Once common throughout most of Europe, the arrival of midsummer was celebrated from time immemorial by the lighting of massive communal bonfires, covering the countryside with a multitude of glowing points of light; an ancient practice that continued in Brittany well into living memory.
It is believed that the calendar of the ancient Celts was built around the equinoxes and solstices and the relationship of them to the key points of the agrarian year such as the times for sowing and harvesting and seasonal transhumance. The summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point before slowly starting its retreat was an auspicious event for our ancestors and one that was widely marked across Europe; from Spain to Greece, Russia to Ireland, communities came together on Midsummer’s Eve to celebrate the occasion with mighty bonfires, imparting to the heavens, in all directions, the pale glow of a man-made sunset.
Fire, as an emblem of primeval power and benevolence aside, served as a beacon between disparate communities that were united, in that one moment, in common celebration. Fire also carried strong purificatory overtones that were more practical in nature rather than symbolic, such as in the preparation of land for cultivation or undertaking prescribed burns to promote growth and cleanse a field of weeds and pests. Some anthropologists have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as Midsummer’s Eve, were rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to secure a fruitful harvest and ensure healthy livestock. There is even debate as to whether these bonfires were actually aimed at burning the witches, whether physically or symbolically, in the flames of the fire.
The wide prevalence of the Midsummer’s Eve fires across such an extensive geographical area indicates that belief in witchcraft as the cause of failed crops and sick animals was quite commonly held before the ascendancy of Christianity in Europe. That the fires and their associated rites remained popularly practised is evidenced by the various Church Councils in the late 8th century ordering all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly citing: ‘Let no one, at the feast of Saint John or at any other solemnity of the saints, practice observing the solstices; do not engage in dances, carols and evil songs.’
The infant Church organised its liturgical cycle in order to co-opt and thus absorb the old pagan festivals, seeking to replace them in the popular consciousness with Christian festivals. Thus ancient observances such as the summer solstice were dispossessed by the new religion to become St. John’s Day; Samhain became All Saints’ Day and Christmas Day appropriated the winter solstice. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. As late as the 17th century, Jesuit missions in Brittany struggled to suppress “shameful relics of paganism such as Mayday processions and the Fires of St. John.”
In Brittany, popular traditions celebrating St. John’s Day enjoyed far more importance than its liturgical significance might have merited. Here, the custom of the communal Midsummer’s Eve bonfire continued well into living memory, particularly in the western rural parts of the region. With the approach of darkness on the eve of St. John’s Day, large fires were lit in each village. Typically, these were set-up in an area of open ground near a chapel dedicated to Saint John but if one did not exist, they were lit in a high area facing the parish church or at a nearby cross-road. The pyres were usually built-up around a central pole but not pre-prepared to any significant degree, as each family in the village was expected to bring some fuel for the fire; faggots, logs or even armfuls of tree branches, dry grass and gorse. A durable fire that produced a great deal of smoke was popularly aimed for. The pole which formed the centre of the pyre was often surmounted by a crown of foliage generally provided by a man named John or else a woman named Jean. In many accounts, the honour of lighting the tantad or bonfire also fell to this person but in some communities it was a role reserved for the parish priest.
It seems that each village maintained its own traditions and this should not really surprise us, no matter how geographically close they were. After all, it was impossible to attend two ceremonies at the same time and the stability of the population that existed then meant that the traditions of one village had little influence on those of another. In some parishes, the villagers would walk in procession from the church to the site of the bonfire. In others, the procession immediately followed vespers and was led from the church porch by the priest himself. Sometimes, the pyre was solemnly blessed, prayers were recited and Breton hymns sung before the pyre was lit.
The pyre was usually surrounded by a circle of nine wooden stakes that were collectively known as the kelc’h an Tan (circle of fire). The fire was introduced at each of these nine points beginning with that which marked east, the principal cardinal point. Once this had been done, groups of young men, armed with torches lit at the stakes, alternated with young women, clutching a bunch of ‘Saint John’s plant’ (this was stonecrop not, as might have been supposed St. John’s wort), in a procession nine times around the fire. After these ceremonious circuits had been conducted three times, the women held out their verdure towards the centre of the fire while the men used their burning torches to describe a series of three flaming circles above their heads.
