Readers of the Old Testament are well acquainted with the condemnation passed upon the worship of Baal, but some of them may be surprised to know that there is a custom in Northumberland of lighting Baal fires on St. John's Eve, which is a relic of ancient Baal worship. The identity between the celebration of the pagan rite of old and of the modern remainder is too obvious to be doubted. The ancients passed their children through the fire, and the villagers at Whalton used to jump over and through the flames. Moreover, as will be seen from the historical references to be given shortly, there is further ground provided for establishing a genuine fire worship. Of the Whalton custom a modern writer says:--" As midsummer approaches, much wood is marked out for the bonfire, sometimes with the consent of local farmers. When this has been cut, it is brought into the village with a certain amount of formality. On the evening of the 4th July a cart is borrowed and loaded with branches of faggots, some of the men get into the shafts, more are hooked on by means of long ropes, and then, with a good deal of shouting and horn blowing, the lumbersome vehicle is run down into the village." The same site for the fire is chosen year after year, and it has never been changed. The village turns out en masse to see the bonfire built. The children join hands and dance round the stack of wood and branches until they are tired; youths and maidens also dance a little distance away.
At dark a cry is raised: "Light her!" Soon the whole village is illuminated by a huge blaze, and the Baal fire is at its height. No ceremony follows, but tradition says people used to jump over the fire and through it, a tradition which is well founded, for we have strong evidence of such practices in Scotland and Ireland.
In Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland (1794), the minister of Callander, in Perthshire, speaking of "Peculiar Customs," says:--"The people of this district have two customs, which are fast wearing out, not only here but all over the Highlands, and therefore ought to be taken notice of while they remain. Upon the first day of May, which is called Beltan or Bal-tein-day, all the boys in a township or hamlet meet in the moors. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground of such circumference as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard. They knead a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions, as similar as possible to one another in size and shape, as there are persons in the company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal until it be perfectly black. They put all the bits of the cake into a bonnet. Every one, blindfold, draws out a portion. He who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit is the devoted person who is to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they moan to implore, in rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast. There is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having been once offered in this country as well as in the East, although they now pass from the act of sacrificing, and only compel the devoted person to leap three times through the flames; with which the ceremonies of this festival are closed."
In the same work, the minister of Logierait, in Perthshire, says:--"On the 1st of May, O. S., a festival called Beltan is annually held here. It is chiefly celebrated by the cowherds, who assemble by scores in the fields to dress a dinner for themselves of boiled milk and eggs. These dishes they eat with a sort of cakes baked for the occasion, and having small lumps, in the form of nipples, raised all over the surface. The cake might, perhaps, be an offering to some deity in the days of Druidism."
Pennant's account in his Tour in Scotland (1771) of this rural sacrifice is more minute. He tells us that, on the 1st of May, in the Highlands of Scotland, the herdsmen of every village hold their Bel-tein.
"They cut a square trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle; on that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky; for each of the company must contribute something. The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation; on that, every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and, flinging it over his shoulders, says: 'This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses;' 'This to thee, preserve thou my sheep;' and so on. After that they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals. 'This I give to thee, O fox! spare thou my lambs;' 'this to thee, O hooded crow;' 'this to thee, eagle!' When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle; and after the feast is finished, what is left is hid by two persons deputed for that purpose; but on the next Sunday they reassemble and finish the reliques of the first entertainment." "That the Caledonians paid a superstitious respect to the sun, as was the practice among other nations, is evident," says Ellis, "not only by the sacrifice at Baltein but upon many other occasions. When a Highlander goes to bathe, or to drink waters out of a consecrated fountain, he must always approach by going round the place from east to west on the south side in imitation of the apparent diurnal motion of the sun. This is called in Gaelic going round the right or the lucky way. And if a person's meat or drink were to affect the wind-pipe, or come against his breath, they instantly cry out disheal, which is an ejaculation praying that it may go the right way."
