Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Bonfire of the Flesh - Kathleen Jones

Today is traditionally 'Bonfire Night', or 'Guy Fawkes Day', when there are bonfires in fields and back gardens and we let off fireworks and bake potatoes in the embers.  I have lovely childhood memories of family parties on the farm.  My father would kill a chicken and my mother would cook up a big roast dinner.  We saved up for weeks to buy fireworks from the village shop - Bangers and Silver Fountains, Roman Candles, Rockets in milk bottles, and Catherine Wheels that we nailed to the fence. My brother liked the Jumping Jacks that sprang about with a bang and a snap - that is until one of them landed in the biscuit tin he'd kept his fireworks in and they all lit up and went off at once. I remember running from  a rocket that had a horizontal trajectory across the stack-yard, and my father had to pour a bucket of water on another Jumper that landed in the hay. We had no sense of danger in those days.  The only thing that made me feel uncomfortable was the Guy.

Guy Fawkes 
We made the Guy in primary school with cast-off clothing and stuffed him (it was always Male) with straw when we got home.  An old broom handle was stuffed up the back of his jacket and he was hoisted aloft just before the bonfire was lit.  The burning of this surrogate human being always made my flesh creep.  Of course he wasn't real.  But it was what the effigy represented that troubled my childhood self.  And it still does.  The straw figure was called a Guy to remember, for as long as possible, the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators, was a traitor (and a Catholic) and so deserved to be burned on a bonfire in perpetuam. At the time, people who were traitors, or were believed to be witches, or who were gay, or had inconvenient religious beliefs were burned alive in reality under the De Heretico Comburendo Act passed by Parliament in 1401.  Guy Fawkes was lucky.  He was only sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but he fell off the scaffold and broke his neck, avoiding the last two fates.  The last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England was a free-thinker called Edward Wightman, at Lichfield in Staffordshire in 1612.

Samhain Festival of Light, Edinburgh, 2012
But of course, the tradition of lighting bonfires and burning people goes a lot further back.  Guy Fawkes night has been conveniently combined with the ancient festival of Samhain, which traditionally falls on Halloween. It is a festival of fire, like Beltane, marking the end of summer and the beginning of the long dark of winter before the sun returns.  It was common for house fires to be put out on Samhain eve and then ceremonially re-lit with a branch from the bonfire.  Bobbing for apples and cracking hazelnuts both come from the Celtic mythology of Samhain.  Trick-or-Treating comes from the Samhain practice of getting dressed up (Mumming or Guising) and going from house to house performing in return for food.  If nothing was forthcoming the mummers would threaten mischief on the household.  Turnips carved into grotesque faces were carried as lanterns.

And then there is the association between the figure of the Guy and the Wicker Man - sacrificial bonfires that occurred all over Europe .....  you've probably seen the film!  More recently the practice has been repeated in the atrocities of war in the Middle East.  The burning of heretics.


So now you know why you'll never see a Guy on one of my bonfires.  Burning even the effigy of a human being is just too close to the bone. There is too much cruelty in the world.

Let's just have fun, celebrate Light and Warmth, Honour our Ancestors and say Thanks for the Harvest.  That's what this festival is really all about.  I'm off to light the bonfire and wave a sparkler or two.  Not forgetting the Mulled Wine!



Kathleen Jones can be found at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
She blogs at A Writer's Life  and tweets incognito as @kathyferber

Her latest book is a biography of Margaret Forster 'A Life in Books' which you can find on Amazon.


6 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

Great post Kathleen. Really made me think

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks Wendy!

Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, Kathleen, colorful, sobering, and quite educational for this Yankee, hitherto clueless about the finer points of the Guy Fawkes experience!

John A. A. Logan said...

I never felt right about the burning of the effigy either, Kathleen, even at primary school.
It seems to be a proof of Rene Girard's theories on vengeful scapegoating, in order to make the serious and deep problems of the group, or society, seem to have disappeared in the rite of violence against an individual, in this case, eternally...and, yes, interesting that ceremonies are grafted upon earlier ceremonies, layer upon layer, so that we can't finally be sure what we're really taking part in celebrating...
And I always thought I'd seen The Wicker Man, original Edward Woodard version, maybe 40 times over 40 years...but only became aware couple of weeks ago that I've only seen the "mainstream" version, not the very different Director's Cut, nor the Final Cut...so even there clarity and certainty is obscured by the Flames...
Thank-you, enjoyed thinking over again the roots of my childhood disturbance at the "Let's Burn-this Guy" phenomenon...and how many other manifestations there may be all round us, still, of that attempt to "solve" problems.

Dennis Hamley said...

I read in a serious newspaper recently a forecast that in five years time, instead of Guy Fawkes we would be burning Johnson, Farage and Gove in effigy. While I generally approved of the sentiment I was appalled at the thought that a responsible commentator would suggest such a remedy.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks Umberto, John and Dennis. I loved the phrase 'vengeful scapegoating'. Not something I would ever approve, being a peace-loving individual. Though I came quite near to sticking pins in a maquette of Mrs T at one point!