Arguably the earliest evidence of human cognitive thought is the archeological discovery that our ancestors (still all living in Southern Africa) carefully placed a type of shale stone into the coals of a fire to harden them. Once cooled these were then easier to fashion into very sharp hunting spear points and skinning knives.
Fire stirs the imagination, calms us, comforts us. Our instinctual fascination with crackling, leaping flames must draw on some deep-seated wiring.
The English word “bonfire” comes to us from the words “ bone” and “fire”. In ancient times the Celts held midsummer festivals where they burnt animal bone to ward off evil spirits.
Throughout human history, bonfires have been part of cultural celebrations, rituals and tradition.
On the 5th of November in 1605 a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught red handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked in the cellar below the House of Lords. Since then the English have celebrated this night with bonfires, the burning of a dummy of Guy Fawkes and the letting off of fireworks.
For over five centuries the Oban festival in Japan has ended with the lighting of bonfires to guide the ancestors back to the spirit world. The most famous festival takes place in Kyoto where giant bonfires are lit by monks on the five mountains surrounding the city. The bonfires are set out so that they form Kanji lettering (Chinese characters).
In Iceland the tradition of bonfires goes back to the 18th century and all over the country on New Year’s Eve bonfires are lit to burn out the old year.
In the Czech Republic, April 30th is the night for the Burning of The Witches. The belief being that this will put an end to the cold and dark of winter.
In Veneto, Italy, traditional bonfires, called panevin (up to ten metres in height) celebrate the winter solstice. A puppet, in the form of an old lady, is often placed on the top of panevin; this female figure is called “vecia” (“old lady”) and she is guilty of all mishaps and calamities of the past year.
Every year a community with a common purpose gathers in the Tankwa Karoo to dress up, make music, perform, create art and build fantasies. The celebrations culminate in the burning of the structures-symbolising the breaking down of barriers.
In South Africa’s winelands fires are treated with caution and respect. Both Trizanne and Bruce have experienced the ferocious destructiveness of a wind-driven summer wildfire. And at the winter solstice they celebrate the ancient Festival of St John by building a big bonfire and burning the alien vegetation they have removed from their farms over the previous year. This is the time in the yearly cycle of seasons when everyone focuses on kindling light and warmth within themselves. Saint John’s call is to prepare the way, to transform our habits and attitudes, so that everyone’s inner fire, their true nature, may glow more brightly, bringing courage and warmth to those around them.