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The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer

Part 17 out of 19

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found to have had their counterparts in yearly rites observed,
whether separately or conjointly, by people in various parts of
Europe. These rites will be described and discussed in the following
chapters. We shall begin with the annual festivals of fire and shall
reserve the pulling of the mistletoe for consideration later on.

LXII. The Fire-Festivals of Europe

1. The Fire-festivals in general

ALL over Europe the peasants have been accustomed from time
immemorial to kindle bonfires on certain days of the year, and to
dance round or leap over them. Customs of this kind can be traced
back on historical evidence to the Middle Ages, and their analogy to
similar customs observed in antiquity goes with strong internal
evidence to prove that their origin must be sought in a period long
prior to the spread of Christianity. Indeed the earliest proof of
their observance in Northern Europe is furnished by the attempts
made by Christian synods in the eighth century to put them down as
heathenish rites. Not uncommonly effigies are burned in these fires,
or a pretence is made of burning a living person in them; and there
are grounds for believing that anciently human beings were actually
burned on these occasions. A brief view of the customs in question
will bring out the traces of human sacrifice, and will serve at the
same time to throw light on their meaning.

The seasons of the year when these bonfires are most commonly lit
are spring and midsummer; but in some places they are kindled also
at the end of autumn or during the course of the winter,
particularly on Hallow E'en (the thirty-first of October), Christmas
Day, and the Eve of Twelfth Day. Space forbids me to describe all
these festivals at length; a few specimens must serve to illustrate
their general character. We shall begin with the fire-festivals of
spring, which usually fall on the first Sunday of Lent
(_Quadragesima_ or _Invocavit_), Easter Eve, and May Day.

2. The Lenten Fires

THE CUSTOM of kindling bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent has
prevailed in Belgium, the north of France, and many parts of
Germany. Thus in the Belgian Ardennes for a week or a fortnight
before the "day of the great fire," as it is called, children go
about from farm to farm collecting fuel. At Grand Halleux any one
who refuses their request is pursued next day by the children, who
try to blacken his face with the ashes of the extinct fire. When the
day has come, they cut down bushes, especially juniper and broom,
and in the evening great bonfires blaze on all the heights. It is a
common saying that seven bonfires should be seen if the village is
to be safe from conflagrations. If the Meuse happens to be frozen
hard at the time, bonfires are lit also on the ice. At Grand Halleux
they set up a pole called _makral,_ or "the witch," in the midst of
the pile, and the fire is kindled by the man who was last married in
the village. In the neighbourhood of Morlanwelz a straw man is burnt
in the fire. Young people and children dance and sing round the
bonfires, and leap over the embers to secure good crops or a happy
marriage within the year, or as a means of guarding themselves
against colic. In Brabant on the same Sunday, down to the beginning
of the nineteenth century, women and men disguised in female attire
used to go with burning torches to the fields, where they danced and
sang comic songs for the purpose, as they alleged, of driving away
"the wicked sower," who is mentioned in the Gospel for the day. At
Pâturages, in the province of Hainaut, down to about 1840 the custom
was observed under the name of _Escouvion_ or _Scouvion._ Every year
on the first Sunday of Lent, which was called the Day of the Little
Scouvion, young folks and children used to run with lighted torches
through the gardens and orchards. As they ran they cried at the
pitch of their voices:

"Bear apples, bear pears, and cherries all black
To Scouvion!"

At these words the torch-bearer whirled his blazing brand and hurled
it among the branches of the apple-trees, the pear-trees, and the
cherry-trees. The next Sunday was called the Day of the Great
Scouvion, and the same race with lighted torches among the trees of
the orchards was repeated in the afternoon till darkness fell.

In the French department of the Ardennes the whole village used to
dance and sing around the bonfires which were lighted on the first
Sunday in Lent. Here, too, it was the person last married, sometimes
a man and sometimes a woman, who put the match to the fire. The
custom is still kept up very commonly in the district. Cats used to
be burnt in the fire or roasted to death by being held over it; and
while they were burning the shepherds drove their flocks through the
smoke and flames as a sure means of guarding them against sickness
and witchcraft. In some communes it was believed that the livelier
the dance round the fire, the better would be the crops that year.

In the French province of Franche-Comté, to the west of the Jura
Mountains, the first Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of the
Firebrands (_Brandons_), on account of the fires which it is
customary to kindle on that day. On the Saturday or the Sunday the
village lads harness themselves to a cart and drag it about the
streets, stopping at the doors of the houses where there are girls
and begging fora faggot. When they have got enough, they cart the
fuel to a spot at some little distance from the village, pile it up,
and set it on fire. All the people of the parish come out to see the
bonfire. In some villages, when the bells have rung the Angelus, the
signal for the observance is given by cries of, "To the fire! to the
fire!" Lads, lasses, and children dance round the blaze, and when
the flames have died down they vie with each other in leaping over
the red embers. He or she who does so without singeing his or her
garments will be married within the year. Young folk also carry
lighted torches about the streets or the fields, and when they pass
an orchard they cry out, "More fruit than leaves!" Down to recent
years at Laviron, in the department of Doubs, it was the young
married couples of the year who had charge of the bonfires. In the
midst of the bonfire a pole was planted with a wooden figure of a
cock fastened to the top. Then there were races, and the winner
received the cock as a prize.

In Auvergne fires are everywhere kindled on the evening of the first
Sunday in Lent. Every village, every hamlet, even every ward, every
isolated farm has its bonfire or _figo,_ as it is called, which
blazes up as the shades of night are falling. The fires may be seen
flaring on the heights and in the plains; the people dance and sing
round about them and leap through the flames. Then they proceed to
the ceremony of the _Grannas-mias._ A _granno-mio_ is a torch of
straw fastened to the top of a pole. When the pyre is half consumed,
the bystanders kindle the torches at the expiring flames and carry
them into the neighbouring orchards, fields, and gardens, wherever
there are fruit-trees. As they march they sing at the top of their
voices, "Granno my friend, Granno my father, Granno my mother." Then
they pass the burning torches under the branches of every tree,

"_Brando, brandounci tsaque brantso, in plan panei!_"

that is, "Firebrand burn; every branch a basketful!" In some
villages the people also run across the sown fields and shake the
ashes of the torches on the ground; also they put some of the ashes
in the fowls' nests, in order that the hens may lay plenty of eggs
throughout the year. When all these ceremonies have been performed,
everybody goes home and feasts; the special dishes of the evening
are fritters and pancakes. Here the application of the fire to the
fruit-trees, to the sown fields, and to the nests of the poultry is
clearly a charm intended to ensure fertility; and the Granno to whom
the invocations are addressed, and who gives his name to the
torches, may possibly be, as Dr. Pommerol suggests, no other than
the ancient Celtic god Grannus, whom the Romans identified with
Apollo, and whose worship is attested by inscriptions found not only
in France but in Scotland and on the Danube.

The custom of carrying lighted torches of straw (_brandons_) about
the orchards and fields to fertilise them on the first Sunday of
Lent seems to have been common in France, whether it was accompanied
with the practice of kindling bonfires or not. Thus in the province
of Picardy "on the first Sunday of Lent people carried torches
through the fields, exorcising the field-mice, the darnel, and the
smut. They imagined that they did much good to the gardens and
caused the onions to grow large. Children ran about the fields,
torch in hand, to make the land more fertile." At Verges, a village
between the Jura and the Combe d'Ain, the torches at this season
were kindled on the top of a mountain, and the bearers went to every
house in the village, demanding roasted peas and obliging all
couples who had been married within the year to dance. In Berry, a
district of Central France, it appears that bonfires are not lighted
on this day, but when the sun has set the whole population of the
villages, armed with blazing torches of straw, disperse over the
country and scour the fields, the vineyards, and the orchards. Seen
from afar, the multitude of moving lights, twinkling in the
darkness, appear like will-o'-the-wisps chasing each other across
the plains, along the hillsides, and down the valleys. While the men
wave their flambeaus about the branches of the fruit-trees, the
women and children tie bands of wheaten-straw round the tree-trunks.
The effect of the ceremony is supposed to be to avert the various
plagues from which the fruits of the earth are apt to suffer; and
the bands of straw fastened round the stems of the trees are
believed to render them fruitful.

