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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 446

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.”


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