The Tour of Wales



Myths and Legends

It's that time of year again. Bonfire night. . .

But what is Bonfire Night? Why mention it on a page all about Celtic interests? Well this is one event about which the powers that be have managed to completely pull the wool over the eyes of the general public!

Guy Fawkes has very little to do with Bonfire Night. Yes, the gunpowder plot was foiled on November 5th, but this just happened to be the Bonfire Night. Guy Fawkes was not burned at the stake, as some suppose. He was hanged drawn and quartered (the normal punishment meted out at that time to traitors).

The bonfires of the start of November were a much older (Celtic) tradition. The throwing of an effigy onto these bonfires was also an old tradition.

Sir James Frazer wrote extensively about the fire festivals of Europe in his 1922 work, "the Golden Bough". In this work he points out that the Celts, early farmers, timed the end of their year with the time when herdsmen would bring their cattle down from the hills to winter pastures, and after the harvest is gathered in and stored.

Since ancient times, Celts have reckoned the year to end on Bonfire Night, and as autumn gives way to winter, this world and the otherworld are supposed to be at their closest point.

The Bonfire celebration, and the burning of effigies covered in evergreen boughs, are a memory of a log forgotten superstitious past. Much of this is detailed in the Golden Bough, Chapters 62-64.

However, Sir James Frazer missed one point. He speaks of the Celtic New Year as starting on November 1st, and Samhain as being 31st October (see chapter 62, section 6). This is a mistake.

Long before the Roman calendar, the Samhain fires were burning year in and year out. We know that Celts based festivals on dates calculated from astronomical recordings, and it is worth noting that the night of November 5th is located exactly half way between autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Beltain is half way between vernal equinox and summer solstice. Thus the significant date is indeed 5th November.

Halloween derives from a Christian festival on another date that just happens to have similarities with Samhain, but the true Celtic festival is Bonfire Night



  © Stephen Kingston