In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland at the same season similar
customs have prevailed. Thus in the Eifel Mountains, Rhenish
Prussia, on the first Sunday in Lent young people used to collect
straw and brushwood from house to house. These they carried to an
eminence and piled up round a tall, slim beech-tree, to which a
piece of wood was fastened at right angles to form a cross. The
structure was known as the "hut" or "castle." Fire was set to it and
the young people marched round the blazing "castle" bareheaded, each
carrying a lighted torch and praying aloud. Sometimes a straw-man
was burned in the "hut." People observed the direction in which the
smoke blew from the fire. If it blew towards the corn-fields, it was
a sign that the harvest would be abundant. On the same day, in some
parts of the Eifel, a great wheel was made of straw and dragged by
three horses to the top of the hill. Thither the village boys
marched at nightfall, set fire to the wheel, and sent it rolling
down the slope. At Oberstattfeld the wheel had to be provided by the
young man who was last married. About Echternach in Luxemburg the
same ceremony is called "burning the witch." At Voralberg in the
Tyrol, on the first Sunday in Lent, a slender young fir-tree is
surrounded with a pile of straw and firewood. To the top of the tree
is fastened a human figure called the "witch," made of old clothes
and stuffed with gunpowder. At night the whole is set on fire and
boys and girls dance round it, swinging torches and singing rhymes
in which the words "corn in the winnowing-basket, the plough in the
earth" may be distinguished. In Swabia on the first Sunday in Lent a
figure called the "witch" or the "old wife" or "winter's
grandmother" is made up of clothes and fastened to a pole. This is
stuck in the middle of a pile of wood, to which fire is applied.
While the "witch" is burning, the young people throw blazing discs
into the air. The discs are thin round pieces of wood, a few inches
in diameter, with notched edges to imitate the rays of the sun or
stars. They have a hole in the middle, by which they are attached to
the end of a wand. Before the disc is thrown it is set on fire, the
wand is swung to and fro, and the impetus thus communicated to the
disc is augmented by dashing the rod sharply against a sloping
board. The burning disc is thus thrown off, and mounting high into
the air, describes a long fiery curve before it reaches the ground.
The charred embers of the burned "witch" and discs are taken home
and planted in the flax-fields the same night, in the belief that
they will keep vermin from the fields. In the Rhön Mountains,
situated on the borders of Hesse and Bavaria, the people used to
march to the top of a hill or eminence on the first Sunday in Lent.
Children and lads carried torches, brooms daubed with tar, and poles
swathed in straw. A wheel, wrapt in combustibles, was kindled and
rolled down the hill; and the young people rushed about the fields
with their burning torches and brooms, till at last they flung them
in a heap, and standing round them, struck up a hymn or a popular
song. The object of running about the fields with the blazing
torches was to "drive away the wicked sower." Or it was done in
honour of the Virgin, that she might preserve the fruits of the
earth throughout the year and bless them. In neighbouring villages
of Hesse, between the Rhön and the Vogel Mountains, it is thought
that wherever the burning wheels roll, the fields will be safe from
hail and strom.

In Switzerland, also, it is or used to be customary to kindle
bonfires on high places on the evening of the first Sunday in Lent,
and the day is therefore popularly known as Spark Sunday. The custom
prevailed, for example, throughout the canton of Lucerne. Boys went
about from house to house begging for wood and straw, then piled the
fuel on a conspicuous mountain or hill round about a pole, which
bore a straw effigy called "the witch." At nightfall the pile was
set on fire, and the young folks danced wildly round it, some of
them cracking whips or ringing bells; and when the fire burned low
enough, they leaped over it. This was called "burning the witch." In
some parts of the canton also they used to wrap old wheels in straw
and thorns, put a light to them, and send them rolling and blazing
down hill. The more bonfires could be seen sparkling and flaring in
the darkness, the more fruitful was the year expected to be; and the
higher the dancers leaped beside or over the fire, the higher, it
was thought, would grow the flax. In some districts it was the last
married man or woman who must kindle the bonfire.

It seems hardly possible to separate from these bonfires, kindled on
the first Sunday in Lent, the fires in which, about the same season,
the effigy called Death is burned as part of the ceremony of
"carrying out Death." We have seen that at Spachendorf, in Austrian
Silesia, on the morning of Rupert's Day (Shrove Tuesday?), a
straw-man, dressed in a fur coat and a fur cap, is laid in a hole
outside the village and there burned, and that while it is blazing
every one seeks to snatch a fragment of it, which he fastens to a
branch of the highest tree in his garden or buries in his field,
believing that this will make the crops to grow better. The ceremony
is known as the "burying of Death." Even when the straw-man is not
designated as Death, the meaning of the observance is probably the
same; for the name Death, as I have tried to show, does not express
the original intention of the ceremony. At Cobern in the Eifel
Mountains the lads make up a straw-man on Shrove Tuesday. The effigy
is formally tried and accused of having perpetrated all the thefts
that have been committed in the neighbourhood throughout the year.
Being condemned to death, the straw-man is led through the village,
shot, and burned upon a pyre. They dance round the blazing pile, and
the last bride must leap over it. In Oldenburg on the evening of
Shrove Tuesday people used to make long bundles of straw, which they
set on fire, and then ran about the fields waving them, shrieking,
and singing wild songs. Finally they burned a straw-man on the
field. In the district of Düsseldorf the straw-man burned on Shrove
Tuesday was made of an unthreshed sheaf of corn. On the first Monday
after the spring equinox the urchins of Zurich drag a straw-man on a
little cart through the streets, while at the same time the girls
carry about a May-tree. When vespers ring, the straw-man is burned.
In the district of Aachen on Ash Wednesday, a man used to be encased
in peas-straw and taken to an appointed place. Here he slipped
quietly out of his straw casing, which was then burned, the children
thinking that it was the man who was being burned. In the Val di
Ledro (Tyrol) on the last day of the Carnival a figure is made up of
straw and brushwood and then burned. The figure is called the Old
Woman, and the ceremony "burning the Old Woman."

3. The Easter Fires

ANOTHER occasion on which these fire-festivals are held is Easter
Eve, the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On that day it has been
customary in Catholic countries to extinguish all the lights in the
churches, and then to make a new fire, sometimes with flint and
steel, sometimes with a burning-glass. At this fire is lit the great
Paschal or Easter candle, which is then used to rekindle all the
extinguished lights in the church. In many parts of Germany a
bonfire is also kindled, by means of the new fire, on some open
space near the church. It is consecrated, and the people bring
sticks of oak, walnut, and beech, which they char in the fire, and
then take home with them. Some of these charred sticks are thereupon
burned at home in a newly-kindled fire, with a prayer that God will
preserve the homestead from fire, lightning, and hail. Thus every
house receives "new fire." Some of the sticks are kept throughout
the year and laid on the hearth-fire during heavy thunder-storms to
prevent the house from being struck by lightning, or they are
inserted in the roof with the like intention. Others are placed in
the fields, gardens, and meadows, with a prayer that God will keep
them from blight and hail. Such fields and gardens are thought to
thrive more than others; the corn and the plants that grow in them
are not beaten down by hail, nor devoured by mice, vermin, and
beetles; no witch harms them, and the ears of corn stand close and
full. The charred sticks are also applied to the plough. The ashes
of the Easter bonfire, together with the ashes of the consecrated
palm-branches, are mixed with the seed at sowing. A wooden figure
called Judas is sometimes burned in the consecrated bonfire, and
even where this custom has been abolished the bonfire itself in some
places goes by the name of "the burning of Judas."

