James George Frazer.

Balder the Beautiful, Volume I. A Study in Magic and Religion: the Golden Bough, Part VII., The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the External Soul online

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witchcraft, thunder, hail, and cattle disease; the fire kindled by the
friction of wood.]

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

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

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

[The Midsummer fires among the South Slavs.]

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

[The Midsummer fires among the Magyars of Hungary.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Normandy the midsummer fires have now almost disappeared, at least in
the district known as the Bocage, but they used to shine on every hill.
They were commonly made by piling brushwood, broom, and ferns about a
tall tree, which was decorated with a crown of moss and sometimes with
flowers. While they burned, people danced and sang round them, and young
folk leaped over the flames or the glowing ashes. In the valley of the
Orne the custom was to kindle the bonfire just at the moment when the
sun was about to dip below the horizon; and the peasants drove their
cattle through the fires to protect them against witchcraft, especially
against the spells of witches and wizards who attempted to steal the
milk and butter.[462] At 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, such as
is required by the church on fast-days, was served up to them. Then they
danced before the door till it was time to light the bonfire. Night
being come, the fire was kindled to the sound of hand-bells by a young
man and a young woman, both decked with flowers. As the flames rose, the
_Te Deum_ was sung, and a villager thundered out a parody in the Norman
dialect of the hymn _ut queant laxis_. Meantime the Green Wolf and his
brothers, with their hoods down on their shoulders and holding each
other by the hand, ran round the fire after the man who had been chosen
to be the Green Wolf of the following year. Though only the first and
the last man of the chain had a hand free, their business was to
surround and seize thrice the future Green Wolf, who in his efforts to
escape belaboured the brothers with a long wand which he carried. When
at last they succeeded in catching him they carried him to the burning
pile and made as if they would throw him on it. This ceremony over, they
returned to the house of the Green Wolf, where a supper, still of the
most meagre fare, was set before them. Up till midnight a sort of
religious solemnity prevailed. No unbecoming word might fall from the
lips of any of the company, and a censor, armed with a hand-bell, was
appointed to mark and punish instantly any infraction of the rule. But
at the stroke of twelve all this was changed. Constraint gave way to
license; pious hymns were replaced by Bacchanalian ditties, and the
shrill quavering notes of the village fiddle hardly rose above the roar
of voices that went up from the merry brotherhood of the Green Wolf.
Next day, the twenty-fourth of June or Midsummer Day, was celebrated by
the same personages with the same noisy gaiety. One of the ceremonies
consisted in parading, to the sound of musketry, an enormous loaf of
consecrated bread, which, rising in tiers, was surmounted by a pyramid
of verdure adorned with ribbons. After that the holy handbells,
deposited on the step of the altar, were entrusted as insignia of office
to the man who was to be the Green Wolf next year.[463]

[The Midsummer fires in Picardy.]

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

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

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

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

In the department of the Ardennes every one was wont to contribute his

Online LibraryJames George FrazerBalder the Beautiful, Volume I. A Study in Magic and Religion: the Golden Bough, Part VII., The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the External Soul → online text (page 19 of 38)