying a truss of straw, repair to a meadow,
where they pile the straw in seven or twelve heaps and set it on fire.
Then they go round the fire singing, and hold a bunch of iron-wort in
the smoke, while they say, "No boil on my body, no sprain in my foot!"
This holding of the flowers over the flames is regarded, we are told, as
equally important with the practice of walking through the fire barefoot
and stamping it out. On this day also many Hungarian swineherds make
fire by rotating a wheel round a wooden axle wrapt in hemp, and through
the fire thus made they drive their pigs to preserve them from
sickness.[444] In villages on the Danube, where the population is a
cross between Magyar and German, the young men and maidens go to the
high banks of the river on Midsummer Eve; and while the girls post
themselves low down the slope, the lads on the height above set fire to
little wooden wheels and, after swinging them to and fro at the end of a
wand, send them whirling through the air to fall into the Danube. As he
does so, each lad sings out the name of his sweetheart, and she listens
well pleased down below.[445]

[The Midsummer fires among the Esthonians; the Midsummer fires in

The Esthonians of Russia, who, like the Magyars, belong to the great
Turanian family of mankind, also celebrate the summer solstice in the
usual way. On the Eve of St. John all the people of a farm, a village,
or an estate, walk solemnly in procession, the girls decked with
flowers, the men with leaves and carrying bundles of straw under their
arms. The lads carry lighted torches or flaming hoops steeped in tar at
the top of long poles. Thus they go singing to the cattle-sheds, the
granaries, and so forth, and afterwards march thrice round the
dwelling-house. Finally, preceded by the shrill music of the bagpipes
and shawms, they repair to a neighbouring hill, where the materials of a
bonfire have been collected. Tar-barrels filled with combustibles are
hung on poles, or the trunk of a felled tree has been set up with a
great mass of juniper piled about it in the form of a pyramid. When a
light has been set to the pile, old and young gather about it and pass
the time merrily with song and music till break of day. Every one who
comes brings fresh fuel for the fire, and they say, "Now we all gather
together, where St. John's fire burns. He who comes not to St. John's
fire will have his barley full of thistles, and his oats full of weeds."
Three logs are thrown into the fire with special ceremony; in throwing
the first they say, "Gold of pleasure (a plant with yellow flowers) into
the fire!" in throwing the second they say, "Weeds to the unploughed
land!" but in throwing the third they cry, "Flax on my field!" The fire
is said to keep the witches from the cattle.[446] According to others,
it ensures that for the whole year the milk shall be "as pure as silver
and as the stars in the sky, and the butter as yellow as the sun and the
fire and the gold."[447] In the Esthonian island of Oesel, while they
throw fuel into the midsummer fire, they call out, "Weeds to the fire,
flax to the field," or they fling three billets into the flames, saying,
"Flax grow long!" And they take charred sticks from the bonfire home
with them and keep them to make the cattle thrive. In some parts of the
island the bonfire is formed by piling brushwood and other combustibles
round a tree, at the top of which a flag flies. Whoever succeeds in
knocking down the flag with a pole before it begins to burn will have
good luck. Formerly the festivities lasted till daybreak, and ended in
scenes of debauchery which looked doubly hideous by the growing light of
a summer morning.[448]

[The Midsummer fires among the Finns and Cheremiss of Russia.]

Still farther north, among a people of the same Turanian stock, we learn
from an eye-witness that Midsummer Night used to witness a sort of
witches' sabbath on the top of every hill in Finland. The bonfire was
made by setting up four tall birches in a square and piling the
intermediate space with fuel. Round the roaring flames the people sang
and drank and gambolled in the usual way.[449] Farther east, in the
valley of the Volga, the Cheremiss celebrate about midsummer a festival
which Haxthausen regarded as identical with the midsummer ceremonies of
the rest of Europe. A sacred tree in the forest, generally a tall and
solitary oak, marks the scene of the solemnity. All the males assemble
there, but no woman may be present. A heathen priest lights seven fires
in a row from north-west to south-east; cattle are sacrificed and their
blood poured in the fires, each of which is dedicated to a separate
deity. Afterwards the holy tree is illumined by lighted candles placed
on its branches; the people fall on their knees and with faces bowed to
the earth pray that God would be pleased to bless them, their children,
their cattle, and their bees, grant them success in trade, in travel,
and in the chase, enable them to pay the Czar's taxes, and so

[The Midsummer fires in France; Bossuet on the Midsummer festival.]

