Wheels on Fire

06 23 john the baptistToday it is Saint John’s Eve, the day before the feast of Saint John the Baptist. John was cousin to Jesus and the Bible tells us that he was six months older. So, we have his feast day now, around midsummer, because we have Christmas around midwinter. But most of the traditions associated with the celebration seem to have little to do with a desert-dwelling saint. Like some of our Christmas traditions, its pagan roots are definitely showing.

Saint John’s Eve was quite a significant celebration in Europe up until the nineteenth century. As Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the feast of Saint John was placed around the time of the Summer Solstice. We know that these days were significant in ancient times because many of our stone circles and burial chambers are aligned with the sunrise on those days.

06 23 saint john's eve fireCentral to the Saint John’s Eve festivities was the bonfire, which was often built at the top of a hill. It was thought to offer protection from evil spirits who were generally on the loose at this time of year. In Sweden, for example, it was thought that, on this night, the mountains cracked open and trolls were set free. According to a thirteenth century monk from Winchcomb Abbey in Gloucestershire, the fires were built from bones instead of wood. Indeed the word bonfire is most likely a corruption of bone fire. The idea of building a fire of bones was to create as much foul-smelling smoke as possible. This, he says, was necessary to drive away dragons which it seems were a particular problem at this time of year. The whole difficulty with dragons at midsummer, was that this was the time that they gathered in the air to mate. This caused them to drop their ‘seed’ into rivers and wells which poisoned the water which was clearly awful. Though I would have thought that a dragon, of all things, would have been used to the smell of burning bones. Maybe they weren’t the fire-breathing kind.

A second tradition mentioned by the monk was rolling a wheel down a hill. The wheel, he tells us, “is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.” These kind of events feature in the Saint Johns Eve celebrations all over Northern Europe and sometimes the two were combined. If we skip to the sixteenth century, in the village of Konz, in the Moselle Valley, we find people rolling their bonfire down a hill. A wheel would be covered in brushwood or straw and set on fire at the top of the hill. It would then be guided down the slope by a couple of brave souls. The aim was to roll it into the river. It wasn’t easy as there were plenty of vineyards to negotiate on the way. If they succeeded, they were entitled to a wagon load of wine. If they failed, their cattle would be attacked by fits of giddiness and convulsions and would “dance in their stalls”.

Like other ceremonial fires, the smoke from a Saint John’s Eve bonfire was thought to protect livestock and the ashes were supposed to have protective qualities too. They could be taken away and buried it the fields to protect crops or placed in the eaves of a house to protect it from lightening or from fire in the following year.

06 23 larkspurFlower garlands were often an important part of the celebrations too. In some places they were cast onto the bonfire, in others they had to be rescued from the flames. I found that, in several areas of Germany, people believed that looking at the fire through a garland of flowers, particularly larkspur or mugwort, was supposed to protect one from eye diseases in the following year. I really can’t explain why protection against eye diseases in particular, should be a feature of this festival. The problems with dancing cattle and poisonous dragon sperm are equally opaque, but they don’t seem to have much to do with the story of John the Baptist.

Eye Popping

06 22 saint alban portraitToday is the feast day on Saint Alban, who was the first recorded Christian martyr in Britain. The actual year this happened is not clear, but it is placed somewhere between 209 and 304 AD, during the time that the Romans still occupied Britain. In fact, we cant be certain that he existed at all. There is a vague mention of an unnamed somebody who sounds a bit like him, dating from the end of the fourth century, but we mainly know about him from a visiting bishop called Germanus.

Germanus had travelled from France, in about 429 AD, to sort out a problem that we really don’t need to go into here, but during his visit, he went to pray at the grave of Saint Alban. The legend claims that, at that time, no one knew anything about Saint Alban, not even his name. But the Saint came to Germanus in a dream. He told the Bishop his name and the circumstances of his martyrdom, which are these:

Alban, who was then a Pagan, sheltered a Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution. He was so impressed by his new friend’s devotion to his god that he began to pray with him. When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the holy man’s clothes and presented himself in his stead. Even though it was perfectly clear that this was not the man they wanted, he was sentenced to death anyway because of his beliefs.

The spot chosen for his execution was a little way off, over a river and on top of a hill. We are told that it was a very beautiful place with lots of flowers. When he was marched off, under guard, so many people had turned out to witness the spectacle that they found their way across the bridge blocked by the throng. It is a feature of early Christian martyrs that they really wanted to die, so they could get to heaven as quickly as possible. Alban was no exception. Impatient for his martyrdom, he caused the river to dry up so they could hurry across the riverbed unhindered. His executioner was so impressed that he immediately converted to Christianity. Once at the top of the hill Alban found he was thirsty and a spring of water appeared from the ground at his feet.

His newly converted executioner now refused to perform the task. He asked if he could be martyred instead of Alban, but both were beheaded by a second executioner. At the moment that Alban’s head was struck off, and rolled away down the hill, the second executioner’s eyes popped out of his head and fell on the ground. So he was unable to rejoice at the saint’s death.

06 22 saint alban

There is another episode in the Germanus’s visit to Britain that I will mention briefly. At some point on his journey, he suffered an injury and was bedridden for a time. A fire broke out in a nearby house, which spread quickly. Everyone tried very hard to get the bishop to move to safety, but he wouldn’t. Although everything else was burned, the house where Germanus lay remained untouched.