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.

In Münsterland 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. The young
men and maidens, singing Easter hymns, march round and round the
fire, 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. In the twilight boys with blazing
bundles of straw run over the fields to make them fruitful. 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 against each. Brush-wood was then heaped about the
trees, and on the evening of Easter Saturday the boys, after rushing
about with blazing bean-poles 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. In the Altmark it is believed
that as far as the blaze of the Easter bonfire is visible, the corn
will grow well throughout the year, and no conflagration will break
out. At Braunröde, in the Harz Mountains, it was the custom to burn
squirrels in the Easter bonfire. In the Altmark, bones were burned
in it.

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. 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!" 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. The object of the whole ceremony was to keep off the hail. At
other villages of Upper Bavaria 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 palmbranches 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. 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.

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 often in Germany, the materials for
the bonfire were collected by the young folk from door to door. In
many parts of Sweden firearms are 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.

4. The Beltane Fires

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 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. He 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. . . . 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.

"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 witch-craft, 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.

"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
bea-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."

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 _Baltein_ 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,_ 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 closed."

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
reassemble, and finish the reliques of the first entertainment."

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." 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. 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

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. 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."

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."

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."

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." Hence it appears that the heat of the fires was thought to
fertilise 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.

The Beltane fires seem 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." 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

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. 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. 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." 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.

5. The Midsummer Fires

BUT THE SEASON at which these firefestivals have been most 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. 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.

The main features of the midsummer fire-festival resemble those
which we have found to characterise the vernal festivals of fire.
The similarity of the two sets of ceremonies will plainly appear
from the following examples.

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." At Lower Konz, a village
situated on a hillside overlooking the Moselle, 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. In many parts of Bavaria it
was believed that the flax would grow as high as the young people
leaped over the fire. 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. Elsewhere an extinguished brand was
put in the roof of the house to protect it against fire. In the
towns about Würzburg 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. Further, it
was customary at Würzburg, 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.

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. Sometimes, as the people sprang over the midsummer bonfire
they cried out, "Flax, flax! may the flax this year grow seven ells
high!" At Rottenburg a rude effigy in human form, called the
Angelman, used to be enveloped in flowers and then burnt in the
midsummer fire by boys, who afterwards leaped over the glowing

So in Baden the children collected 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. At Edersleben, near Sangerhausen, a high pole was planted in
the ground and a tarbarrel 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 joy.

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. Even
yet the fires are said to be lighted all over Norway on Midsummer
Eve. They are 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. 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 (_Bäran_)
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 show 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. 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 infirmities.

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. In the lower valley of the Inn a
tatterdemalion 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.
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. 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. In Lower Austria 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

All over Bohemia bonfires still burn on Midsummer Eve. In the
afternoon boys go about with handcarts from house to house
collecting fuel and 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 cart-wheel 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. 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 midsummer 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

In Slavonic countries, also, the midsummer festival is celebrated
with similar rites. We have already seen that in Russia on the Eve
of St. John young men and maidens jump over a bonfire in couples
carrying a straw effigy of Kupalo in their arms. In some parts of
Russia an image of Kupalo is burnt or thrown into a stream on St.
John's Night. 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. 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!" 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.

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. 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. In Serbia 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.

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. 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.

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. They think that the St. John's fire keeps witches
from the cattle, and they say that he who does not come to it will
have his barley full of thistles and his oats full of weeds. 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.

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. People danced round and leaped over them, and took
charred sticks from the bonfire home with them to protect the houses
against lightning, conflagrations, and spells.

In Brittany, apparently, the custom of the midsummer bonfires is
kept up to this day. 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. In Brittany and Berry it is
believed that a girl who dances round nine midsummer bonfires will
marry within the year. 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. At Jumièges 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 was served up to them. At
night a bonfire was kindled to the sound of hand-bells by a young
man and a young woman, both decked with flowers. Then 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. 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 hand-bells, 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.

At Château-Thierry, in the department of Aisne, 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. 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.

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. 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 fertilise them.

In the mountainous part of Comminges, a province of Southern France,
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.

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. At Aix a nominal
king, chosen from among the youth for his skill in shooting at a
popinjay, presided over the midsummer 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 préfet and
other authorities.

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. In that country the Eve of St. Peter's
Day (the twenty-ninth of June) is celebrated by bonfires and dances
exactly like those which commemorate St. John's Eve. Some people say
that the fires of St. Peter, like those of St. John, are lighted in
order to drive away dragons. 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,
the twenty-ninth of June. 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.

The custom of lighting bonfires at midsummer has been observed in
many parts of our own country, and as usual people danced round and
leaped over them. In Wales three or nine different kinds of wood and
charred faggots carefully preserved from the last midsummer were
deemed necessary to build the bonfire, which was generally done on
rising ground. In the Vale of Glamorgan a cart-wheel swathed in
straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept
alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant
harvest was expected. On Midsummer Eve people in the Isle of Man
were wont to light fires to the windward of every field, so that the
smoke might pass over the corn; and they folded their cattle and
carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times. In Ireland
cattle, especially barren cattle, were driven through the midsummer
fires, and the ashes were thrown on the fields to fertilise them, or
live coals were carried into them to prevent blight. In Scotland the
traces of midsummer fires are few; but at that season in the
highlands of Perthshire cowherds used to go round their folds
thrice, in the direction of the sun, with lighted torches. This they
did to purify the flocks and herds and to keep them from falling

The practice of lighting bonfires on Midsummer Eve and dancing or
leaping over them is, or was till recently, common all over Spain
and in some parts of Italy and Sicily. In Malta great fires are
kindled in the streets and squares of the towns and villages on the
Eve of St. John (Midsummer Eve); formerly the Grand Master of the
Order of St. John used on that evening to set fire to a heap of
pitch barrels placed in front of the sacred Hospital. In Greece,
too, the custom of kindling fires on St. John's Eve and jumping over
them is said to be still universal. One reason assigned for it is a
wish to escape from the fleas. According to another account, the
women cry out, as they leap over the fire, "I leave my sins behind
me." In Lesbos the fires on St. John's Eve are usually lighted by
threes, and the people spring thrice over them, each with a stone on
his head, saying, "I jump the hare's fire, my head a stone!" In
Calymnos the midsummer fire is supposed to ensure abundance in the
coming year as well as deliverance from fleas. The people dance
round the fires singing, with stones on their heads, and then jump
over the blaze or the glowing embers. When the fire is burning low,
they throw the stones into it; and when it is nearly out, they make
crosses on their legs and then go straightway and bathe in the sea.

The custom of kindling bonfires on Midsummer Day or on Midsummer Eve
is widely spread among the Mohammedan peoples of North Africa,
particularly in Morocco and Algeria; it is common both to the
Berbers and to many of the Arabs or Arabic-speaking tribes. In these
countries Midsummer Day (the twenty-fourth of June, Old Style) is
called _l'ánsara._ The fires are lit in the courtyards, at
cross-roads, in the fields, and sometimes on the threshing-floors.
Plants which in burning give out a thick smoke and an aromatic smell
are much sought after for fuel on these occasions; among the plants
used for the purpose are giant-fennel, thyme, rue, chervil-seed,
camomile, geranium, and penny-royal. People expose themselves, and
especially their children, to the smoke, and drive it towards the
orchards and the crops. Also they leap across the fires; in some
places everybody ought to repeat the leap seven times. Moreover they
take burning brands from the fires and carry them through the houses
in order to fumigate them. They pass things through the fire, and
bring the sick into contact with it, while they utter prayers for
their recovery. The ashes of the bonfires are also reputed to
possess beneficial properties; hence in some places people rub their
hair or their bodies with them. In some places they think that by
leaping over the fires they rid themselves of all misfortune, and
that childless couples thereby obtain offspring. Berbers of the Rif
province, in Northern Morocco, make great use of fires at midsummer
for the good of themselves, their cattle, and their fruit-trees.
They jump over the bonfires in the belief that this will preserve
them in good health, and they light fires under fruit-trees to keep
the fruit from falling untimely. And they imagine that by rubbing a
paste of the ashes on their hair they prevent the hair from falling
off their heads. In all these Moroccan customs, we are told, the
beneficial effect is attributed wholly to the smoke, which is
supposed to be endued with a magical quality that removes misfortune
from men, animals, fruit-trees and crops.