When we pass from the east to the west of Europe we still find the
summer solstice celebrated with rites of the same general character.
Down to about the middle of the nineteenth century the custom of
lighting bonfires at midsummer prevailed so commonly in France that
there was hardly a town or a village, we are told, where they were not
kindled.[451] Though the pagan origin of the custom may be regarded as
certain, the Catholic Church threw a Christian cloak over it by boldly
declaring that the bonfires were lit in token of the general rejoicing
at the birth of the Baptist, who opportunely came into the world at the
solstice of summer, just as his greater successor did at the solstice of
winter; so that the whole year might be said to revolve on the golden
hinges of these two great birthdays.[452] Writing in the seventeenth
century Bishop Bossuet expressly affirms this edifying theory of the
Midsummer bonfires, and he tells his catechumens that the Church herself
participated in the illumination, since in several dioceses, including
his own diocese of Meaux, a number of parishes kindled what were called
ecclesiastical fires for the purpose of banishing the superstitions
practised at the purely mundane bonfires. These superstitions, he goes
on to say, consisted in dancing round the fire, playing, feasting,
singing ribald songs, throwing herbs across the fire, gathering herbs at
noon or while fasting, carrying them on the person, preserving them
throughout the year, keeping brands or cinders of the fire, and other
similar practices.[453] However excellent the intentions of the
ecclesiastical authorities may have been, they failed of effecting their
purpose; for the superstitions as well as the bonfires survived in
France far into the nineteenth century, if indeed they are extinct even
now at the beginning of the twentieth. Writing in the latter part of the
nineteenth century Mr. Ch. Cuissard tells us that he himself witnessed
in Touraine and Poitou the superstitious practices which he describes as
follows: "The most credulous examine the ways in which the flame burns
and draw good or bad omens accordingly. Others, after leaping through
the flames crosswise, pass their little children through them thrice,
fully persuaded that the little ones will then be able to walk at once.
In some places the shepherds make their sheep tread the embers of the
extinct fire in order to preserve them from the foot-rot. Here you may
see about midnight an old woman grubbing among the cinders of the pyre
to find the hair of the Holy Virgin or Saint John, which she deems an
infallible specific against fever. There, another woman is busy plucking
the roots of the herbs which have been burned on the surface of the
ground; she intends to eat them, imagining that they are an infallible
preservative against cancer. Elsewhere a girl wears on her neck a flower
which the touch of St. John's fire has turned for her into a talisman,
and she is sure to marry within the year. Shots are fired at the tree
planted in the midst of the fire to drive away the demons who might
purpose to send sicknesses about the country. Seats are set round about
the bonfire, in order that the souls of dead relations may come and
enjoy themselves for a little with the living."[454]