The Baal worship is even more pronounced in Irish history. In The Survey of the South of Ireland we read something similar to what has already been quoted in a note from The Statistical Account of Scotland. "The sun" (says the writer) "was propitiated here by sacrifices of fire: one was on the 1st of May, for a blessing on the seed sown. The 1st of May is called in Irish language La Beal-tine, that is, the day of Beal's fire. Vossius says it is well known that Apollo was called Belinus, and for this he quotes Herodian, and an inscription at Aquileia, Apollini Beline. The Gods of Tyre were Baal, Ashtaroth, and all the Host of Heaven, as we learn from the frequent rebukes given to the backsliding Jews for following after Sidonian idols; and the Phenician Baal, or Baalam, like the Irish Beal, or Bealin, denotes the sun, as Ashtaroth does the moon."
In another place the same author says:--"It is not strange that many Druid remains should still exist; but it is a little extraordinary that some of their customs should still be practised. They annually renew the sacrifices that used to be offered to Apollo, without knowing it. On Midsummer's Eve, every eminence, near which is a habitation, blazes with Bonfires--and round these they carry numerous torches, shouting and dancing, which affords a beautiful sight, and at the same time confirms the observation of Scaliger:--'En Irelande ils sont quasi tous papistes, mais c'est Papauté meslee de Paganisme, comme partout.' Though historians had not given us the mythology of the pagan Irish, and though they had not told us expressly that they worshipped Beal, or Bealin, and that this Beal was the Sun and their chief God, it might nevertheless be investigated from this custom, which the lapse of so many centuries has not been able to wear away. . . I have, however, heard it lamented that the alteration of the style had spoiled these exhibitions; for the Roman Catholics light their Fires by the new style, as the correction originated from a pope; and for that very same reason the Protestants adhere to the old."
I find the following, much to our purpose, in The Gentleman's Magazine for February 1795:--"The Irish have ever been worshippers of Fire and of Baal, and are so to this day. This is owing to the Roman Catholics, who have artfully yielded to the superstitions of the natives, in order to gain and keep up an establishment, grafting Christianity upon Pagan rites. The chief festival in honour of the Sun and Fire is upon the 21st of June, when the sun arrives at the summer solstice, or rather begins its retrogade motion. I was so fortunate in the summer of 1782 as to have my curiosity gratified by a sight of this ceremony to a very great extent of country. At the house where I was entertained, it was told me that we should see at midnight the most singular sight in Ireland, which was the lighting of Fires in honour of the Sun. Accordingly, exactly at midnight, the Fires began to appear; and taking the advantage of going up to the leads of the house, which had a widely extended view, I saw on a radius of thirty miles, all around, the Fires burning on every eminence which the country afforded. I had a farther satisfaction in learning, from undoubted authority, that the people danced round the Fires, and at the close went through these fires, and made their sons and daughters, together with their cattle, pass through the Fire; and the whole was conducted with religious solemnity." This is at the end of some Reflections by the late Rev. Donald M'Queen, of Kilmuir, in the Isle of Skye, on ancient customs preserved in that Island.
The Roman Catholic bishop, Dr Milner, was opposed to the notion of the Irish having ever been worshippers of Fire and of Baal. In An Inquiry into certain Vulgar Opinions concerning the Catholic Inhabitants and the Antiquities of Ireland (Lond. 1808), he tells us that the "modern hunters after paganism in Ireland think they have discovered another instance of it (though they derive this neither from the Celtic Druidesses nor the Roman Vestals, but from the Carthaginians or Phoenicians) in the fires lighted up in different parts of the country on the Eve of St. John the Baptist, or Midsummer Day. This they represent as the idolatrous worship of Baal, the Philistine god of Fire, and as intended by his pretended Catholic votaries to obtain from him fertility for the earth. The fact is, these fires, on the eve of the 24th of June, were heretofore as common in England and all over the Continent as they are now in Ireland, and have as little relation with the worship of Baal as the bonfires have which blaze on the preceding 4th of June, being the King's birth-day: they are both intended to be demonstrations of joy. That, however, in honour of Christ's precursor is particularly appropriate, as alluding to his character of bearing witness to the light (John vi. 7) and his being himself a bright and shining light (John v. 35)."