The celebration of a midsummer festival by Mohammedan peoples is
particularly remarkable, because the Mohammedan calendar, being
purely lunar and uncorrected by intercalation, necessarily takes no
note of festivals which occupy fixed points in the solar year; all
strictly Mohammedan feasts, being pinned to the moon, slide
gradually with that luminary through the whole period of the earth's
revolution about the sun. This fact of itself seems to prove that
among the Mohammedan peoples of Northern Africa, as among the
Christian peoples of Europe, the midsummer festival is quite
independent of the religion which the people publicly profess, and
is a relic of a far older paganism.

6. The Hallowe'en Fires

FROM THE FOREGOING survey we may infer that among the heathen
forefathers of the European peoples the most popular and widespread
fire-festival of the year was the great celebration of Midsummer Eve
or Midsummer Day. The coincidence of the festival with the summer
solstice can hardly be accidental. Rather we must suppose that our
pagan ancestors purposely timed the ceremony of fire on earth to
coincide with the arrival of the sun at the highest point of his
course in the sky. If that was so, it follows that the old founders
of the midsummer rites had observed the solstices or turning-points
of the sun's apparent path in the sky, and that they accordingly
regulated their festal calendar to some extent by astronomical

But while this may be regarded as fairly certain for what we may
call the aborigines throughout a large part of the continent, it
appears not to have been true of the Celtic peoples who inhabited
the Land's End of Europe, the islands and promontories that stretch
out into the Atlantic Ocean on the North-West. The principal
fire-festivals of the Celts, which have survived, though in a
restricted area and with diminished pomp, to modern times and even
to our own day, were seemingly timed without any reference to the
position of the sun in the heaven. They were two in number, and fell
at an interval of six months, one being celebrated on the eve of May
Day and the other on Allhallow Even or Hallowe'en, as it is now
commonly called, that is, on the thirty-first of October, the day
preceding All Saints' or Allhallows' Day. These dates coincide with
none of the four great hinges on which the solar year revolves, to
wit, the solstices and the equinoxes. Nor do they agree with the
principal seasons of the agricultural year, the sowing in spring and
the reaping in autumn. For when May Day comes, the seed has long
been committed to the earth; and when November opens, the harvest
has long been reaped and garnered, the fields lie bare, the
fruit-trees are stripped, and even the yellow leaves are fast
fluttering to the ground. Yet the first of May and the first of
November mark turning-points of the year in Europe; the one ushers
in the genial heat and the rich vegetation of summer, the other
heralds, if it does not share, the cold and barrenness of winter.
Now these particular points of the year, as has been well pointed
out by a learned and ingenious writer, while they are of
comparatively little moment to the European husbandman, do deeply
concern the European herdsman; for it is on the approach of summer
that he drives his cattle out into the open to crop the fresh grass,
and it is on the approach of winter that he leads them back to the
safety and shelter of the stall. Accordingly it seems not improbable
that the Celtic bisection of the year into two halves at the
beginning of May and the beginning of November dates from a time
when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent for their
subsistence on their herds, and when accordingly the great epochs of
the year for them were the days on which the cattle went forth from
the homestead in early summer and returned to it again in early
winter. Even in Central Europe, remote from the region now occupied
by the Celts, a similar bisection of the year may be clearly traced
in the great popularity, on the one hand, of May Day and its Eve
(Walpurgis Night), and, on the other hand, of the Feast of All Souls
at the beginning of November, which under a thin Christian cloak
conceals an ancient pagan festival of the dead. Hence we may
conjecture that everywhere throughout Europe the celestial division
of the year according to the solstices was preceded by what we may
call a terrestrial division of the year according to the beginning
of summer and the beginning of winter.

Be that as it may, the two great Celtic festivals of May Day and the
first of November or, to be more accurate, the Eves of these two
days, closely resemble each other in the manner of their celebration
and in the superstitions associated with them, and alike, by the
antique character impressed upon both, betray a remote and purely
pagan origin. The festival of May Day or Beltane, as the Celts
called it, which ushered in summer, has already been described; it
remains to give some account of the corresponding festival of
Hallowe'en, which announced the arrival of winter.

Of the two feasts Hallowe'en was perhaps of old the more important,
since the Celts would seem to have dated the beginning of the year
from it rather than from Beltane. In the Isle of Man, one of the
fortresses in which the Celtic language and lore longest held out
against the siege of the Saxon invaders, the first of November, Old
Style, has been regarded as New Year's day down to recent times.
Thus Manx mummers used to go round on Hallowe'en (Old Style),
singing, in the Manx language, a sort of Hogmanay song which began
"To-night is New Year's Night, _Hogunnaa!_" In ancient Ireland, a
new fire used to be kindled every year on Hallowe'en or the Eve of
Samhain, and from this sacred flame all the fires in Ireland were
rekindled. Such a custom points strongly to Samhain or All Saints'
Day (the first of November) as New Year's Day; since the annual
kindling of a new fire takes place most naturally at the beginning
of the year, in order that the blessed influence of the fresh fire
may last throughout the whole period of twelve months. Another
confirmation of the view that the Celts dated their year from the
first of November is furnished by the manifold modes of divination
which were commonly resorted to by Celtic peoples on Hallowe'en for
the purpose of ascertaining their destiny, especially their fortune
in the coming year; for when could these devices for prying into the
future be more reasonably put in practice than at the beginning of
the year? As a season of omens and auguries Hallowe'en seems to have
far surpassed Beltane in the imagination of the Celts; from which we
may with some probability infer that they reckoned their year from
Hallowe'en rather than Beltane. Another circumstance of great moment
which points to the same conclusion is the association of the dead
with Hallowe'en. Not only among the Celts but throughout Europe,
Hallowe'en, the night which marks the transition from autumn to
winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of
the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to
warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good
cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their
affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the
approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts
from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of
the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then
troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills
to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds
whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in
the hollows? and could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the
spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

But it is not only the souls of the departed who are supposed to be
hovering unseen on the day "when autumn to winter resigns the pale
year." Witches then speed on their errands of mischief, some
sweeping through the air on besoms, others galloping along the roads
on tabby-cats, which for that evening are turned into coal-black
steeds. The fairies, too, are all let loose, and hobgoblins of every
sort roam freely about.