[The Midsummer fires in Brittany; uses made of the charred sticks and

In Brittany, apparently, the custom of the Midsummer bonfires is kept up
to this day. Thus in Lower Brittany every town and every village still
lights its _tantad_ or bonfire on St. John's Night. When the flames have
died down, the whole assembly kneels round about the bonfire and an old
man prays aloud. Then they all rise and march thrice round the fire; at
the third turn they stop and every one picks up a pebble and throws it
on the burning pile. After that they disperse.[455] In Finistere the
bonfires of St. John's Day are kindled by preference in an open space
near a chapel of St. John; but if there is no such chapel, they are
lighted in the square facing the parish church and in some districts at
cross-roads. Everybody brings fuel for the fire, it may be a faggot, a
log, a branch, or an armful of gorse. When the vespers are over, the
parish priest sets a light to the pile. All heads are bared, prayers
recited, and hymns sung. Then the dancing begins. The young folk skip
round the blazing pile and leap over it, when the flames have died down.
If anybody makes a false step and falls or rolls in the hot embers, he
or she is greeted with hoots and retires abashed from the circle of
dancers. Brands are carried home from the bonfire to protect the houses
against lightning, conflagrations, and certain maladies and spells. The
precious talisman is carefully kept in a cupboard till St. John's Day of
the following year.[456] At Quimper, and in the district of Leon, chairs
used to be placed round the midsummer bonfire, that the souls of the
dead might sit on them and warm themselves at the blaze.[457] At Brest
on this day thousands of people used to assemble on the ramparts towards
evening and brandish lighted torches, which they swung in circles or
flung by hundreds into the air. The closing of the town gates put an end
to the spectacle, and the lights might be seen dispersing in all
directions like wandering will-o'-the-wisps.[458] In Upper Brittany the
materials for the midsummer bonfires, which generally consist of bundles
of furze and heath, are furnished by voluntary contributions, and piled
on the tops of hills round poles, each of which is surmounted by a
nosegay or a crown. This nosegay or crown is generally provided by a man
named John or a woman named Jean, and it is always a John or a Jean who
puts a light to the bonfire. While the fire is blazing the people dance
and sing round it, and when the flames have subsided they leap over the
glowing embers. Charred sticks from the bonfire are thrown into wells to
improve the water, and they are also taken home as a protection against
thunder.[459] To make them thoroughly effective, however, against
thunder and lightning you should keep them near your bed, between a bit
of a Twelfth Night cake and a sprig of boxwood which has been blessed on
Palm Sunday.[460] Flowers from the nosegay or crown which overhung the
fire are accounted charms against disease and pain, both bodily and
spiritual; hence girls hang them at their breast by a thread of scarlet
wool. In many parishes of Brittany the priest used to go in procession
with the crucifix and kindle the bonfire with his own hands; and farmers
were wont to drive their flocks and herds through the fire in order to
preserve them from sickness till midsummer of the following year. Also
it was believed that every girl who danced round nine of the bonfires
would marry within the year.[461]

[The Midsummer fires in Normandy; the fires as a protection against
witchcraft; the Brotherhood of the Green Wolf at Jumieges; pretence of
throwing the Green Wolf into the fire.]

