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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 464

Various rules were also laid down as to the kind of persons who might or should make the need-fire. Sometimes it was said that the two persons who pulled the rope which twirled the roller should always be brothers or at least bear the same baptismal name; sometimes it was deemed sufficient if they were both chaste young men. In some villages of Brunswick people thought that if everybody who lent a hand in kindling the need-fire did not bear the same Christian name, they would labour in vain. In Silesia the tree employed to produce the need-fire used to be felled by a pair of twin brothers. In the western islands of Scotland the fire was kindled by eighty-one married men, who rubbed two great planks against each other, working in relays of nine; in North Uist the nine times nine who made the fire were all first-begotten sons, but we are not told whether they were married or single. Among the Serbians the need-fire is sometimes kindled by a boy and girl between eleven and fourteen years of age, who work stark naked in a dark room; sometimes it is made by an old man and an old woman also in the dark. In Bulgaria, too, the makers of need-fire strip themselves of their clothes; in Caithness they divested themselves of all kinds of metal. If after long rubbing of the wood no fire was elicited they concluded that some fire must still be burning in the village; so a strict search was made from house to house, any fire that might be found was put out, and the negligent householder punished or upbraided; indeed a heavy fine might be inflicted on him.

When the need-fire was at last kindled, the bonfire was lit from it, and as soon as the blaze had somewhat died down, the sick animals were driven over the glowing embers, sometimes in a regular order of precedence, first the pigs, next the cows, and last of all the horses. Sometimes they were driven twice or thrice through the smoke and flames, so that occasionally some of them were scorched to death. As soon as all the beasts were through, the young folk would rush wildly at the ashes and cinders, sprinkling and blackening each other with them; those who were most blackened would march in triumph behind the cattle into the village and would not wash themselves for a long time. From the bonfire people carried live embers home and used them to rekindle the fires in their houses. These brands, after being extinguished in water, they sometimes put in the managers at which the cattle fed, and kept them there for a while. Ashes from the need-fire were also strewed on the fields to protect the crops against vermin; sometimes they were taken home to be employed as remedies in sickness, being sprinkled on the ailing part or mixed in water and drunk by the patient. In the western islands of Scotland and on the adjoining mainland, as soon as the fire on the domestic hearth had been rekindled from the need-fire a pot full of water was set on it, and the water thus heated was afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague or upon the cattle that were tainted by the murrain. Special virtue was attributed to the smoke of the bonfire; in Sweden fruit-trees and nets were fumigated with it, in order that the trees might bear fruit and the nets catch fish. In the Highlands of Scotland the need-fire was accounted a sovereign remedy for witchcraft. In the island of Mull, when the fire was kindled as a cure for the murrain, we hear of the rite being accompanied by the sacrifice of a sick heifer, which was cut in pieces and burnt. Slavonian and Bulgarian peasants conceive cattle-plague as a foul fiend or vampyre which can be kept at bay by interposing a barrier of fire between it and the herds. A similar conception may perhaps have originally everywhere underlain the use of the need-fire as a remedy for the murrain. It appears that in some parts of Germany the people did not wait for an outbreak of cattleplague, but, taking time by the forelock, kindled a need-fire annually to prevent the calamity. Similarly in Poland the peasants are said to kindle fires in the village streets every year on St. Rochus’s day and to drive the cattle thrice through them in order to protect the beasts against the murrain. We have seen that in the Hebrides the cattle were in like manner driven annually round the Beltane fires for the same purpose. In some cantons of Switzerland children still kindle a need-fire by the friction of wood for the sake of dispelling a mist.


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