Evidence for the existence of Saint Alban is tenuous to say the least, since he has only ever appeared in a dream. But it is enough for many to see him as a viable contender for National Saint, in place of Saint George, who never even set foot here. What I found most intriguing about this story though, are its mentions of flowers, of blindness, of something rolling down a hill and of things protected from fire. They are all themes which will come up again tomorrow, when I talk about Saint John’s Eve. I feel there is something in the legend of Saint Alban, and in the celebrations connected with Saint John’s Eve that hint at something much older that Christianity.

Eyes in the Darkness

12 13 eyesToday is the feast day of two saints, Saint Lucia of Syracuse and Saint Odile of Alsace. When I look at early Christian saints, it is quite often the way they are represented in art that makes me want to learn more. Some times they are shown with objects relating to their lives, sometimes they are carrying something that represents the nature of their martyrdom. Interestingly, both Lucia and Odile are often pictured holding their own eyes. Although they look quite similar, their stories are very different.

12 13 saint luciaSaint Lucia was martyred in the year 304 for refusing to offer a sacrifice to a statue of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The governor of Syracuse at first ordered her to be taken away and put in a brothel. When his guards tried to take her away, they found that she could not be moved. Not even when they tied a team of oxen to her and tried to drag her away. So next they just piled up some wood around her and tried to set fire to her. But she wouldn’t burn either. So she was finally put to death by the sword. Then, in the fifteenth century, a new element of the story emerged. Before she died, she foretold the death of the Emperor and the governor was so angry that he had her eyes put out before she was killed. In yet another version, Lucia is relentlessly pursued by a persistent and unwanted admirer, who constantly tells her what beautiful eyes she has. Eventually, she gouges out her own eyes, sends them to him and says if he likes them so much, he can have them.

12 13 saint odileSaint Odile, on the other hand, is not a martyr. She lived in France between 660 and 720 and was born blind. Because of this, her father didn’t want anything to do with her. To him, and everyone else, bearing a child with a disability was a punishment for sin and that reflected badly on him. So she wound up in a monastery. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Regensburg had a dream that he should seek out the child and baptise her. At her baptism, her sight was restored and he gave her the name Odilia, Sol Dei which means Sun of God.

12 13 santa luciaLucia’s name comes from the Latin ‘Lux’, which means light. This set me thinking about what eyes and light have to do with December 13th. Saint Lucia (also Lucy) in much celebrated in Nordic countries with a procession of girls in white robes, one of whom will be wearing a crown of candles, whilst the others carry a single candle. What you need to know is, that for a long time in Europe, we had our calendar terribly wrong. Well in truth is was only a little bit wrong, but the effect was cumulative. Over a period of four hundred years, the old Julian Calendar would add an extra three days to the year. This meant that, at the time Christianity became popular in the far north of Europe, December 13th was fixed as the shortest day of the year. It was only when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced that the Winter Solstice was moved back to around December 21st. In the far north, people suffer particularly from lack of light during the winter months and in the extreme north, the sun will not rise at all. So it’s not surprising that they needed a festival to celebrate the point at which the days would begin to grow longer again.

12 13 extramissionThen I had a look at what out ancestors believed about eyes. Obviously without eyes, we cannot perceive light; but in the distant past people had a rather different concept of how eyes worked. They did not understand that we see an object because the light reflected from it enters our eyes. Rather they thought we could see because rays of light came from our eyes, illuminating the object. Of course, if this were true, we would all be able to see perfectly well in the dark. But they pushed on with their theory, saying that it was a reaction between the light from the eye and another light source, such as the sun, really until Newton suggested otherwise in the eighteenth century. The idea of rays which travel from the eyes to the object allows for the fact that things can be changed by looking at them and it is from this that we get the concept of ‘the evil eye’ – that a spell can be cast on someone with a glance. So maybe that is why the governor of Syracuse is said to have removed Lucia’s eyes. In case she was casting a spell on the statue of the Emperor that would make her prophecy come true. Of course, things do change when you look at them, but that belongs to the realm of quantum physics and things I don’t really understand.

Most likely, the eyes of Saint Lucia and Saint Odile are representing the sense of which we are robbed in the darkest days of winter, and the sun’s imminent return. Saint Odile’s sight is restored and miraculously, after the death of Saint Lucia, it was found that her eyes had been restored to her. In England on the feast day of Saint Lucia, the only work allowed was tillage, which basically means getting the soil ready for next year’s crops. So, when we strip everything away, what we probably have is a celebration of the return of light to the world and an anticipation of the return of the growing season.

Lucia does have a darker side though and, forgive me for mentioning scary Christmas visitors again, in Italy, children who leave out a cup of coffee for Saint Lucia and a carrot for her donkey will receive a gift from her. But if you catch sight of her, she will throw ashes into your eyes. In Norway there is, in legend, a character called Lussi. She is a kind of witch who rides through the skies heralding the arrival of all sorts of demons and trolls, so it’s best to stay indoors. Unfortunately, if you’re a naughty child, even that might not save you. She might come down your chimney and carry you away. If you haven’t finished your preparations for Yule, she might also punish you. The best course of action is to keep the lights on and party all night. Then she’ll have to stay away.