In Normandy the midsummer fires have now almost disappeared, at least in
the district known as the Bocage, but they used to shine on every hill.
They were commonly made by piling brushwood, broom, and ferns about a
tall tree, which was decorated with a crown of moss and sometimes with
flowers. While they burned, people danced and sang round them, and young
folk leaped over the flames or the glowing ashes. In the valley of the
Orne the custom was to kindle the bonfire just at the moment when the
sun was about to dip below the horizon; and the peasants drove their
cattle through the fires to protect them against witchcraft, especially
against the spells of witches and wizards who attempted to steal the
milk and butter.[462] At Jumieges in Normandy, down to the first half of
the nineteenth century, the midsummer festival was marked by certain
singular features which bore the stamp of a very high antiquity. Every
year, on the twenty-third of June, the Eve of St. John, the Brotherhood
of the Green Wolf chose a new chief or master, who had always to be
taken from the hamlet of Conihout. On being elected, the new head of the
brotherhood assumed the title of the Green Wolf, and donned a peculiar
costume consisting of a long green mantle and a very tall green hat of a
conical shape and without a brim. Thus arrayed he stalked solemnly at
the head of the brothers, chanting the hymn of St. John, the crucifix
and holy banner leading the way, to a place called Chouquet. Here the
procession was met by the priest, precentors, and choir, who conducted
the brotherhood to the parish church. After hearing mass the company
adjourned to the house of the Green Wolf, where a simple repast, such as
is required by the church on fast-days, was served up to them. Then they
danced before the door till it was time to light the bonfire. Night
being come, the fire was kindled to the sound of hand-bells by a young
man and a young woman, both decked with flowers. As the flames rose, the
_Te Deum_ was sung, and a villager thundered out a parody in the Norman
dialect of the hymn _ut queant laxis_. Meantime the Green Wolf and his
brothers, with their hoods down on their shoulders and holding each
other by the hand, ran round the fire after the man who had been chosen
to be the Green Wolf of the following year. Though only the first and
the last man of the chain had a hand free, their business was to
surround and seize thrice the future Green Wolf, who in his efforts to
escape belaboured the brothers with a long wand which he carried. When
at last they succeeded in catching him they carried him to the burning
pile and made as if they would throw him on it. This ceremony over, they
returned to the house of the Green Wolf, where a supper, still of the
most meagre fare, was set before them. Up till midnight a sort of
religious solemnity prevailed. No unbecoming word might fall from the
lips of any of the company, and a censor, armed with a hand-bell, was
appointed to mark and punish instantly any infraction of the rule. But
at the stroke of twelve all this was changed. Constraint gave way to
license; pious hymns were replaced by Bacchanalian ditties, and the
shrill quavering notes of the village fiddle hardly rose above the roar
of voices that went up from the merry brotherhood of the Green Wolf.
Next day, the twenty-fourth of June or Midsummer Day, was celebrated by
the same personages with the same noisy gaiety. One of the ceremonies
consisted in parading, to the sound of musketry, an enormous loaf of
consecrated bread, which, rising in tiers, was surmounted by a pyramid
of verdure adorned with ribbons. After that the holy handbells,
deposited on the step of the altar, were entrusted as insignia of office
to the man who was to be the Green Wolf next year.[463]

[The Midsummer fires in Picardy.]

In the canton of Breteuil in Picardy (department of Oise) the priest
used to kindle the midsummer bonfire, and the people marched thrice
round it in procession. Some of them took ashes of the fire home with
them to protect the houses against lightning.[464] The custom is, or was
down to recent years, similar at Vorges, near Laon. An enormous pyre,
some fifty or sixty feet high, supported in the middle by a tall pole,
is constructed every year on the twenty-third of June, the Eve of St.
John. It stands at one end of the village, and all the inhabitants
contribute fuel to it: a cart goes round the village in the morning, by
order of the mayor, collecting combustibles from house to house: no one
would dream of refusing to comply with the customary obligation. In the
evening, after a service in honour of St. John has been performed in the
church, the clergy, the mayor, the municipal authorities, the rural
police, and the fire-brigade march in procession to the bonfire,
accompanied by the inhabitants and a crowd of idlers drawn by curiosity
from the neighbouring villages. After addressing the throng in a sermon,
to which they pay little heed, the parish priest sprinkles the pyre with
holy water, and taking a lighted torch from the hand of an assistant
sets fire to the pile. The enormous blaze, flaring up against the dark
sky of the summer night, is seen for many miles around, particularly
from the hill of Laon. When it has died down into a huge heap of glowing
embers and grey ashes, every one carries home a charred stick or some
cinders; and the fire-brigade, playing their hose on what remains,
extinguishes the smouldering fire. The people preserve the charred
sticks and cinders throughout the year, believing that these relics of
St John's bonfire have power to guard them from lightning and from
contagious diseases.[465] At Chateau-Thierry, a town of the department
of Aisne, between Paris and Reims, the custom of lighting bonfires and
dancing round them at the midsummer festival of St. John lasted down to
about 1850; the fires were kindled especially when June had been rainy,
and the people thought that the lighting of the bonfires would cause the
rain to cease.[466]

[The Midsummer fires in Beauce and Perche; the fires as a protection
against witchcraft.]

