Copyright © 2003 Anna Franklin
Midsummer fires once blazed all across Europe and North Africa. As far east as Siberia, the Buryat tribe jumped over fires to purify and protect themselves. Such ritual fires had the power to protect the revelers from evil spirits, bad fairies, and wicked witches. They also warded off the powers of bane, blight, dark, death, and winter. At one time no selfrespecting village would be without its Midsummer fire, while in towns and cities the mayor and corporation actually paid for its construction, and the jollities accompanying it were often very elaborate. Even today some fires are still lit.
The word bonfire has an unclear etymology. It may be boon-fire, signifying a time of goodwill. It may be from the Nordic baun, meaning "torch" or "bane-fire," as it was a fire of purification and dispelled all evil things. It could even be bone-fire, since bones were often added. In the thirteenth century it was recorded that in Shropshire there were three types of fire, one of bones only called a bonfire, one of wood only called a wahefire, and a third of bones and wood called St.John's Fire.
Oatmeal cookies to celebrate Ostara.
The Midsummer fire had particular characteristics. It was constructed in a round shape on a sacred spot near a holy well, on a hilltop, or on a border of some kind. Such liminal sites were sacred to the Celts, who counted any boundary a magical place between places, giving entrance to and from the Otherworld. The fire was lit at sunset on Midsummer Eve, either with needfire kindled by the friction of two pieces of oak, or with a twig of gorse, itself a plant sacred to the sun. In parts of England it was the convention on St. John's Eve to light large bonfires after sundown to ward off evil spirits. This was known as "setting the watch." A Tudor poem declared:
When midsomer comes, with havens and bromes they do bonefires make,
And Swiftly, then, the nimble young men runne leaping over the same.
The women and maydens together do couple their handes.
With bagpipes sounde, they daunce a rounde; no malice among them stands.
Some localities also had a roasted ram feast for the occasion and there were various other customs associated with the event. Men and women danced around the fires and often jumped through them for good luck; to be blackened by the fire was considered very fortuitous indeed. Looking at the flames through larkspur flowers was thought to strengthen the eyesight. A branch lit at the fire was passed over the backs of animals to preserve them from disease. As late as 1900 at least one old farmer in Somerset would pass a burning branch over and under all his horses and cattle. The Cornish even passed children over the flames to protect them from disease in the coming year.
To this day, on June 23 in Cam Brae the first bonfire in a chain across Cornwall is lit. The chain extends from Lands End through to Sennen, Sancread Beacon, Cam Galver, and St. Agnes Beacon to the Tamar River. The local clergyman blesses the bonfires, in Cornish, while herbs and wild flowers are burnt.
Young people leap across the embers to drive away evil and to bring good luck. At St. Cleer the fire is crowned with a broomstick, and a sickle with a newly cut oak handle is thrown onto the flames to ensure the fertility of crops and men.
A Midsummer bonfire.
In Ireland large communal fires were lit and there would be music, dancing, and merriment around them. Some were so huge that a ladder was required to set the final fuel on the top. According to Lady Wilde, the young men would strip to the waist and leap backward and forward over the flames a number of times. The one who braved the greatest blaze was considered the victor over the powers of evil and was greeted with applause. When the fires had burned lower, the young girls would jump through, leaping backward and forward three times for luck and a speedy marriage.
The married women then walked through the embers of the fire, and finally when the fire was all but burnt out the yearling cattle were led through the warm ashes. A hazel twig would be set alight and drawn over the backs of the animals. These twigs were then considered fertility charms and used thereafter to drive the cattle to and from watering places. Eventually, after singing and storytelling, everyone would take a brand from the fire to their homes to rekindle the hearth fire. This had to be done without dropping the brand or letting it go out, and the men competed to be the first to reach home with a brand, for he brought the luck of the year with him.
Broken rosaries, religious statuettes, and books were thrown into the fire as a pious way of disposing of them. People would parade around the fire saying their rosaries or casting a pebble into the flames at the end of each prayer. The ashes would be taken home to sprinkle on the fields as a fertility charm or given to the old and sick to help ease their passing. The ashes were also used in charms to cure various diseases.
In Scotland the Midsummer fires were frowned on and forbidden by the Protestant Church after the Reformation. However, the inhabitants of northeast Scotland were reluctant to comply, as they believed that fire carried around the fields protected the crops and livestock. After more than a hundred years of struggle, the Church gave up, and the Reverend. Bisset lit a fire at his own gate and spread a table for the revelers. The fires once again flourished and wealthy merchants left bequests for them in their wills.
In the Shetlands, where the islanders are of Viking descent, the Johnmas fires were very popular, built with a foundation of bones, straw, seaweed, feathers, wool, and flowers. On the top a little bowl of fish oil was set, and a great blaze ensued. Any broken pots would be thrown onto it. In Orkney the fires were made of heather and peat and burned from sunset to sunrise.
In Germany images of the Winter Witch (the hag goddess of winter) and evil spirits were burned on the Midsummer fire. Images of animals associated with the sun were also burned to give it strength, including cats, cocks, and bulls. The fires were sympathetic magic to encourage the sun to shine enough to provide a good harvest. As people danced around the fires they would wear chaplets of mugwort and vervain. When they came to leave, they would cast the herbs into the fire saying, "May all my ill luck depart and burn with these."
In Sweden the night of St. John was celebrated as the most joyous of the year. Bonfires, called Baldur's Fires, were lit at dusk on hilltops and other eminencies. The fires consisted of nine different woods, and fungi were thrown onto the blaze to counteract the power of trolls, for the mountains open at Midsummer and all such fairies and spirits pour forth.
In Brittany the Tad-You was a person who oversaw the lighting and burning of the fire, as well as all the prayers and the blessing of the furze used to light the fire. A girl who dances around the Brittany baal fire will be married within the year.
In Wales the fires were lit from nine different types of wood with herbs and sweet-smelling flowers thrown onto them.
On the Celtic Isle of Man the islanders lit Midsummer fires on the windward side of every cornfield, and carried blazing torches over the fields to bless them. The ashes were credited with fertility powers, as were the embers and even the smoke.
As in Ireland, these fires were as common as those of Beltane, or more so. This seems to disprove those who claim that the solstice was not celebrated by the Celts, but only in those areas with a Saxon or Nordic influence.
Midsummer is one of the most ancient, widespread, and joyful Pagan festivals. The sun rises to the height of its power on the summer solstice, and Midsummer Eve is filled with fairy mischief and magic. Anna Franklin reveals the origins and customs of this enchanting holiday with:
·Myths and lore: The gods and goddesses of Midsummer, rolling wheels, the Midsummer tree, circle dancing, and torchlight processions
·Midsummer magic and divination: Fairy contact, spells, empowering magical tools with solstice sun energy, Midsummer Eve pillow divination
·Traditional summertime treats: Elderflower Fritters, Gooseberry Fool, Coamhain Soup, Strawberry Wine, Heather Ale, Clary Sage Tea
·Seasonal rituals: Rite of the Oak King and the Holly King, Cornish Flower Ritual, Witch Rite for Midsummer Day, Drawing Down the Sun
·Midsummer herb craft: Gathering and drying herbs for magical oils, incenses, inks, and teas; herb recipes, from Amun Ra to Sun Goddess Oil
Midsummer: Magical Celebrations of the Summer Solstice (Holiday Series) by Anna Franklin.
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