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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 457

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.


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