In Beauce and Perche, two neighbouring districts of France to the
south-west of Paris, the midsummer bonfires have nearly or wholly
disappeared, but formerly they were commonly kindled and went by the
name of the "fires of St. John." The site of the bonfire was either the
village square or beside the cross in the cemetery. Here a great pile of
faggots, brushwood, and grass was accumulated about a huge branch, which
bore at the top a crown of fresh flowers. The priest blessed the bonfire
and the people danced round it. When it blazed and crackled, the
bystanders thrust their heads into the puffs of smoke, in the belief
that it would preserve them from a multitude of ills; and when the fire
was burnt out, they rushed upon the charred embers and ashes and carried
them home, imagining that they had a secret virtue to guard their houses
from being struck by lightning or consumed by fire. Some of the Perche
farmers in the old days, not content with the public bonfire, used to
light little private bonfires in their farmyards and make all their
cattle pass through the smoke and flames for the purpose of protecting
them against witchcraft or disease.[467]

[The Midsummer fires in the Ardennes, the Vosges, and the Jura; the
Midsummer fires in Franche-Comte; the Midsummer fires in Berry and other
parts of Central France.]

In the department of the Ardennes every one was wont to contribute his
faggot to the midsummer bonfire, and the clergy marched at the head of
the procession to kindle it. Failure to light the fires would, in the
popular belief, have exposed the fields to the greatest danger. At Revin
the young folk, besides dancing round the fire to the strains of the
village fiddler, threw garlands of flowers across the flames to each
other.[468] In the Vosges it is still customary to kindle bonfires upon
the hill-tops on Midsummer Eve; the people believe that the fires help
to preserve the fruits of the earth and ensure good crops.[469] In the
Jura Mountains the midsummer bonfires went by the name of _ba_ or
_beau_. They were lit on the most conspicuous points of the
landscape.[470] Near St. Jean, in the Jura, it appears that at this
season young people still repair to the cross-roads and heights, and
there wave burning torches so as to present the appearance of fiery
wheels in the darkness.[471] In Franche-Comte, the province of France
which lies immediately to the west of the Jura mountains, the fires of
St. John still shone on the saint's day in several villages down to
recent years. They were generally lit on high ground and the young folks
of both sexes sang and danced round them, and sprang over the dying
flames.[472] In Bresse bonfires used to be kindled on Midsummer Eve (the
twenty-third of June) and the people danced about them in a circle.
Devout persons, particularly old women, circumambulated the fires
fourteen times, telling their beads and mumbling seven _Paters_ and
seven _Aves_ in the hope that thereby they would feel no pains in their
backs when they stooped over the sickle in the harvest field.[473] In
Berry, a district of Central France, the midsummer fire was lit on the
Eve of St. John and went by the name of the _jonee, joannee_, or
_jouannee_. Every family according to its means contributed faggots,
which were piled round a pole on the highest ground in the
neighbourhood. In the hamlets the office of kindling the fire devolved
on the oldest man, but in the towns it was the priest or the mayor who
discharged the duty. Here, as in Brittany, people supposed that a girl
who had danced round nine of the midsummer bonfires would marry within
the year. To leap several times over the fire was regarded as a sort of
purification which kept off sickness and brought good luck to the
leaper. Hence the nimble youth bounded through the smoke and flames, and
when the fire had somewhat abated parents jumped across it with their
children in their arms in order that the little ones might also partake
of its beneficent influence. Embers from the extinct bonfire were taken
home, and after being dipped in holy water were kept as a talisman
against all kinds of misfortune, but especially against lightning.[474]
The same virtue was ascribed to the ashes and charred sticks of the
midsummer bonfire in Perigord, where everybody contributed his share of
fuel to the pile and the whole was crowned with flowers, especially with
roses and lilies.[475] On the borders of the departments of Creuse and
Correze, in Central France, the fires of St. John used to be lit on the
Eve of the saint's day (the twenty-third of June); the custom seems to
have survived till towards the end of the nineteenth century. Men,
women, and children assembled round the fires, and the young people
jumped over them. Children were brought by their parents or elder
brothers into contact with the flames in the belief that this would save
them from fever. Older people girded themselves with stalks of rye taken
from a neighbouring field, because they fancied that by so doing they
would not grow weary in reaping the corn at harvest.[476]

[The Midsummer fires in Poitou.]

