The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion
Page: 463The 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.