The last round of dancing completed, the men jumped three times over their stake and threw the young women over the fire nine times while shouting “an nao, an nao” (Breton for the nine, the nine). This accomplished, the men spread out over the surrounding fields, brandishing their torches while continuing to shout out the same invocation. Meanwhile the women passed their clutched bunches through the fire and circulated amidst the crowd, as the smoke from the smouldering plant of St. John was believed to fortify one’s eyesight.
Once the flames of the fire had begun to die down, it was customary for the assembled onlookers to kneel so as to encircle the bonfire, when they would then be led in prayer by an elder of the village. Devotions completed, the entire congregation arose and proceeded in silent procession three times around the fire. Upon completion of the final circuit, all the participants would take a stone from the ground and cast it into the fire; this stone was called an Anaon, and with the completion of this rite, the crowd gradually dispersed.
In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and it is a word for both the dead and the place where they were said to reside. In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living but it was commonly held that the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those solemn days when the dead of each locality congregated, namely; the eve of Saint John’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. At these times, some believed that the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. As the dead were always thought to be cold, it was once customary to place a stone near one’s hearth to serve as a seat for the souls of one’s ancestors who might visit, thus allowing them to warm-up at ease.
The same superstition lay behind the stone cast into the midsummer bonfire; attracted to the fire, the dead took their places and sat upon those stones to enjoy the warmth of the smouldering embers. In one part of south west Brittany, the villagers used to place stools around the bonfire for the souls of the dead overnight.
On the morning of St. John’s Day itself – a day when the young women of the village were forbidden to work – the villagers returned to the site of the fire and it was taken as an ill omen if an anaon stone had moved out of the fire; the return of a stone offered to the dead was believed to signify that the one who cast it could themselves expect to meet death within a year.
People also looked for other things amidst the debris of the bonfire. For instance, pieces of charred wood were taken home as a protection against lightning strikes; a defence thought to last until St. John’s Day the following year. Although some maintained that in order to be truly effective, the charred embers needed to be kept under one’s bed between a piece of cake baked on Twelfth Night and a sprig of boxwood that had been blessed on Palm Sunday. Charred sticks from the bonfire were also thrown into wells to improve the quality of the water.
Even up until the First World War, people would come from far afield to buy the ashes of the Motreff bonfire whose miraculous properties were said to help corn grow. It was also believed to make the best poultices for treating chest ailments and was also carried as a talisman that protected against lightning strikes.
The bunches of stonecrop, known in Brittany as the plant of St. John, that had been used by the dancing young women were usually retained by them as a charm against maladies and pain. They were often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of life but if they withered, an omen of death. In the traditional medicine of the region, stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also for the treatment of burns.
It is worth noting that stonecrop is not one of the seven sacred plants of St. John; these were herbs which needed to be gathered on the morning of St. John’s Day whilst walking backwards barefoot through the dew in a state of grace. When combined appropriately, this blend of herbs was thought to be able to counteract fever and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft. Picking chicory, by tearing off its root, on the morning of Midsummer’s Day was also recommended to thwart the evil spells that might be cast against you.
Other superstitions were once closely attached to the midsummer bonfire: in some communities, farmers drove their cattle through the fire’s embers in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans until St. John’s Eve the following year; if a young girl danced around nine midsummer fires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found a vantage point that allowed her to see the flames of nine separate fires at once; and if a baby was swung before the flames of three midsummer bonfires, they were thought to be forever protected from fear.
