Scattering Violets

An exploration of funerary traditions and innovations, care of the dead, and pagan perspectives on death

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Burning the Bones: Bonfires at Midsummer

It’s Midsummer, a day of feasting, bonfires, and dance. It’s a celebration of solar powers at their greatest, of warmth and bursting fruits and the year’s longest light. Like other holidays, it has gone by different names throughout its long history, and various spirits and gods are honored and receive sacrifices at this time. In Southern Slavic countries like Bulgaria, Midsummer Rusalia is celebrated at this time to honor the rusalki, female spirits of water and fertility. According to the folklore, these spirits are the souls of dead young women of the community who never spent their fertile powers during their young lives and therefore have the power to confer that fertility to the earth and their living community in death. Feasting and dances entice them, invoke their powers, and channel those powers into the fields and the bodies of those who wish to have children (Barber 17).


Similar holidays are celebrated elsewhere. Since Europe’s Christianization, much of the continent has called Midsummer St. John’s Day, a celebration of the nativity of the herald of Christ. Yet even under this Christianized premise, the old ways shine through. John Mirk wrote the following in 1486:


“But in worship of Saint John the people woke at home & made [all] manner of fires. One was clean bones & no wood & that is called a bone fire. Another is clean wood & no bones & that is called a wood fire for people to sit & to wake there by.”


A monk in Winchcomb, Gloucestershire, UK, gave more details:


"Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St. John's Eve, of which there are three kinds. On St. John's Eve in certain regions the boys collect bones and certain other rubbish, and burn them, and therefrom a smoke is produced on the air. They also make brands and go about the fields with the brands. Thirdly, the wheel which they roll." (Homans 369)


Saint John’s fires, the monk explains, drive away dragons that poison springs and wells on this night. I’ve written before about the connections between dragons, water, and fertility. Dragons are wild, dangerous beings, yet, like the rusalki, were capable of both helpful and harmful acts for and against humans. Perhaps like the rusalki, these bonfires were originally part of rituals that propitiated dragons, designed to curry their favor, rather than merely drive them off. Then again, there are a multitude of myths involving warrior storm gods who battle giant serpents and dragons -- Thor vs. Jormungandr and Perun vs. Veles are examples. There are also mortal heroes that famously battle dragons in order to preserve human civilizations, such as Beowulf and St. George. So maybe it’s that these bonfires were meant to empower and honor the gods and mighty ancestors that conquer dragons on our behalf. In fact, the storm god Ukko is the original recipient of sacrifices and celebration at Midsummer in Finland.


The monk’s reference to “certain other rubbish” is tantalizing -- too vague, yet the word “certain” suggests that the rubbish was of a specific kind, not just anything lying around. Significantly, the other rituals mentioned -- the rolling of the wheel (also attested in German folklore) in imitation of the journeying sun, and the fiery brands run through the fields -- are solar in nature. It’s possible that the rubbish was connected to this solar theme in some way, as sacrifices to nourish their gods or as symbols of powers that they wished for their gods to eradicate.


Tonight, at my home, we’ll light a fire of wood and bones. We’ll toast to the spirits and deities that protect and guide us, and maybe play a little music and dance. We'll celebrate our health and safety, the flourishing of our garden, and the great beauty and mystery that makes up this life. How do you celebrate Midsummer?

Works Cited


Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeloogy, and the Origins of European Dance. W.W. Norton, 2013.


Homans, George C. English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, 2nd ed. 1991.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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