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The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion

Page: 469

But in popular belief the quickening and fertilising influence of the bonfires is not limited to the vegetable world; it extends also to animals. This plainly appears from the Irish custom of driving barren cattle through the midsummer fires, from the French belief that the Yule log steeped in water helps cows to calve, from the French and Serbian notion that there will be as many chickens, calves, lambs, and kids as there are sparks struck out of the Yule log, from the French custom of putting the ashes of the bonfires in the fowls’ nests to make the hens lay eggs, and from the German practice of mixing the ashes of the bonfires with the drink of cattle in order to make the animals thrive. Further, there are clear indications that even human fecundity is supposed to be promoted by the genial heat of the fires. In Morocco the people think that childless couples can obtain offspring by leaping over the midsummer bonfire. It is an Irish belief that a girl who jumps thrice over the midsummer bonfire will soon marry and become the mother of many children; in Flanders women leap over the midsummer fires to ensure an easy delivery; in various parts of France they think that if a girl dances round nine fires she will be sure to marry within the year, and in Bohemia they fancy that she will do so if she merely sees nine of the bonfires. On the other hand, in Lechrain people say that if a young man and woman, leaping over the midsummer fire together, escape unsmirched, the young woman will not become a mother within twelve months; the flames have not touched and fertilised her. In parts of Switzerland and France the lighting of the Yule log is accompanied by a prayer that the women may bear children, the she-goats bring forth kids, and the ewes drop lambs. The rule observed in some places that the bonfires should be kindled by the person who was last married seems to belong to the same class of ideas, whether it be that such a person is supposed to receive from, or to impart to, the fire a generative and fertilising influence. The common practice of lovers leaping over the fires hand in hand may very well have originated in a notion that thereby their marriage would be blessed with offspring; and the like motive would explain the custom which obliges couples married within the year to dance to the light of torches. And the scenes of profligacy which appear to have marked the midsummer celebration among the Esthonians, as they once marked the celebration of May Day among ourselves, may have sprung, not from the mere licence of holiday-makers, but from a crude notion that such orgies were justified, if not required, by some mysterious bond which linked the life of man to the courses of the heavens at this turning-point of the year.

At the festivals which we are considering the custom of kindling bonfires is commonly associated with a custom of carrying lighted torches about the fields, the orchards, the pastures, the flocks and the herds; and we can hardly doubt that the two customs are only two different ways of attaining the same object, namely, the benefits which are believed to flow from the fire, whether it be stationary or portable. Accordingly if we accept the solar theory of the bonfires, we seem bound to apply it also to the torches; we must suppose that the practice of marching or running with blazing torches about the country is simply a means of diffusing far and wide the genial influence of the sunshine of which these flickering flames are a feeble imitation. In favour of this view it may be said that sometimes the torches are carried about the fields for the express purpose of fertilising them, and with the same intention live coals from the bonfires are sometimes placed in the fields to prevent blight. On the eve of Twelfth Day in Normandy men, women, and children run wildly through the fields and orchards with lighted torches, which they wave about the branches and dash against the trunks of the fruit-trees for the sake of burning the moss and driving away the moles and field-mice. “They believe that the ceremony fulfills the double object of exorcising the vermin whose multiplication would be a real calamity, and of imparting fecundity to the trees, the fields, and even the cattle”; and they imagine that the more the ceremony is prolonged, the greater will be the crop of fruit next autumn. In Bohemia they say that the corn will grow as high as they fling the blazing besoms into the air. Nor are such notions confined to Europe. In Corea, a few days before the New Year festival, the eunuchs of the palace swing burning torches, chanting invocations the while, and this is supposed to ensure bountiful crops for the next season. The custom of trundling a burning wheel over the fields, which used to be observed in Poitou for the express purpose of fertilising them, may be thought to embody the same idea in a still more graphic form; since in this way the mock-sun itself, not merely its light and heat represented by torches, is made actually to pass over the ground which is to receive its quickening and kindly influence. Once more, the custom of carrying lighted brands round cattle is plainly equivalent to driving the animals through the bonfire; and if the bonfire is a suncharm, the torches must be so also.


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