Some of the accounts written of rural Brittany towards the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries suggest that, in some areas, the high ritual noted above had reduced to the young people of the community simply dancing around the blazing fire and leaping over the embers once the flames had subsided. In the port city of Brest, pyres were replaced with burning torches which were swung in circles and thrown into the air but the city of Rennes maintained its traditional pyres into the 1960s. By the years between the two World Wars, midsummer bonfires and particularly the ancient practices associated with them had become increasingly uncommon.
However, certain elements of the complex ritual attached to the old bonfires of midsummer were still reported in some villages as late as the 1970s. For instance, one writer notes that one bonfire took place without any special rites except that bunches of St. John’s plant were passed through the burning embers and were subsequently taken home by the onlookers to be hung from the ceiling as a charm to protect against ailments of the eye.
In another village, the fire was lit by a man named Jean and everyone was gathered around the flames in silence until a young child began playing with stones and casting them about. Whereupon an elderly lady approached the boy, telling him “That’s not the way it is done, watch …” and picked-up a stone from the ground and threw it into the flames. As if waiting for the cue, the majority of the adults surrounding the fire picked up stones and, pretending to amuse the children, threw their stones into the fire; the ancient rite was thus observed while maintaining appearances that the old superstitions were a thing of the past.
On another occasion, it was a group of young women who took the initiative to throw stones into the bonfire and everyone followed their lead. This was followed by a seemingly impromptu call from the oldest woman present who led the crowd in a recitation of the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers in honour of Saint John and then for all those who had once lived in the village but were now dead. After which, she passed bunches of St. John’s plant over the burning embers, distributing sprigs to those who wanted them.
The custom of roaming the countryside, brandishing lit torches continued in parts of Brittany at least until around the time of the Second World War. Setting aside the phonetic similarity between the invocation ‘an nao’ cried out as the men ranged their fiery and smoking torches amidst the fields, and the word for the dead ‘anaon’, it is worth noting that the same call was once used in western Brittany in rituals marking a clearing of the land and a first sowing.
Without stretching credibility too far, it is interesting to contemplate whether these are the vestiges of some ancient rites invoking dead ancestors to help ensure the fertility of the earth and thus the well-being of the living. Anthropologists have identified many archaic societies who hold seasonal ceremonies that serve as a symbol of an exchange between the world of the living and the world of the dead, particularly amongst those who practice the shifting cultivation technique known as slash and burn (plots of land are cleared, worked until exhausted of nutrients and then allowed to be re-claimed by nature and thus regenerate). Many of these societies held the belief that the spirits of the deal dwelt in the land or in the trees and a similar belief existed in Brittany where, as late as the turn of the last century, many traditions were recorded that identified the fields of gorse and other uncultivated land as the domain of the dead serving their penance.
It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether this rite of taking fire and smoke – from the main bonfire – to the fields while calling upon ‘the nine’ was a way of calling on the dead who dwelt there to intercede and aid in the regeneration of the land; the cycle of the land entwined with the cycle of life. The number nine is a significant one, both on its own and as a multiplier of three, in many cultures, and in Brittany kinship was once counted over nine generations and certain prayers addressed accordingly. Nine was therefore a number that was not only associated with the ancestors and the generations passed but with the human gestation period and thus the generations of the future, so, a symbol of all fertility. Furthermore, it is not too fanciful to suggest that the burning torches themselves are symbolic of the fires once used to burn the land in order to ultimately propagate new growth.
We will never know for certain the extent to which these old rites were survivors from antiquity nor of their proper place in the religious views of the ancient Bretons; the basic beliefs that underpinned them have long since been lost to us. Nevertheless, even if the rites have become corrupted or obscured over time and have lost their original meaning, their survival is no less remarkable and while the midsummer bonfire was commonly found in other areas of France, it was in Brittany that it remained burning most visibly into recent times.
Many midsummer fires still take place in Brittany nowadays; some are recent attempts to rekindle the old traditions or are attached to a seasonal Fest Noz gathering. However, the majority of the traditional fires take place under the guise of a Saint John’s Fire – a communal bonfire that marks the end of a pardon dedicated to that saint. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, sometimes known as the Pardon of the Fire, on Brittany’s north coast is perhaps the most well-known pardon to feature a massive bonfire. The village is said to have possessed a relic of St. John since before the new church was built in 1440 and a solemn pardon has been celebrated there for the last five hundred years.
