Pagan Ritual

Emily Howse Issue: Section:

“OUT OF DARKNESS MUST COME LIGHT”

East Sussex, England, a county with pagan ritual and ancient tradition threading through its hills and woodlands, running through the streams and pulsing in the earth below each weary man’s foot, is the home to a village called Battle where I spent over 20 years growing up. A blessing, not so disguised, although one I rarely acknowledged save on one night of the year. Bonfire Night. To set the scene, many villages in East Sussex play host to a magnificent spectacle of fire lit procession and firework display centring around, quite frankly the biggest bonfires you will ever set eyes on.  

There are over thirty bonfire societies in Sussex who provide a great spectacle and raise thousands of pounds for charity each year, each having their own traditions and different features including guisers, Roman centurions, monks, nuns and vicars, sailors and smugglers, knights in Saxon chain mail and their ladies, Puritans, Cavaliers, highwaymen, convicts, horned gods, monsters, ghouls, skeletons, brass bands, pipe bands, drumming and dancing groups, giant effigies, blazing barrels and so much more joining together, all quarrels put to one side.

In ‘Olde’ England Bonfire or “Bone Fire” enveloped older traditions from Pagan customs, more specifically crossing paths with the four fire festivals signifying changes in the seasonal calendar.

Samhain is one such festival, considered by many to be the most important of the four “Great” Fire Festivals. It is a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on and often involves paying respect to those long since lost. Often referred to as the festival of darkness, Samhain welcomes the death of summer, which brings about the winter. Some say Herne and the Green Man, the great horned god of the earth, fertility and the life cycle arises to set about the death of Mother Nature, so that her body can be consumed by the Earth to fertilise the soils in preparation for spring.

I have childhood memories of the Green man together with Herne the horned god, dancing down Battle High Street shaking his leaves at all of those who looked on, dancing his death ritual to the loud and insisting drums of the marchers, and frankly scaring the living day lights out of me. It is only now apparent that maybe that was how I was meant to feel.

 

GUNPOWDER, TREASON AND PLOT

Now in 2011 our pagan roots are becoming less and less ……… as these magical festivities share seasonal beds with other branches of our history. Although for me their spiritual essence is held in high regard, I cannot deny the importance of their socio -cultural implications.

“Remember, remember the 5th November,

Gunpowder Treason and Plot.

 I see no reason why Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot……”

In 1605 a man by the name of Guy Fawkes and other Catholics plotted to rid England of its Protestant King and Parliament. He set down in the cellar of the House of Lords 36 barrels packed to bursting with gunpowder. Caught with a lit match in his hand he was arrested and sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. Since then on the 5th November across the country widespread celebrations in remembrance of these events take place, but none quite so special as those celebrations I hold so close to my heart!

BATTLE 

Battle is the proud home of the oldest GUY in the world, at a handsome 200 and something years old he is a poignant and exemplary reminder of the fate of traitors although, in the 21st century such cruel and inhumane punishments have long been outlawed. There is something chilling and thought- provoking in his presence, proudly led by his captives through the streets at the head of the procession. Interestingly, Battle also happened to be throughout the C17th and C18th the home to powder mills. Powder mills more specifically that Guy Fawkes obtained his fro.

 

The village was not only the home of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder but also the landmark of King Harold’s defeat by William the Conqueror in 1066.... the death of Old England. The field on which the fire site is located is the very field on which the Battle of Hastings or, as I prefer, the “Battle of Senlac Hill” took place. Right beneath our feet are the very graves of those Saxon warriors who we to extent we also mourn.

THE PROCESSION AND BONFIRE

I was lucky enough for Anthony Rigby, the head of pyrotechnics, to show me the fire site in daylight. It was a pleasure for me to see exactly how much effort and time goes into such an event giving me pyrotechnical insights and explanations of the dangers involved for those who   provide the evening’s SPECTACULAR pleasure. The fireworks are set up like regimented soldiers waiting on the battle field not unlike, perhaps, the Saxon warriors who lost their lives to William the Conqueror in 1066, standing proudly one last time before their light goes out!

I have heard it the procession best described as a battle, an army of light descending on the village, Saxon warriors, Gods and Goddesses transcend the limitations of time and once more walk proudly among us filling the streets with revelry and warmth.