Bonfires were lit in almost all the hamlets of Poitou on the Eve of St.
John. People marched round them thrice, carrying a branch of walnut in
their hand. Shepherdesses and children passed sprigs of mullein
(_verbascum_) and nuts across the flames; the nuts were supposed to cure
toothache, and the mullein to protect the cattle from sickness and
sorcery. When the fire died down people took some of the ashes home with
them, either to keep them in the house as a preservative against thunder
or to scatter them on the fields for the purpose of destroying
corn-cockles and darnel. Stones were also placed round the fire, and it
was believed that the first to lift one of these stones next morning
would find under it the hair of St. John.[477] In Poitou also it used to
be customary on the Eve of St. John to trundle a blazing wheel wrapt in
straw over the fields to fertilize them.[478] This last custom is said
to be now extinct,[479] but it is still usual, or was so down to recent
years, in Poitou to kindle fires on this day at cross-roads or on the
heights. The oldest or youngest person present sets a light to the pile,
which consists of broom, gorse, and heath. A bright and crackling blaze
shoots up, but soon dies down, and over it the young folk leap. They
also throw stones into it, picking the stone according to the size of
the turnips that they wish to have that year. It is said that "the good
Virgin" comes and sits on the prettiest of the stones, and next morning
they see there her beautiful golden tresses. At Lussac, in Poitou, the
lighting of the midsummer bonfire is still an affair of some ceremony. A
pyramid of faggots is piled round a tree or tall pole on the ground
where the fair is held; the priest goes in procession to the spot and
kindles the pile. When prayers have been said and the clergy have
withdrawn, the people continue to march round the fire, telling their
beads, but it is not till the flames have begun to die down that the
youth jump over them. A brand from the midsummer bonfire is supposed to
be a preservative against thunder.[480]

[The Midsummer fires in the departments of Vienne and Deux-Sevres and in
the provinces of Saintonge and Aunis.]

In the department of Vienne the bonfire was kindled by the oldest man,
and before the dance round the flames began it was the custom to pass
across them a great bunch of mullein (_bouillon blanc_) and a branch of
walnut, which next morning before sunrise were fastened over the door of
the chief cattle-shed.[481] A similar custom prevailed in the
neighbouring department of Deux-Sevres; but here it was the priest who
kindled the bonfire, and old men used to put embers of the fire in their
wooden shoes as a preservative against many evils.[482] In some towns
and villages of Saintonge and Aunis, provinces of Western France now
mostly comprised in the department of Charente Inferieure, the fires of
St. John are still kindled on Midsummer Eve, but the custom is neither
so common nor carried out with so much pomp and ceremony as formerly.
Great quantities of wood used to be piled on an open space round about a
huge post or a tree stripped of its leaves and branches. Every one took
care to contribute a faggot to the pile, and the whole population
marched to the spot in procession with the crucifix at their head and
the priest bringing up the rear. The squire, or other person of high
degree, put the torch to the pyre, and the priest blessed it. In the
southern and eastern parts of Saintonge children and cattle were passed
through the smoke of the bonfires to preserve them from contagious
diseases, and when the fire had gone out the people scuffled for the
charred fragments of the great post, which they regarded as talismans
against thunder. Next morning, on Midsummer Day, every shepherdess in
the neighbourhood was up very early, for the first to drive her sheep
over the blackened cinders and ashes of the great bonfire was sure to
have the best flock all that year. Where the shepherds shrunk from
driving their flocks through the smoke and flames of the bonfire they
contented themselves with marking the hinder-quarters of the animals
with a broom which had been blackened in the ashes.[483]

[The Midsummer fires in Southern France; Midsummer festival of fire and
water in Provence; bathing in the sea at Midsummer; temporary Midsummer
kings at Aix and Marseilles.]

