YULE, BELTANE, & HALLOWEEN FESTIVALS:
Survivals of Ancient Sun and Fire Worship,
To sun worshippers no season would be better calculated to excite devotional feelings towards the great
luminary than the period when he attained the zenith of his strength. It is probable, therefore, that as his movements must have been closely observed, and his various phases regarded by the people, in the language of Scripture, "for signs and for seasons, for days and for years," that the turning points in the sun's yearly course, the solstices, would naturally become periods of worship. That the Summer solstice was an important religious period is rendered probable from the following curious observation concerning Stonehenge, which appeared in the Notes and Queries portion of the Scotsman newspaper for July 31, 1875. The Scotman's correspondent states that " a party of Americans went on midsummer morning this year to see the sun rise upon Stonehenge.
They found crowds of people assembled. Stonehenge, "continues the writer," may roughly be described as comprising seven-eighths of a circle, from the open ends of which there runs eastward an avenue having upright stones on either side. At some distance beyond this avenue, but in a direct line with its centre, stands one solitary stone in a sloping position; in front of which, but at a considerable distance, is an eminence or hill. The point of observation chosen by the excursion party was the stone table or altar near the head of, and within the circle, directly looking down. The morning was unfavourable, but, fortunately, just as the sun was beginning to appear over the top of the hill, the mist disappeared, and then, for a few moments, the onlookers stood amazed at the spectacle presented to their view. While it lasted, the sun, like an immense ball, appeared actually to rest on the isolated stone of which mention has been made. Now, in this," says
a writer in the New Quarterly Magazine for January, 1876, commenting upon the statement of the Scotsman's correspondent, "we find strong proof that Stonehenge was really a mighty almanac in stone; doubtless also a temple of the sun, erected by a race which has long perished without intelligible record."
I think it is not a very fanciful supposition to suppose, from the still existing names of places in this country
bearing reference to sun-worship, that there were other places than Stonehenge which were used as stone almanac's
"for signs and for seasons," and also for temples. Grenach in Perthshire, meaning Field of the Sun, where there is a large stone circle, may have been such a place; and Grian-chnox, now Greenock, meaning Knoll of the Sun, may have originally marked the place where the sun's rising became visible at a certain period of the year, from a stone circle in the neighbourhood. As far as I have been able to discover, there remains to us little trace of the manner in which the midsummer feast was kept in this country in prehistoric times, but so far as traces do remain, they appear to indicate that it was celebrated much after the same manner as the Scottish Celts are said to have celebrated Beltane. Indeed, the Celtic Irish hold their Beilteme feast on the 21st June, and their fires are kindled on the tops of hills, and each member of a family is, in order to secure good luck, obliged to pass through the fire. On this occasion also, a feast is held. A similar practice was common in West Cornwall at midsummer. Fires were kindled, and the people danced round them, and leaped singly through the flames to ensure good luck and protection against witchcraft. The following passage occurs in Traditions
and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, by William Bottreill, 1873:—" Many years ago, on Midsummer eve, when it became dusk, very old people in the west country would hobble away to some high ground whence they obtained a view of the most prominent high hill, such as Bartinney Chapel, Cambrae, Sancras Bickan, Castle-au-dinas, Cam-Gulver, St. Agnes-Bickan, and many other beacon hills far away to the north and east which vied with each other in their midsummer night blaze. They counted the fires, and drew a presage from the number of them. There are now but few bonfires to be seen on the western heights; yet we have observed that Tregonan, Godolphin, and Carnwarth hills, with others far away towards Redruth, still retain their Baal fires.
We would gladly go many miles to see the weird-looking, yet picturesque dancers around the flames, on a cairn or high hill top, as we have seen them some forty years ago." The ancient Egyptians had their midsummer feasts, as also had the Greeks and Romans. During these festivals, we are told that the people, headed by the priests, walked in procession, carrying flowers and other emblems of the season in honour of their gods. Such processions were continued during the early years of the Christian Church, and the Christian priests in their vestments went into the
fields to ask a blessing on the agricultural produce of the year. Towards the beginning of the twelfth century the Church introduced the Feast of God, and fixed the 19th June for its celebration. The eucharistic elements were declared to be the actual presence of God, and this, the consecrated Host or God himself was carried through the
open streets by a procession of priests, the people turning
out to do it honour, kneeling and worshipping as it passed. This feast of God may have absorbed some of the ancient midsummer practices, but the Feast of St. John's Day, which is held upon the 24th June, has in its customs a greater similarity to the ancient sun feast. On the eve of St. John's day, people went to the woods and brought home branches of trees, which they fixed over their doorways. Towards night of St John's Day, bonfires were kindled, and round them the people danced with frantic mirth, and men and boys leaped through the flames. Leaping through the flames is a common practice at these survivals of sun festivals, and although done now, partly for luck and partly for sport, there can be little doubt but that originally human sacrifices were then offered to the sun god.
There was quite a host of curious superstitions connected with this midsummer feast, especially in Ireland and Germany, and many of these were similar to those connected with the feast of Halloween in Scotland. In Ireland, in olden times, it was believed that the souls of people left their sleeping bodies, and visited the place where death would ultimately overtake them; and there were many who, in consequence, would not sleep, but sat up all night. People also went out on St. John's eve to gather certain plants which were held as sacred, such as the rose, the trifoil, St. John's wort, and vervain, the possession of which gave them influence over evil. To catch the seed of the fern as it fell to the ground on St. John's eve, exactly at twelve o'clock, was believed to confer upon the persons who caught it the power of rendering themselves invisible at will. In my opinion, the great prehistoric midsummer festival
to the sun god has diverged into the two Church feasts, Eucharist and St. John's day ; but St. John's day has absorbed the greater share of old customs and superstitious ideas, and so numerous are they that the most meagre description of them would yield matter for an hour's reading.