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Balefire; Bonfire

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The name "balefire" probably comes either from the Celtic word bel, meaning "bright," or from the Anglo-Saxon bael, meaning "a fire."

In the seventh and eighth centuries, Christian synods attempted to ban celebratory balefires as pagan. The sixty-fifth canon of the third council of Constantinople (680 CE) said, "Those fires that are kindled by certain people on new moons before their shops and houses, over which also they use ridiculously and foolishly to leap, by a certain ancient custom, we command them from henceforth to cease." The "ancient custom" referred to was that of dancing around and leaping over the balefires that were lit to celebrate the old pagan festivals. These fires would be lit on village greens and on hilltops across Britain and much of Europe. They could be seen at each of the eight great sabbat festivals of the Old Religion.

All domestic fires were extinguished on the day before the festival day. The Balefires, or "need-fires," would then be lit at the rising of the moon, on that festival eve. The celebrations took place, with participants dancing sunwise, or deosil, around the flames. Some couples would take hands and leap over the flames, to promote fertility. Sometimes there were two fires, and cattle and flocks of sheep would be driven between the two, again to promote fertility.

Ovid mentions (in Fasti) leaping over the fires taking place at the Palilia, the Feast of Pales, the shepherd's goddess of the Romans. Evidence presented at the trial of Jonet Watson, of Dalkeith, Scotland, in 1661, refers to a meeting of Witches that took place "about the time of the last Balefire night."

Just before the next moon rise, and before the Balefire was extinguished, fire from it would be carried off to rekindle the domestic fires. The ashes of the fire were treated as sacred, and used in amulets, charms and spells, and also in divination. Divination would also take place using the flames while the fire was burning.

Frazer states that there are two schools of thought concerning Balefires. One school suggests that these fire ceremonies were in the nature of imitative magic, to ensure a needed supply of sunshine "for men, animals and plants by kindling fires which mimic on earth the great source of light and heat in the sky." On the other hand, he says, it has been said that the fires do not refer to the sun but are "simply purification," designed to destroy all harmful influences.

In the village of Whalton, Northumberland, England, the Baal Fire is still in evidence on Old Midsummer's Eve (July 4). It is said to date "from time immemorial." Traditionally a cart full of gorse and other fuel, pulled by two horses, was brought in as far as the village boundary. From there it had to be carried by hand, accompanied by much shouting and the blowing of horns. Local landowners contributed beer and food to the festivities.

Today's Witches follow the traditional rituals, including pouring libations onto the flames as offerings to the gods, divining in the flames, and often throwing into the fire pieces of paper on which they have written wishes, prayers, or lists of things they wish to be rid of.

In Britain especially, the word Bonfire is now used more than Balefire. Possibly this derives from the French word bon, meaning good or excellent, or from "boon fire"—a fire at which one might receive a boon, or a gift.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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