Yet while a glamour of mystery and awe has always clung to
Hallowe'en in the minds of the Celtic peasantry, the popular
celebration of the festival has been, at least in modern times, by
no means of a prevailing gloomy cast; on the contrary it has been
attended by picturesque features and merry pastimes, which rendered
it the gayest night of all the year. Amongst the things which in the
Highlands of Scotland contributed to invest the festival with a
romantic beauty were the bonfires which used to blaze at frequent
intervals on the heights. "On the last day of autumn children
gathered ferns, tar-barrels, the long thin stalks called _gàinisg,_
and everything suitable for a bonfire. These were placed in a heap
on some eminence near the house, and in the evening set fire to. The
fires were called _Samhnagan._ There was one for each house, and it
was an object of ambition who should have the biggest. Whole
districts were brilliant with bonfires, and their glare across a
Highland loch, and from many eminences, formed an exceedingly
picturesque scene." Like the Beltane fires on the first of May, the
Hallowe'en bonfires seem to have been kindled most commonly in the
Perthshire Highlands. In the parish of Callander they still blazed
down to near the end of the eighteenth century. When the fire had
died down, the ashes were carefully collected in the form of a
circle, and a stone was put in, near the circumference, for every
person of the several families interested in the bonfire. Next
morning, if any of these stones was found to be displaced or
injured, the people made sure that the person represented by it was
_fey_ or devoted, and that he could not live twelve months from that
day. At Balquhidder down to the latter part of the nineteenth
century each household kindled its bonfire at Hallowe'en, but the
custom was chiefly observed by children. The fires were lighted on
any high knoll near the house; there was no dancing round them.
Hallowe'en fires were also lighted in some districts of the
north-east of Scotland, such as Buchan. Villagers and farmers alike
must have their fire. In the villages the boys went from house to
house and begged a peat from each householder, usually with the
words, "Ge's a peat t' burn the witches." When they had collected
enough peats, they piled them in a heap, together with straw, furze,
and other combustible materials, and set the whole on fire. Then
each of the youths, one after another, laid himself down on the
ground as near to the fire as he could without being scorched, and
thus lying allowed the smoke to roll over him. The others ran
through the smoke and jumped over their prostrate comrade. When the
heap was burned down, they scattered the ashes, vying with each
other who should scatter them most.

In the northern part of Wales it used to be customary for every
family to make a great bonfire called _Coel Coeth_ on Hallowe'en.
The fire was kindled on the most conspicuous spot near the house;
and when it had nearly gone out every one threw into the ashes a
white stone, which he had first marked. Then having said their
prayers round the fire, they went to bed. Next morning, as soon as
they were up, they came to search out the stones, and if any one of
them was found to be missing, they had a notion that the person who
threw it would die before he saw another Hallowe'en. According to
Sir John Rhys, the habit of celebrating Hallowe'en by lighting
bonfires on the hills is perhaps not yet extinct in Wales, and men
still living can remember how the people who assisted at the
bonfires would wait till the last spark was out and then would
suddenly take to their heels, shouting at the top of their voices,
"The cropped black sow seize the hindmost!" The saying, as Sir John
Rhys justly remarks, implies that originally one of the company
became a victim in dead earnest. Down to the present time the saying
is current in Carnarvonshire, where allusions to the cutty black sow
are still occasionally made to frighten children. We can now
understand why in Lower Brittany every person throws a pebble into
the midsummer bonfire. Doubtless there, as in Wales and the
Highlands of Scotland, omens of life and death have at one time or
other been drawn from the position and state of the pebbles on the
morning of All Saints' Day. The custom, thus found among three
separate branches of the Celtic stock, probably dates from a period
before their dispersion, or at least from a time when alien races
had not yet driven home the wedges of separation between them.

In the Isle of Man also, another Celtic country, Hallowe'en was
celebrated down to modern times by the kindling of fires,
accompanied with all the usual ceremonies designed to prevent the
baneful influence of fairies and witches.

7. The Midwinter Fires

IF THE HEATHEN of ancient Europe celebrated, as we have good reason
to believe, the season of Midsummer with a great festival of fire,
of which the traces have survived in many places down to our own
time, it is natural to suppose that they should have observed with
similar rites the corresponding season of Midwinter; for Midsummer
and Midwinter, or, in more technical language, the summer solstice
and the winter solstice, are the two great turningpoints in the
sun's apparent course through the sky, and from the standpoint of
primitive man nothing might seem more appropriate than to kindle
fires on earth at the two moments when the fire and heat of the
great luminary in heaven begin to wane or to wax.

In modern Christendom the ancient fire-festival of the winter
solstice appears to survive, or to have survived down to recent
years, in the old custom of the Yule log, clog, or block, as it was
variously called in England. The custom was widespread in Europe,
but seems to have flourished especially in England, France, and
among the South Slavs; at least the fullest accounts of the custom
come from these quarters. That the Yule log was only the winter
counterpart of the midsummer bonfire, kindled within doors instead
of in the open air on account of the cold and inclement weather of
the season, was pointed out long ago by our English antiquary John
Brand; and the view is supported by the many quaint superstitions
attaching to the Yule log, superstitions which have no apparent
connexion with Christianity but carry their heathen origin plainly
stamped upon them. But while the two solstitial celebrations were
both festivals of fire, the necessity or desirability of holding the
winter celebration within doors lent it the character of a private
or domestic festivity, which contrasts strongly with the publicity
of the summer celebration, at which the people gathered on some open
space or conspicuous height, kindled a huge bonfire in common, and
danced and made merry round it together.

Down to about the middle of the nineteenth century the old rite of
the Yule log was kept up in some parts of Central Germany. Thus in
the valleys of the Sieg and Lahn the Yule log, a heavy block of oak,
was fitted into the floor of the hearth, where, though it glowed
under the fire, it was hardly reduced to ashes within a year. When
the new log was laid next year, the remains of the old one were
ground to powder and strewed over the fields during the Twelve
Nights, which was supposed to promote the growth of the crops. In
some villages of Westphalia, the practice was to withdraw the Yule
log (_Christbrand_) from the fire so soon as it was slightly
charred; it was then kept carefully to be replaced on the fire
whenever a thunderstorm broke, because the people believed that
lightning would not strike a house in which the Yule log was
smouldering. In other villages of Westphalia the old custom was to
tie up the Yule log in the last sheaf cut at harvest.

In several provinces of France, and particularly in Provence, the
custom of the Yule log or _tréfoir,_ as it was called in many
places, was long observed. A French writer of the seventeenth
century denounces as superstitious "the belief that a log called the
_tréfoir_ or Christmas brand, which you put on the fire for the
first time on Christmas Eve and continue to put on the fire for a
little while every day till Twelfth Night, can, if kept under the
bed, protect the house for a whole year from fire and thunder; that
it can prevent the inmates from having chilblains on their heels in
winter; that it can cure the cattle of many maladies; that if a
piece of it be steeped in the water which cows drink it helps them
to calve; and lastly that if the ashes of the log be strewn on the
fields it can save the wheat from mildew."

In some parts of Flanders and France the remains of the Yule log
were regularly kept in the house under a bed as a protection against
thunder and lightning; in Berry, when thunder was heard, a member of
the family used to take a piece of the log and throw it on the fire,
which was believed to avert the lightning. Again, in Perigord, the
charcoal and ashes are carefully collected and kept for healing
swollen glands; the part of the trunk which has not been burnt in
the fire is used by ploughmen to make the wedge for their plough,
because they allege that it causes the seeds to thrive better; and
the women keep pieces of it till Twelfth Night for the sake of their
chickens. Some people imagine that they will have as many chickens
as there are sparks that fly out of the brands of the log when they
shake them; and others place the extinct brands under the bed to
drive away vermin. In various parts of France the charred log is
thought to guard the house against sorcery as well as against

In England the customs and beliefs concerning the Yule log used to
be similar. On the night of Christmas Eve, says the antiquary John
Brand, "our ancestors were wont to light up candles of an uncommon
size, called Christmas Candles, and lay a log of wood upon the fire,
called a Yule-clog or Christmas-block, to illuminate the house, and,
as it were, to turn night into day." The old custom was to light the
Yule log with a fragment of its predecessor, which had been kept
throughout the year for the purpose; where it was so kept, the fiend
could do no mischief. The remains of the log were also supposed to
guard the house against fire and lightning.

To this day the ritual of bringing in the Yule log is observed with
much solemnity among the Southern Slavs, especially the Serbians.
The log is usually a block of oak, but sometimes of olive or beech.
They seem to think that they will have as many calves, lambs, pigs,
and kids as they strike sparks out of the burning log. Some people
carry a piece of the log out to the fields to protect them against
hail. In Albania down to recent years it was a common custom to burn
a Yule log at Christmas, and the ashes of the fire were scattered on
the fields to make them fertile. The Huzuls, a Slavonic people of
the Carpathians, kindle fire by the friction of wood on Christmas
Eve (Old Style, the fifth of January) and keep it burning till
Twelfth Night.