In the mountainous part of Comminges, a province of Southern France, now
comprised in the department of Haute Garonne, the midsummer fire is made
by splitting open the trunk of a tall tree, stuffing the crevice with
shavings, and igniting the whole. A garland of flowers is fastened to
the top of the tree, and at the moment when the fire is lighted the man
who was last married has to climb up a ladder and bring the flowers
down. In the flat parts of the same district the materials of the
midsummer bonfires consist of fuel piled in the usual way; but they must
be put together by men who have been married since the last midsummer
festival, and each of these benedicts is obliged to lay a wreath of
flowers on the top of the pile.[484] At the entrance of the valley of
Aran young people set up on the banks of the Garonne a tree covered with
ribbons and garlands; at the end of a year the withered tree and faded
flowers furnish excellent fuel. So on the Eve of St. John the villagers
assemble, and an old man or a child kindles the fire which is to consume
tree and garlands together. While the blaze lasts the people sing and
dance; and the burnt tree is then replaced by another which will suffer
the same fate after the lapse of a year.[485] In some districts of the
French Pyrenees it is deemed necessary to leap nine times over the
midsummer fire if you would be assured of prosperity.[486] A traveller
in Southern France at the beginning of the nineteenth century tells us
that "the Eve of St. John is also a day of joy for the Provencals. They
light great fires and the young folk leap over them. At Aix they shower
squibs and crackers on the passers-by, which has often had disagreeable
consequences. At Marseilles they drench each other with scented water,
which is poured from the windows or squirted from little syringes; the
roughest jest is to souse passers-by with clean water, which gives rise
to loud bursts of laughter."[487] At Draguignan, in the department of
Var, fires used to be lit in every street on the Eve of St. John, and
the people roasted pods of garlic at them; the pods were afterwards
distributed to every family. Another diversion of the evening was to
pour cans of water from the houses on the heads of people in the
streets.[488] In Provence the midsummer fires are still popular.
Children go from door to door begging for fuel, and they are seldom sent
empty away. Formerly the priest, the mayor, and the aldermen used to
walk in procession to the bonfire, and even deigned to light it; after
which the assembly marched thrice round the burning pile, while the
church bells pealed and rockets fizzed and sputtered in the air. Dancing
began later, and the bystanders threw water on each other. At Ciotat,
while the fire was blazing, the young people plunged into the sea and
splashed each other vigorously. At Vitrolles they bathed in a pond in
order that they might not suffer from fever during the year, and at
Saintes-Maries they watered the horses to protect them from the
itch.[489] At Aix a nominal king, chosen from among the youth for his
skill in shooting at a popinjay, presided over the festival. He selected
his own officers, and escorted by a brilliant train marched to the
bonfire, kindled it, and was the first to dance round it. Next day he
distributed largesse to his followers. His reign lasted a year, during
which he enjoyed certain privileges. He was allowed to attend the mass
celebrated by the commander of the Knights of St. John on St. John's
Day: the right of hunting was accorded to him; and soldiers might not be
quartered in his house. At Marseilles also on this day one of the guilds
chose a king of the _badache_ or double axe; but it does not appear that
he kindled the bonfire, which is said to have been lighted with great
ceremony by the prefet and other authorities.[490]

[The Midsummer fires in Belgium; bonfires on St. Peter's Day in Brabant;
the King and Queen of the Roses; effigies burnt in the Midsummer fires.]

