OF these Cornish Midsummer fires an account is given by a correspondent in Hone's "Year Book," which I quote entire, not because I can agree with the writer in all his views, but because he places the main question in a fair light:--
"An immemorial and peculiar custom prevails on the sea-coast of the western extremity of Cornwall, of kindling large bonfires on the Eve of June 24; and on the next day the country people, assembling in great crowds, amuse themselves with excursions on the water. I cannot help thinking it the remains of an ancient Druidical festival, celebrated on Midsummer-day, to implore the friendly influence of Heaven on their fields, compounded with that of the first of May, when the Druids kindled large fires on all their sacred places, and on the tops of all their cairns, in honour of Bel, or Belinus, the name by which they distinguished the sun, whose revolving course had again clothed the earth with beauty, and diffused joy and gladness through the creation. Their water parties on the 24th prove that they consider the summer season as now so fully established that they are not afraid to commit themselves to the mercy of the waves. If we reflect on the rooted animosity which subsisted between the Romans and the Druids, and that the latter, on being expelled from their former residences, found, together with the miserable remnants of the Britons, an asylum in the naturally fortified parts of the island, we shall not be surprised at their customs having been faintly banded down through such a long succession of ages. That Cornwall was one of their retreats is sufficiently proved by the numerous remains of their circular temples, cromlechs, cairns, &c. Even in the eleventh century, when Christianity was become the national religion, the people were so attached to their ancient superstitions, that we find a law of Canute the Great strictly prohibiting all his subjects from paying adoration to the sun, moon, sacred groves and woods, hallowed hills and fountains. If, then, this propensity to idolatry could not be rooted out of those parts of the kingdom exposed to the continual influx of foreigners, and the horrors of frequent war, how much more must it have flourished in Cornwall and those parts where the Druids long preserved their authority and influence? It may therefore be fairly inferred that, from their remote situation, and comparative insignificancy with the rest of England, they preserved those religious ceremonies unmolested; and, corrupted as they must naturally be by long usage and tradition, yet are handed down to us to this to-day with evident marks of a Druidical origin." [a]
In Hone's "Every-Day Book" will be found several accounts of festivals which may be referred to Baal worship.
Mr Richard Edmonds, a native of Penzance, has given us a very faithful description of the proceedings at Penzance on Midsummer-eve. Although that gentleman states his belief in the true Celtic origin of this remarkable mode of celebrating the Midsummer festival, his description leads us to suppose that it is distinctly Roman
"It is the immemorial usage in Penzance and the neighbouring towns and villages to kindle bonfires and torches on Midsummer-eve; and on Midsummer-day to hold a fair on Penzance quay, where the country folks assemble from the adjoining parishes in great numbers to make excursions on the water. St Peter's-eve is distinguished by a similar display of bonfires and torches, although the 'quay-fair' on St Peter's-day has been discontinued upwards of forty years.
"On these eves a line of tar-barrels, relieved occasionally by large bonfires, is seen in the centre of each of the principal streets in Penzance. On either side of this line young men and women pass up and down swinging round their beads heavy torches made of large pieces of folded canvas steeped in tar, and nailed to the ends of sticks between three and four feet long; the flames of some of these almost equal those of the tar-barrels.
Rows of lighted candles also, when the air is calm, are fixed outside the windows or along the sides of the streets. In St Just and other mining parishes the young miners, mimicking their fathers' employments, bore rows of holes in the rocks, load them with gunpowder, and explode them in rapid succession by trains of the same substance. As the holes are not deep enough to split the rocks, the same little batteries serve for many years. On these nights Mount's Bay has a most animating appearance, although not equal to what was annually witnessed at the beginning of the present century, when the whole coast, from the Land's End to the Lizard, wherever a town or village existed, was lighted up with these stationary or moving fires. In the early part of the evening, children may be seen wearing wreaths of flowers,--a custom in all probability originating from the ancient use of these ornaments when they danced around the fires. At the close of the fireworks in Penzance, a great number of persons of both sexes, chiefly from the neighbourhood of the quay, used always, until within the last few years, to join hand in hand, forming a long string, and run through the streets, playing 'thread the needle,' heedless of the fireworks showered upon them, and oftentimes leaping over the yet glowing embers. I have on these occasions seen boys following one another, jumping through flames higher than themselves. But whilst this is now done innocently in every sense of the word, we all know that the passing of children through fire was a very common act of idolatry; and the heathen believed that all persons, and all living things, submitted to this ordeal, would be preserved from evil throughout the ensuing year. A similar blessing was supposed to be imparted to their fields by running around them with flaming torches."--Richard Edmonds--The Land's End District, p. 66.
[a] In Ireland, May-day is called la na Beltina, and the eve of May is neen na -Bealtina, -- the day and eve of Baal fires. Seeing the intimate relation of the inhabitants of Cornwall and those of Ireland, especially of the southern counties, may we not infer that the bonfires of May and those of Midsummer have a similar origin?