It is remarkable how common the belief appears to have been that the
remains of the Yule log, if kept throughout the year, had power to
protect the house against fire and especially against lightning. As
the Yule log was frequently of oak, it seems possible that this
belief may be a relic of the old Aryan creed which associated the
oak-tree with the god of thunder. Whether the curative and
fertilising virtues ascribed to the ashes of the Yule log, which are
supposed to heal cattle as well as men, to enable cows to calve, and
to promote the fruitfulness of the earth, may not be derived from
the same ancient source, is a question which deserves to be

8. The Need-fire

THE FIRE-FESTIVALS hitherto described are all celebrated
periodically at certain stated times of the year. But besides these
regularly recurring celebrations the peasants in many parts of
Europe have been wont from time immemorial to resort to a ritual of
fire at irregular intervals in seasons of distress and calamity,
above all when their cattle were attacked by epidemic disease. No
account of the popular European fire-festivals would be complete
without some notice of these remarkable rites, which have all the
greater claim on our attention because they may perhaps be regarded
as the source and origin of all the other fire-festivals; certainly
they must date from a very remote antiquity. The general name by
which they are known among the Teutonic peoples is need-fire.
Sometimes the need-fire was known as "wild fire," to distinguish it
no doubt from the tame fire produced by more ordinary methods. Among
Slavonic peoples it is called "living fire."

The history of the custom can be traced from the early Middle Ages,
when it was denounced by the Church as a heathen superstition, down
to the first half of the nineteenth century, when it was still
occasionally practised in various parts of Germany, England,
Scotland, and Ireland. Among Slavonic peoples it appears to have
lingered even longer. The usual occasion for performing the rite was
an outbreak of plague or cattle-disease, for which the need-fire was
believed to be an infallible remedy. The animals which were
subjected to it included cows, pigs, horses, and sometimes geese. As
a necessary preliminary to the kindling of the need-fire all other
fires and lights in the neighbourhood were extinguished, so that not
so much as a spark remained alight; for so long as even a
night-light burned in a house, it was imagined that the need-fire
could not kindle. Sometimes it was deemed enough to put out all the
fires in the village; but sometimes the extinction extended to
neighbouring villages or to a whole parish. In some parts of the
Highlands of Scotland the rule was that all householders who dwelt
within the two nearest running streams should put out their lights
and fires on the day appointed. Usually the need-fire was made in
the open air, but in some parts of Serbia it was kindled in a dark
room; sometimes the place was a cross-way or a hollow in a road. In
the Highlands of Scotland the proper places for performing the rite
seem to have been knolls or small islands in rivers.

The regular method of producing the need-fire was by the friction of
two pieces of wood; it might not be struck by flint and steel. Very
exceptionally among some South Slavs we read of a practice of
kindling a need-fire by striking a piece of iron on an anvil. Where
the wood to be employed is specified, it is generally said to be
oak; but on the Lower Rhine the fire was kindled by the friction of
oak-wood or fir-wood. In Slavonic countries we hear of poplar, pear,
and cornel wood being used for the purpose. Often the material is
simply described as two pieces of dry wood. Sometimes nine different
kinds of wood were deemed necessary, but rather perhaps to be burned
in the bonfire than to be rubbed together for the production of the
need-fire. The particular mode of kindling the need-fire varied in
different districts; a very common one was this. Two poles were
driven into the ground about a foot and a half from each other. Each
pole had in the side facing the other a socket into which a smooth
cross-piece or roller was fitted. The sockets were stuffed with
linen, and the two ends of the roller were rammed tightly into the
sockets. To make it more inflammable the roller was often coated
with tar. A rope was then wound round the roller, and the free ends
at both sides were gripped by two or more persons, who by pulling
the rope to and fro caused the roller to revolve rapidly, till
through the friction the linen in the sockets took fire. The sparks
were immediately caught in tow or oakum and waved about in a circle
until they burst into a bright glow, when straw was applied to it,
and the blazing straw used to kindle the fuel that had been stacked
to make the bonfire. Often a wheel, sometimes a cart-wheel or even a
spinning-wheel, formed part of the mechanism; in Aberdeenshire it
was called "the muckle wheel"; in the island of Mull the wheel was
turned from east to west over nine spindles of oak-wood. Sometimes
we are merely told that two wooden planks were rubbed together.
Sometimes it was prescribed that the cart-wheel used for fire-making
and the axle on which it turned should both be new. Similarly it was
said that the rope which turned the roller should be new; if
possible it should be woven of strands taken from a gallows rope
with which people had been hanged, but this was a counsel of
perfection rather than a strict necessity.

Various rules were also laid down as to the kind of persons who
might or should make the need-fire. Sometimes it was said that the
two persons who pulled the rope which twirled the roller should
always be brothers or at least bear the same baptismal name;
sometimes it was deemed sufficient if they were both chaste young
men. In some villages of Brunswick people thought that if everybody
who lent a hand in kindling the need-fire did not bear the same
Christian name, they would labour in vain. In Silesia the tree
employed to produce the need-fire used to be felled by a pair of
twin brothers. In the western islands of Scotland the fire was
kindled by eighty-one married men, who rubbed two great planks
against each other, working in relays of nine; in North Uist the
nine times nine who made the fire were all first-begotten sons, but
we are not told whether they were married or single. Among the
Serbians the need-fire is sometimes kindled by a boy and girl
between eleven and fourteen years of age, who work stark naked in a
dark room; sometimes it is made by an old man and an old woman also
in the dark. In Bulgaria, too, the makers of need-fire strip
themselves of their clothes; in Caithness they divested themselves
of all kinds of metal. If after long rubbing of the wood no fire was
elicited they concluded that some fire must still be burning in the
village; so a strict search was made from house to house, any fire
that might be found was put out, and the negligent householder
punished or upbraided; indeed a heavy fine might be inflicted on

When the need-fire was at last kindled, the bonfire was lit from it,
and as soon as the blaze had somewhat died down, the sick animals
were driven over the glowing embers, sometimes in a regular order of
precedence, first the pigs, next the cows, and last of all the
horses. Sometimes they were driven twice or thrice through the smoke
and flames, so that occasionally some of them were scorched to
death. As soon as all the beasts were through, the young folk would
rush wildly at the ashes and cinders, sprinkling and blackening each
other with them; those who were most blackened would march in
triumph behind the cattle into the village and would not wash
themselves for a long time. From the bonfire people carried live
embers home and used them to rekindle the fires in their houses.
These brands, after being extinguished in water, they sometimes put
in the managers at which the cattle fed, and kept them there for a
while. Ashes from the need-fire were also strewed on the fields to
protect the crops against vermin; sometimes they were taken home to
be employed as remedies in sickness, being sprinkled on the ailing
part or mixed in water and drunk by the patient. In the western
islands of Scotland and on the adjoining mainland, as soon as the
fire on the domestic hearth had been rekindled from the need-fire a
pot full of water was set on it, and the water thus heated was
afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague or
upon the cattle that were tainted by the murrain. Special virtue was
attributed to the smoke of the bonfire; in Sweden fruit-trees and
nets were fumigated with it, in order that the trees might bear
fruit and the nets catch fish. In the Highlands of Scotland the
need-fire was accounted a sovereign remedy for witchcraft. In the
island of Mull, when the fire was kindled as a cure for the murrain,
we hear of the rite being accompanied by the sacrifice of a sick
heifer, which was cut in pieces and burnt. Slavonian and Bulgarian
peasants conceive cattle-plague as a foul fiend or vampyre which can
be kept at bay by interposing a barrier of fire between it and the
herds. A similar conception may perhaps have originally everywhere
underlain the use of the need-fire as a remedy for the murrain. It
appears that in some parts of Germany the people did not wait for an
outbreak of cattleplague, but, taking time by the forelock, kindled
a need-fire annually to prevent the calamity. Similarly in Poland
the peasants are said to kindle fires in the village streets every
year on St. Rochus's day and to drive the cattle thrice through them
in order to protect the beasts against the murrain. We have seen
that in the Hebrides the cattle were in like manner driven annually
round the Beltane fires for the same purpose. In some cantons of
Switzerland children still kindle a need-fire by the friction of
wood for the sake of dispelling a mist.

