Is Bonfire Night a Pagan Rite?

In the early hours of the 5th of November 1605, Guy Fawkes was found guarding explosives in Westminster Palace. Late January 1606, the man and his fellow Catholic plotters were found guilty of an attempted assassination against King James I; on the last day of the same month, they were hung and quartered; their body parts, distributed all over the country, served as an example against any attempts of conspiracy in the future.  By the order of the King’s officials, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot by lighting bonfires. The tradition of Bonfire Night has been kept intact ever since.

“During the first half of the eighteen century, the Fifth of November had a partisan political flavour, privileging Whig over Tory ideologies. By the 1760s, it was a festival that was firmly embedded in popular politics as a day of national deliverance from Catholicism and absolutist rule, one that was critical to the shaping of national identities in opposition to Britain’s most powerful neighbour and imperial rival, France.” (Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night). In the nineteenth century, on the other hand, the celebrations of Bonfire Night took the form of enraged spectacles used for expressing discontent against contemporary politics. “In 1820, the inhabitants of Guisborough in Yorkshire used the holiday to signal their displeasure at George IV’s mean-spirited, inquisitorial policy toward his estranged wife, Queen Caroline. During the Crimean War, the Emperor of Russia was burnt in effigy in villages in Leicestershire. In Lewes, Sussex, where the vitality of Guy Fawkes Day was and is still sustained by local bonfire societies, inhabitants would be regularly treated to the rants of mock-priests decrying the latest public scandal.” (Rogers).

In time, the original context of Bonfire Night was lost. The celebrations became more of a pretext to promoting new meanings, corresponding with a particular moment in time and history, rather than to commemorating the events of the seventeenth century. Perhaps, these celebrations have been a pretext to something else all along? After all neither Fawkes nor his fellow companions were burned at the stake. What does the bonfire signify then? It is in fact a strange coincidence that in the age of Renaissance English noblemen would allow a celebration that in its savage form corresponded to pagan rites of Anglo-Saxons (animal or even human sacrifices in the month of November) or the ancient Druids (the wicker man). It seems that these forms of celebrations were chosen to serve a specific purpose at the time. 

Some anthropologists claim that Bonfire Night celebrations were a Protestant replacement for the ancient Celtic and Nordic festivals of Samhain, previously transformed by the Church into All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls’ Day. However, their sudden emergence after the Gunpowder Plot, makes them more likely connected to the political context of this memorable event. The first thing that comes to mind is that Bonfire Night was a manifestation of Anglican domination over Catholicism. Bringing back old pagan rituals derided Catholic stance against paganism and discredited the meaning of Catholic religion amongst its followers. Therefore the Bonfire Night of 1605 is quite likely an example of intricately staged religious and political propaganda aimed to ridicule the Catholic Church. 

Pagan connotations of Bonfire Night were noticed by Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native. However, Hardy describes the ritual as a moment of connection with the spirit of our ancient ancestors and excludes all political contexts:          

“It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies that the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.” (Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native)

Whatever the real motives for the original Bonfire Night, today we see it more as an occasion for social gathering or simply a pastime – having a drink or a laugh, an excuse to mock the dark winter time. But for the sake of tradition, try and think whose effigy would you set on fire this year?