The relic, a finger bone, is reputed to have been brought inadvertently to the village by a Breton who had visited the shrine of St. John in Normandy during the Hundred Years War. After seeing the relic, the young man suddenly felt compelled to return home and by all accounts enjoyed an unusually swift and trouble-free journey back to Brittany. As he approached his hometown, the bells of the church of St. Meriadec immediately began to ring of their own accord and the trees bowed down before him and no sooner had he reached the church, than the cause of these marvels became apparent. For, in the instant that he prostrated himself before the altar, the holy relic was seen lying there; it having dropped from his coat sleeve. The joy at receiving St. John’s grace saw that saint supplant St. Meriadec as the patron saint of the village and his 12th century church rebuilt to the honour of St. John.
Contained in a reliquary donated by Anne of Brittany at the end of the 15th century, the church is said to hold the forefinger of the right hand; the digit that the Baptist used as he announced the Lamb of God to the multitude assembled on the banks of the River Jordan. The same bone is claimed by a monastery in Montenegro and other bones from the saint’s right hand are said to be held by monasteries in Greece and Egypt as well as the Topkapi Museum in Turkey.
Since its appearance in Brittany, the sacred relic has been an object of veneration and pilgrimage for the highest and lowest throughout the land. The relic and the sacred fountain near its associated church have long been accorded miraculous qualities and both were especially renowned for curing all diseases and imperfections of the eyes.
The author Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his travel narrative, A Summer in Brittany (1840), describes his visit to the pardon at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt thus:
“During its celebration the relic of the Saint … is wrapped in the finest of linen and one by one the congregation files past the abbé for the purpose of touching, for one brief moment, the relic he holds. At the same time another cleric stands holding the skull of St Mériadec and before this the pilgrims also promenade, reverently bowing their heads as they go. The devotees then repair to a side wall near a fountain, the waters of which have been previously sanctified by bathing in them the finger of St Jean suspended from a gold chain and into this the pilgrims plunge their palms and rub their eyes with them, as a protection against blindness.”
“Fireworks were let off first and when this had been done, the firing of a cannon gave the signal that the bonfire was about to be lighted. This, however, was to be accomplished in no ordinary way, but by fire from heaven or by a contrivance intended to resemble it, as nearly as might be. A rope was attached to the top of the church tower, the other end of which communicated with the fuel. Along this ‘feu d’artifice,’ in the form of a dove, was to be launched which was to run along the line and ignite the dry brushwood.
Soon after the pile was lighted, the clergy, with the banners, relics and the principal part of the procession, left the bonfire and returned down the hill to the village. This appeared to be the signal that all semblance of a religious ceremony might now be dropped. The remainder of the evening was given up to unrestrained merry-making and carousing.”
Similar scenes are related in other later accounts although the references to the blessing of the participants are clear that the relic remained in its reliquary and it was this that was applied, in rapid succession, to the eyes of the pilgrims lining the altar. The pyrophoric dove was replaced by a dragon sometime prior to 1893, before itself being retired in the middle of the last century. Despite renewed efforts by the Church in the mid-19th century to put a stop to the bonfires associated with pardons, they remain a popular feature of many pardon celebrations although, in several locations, religious authorities insisted that the fires burn in daytime and such is now the case at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt.
While the nocturnal dancing around the bonfire is a scene missing from the pardon ceremony that you can witness today, so too are the crowds of drunken brawlers, mendicants, peddlers, hawkers, healers and charlatans that characterised the pardons of old. The pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt remains both a religious and secular festival that continues to attract the devout and the curious in large numbers today. Sadly, this year’s event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus related restrictions surrounding social gatherings but, for those interested, the pardon is celebrated on the last Sunday of June.