LXIII. The Interpretation of the Fire-Festivals

1. On the Fire-festivals in general

THE FOREGOING survey of the popular fire-festivals of Europe
suggests some general observations. In the first place we can hardly
help being struck by the resemblance which the ceremonies bear to
each other, at whatever time of the year and in whatever part of
Europe they are celebrated. The custom of kindling great bonfires,
leaping over them, and driving cattle through or round them would
seem to have been practically universal throughout Europe, and the
same may be said of the processions or races with blazing torches
round fields, orchards, pastures, or cattle-stalls. Less widespread
are the customs of hurling lighted discs into the air and trundling
a burning wheel down hill. The ceremonial of the Yule log is
distinguished from that of the other fire-festivals by the privacy
and domesticity which characterise it; but this distinction may well
be due simply to the rough weather of midwinter, which is apt not
only to render a public assembly in the open air disagreeable, but
also at any moment to defeat the object of the assembly by
extinguishing the all-important fire under a downpour of rain or a
fall of snow. Apart from these local or seasonal differences, the
general resemblance between the fire-festivals at all times of the
year and in all places is tolerably close. And as the ceremonies
themselves resemble each other, so do the benefits which the people
expect to reap from them. Whether applied in the form of bonfires
blazing at fixed points, or of torches carried about from place to
place, or of embers and ashes taken from the smouldering heap of
fuel, the fire is believed to promote the growth of the crops and
the welfare of man and beast, either positively by stimulating them,
or negatively by averting the dangers and calamities which threaten
them from such causes as thunder and lightning, conflagration,
blight, mildew, vermin, sterility, disease, and not least of all

But we naturally ask, How did it come about that benefits so great
and manifold were supposed to be attained by means so simple? In
what way did people imagine that they could procure so many goods or
avoid so many ills by the application of fire and smoke, of embers
and ashes? Two different explanations of the fire-festivals have
been given by modern enquirers. On the one hand it has been held
that they are sun-charms or magical ceremonies intended, on the
principle of imitative magic, to ensure a needful supply of sunshine
for men, animals, and plants by kindling fires which mimic on earth
the great source of light and heat in the sky. This was the view of
Wilhelm Mannhardt. It may be called the solar theory. On the other
hand it has been maintained that the ceremonial fires have no
necessary reference to the sun but are simply purificatory in
intention, being designed to burn up and destroy all harmful
influences, whether these are conceived in a personal form as
witches, demons, and monsters, or in an impersonal form as a sort of
pervading taint or corruption of the air. This is the view of Dr.
Edward Westermarck and apparently of Professor Eugen Mogk. It may be
called the purificatory theory. Obviously the two theories postulate
two very different conceptions of the fire which plays the principal
part in the rites. On the one view, the fire, like sunshine in our
latitude, is a genial creative power which fosters the growth of
plants and the development of all that makes for health and
happiness; on the other view, the fire is a fierce destructive power
which blasts and consumes all the noxious elements, whether
spiritual or material, that menace the life of men, of animals, and
of plants. According to the one theory the fire is a stimulant,
according to the other it is a disinfectant; on the one view its
virtue is positive, on the other it is negative.

Yet the two explanations, different as they are in the character
which they attribute to the fire, are perhaps not wholly
irreconcilable. If we assume that the fires kindled at these
festivals were primarily intended to imitate the sun's light and
heat, may we not regard the purificatory and disinfecting qualities,
which popular opinion certainly appears to have ascribed to them, as
attributes derived directly from the purificatory and disinfecting
qualities of sunshine? In this way we might conclude that, while the
imitation of sunshine in these ceremonies was primary and original,
the purification attributed to them was secondary and derivative.
Such a conclusion, occupying an intermediate position between the
two opposing theories and recognising an element of truth in both of
them, was adopted by me in earlier editions of this work; but in the
meantime Dr. Westermarck has argued powerfully in favour of the
purificatory theory alone, and I am bound to say that his arguments
carry great weight, and that on a fuller review of the facts the
balance of evidence seems to me to incline decidedly in his favour.
However, the case is not so clear as to justify us in dismissing the
solar theory without discussion, and accordingly I propose to adduce
the considerations which tell for it before proceeding to notice
those which tell against it. A theory which had the support of so
learned and sagacious an investigator as W. Mannhardt is entitled to
a respectful hearing.

2. The Solar Theory of the Fire-festivals

IN AN EARLIER part of this work we saw that savages resort to charms
for making sunshine, and it would be no wonder if primitive man in
Europe did the same. Indeed, when we consider the cold and cloudy
climate of Europe during a great part of the year, we shall find it
natural that sun-charms should have played a much more prominent
part among the superstitious practices of European peoples than
among those of savages who live nearer the equator and who
consequently are apt to get in the course of nature more sunshine
than they want. This view of the festivals may be supported by
various arguments drawn partly from their dates, partly from the
nature of the rites, and partly from the influence which they are
believed to exert upon the weather and on vegetation.

First, in regard to the dates of the festivals it can be no mere
accident that two of the most important and widely spread of the
festivals are timed to coincide more or less exactly with the summer
and winter solstices, that is, with the two turning-points in the
sun's apparent course in the sky when he reaches respectively his
highest and his lowest elevation at noon. Indeed with respect to the
midwinter celebration of Christmas we are not left to conjecture; we
know from the express testimony of the ancients that it was
instituted by the church to supersede an old heathen festival of the
birth of the sun, which was apparently conceived to be born again on
the shortest day of the year, after which his light and heat were
seen to grow till they attained their full maturity at midsummer.
Therefore it is no very far-fetched conjecture to suppose that the
Yule log, which figures so prominently in the popular celebration of
Christmas, was originally designed to help the labouring sun of
midwinter to rekindle his seemingly expiring light.

Not only the date of some of the festivals but the manner of their
celebration suggests a conscious imitation of the sun. The custom of
rolling a burning wheel down a hill, which is often observed at
these ceremonies, might well pass for an imitation of the sun's
course in the sky, and the imitation would be especially appropriate
on Midsummer Day when the sun's annual declension begins. Indeed the
custom has been thus interpreted by some of those who have recorded
it. Not less graphic, it may be said, is the mimicry of his apparent
revolution by swinging a burning tar-barrel round a pole. Again, the
common practice of throwing fiery discs, sometimes expressly said to
be shaped like suns, into the air at the festivals may well be a
piece of imitative magic. In these, as in so many cases, the magic
force may be supposed to take effect through mimicry or sympathy: by
imitating the desired result you actually produce it: by
counterfeiting the sun's progress through the heavens you really
help the luminary to pursue his celestial journey with punctuality
and despatch. The name "fire of heaven," by which the midsummer fire
is sometimes popularly known, clearly implies a consciousness of a
connexion between the earthly and the heavenly flame.

