Before it burns out
It will have roared first and mixed sparks with stars,
And sweeping round it with a flaming sword,
Made the dim trees stand back in wider circle
There’s something about mid-January that makes me want to dance around a bonfire.
The chill in the air—so delightfully nippy just a few months ago—has grown vampire teeth that leach the life right out of me. Corpses of fallen trees, splintered beneath the weight of the last ice storm, litter the roads. Death is everywhere.
We’ve crossed the solstice threshold, and daylight is expanding its reach again. But it’s as if the energy required to reverse its decline has sapped the sun of all its power. It shines weakly, if at all.
Dancing ’round the bonfire is an act of sympathetic magic. The sun might waver, but by lighting a bonfire we capture a tiny piece of it and feed it fuel to make it grow. As we circumambulate, we also feed it energy from our bodies as if blowing on newly sparked tinder to start a blaze. Would the sun continue to wax toward summer if we didn’t? Of course. Probably. Maybe. There’s no proof either way. But sending power to the sun also fans the flames within. That’s where the real magic happens.
For me, no image captures that feeling like Jules Breton’s St. John’s Eve (top image). It’s a midsummer scene in which a group of women dance barefoot around a fire. Some have their heads tilted back, lost in the moment. Their arms are linked, lending each other momentum as they grind their mill around a miniature central star. Whether they know it or not, they’re participating in an age-old ritual to help ease sun’s passage into the underworld for the next six months.
Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound
Breton was a 19th-century painter in the French realism style who often painted peasant laborers against luminous rural backdrops. A chronicler of pagans (in the original sense of the word), he depicted both the joy and despair of their backbreaking way of life.
To Breton’s country dwellers, fire represented both. It gave them life-sustaining warmth, yet it devoured life too, posing a constant but unavoidable threat to all they held dear. Reveling around a bonfire was, I imagine, as much an act of defiance as celebration.
St. John’s Eve marked the night before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist, who was said to have been born roughly six months before Jesus. In neopagan terms, that makes him the Holly King to Jesus’ Oak King—the young sun god who battles with his elder for control over the year. In fact, Jesus is generally believed to have been a follower of John, who, according to the New Testament, fully expected to be supplanted by the coming of a messianic figure even greater than himself.
It’s interesting that St. John is one of just a handful of saints who’s celebrated on his birthday rather than the anniversary of his death.
The bonfire was much a part of St. John’s festival as the yule log is a part of Christmas. Some villages (or even entire parishes) lit one communal fire for everyone to share. In other places, each household had its own blessed fire. Here’s an Irish schoolmaster’s account of the festival, written in 1943:
The young people used to gather from the marshy ground near the river Deel the large leaf and strong stem the hocusfian as it was called and each youth armed with one of these went around lightly striking each person that he or she met. This was supposed to protect those who were struck from illness and evil influences during the coming year. Afterwards, the hocus stems were thrown into the fire. Here, too, people threw into the fire specimens of the most troublesome weeds in the district—this was supposed to protect the fields from these weeds.
Old people told me that it was customary to jump over the fire from side to side. Some wise elder claimed to be able to tell, from the manner of jumping and the flickering of the fire, whether the jumpers were guilty or not of certain misdemeanors, such as theft or misbehavior with women.
Some people used to take the ashes from the fire then extinct on St. John’s morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too about after midnight any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot sods to his new home so that the very first fire there would be started by the ceremonial bonfire.
About the year 1905 a very old man told me that his grandfather had told him that in his young day – in the late 18th century – the young men used to walk through the fields with lighted torches and then cast these into the fire. This was supposed to bring a blessing on the fields and protect the crops from harm.
Right now we’re just past the opposite spoke on the wheel from the festival in Breton’s painting. Can you feel midsummer pulling at us from across the year, drawing out the light a little more each day?
Featured image: The Feast of St. John by Jules Breton, PD-US