The procession gathers at the top of the high street and prepares to make that historic march through the town

At the start I feel the atmosphere grow strong around me, the anticipation of a great night. In preparation, of course, I have a hip flask filled with such delights as Mead, a sweet honey beer, or whisky to warm my soul. Having painted my face and donned my costume I Stand ready amid the spirits of old, or in reality those who I have been fond of since a small girl I make ready, clenching my torch.  I breathe in the smell of bitchumen and wait impatiently for the first light of a blazing torch to break the dark sky. As the fire from the first makes it way steadily towards me I raise mine proudly as each person joins for a moment to carry on each fire to the next, each lit torch creating a chain, passing on from person to person. The sound of drumming beating the rhythm of my heart, my stomach jumping each time a ‘rookie’ or rook scarer   explodes violently on the ground beside me. From a distance you can see them spin and fall each with its own character let free by its captive’s hand from the end of a smoldering rope.

As we march through the village I hear the delightful cries of joy as the crowds expectations are met. 25 000 strong watching the procession in awe at the army of light moving smoothly like ghosts carried. Someone lights a flare and momentarily the world changes colour through pink and orange blasting out the silhouettes of rams’ skulls and standards.

We pause and rest before the great gates of Battle Abbey built to commemorate the battle and atone for so many deaths. Ritual takes over, as a Viking tall and strong like the Abbey walls walks majestically around the smaller bonfire set on the Abbey Green. As the suspense builds the Bonfire Boyes let their hair down as the intensity of bangers (rookies) are let loose. The Leaders of the Bonfire Society gently rest a red rose in remembrance of those lost in World War I and II to the fire and then with a roar the fire is lit! Next to which a scaffold strung with rookies, lined up like swallows on a phone wire, is sitting patiently waiting.  Then all of a sudden I can hear nothing but the blast of gunpowder, constant and steady, warming my cheek and lifting my core.

As the flames of the fire fades and the explosions cease we continue on our torch lit march back and forth through and along the village, back to the Abbey gates majestically waiting to welcome us on to the battlefield.  The long procession wends its way down and as it gathers around the “Normous Gurt Bonfire” the suspense nearly takes me over as I wait for the moment I will cast away my torch to the fire. A sacrifice, a personal one and one for all. The crowd gathering outside the ‘Fall out zone’ where they are safe away from harms arrow they wait unwearyingly for the display of lights, bright and unyielding in the night sky.

 

We cry out into the darkness our ritual chant signifying the moment the bonfire is lit!

“Remember, remember the 5th November,

Gunpowder Treason and Plot.

 I see no reason why Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy, t’was his intent,

To blow up King and Parliament,

Three score barrels were laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow,

By God’s mercy he was catch’d,

With darkened lantern and burning match,

Hola boys Hola boys let the bells ring,

Hola boys Hola boys God save the King”

And we run, hundreds of torches thrown like javelins on to the bonfire..... Within a moment the scene is alight, flames fiercely blazing high into the heavens.

Standing alone, solitary and ashamed is The Effigy, poignant symbol of our protest, each year a different protest made. Throughout time we have set alight and burnt to a cinder many a man, animal and even inanimate object, demonstrating our democratic political and social right to free speech

Before we set to obliterate this year’s Effigy, a beautiful display of fireworks plays among the stars. Colourful, incandescent nymphs set about dancing overhead accompanied by ooooos and ahhhhhs uttered in awe as we gaze transfixed fixated, for a moment, time standing quietly.

Several extreme blasts and the celebrations have finished. A mushroom cloud floats loftily away as it leaves in its place an empty spot where The Effigy once stood. I wait for a while savoring the moment bathing in the fire still strong.

As I leave the fire site I know I’m headed to family and friends who share in my passion for that one evening of the year bringing us together where we will make merry till the early hours. Then when the night is over, the bonfire season at an end and not quite 365 days to go to the next. With the smell of gunpowder still fresh in my mind and the sound of explosions and drumming still ringing in my ears I sleep sweetly, smiling, remembering exactly how lucky I have been, continue to be and always will be to hold in my heart such a special and extraordinary tradition.

“Guy Fawkes, Guy, t’was his intent,

To blow up King and Parliament,

Three score barrels were laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow,

By God’s mercy he was catch’d,

With darkened lantern and burning match,

Hola boys Hola boys let the bells ring,

Hola boys Hola boys God save the King”

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