It is only natural that a Christian apologist should take up this attitude, but the verdict of history is against him; for, in addition to the testimony from Scotland and Ireland, there is similar testimony from England to the actual survivals, one of which has already been noticed.
Borlase in his Antiquities of Cornwall tells us:--"Of the fires we kindle in many parts of England, at some stated times of the year, we know not certainly the rise, reason, or occasion, but they may probably be reckoned among the relics of the Druid superstitious Fires. In Cornwall, the festival Fires, called Bonfires, are kindled on the Eve of St. John the Baptist and St. Peter's Day; and Midsummer is thence, in the Cornish tongue, called 'Goluan,' which signifies both light and rejoicing. At these Fires the Cornish attend with lighted torches, tarr'd and pitch'd at the end, and make their perambulations round their Fires, and go from village to village carrying their torches before them; and this is certainly the remains of the Druid superstition, for 'faces praeferre,' to carry lighted torches, was reckoned a kind of Gentilism, and as such particularly prohibited by the Gallick Councils: they were in the eye of the law 'accensores facularum,' and thought to sacrifice to the devil, and to deserve capital punishment."
Echoes of the ceremony are also found in unexpected quarters:--Every Englishman has heard of the "Dance round our coal-fire," which receives illustration from the probably ancient practice of dancing round the fires in our Inns of Court (and perhaps other halls in great men's houses). This practice was still in 1733 observed at an entertainment at the Inner Temple Hall, on Lord Chancellor Talbot's taking leave of the house, when "the Master of the Revels took the Chancellor by the hand, and he, Mr Page, who with the Judges, Sergeants, and Benchers, danced round the Coal Fire, according to the old ceremony, three times; and all the times the antient song, with music, was sung by a man in a Bar gown."
In an old collection of Epigrams and Satires this leaping over the Midsummer fire is mentioned among other pastimes:--
At Shrove-groate, ventor-point or crosse and pile
At leaping over a Midsummer bone-fier.
Or at the drawing clear out of the myer.
Leaping over the fires is mentioned among the superstitious rites used at the Palilia in Ovid's Fasti. The Palilia were feasts instituted in honour of Pales, the goddess of Shepherds on the Calends of May. But fire ceremonies are not the property of one nation: they belonged to all, and to-day in Japan it is possible to see the celebration of fire-walking. From Japan one may travel to other Continents and see similar phenomena. As civilisation advances these customs tend to die down; but there can be no doubt the few remaining fire festivals in this country are the relics of a very old and superstitious worship, which our semi-savage forefathers indulged in at a time when the sun and moon were not items of science, but Gods of a truth. Christianity was responsible for most of the abolition of these curious practices. For instance, the Sixth Council of Constantinople, A.D. 680, by its 65th canon (cited by Prynne in his Histriomastix), has the following interdiction:--"Those Bonefires that are kindled by certaine people on New Moones before their shops and houses, over which also they are ridiculously and foolishly to leape, by a certaine antient custome, we command them from henceforth to cease. Whoever therefore shall doe any such thing; if he be a clergyman, let him be deposed; if a layman, let him be excommunicated; for, in the Fourth Book of the Kings, it is thus written: 'And Manasseh built an altar to all the hoast of heaven, in the two courts of the Lord's house, and made his children to pass through the Fire,' etc."
Prynne--the Puritan stalwart--remarks on this:--"Bonefires therefore had their originall from this idolatrous custome, as this Generall Councell hath defined; therefore all Christians should avoid them." And the Synodus Francica under Pope Zachary, A.D. 742, cited ut supra, inhibits "those sacrilegious Fires which they call Nedfri (or Bonefires), and all other observations of the Pagans whatsoever."
A custom that has survived so long in particular places--though few--in England, occasions the enquiry: How have they prevented the death which overtook the celebration elsewhere? At Whalton the people are more a people to themselves than others, because they are removed from train, tram, and motor bus. By and bye these agents of civilisation will reach them, and the end will be in sight. A new generation with new ideas will spring up, and there will be less disposition to gather the faggots and burn them as the darkness comes down. Finally, Baal fire, even as a fire, will cease to be, and one more custom will pass into history.