Old English Sports eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 100 pages of information about Old English Sports.

Of the “mysteries,” or miracle plays, as they were called, which were performed in towns on Corpus Christi Day and at other times, I propose to write in another chapter; and we will now proceed to the hillsides near our villages on the eve of St. John’s Day, when we should witness the lighting of large bonfires, and some curious customs connected with that ceremony.  Both the old and the young people used to sally forth from the village to some neighbouring height, and there, amidst much laughter and with many a shout, they lighted the large bonfire.  Then they danced round the blazing logs, and afterwards leaped through the flames, and at the close of the ceremony each person brought away with him a burning branch.  This rite appears to have been a relic of Paganism.  Probably the fire was originally lighted in honour of the sun, which our forefathers worshipped before they became Christians.  The leaping through the flames had also a superstitious meaning, and the simple people thought that in this way they could ward off evil spirits and prevent sickness.  The Roman shepherds used to leap through the Midsummer blaze in honour of Pales.  The Scandinavians lit their bonfires in honour of their gods Odin and Thor, and the leaping through the flames reminds us of the worshippers of Baal and Moloch, who, as we read in the Bible, used to “pass their children through the fire” in awe of their cruel god.  St. John’s Day, or Midsummer Day (June 24th), was chosen because on that day the sun reaches its highest point in the zodiac.  There is, however, another interpretation of the meaning of the fires on St. John’s Day, as illustrating the verse which speaks of him “as a burning and a shining light” (St. John v. 35); but this interpretation was probably invented by some pious divine who endeavoured to attach a Christian meaning to an ancient heathen custom.  The connection of the ceremony with the old worship of the sun is indisputable.  Its practice was very general in nearly all European nations, and in not very remote times from Norway to the shores of the Mediterranean the glow of St. John’s fires might have been seen.  The Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century forbade the custom as a heathen rite, but the Church endeavoured to win over the custom from its Pagan associations and to attach to it a Christian signification.  In the island of Jersey the older inhabitants used to light fires under large iron pots full of water, in which they placed silver articles—­as spoons, mugs, &c., and then knocked the silver against the iron with the idea of scaring away all evil spirits.[11] Sometimes bones were burnt in the fire, for we are told in a quaint homily on the Feast of St. John Baptist, that bones scared away the evil spirits in the air, since “wise clerks know well that dragons hate nothing more than the stink of burning bones, and therefore the country folk gather as many as they might find, and burned them; and so with the stench thereof they drove away the dragons, and so they were brought out of great disease.”

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Old English Sports from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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