In Belgium the custom of kindling the midsummer bonfires has long
disappeared from the great cities, but it is still kept up in rural
districts and small towns of Brabant, Flanders, and Limburg. People leap
across the fires to protect themselves against fever, and in eastern
Flanders women perform similar leaps for the purpose of ensuring an easy
delivery. At Termonde young people go from door to door collecting fuel
for the fires and reciting verses, in which they beg the inmates to give
them "wood of St. John" and to keep some wood for St. Peter's Day (the
twenty-ninth of June); for in Belgium the Eve of St. Peter's Day is
celebrated by bonfires and dances exactly like those which commemorate
St. John's Eve. The ashes of the St. John's fires are deemed by Belgian
peasants an excellent remedy for consumption, if you take a spoonful or
two of them, moistened with water, day by day. People also burn vervain
in the fires, and they say that in the ashes of the plant you may find,
if you look for it, the "Fool's Stone."[491] In many parts of Brabant
St. Peter's bonfire used to be much larger than that of his rival St.
John. When it had burned out, both sexes engaged in a game of ball, and
the winner became the King of Summer or of the Ball and had the right to
choose his Queen. Sometimes the winner was a woman, and it was then her
privilege to select her royal mate. This pastime was well known at
Louvain and it continued to be practised at Grammont and Mespelaer down
to the second half of the nineteenth century. At Mespelaer, which is a
village near Termonde, a huge pile of eglantine, reeds, and straw was
collected in a marshy meadow for the bonfire; and next evening after
vespers the young folk who had lit it assembled at the "Good Life"
tavern to play the game. The winner was crowned with a wreath of roses,
and the rest danced and sang in a ring about him. At Grammont, while the
bonfire was lit and the dances round it took place on St. Peter's Eve,
the festival of the "Crown of Roses" was deferred till the following
Sunday. The young folk arranged among themselves beforehand who should
be King and Queen of the Roses: the rosy wreaths were hung on cords
across the street: the dancers danced below them, and at a given moment
the wreaths fell on the heads of the chosen King and Queen, who had to
entertain their fellows at a feast. According to some people the fires
of St. Peter, like those of St. John, were lighted in order to drive
away dragons.[492] In French Flanders down to 1789 a straw figure
representing a man was always burned in the midsummer bonfire, and the
figure of a woman was burned on St. Peter's Day.[493] In Belgium people
jump over the midsummer bonfires as a preventive of colic, and they keep
the ashes at home to hinder fire from breaking out.[494]

[The Midsummer fires in England; Stow's description of the Midsummer
fires in London; the Midsummer fires at Eton.]

The custom of lighting bonfires at midsummer has been observed in many
parts of our own country. "On the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist,
commonly called Midsummer Eve, it was usual in most country places, and
also in towns and cities, for the inhabitants, both old and young, and
of both sexes, to meet together, and make merry by the side of a large
fire made in the middle of the street, or in some open and convenient
place, over which the young men frequently leaped by way of frolic, and
also exercised themselves with various sports and pastimes, more
especially with running, wrestling, and dancing. These diversions they
continued till midnight, and sometimes till cock-crowing."[495] In the
streets of London the midsummer fires were lighted in the time of Queen
Elizabeth down to the end of the sixteenth century, as we learn from
Stow's description, which runs thus: "In the months of June and July, on
the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the
evenings after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the
streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier
sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out
tables on the vigils furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on
the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they
would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry
with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed
on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst
neighbours that being before at controversy, were there, by the labour
of others, reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; and
also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the
air. On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the
Apostles, every man's door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel,
St John's wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with
garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning
in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought,
containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show,
namely, in New Fish Street, Thames Street, etc."[496] In the sixteenth
century the Eton boys used to kindle a bonfire on the east side of the
church both on St John's Day and on St. Peter's Day.[497] Writing in the
second half of the seventeenth century, the antiquary John Aubrey tells
us that bonfires were still kindled in many places on St. John's Night,
but that the civil wars had thrown many of these old customs out of
fashion. Wars, he adds, extinguish superstition as well as religion and
laws, and there is nothing like gunpowder for putting phantoms to

[The Midsummer fires in the north of England; the Midsummer fires in

In the north of England these fires used to be lit in the open streets.
Young and old gathered round them, and while the young leaped over the
fires and engaged in games, their elders looked on and probably

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