Again, the manner in which the fire appears to have been originally
kindled on these occasions has been alleged in support of the view
that it was intended to be a mock-sun. As some scholars have
perceived, it is highly probable that at the periodic festivals in
former times fire was universally obtained by the friction of two
pieces of wood. It is still so procured in some places both at the
Easter and the Midsummer festivals, and it is expressly said to have
been formerly so procured at the Beltane celebration both in
Scotland and Wales. But what makes it nearly certain that this was
once the invariable mode of kindling the fire at these periodic
festivals is the analogy of the needfire, which has almost always
been produced by the friction of wood, and sometimes by the
revolution of a wheel. It is a plausible conjecture that the wheel
employed for this purpose represents the sun, and if the fires at
the regularly recurring celebrations were formerly produced in the
same way, it might be regarded as a confirmation of the view that
they were originally sun-charms. In point of fact there is, as Kuhn
has indicated, some evidence to show that the midsummer fire was
originally thus produced. We have seen that many Hungarian
swine-herds make fire on Midsummer Eve by rotating a wheel round a
wooden axle wrapt in hemp, and that they drive their pigs through
the fire thus made. At Obermedlingen, in Swabia, the "fire of
heaven," as it was called, was made on St. Vitus's Day (the
fifteenth of June) by igniting a cart-wheel, which, smeared with
pitch and plaited with straw, was fastened on a pole twelve feet
high, the top of the pole being inserted in the nave of the wheel.
This fire was made on the summit of a mountain, and as the flame
ascended, the people uttered a set form of words, with eyes and arms
directed heavenward. Here the fixing of a wheel on a pole and
igniting it suggests that originally the fire was produced, as in
the case of the need-fire, by the revolution of a wheel. The day on
which the ceremony takes place (the fifteenth of June) is near
midsummer; and we have seen that in Masuren fire is, or used to be,
actually made on Midsummer Day by turning a wheel rapidly about an
oaken pole, though it is not said that the new fire so obtained is
used to light a bonfire. However, we must bear in mind that in all
such cases the use of a wheel may be merely a mechanical device to
facilitate the operation of fire-making by increasing the friction;
it need not have any symbolical significance.

Further, the influence which these fires, whether periodic or
occasional, are supposed to exert on the weather and vegetation may
be cited in support of the view that they are sun-charms, since the
effects ascribed to them resemble those of sunshine. Thus, the
French belief that in a rainy June the lighting of the midsummer
bonfires will cause the rain to cease appears to assume that they
can disperse the dark clouds and make the sun to break out in
radiant glory, drying the wet earth and dripping trees. Similarly
the use of the need-fire by Swiss children on foggy days for the
purpose of clearing away the mist may very naturally be interpreted
as a sun-charm. In the Vosges Mountains the people believe that the
midsummer fires help to preserve the fruits of the earth and ensure
good crops. In Sweden the warmth or cold of the coming season is
inferred from the direction in which the flames of the May Day
bonfire are blown; if they blow to the south, it will be warm, if to
the north, cold. No doubt at present the direction of the flames is
regarded merely as an augury of the weather, not as a mode of
influencing it. But we may be pretty sure that this is one of the
cases in which magic has dwindled into divination. So in the Eifel
Mountains, when the smoke blows towards the corn-fields, this is an
omen that the harvest will be abundant. But the older view may have
been not merely that the smoke and flames prognosticated, but that
they actually produced an abundant harvest, the heat of the flames
acting like sunshine on the corn. Perhaps it was with this view that
people in the Isle of Man lit fires to windward of their fields in
order that the smoke might blow over them. So in South Africa, about
the month of April, the Matabeles light huge fires to the windward
of their gardens, "their idea being that the smoke, by passing over
the crops, will assist the ripening of them." Among the Zulus also
"medicine is burned on a fire placed to windward of the garden, the
fumigation which the plants in consequence receive being held to
improve the crop." Again, the idea of our European peasants that the
corn will grow well as far as the blaze of the bonfire is visible,
may be interpreted as a remnant of the belief in the quickening and
fertilising power of the bonfires. The same belief, it may be
argued, reappears in the notion that embers taken from the bonfires
and inserted in the fields will promote the growth of the crops, and
it may be thought to underlie the customs of sowing flax-seed in the
direction in which the flames blow, of mixing the ashes of the
bonfire with the seed-corn at sowing, of scattering the ashes by
themselves over the field to fertilise it, and of incorporating a
piece of the Yule log in the plough to make the seeds thrive. The
opinion that the flax or hemp will grow as high as the flames rise
or the people leap over them belongs clearly to the same class of
ideas. Again, at Konz, on the banks of the Moselle, if the blazing
wheel which was trundled down the hillside reached the river without
being extinguished, this was hailed as a proof that the vintage
would be abundant. So firmly was this belief held that the
successful performance of the ceremony entitled the villagers to
levy a tax upon the owners of the neighbouring vineyards. Here the
unextinguished wheel might be taken to represent an unclouded sun,
which in turn would portend an abundant vintage. So the waggon-load
of white wine which the villagers received from the vineyards round
about might pass for a payment for the sunshine which they had
procured for the grapes. Similarly in the Vale of Glamorgan a
blazing wheel used to be trundled down hill on Midsummer Day, and if
the fire were extinguished before the wheel reached the foot of the
hill, the people expected a bad harvest; whereas if the wheel kept
alight all the way down and continued to blaze for a long time, the
farmers looked forward to heavy crops that summer. Here, again, it
is natural to suppose that the rustic mind traced a direct connexion
between the fire of the wheel and the fire of the sun, on which the
crops are dependent.

But in popular belief the quickening and fertilising influence of
the bonfires is not limited to the vegetable world; it extends also
to animals. This plainly appears from the Irish custom of driving
barren cattle through the midsummer fires, from the French belief
that the Yule log steeped in water helps cows to calve, from the
French and Serbian notion that there will be as many chickens,
calves, lambs, and kids as there are sparks struck out of the Yule
log, from the French custom of putting the ashes of the bonfires in
the fowls' nests to make the hens lay eggs, and from the German
practice of mixing the ashes of the bonfires with the drink of
cattle in order to make the animals thrive. Further, there are clear
indications that even human fecundity is supposed to be promoted by
the genial heat of the fires. In Morocco the people think that
childless couples can obtain offspring by leaping over the midsummer
bonfire. It is an Irish belief that a girl who jumps thrice over the
midsummer bonfire will soon marry and become the mother of many
children; in Flanders women leap over the midsummer fires to ensure
an easy delivery; in various parts of France they think that if a
girl dances round nine fires she will be sure to marry within the
year, and in Bohemia they fancy that she will do so if she merely
sees nine of the bonfires. On the other hand, in Lechrain people say
that if a young man and woman, leaping over the midsummer fire
together, escape unsmirched, the young woman will not become a
mother within twelve months; the flames have not touched and
fertilised her. In parts of Switzerland and France the lighting of
the Yule log is accompanied by a prayer that the women may bear
children, the she-goats bring forth kids, and the ewes drop lambs.
The rule observed in some places that the bonfires should be kindled
by the person who was last married seems to belong to the same class
of ideas, whether it be that such a person is supposed to receive
from, or to impart to, the fire a generative and fertilising
influence. The common practice of lovers leaping over the fires hand
in hand may very well have originated in a notion that thereby their
marriage would be blessed with offspring; and the like motive would
explain the custom which obliges couples married within the year to
dance to the light of torches. And the scenes of profligacy which
appear to have marked the midsummer celebration among the
Esthonians, as they once marked the celebration of May Day among
ourselves, may have sprung, not from the mere licence of
holiday-makers, but from a crude notion that such orgies were
justified, if not required, by some mysterious bond which linked the
life of man to the courses of the heavens at this turning-point of
the year.

At the festivals which we are considering the custom of kindling
bonfires is commonly associated with a custom of carrying lighted
torches about the fields, the orchards, the pastures, the flocks and
the herds; and we can hardly doubt that the two customs are only two
different ways of attaining the same object, namely, the benefits
which are believed to flow from the fire, whether it be stationary
or portable. Accordingly if we accept the solar theory of the
bonfires, we seem bound to apply it also to the torches; we must
suppose that the practice of marching or running with blazing
torches about the country is simply a means of diffusing far and
wide the genial influence of the sunshine of which these flickering

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