The Golden Bough | Study Guide

James George Frazer

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The Golden Bough | Chapter 62 | Summary



Chapter 62: The Fire-Festivals of Europe

Chapter 62 has eight sections that relate annual fire festivals held throughout Europe at specific times of the year.

1. The Fire-festivals in general

Frazer believes fire festivals originated long before the spread of Christianity. People would often "dance round or leap over" the fires. Effigies might be burned in the flames, or a living person might pretend to be burned up. Actual human sacrifices may have happened in ancient times. Most bonfires were kindled in spring or summer, but they also took place in autumn and winter, and on holidays such as Halloween and Christmas.

2. The Lenten Fires

Bonfires in spring were usually held on the first Sunday of Lent. Sometimes a straw man, an effigy, or a pole called "the witch" was burned in the fire. The fires were meant to ensure plentiful crops, a happy marriage, and good health. Children might race among the orchards with lighted torches, calling out to the trees to bear fruit. Livestock was sometimes driven through the smoke and flames as a form of purification, to safeguard them from disease and witchcraft. Fires were lit in villages and at farms everywhere, "on the heights and in the plains." Flaming wheels of straw might also be rolled down hills at night, which was sometime called "burning the witch." Flaming discs resembling the sun or stars were launched into the air. Frazer then recaps the custom of "carrying out death," which happened at the same time of year in many place; he theorizes it may have been a charm to ensure crop growth.

3. The Easter Fires

Fires were kindled in Catholic countries on Easter Eve. The lights in churches would be put out and then rekindled using a special Easter candle. A bonfire might be lit, and people would char sticks in it and take them home to light the fire in their own hearth. This "new fire" was thought to protect the home against fire and severe weather. The charred sticks might also be placed in the fields to protect them from disease, pests, witches, and hail. Sometimes "a wooden figure called Judas" was burned in the bonfire. Bonfires were also lit atop hills, sometimes called "Easter Mountain"; as far as the light shone, the fields would be fertile. Frazer recognizes the nature of these fires as essentially pagan based on the celebrations and the "superstitious beliefs" surrounding them.

4. The Beltane Fires

The Beltane Fires were lit on the hills of Scotland and elsewhere around the first of May. A large "need-fire"—or fire built in a time of need—was kindled to ward off witchcraft and disease, after which there would be feasting, song, and dance. A "Beltane cake" was divided and eaten, and whomever received a specially designated piece—sometimes called the "carline" (Old Woman)—was jokingly punished in various ways. He might be seized and mock thrown into the fire, a custom Frazer surmises descended from actual human sacrifices. People might also leap over the bonfires, which "protected the lands from sorcery" and was believed to guarantee a good harvest.

5. The Midsummer Fires

The most common fire festivals occurred around the summer solstice and were similar in nature to the springtime fires. These generally featured bonfires, torchlit processions, or a rolling wheel set afire. The fires were believed to drive off witches, trolls, evil spirits, and even the devil. Young men and women would leap over the fires holding hands to encourage the crops to grow, and cattle were driven through the smoke or fire to ward off illness. In Norway the bonfires were sometimes called Balder's Balefires. In Austria an effigy of Martin Luther was burned. Numerous additional midsummer customs are related, from France to Greece to Morocco.

6. The Hallowe'en Fires

The Halloween fires were lit at the end of October just before All Saints' Day. Frazer notes that this date did not coincide with astrological occurrences—solstices and equinoxes—nor with planting or harvest time. Instead, it was likely important to herdsman, as it signaled the "approach of winter," a time when the herds would be driven back to shelter from the open fields. He conjectures early people divided the year with two important markers, the beginning of summer and the beginning of winter, and these corresponded to May Day and Halloween celebrations, which were similar in nature. Halloween marked the New Year for the Celts; it was met with newly kindled fires, divination for the year to come, the honoring of the dead, and—supposedly—the flight of witches, fairies, and hobgoblins. Large bonfires were lit atop hills, and stones might be cast into the fire so people could use them to read omens the next morning.

7. The Midwinter Fires

Other fire festivals were held around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Frazer states that the custom has survived into modern times in the form of the Yule log, kindled in homes because of the disagreeable weather. Thus, the midwinter celebrations were more domestic and family oriented rather than public or communal. The Yule log might be slowly burned all year long, or it might only be charred at midwinter and then reserved for other uses throughout the year. Many Yule logs were made of oak, which Frazer associates with the god of thunder, to whom the oak was sacred. Thus, the log was thought to protect the home from fire, lightning, and thunder. Its ashes could "save the wheat from mildew" and ensure fertility to the crops, among other magical effects.

8. The Need-fire

Fires also were built as needed during times of "distress and calamity," especially disease. All other fires would be extinguished, and the need-fire would be kindled by "the friction of two pieces of wood," usually oak. Sick animals were driven through the smoke or fire, and live coals would be taken home to restoke the family fire.


James George Frazer makes several references throughout Chapter 62 to Christianity, and how Christian rites and customs became associated with or even overtook the pagan celebrations of fire festivals. Thus, the midsummer fires become associated with St. John's Eve and the Halloween fires with the All Saints' or All Hallows' Day. The author believes such celebrations had their origins long before Christianity took hold in Europe, however. As proof he notes Christians tried to exterminate the custom of fire festivals in the eighth century. Moreover, while the Lenten fires were clearly associated with the Christian period of Lent, its customs closely resembled earlier pagan fire festivals, making it likely the Lenten fires evolved from previously existing traditions. The straw effigy burned at many fire festivals, which may have originally represented a vegetative deity, became an effigy of Judas (the betrayer of Christ) or even Martin Luther (a monk much despised by the Catholic Church for his role in popularizing Protestantism).

Two important and related elements of the chapter are magic and witchcraft. The festival fires were believed to have magical properties, conferring both protection and prosperity to the people, the village, the fields, and livestock. A fire's magical properties might exist in its smoke, ashes, embers, or the flames itself, which were believed to purify or destroy, driving away the evil influences of everything from witches to weevils. Objects such as the flaming discs hurled into the air were magical sun charms, their flames enticing the sun to shine with a similar light and heat—an instance of imitative magic.

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