Last night was St John’s Eve. In rural areas of Ireland it is bonfire night.
This is a classic case of a pagan festival that the catholic church tried to muscle into the Christian sphere by shoehorning a Saint into the mix. It is remarkable in that it celebrates the birth of St John the Baptist. Most Saints and Martyrs are commemorated on the day of their death.
St John’s day replaces a Celtic Summer Solstice festival which honoured the Goddess Áine. She was a goddess of light, fertility and kingship. The concepts of fertility and kingship were inexorably linked in the Celtic pantheon. The Lammas Kings (also known as Corn Kings) were “married” to the land (and celebrated at Lughnasa). They lived the high life as long as the land produced. But they typically reigned for only seven years.
In some traditions the king was sacrificed for the continued fertility of the land. In other traditions young clansmen could compete for the opportunity to challenge the corn king in single combat to the death.
It is easy to see how this ancient tradition of Kings tying their lives to the fate of the people could be molded and replaced with the central mystery of Christianity, a saviour who dies on our behalf.
The festival of Áine was marked by bonfires lit on the solstice, the shortest night of the year. The Christian festival shifted out three days. Who knows why? Maybe to separate the Christian and Pagan traditions? To identify those holding on to the old ways, so they could be targeted for conversion?
In the Pagan Lammas tradition the Solstice might have represented the last celebration of the existing Corn King, before he faced sacrifice or replacement. Indeed the bonfire tradition may have originated from the sacrifice of the Corn King. There are many details of Celtic religions lost to us because they were not documented, and they were expunged by Christian proselytisers.
If you go to the cities in Ireland nobody will know that this is bonfire night, especially in Dublin. But rural people live close to the land. They retain old traditions, especially those linked to the fertility of the land. Always good to have a backup deity on standby 🙂
So if you want to celebrate with a bonfire on St John’s Night go to the most rural areas of Ireland. Go west!