Goddess of the Solstice Flames
Today is widely observed as St. John’s Eve, especially in France, Quebec and Louisiana. Lost in the mists of early Christian history are the reasons for the Gallic attachment to “John the Baptist” and the Magadeleine but we do know that long before either had been thought of this was the feast of the ancient Irish Goddess, Áine (awn-yah), and her equivalents throughout Northern Europe. As a Goddess of love, light, beauty, and fertility, she is often equated with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and, like her, Áine was honoured with offerings of the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest and the sustaining of the hearth fire which must be replenished on the occasion of each fire festival that marked the ancient calendar.
Goddess of the Solstice Flames
Áine was celebrated at the time of the summer Solstice with the lighting of bonfires on hills the length and breadth of Pagan Ireland, and particularly in Cnoc Áine, Limerick, the centre of her cult. There are many customs associated with the observance of the Solstice in Ireland but common to all is the lighting of the bonfire just as the sun sets on June 23rd. The fire is kept going all night and the following day until sunset on the 24th. Whole towns used to turn out for the occasion. Even the children participated by going about the town and nearby countryside knocking on doors and collecting contributions for the bonfire. It was considered bad form not to contribute something that could be burned in the ritual. The purpose of the communal fire was two-fold: to ask the blessing of Áine on the crops and the animals so that the autumn harvest would be a good one and supply enough food for the villagers to survive the harsh winter and during the transition to Christianity to show the community just how virtuous or ‘sinful’ the young were by having them jump over the fire. Elders believed they could see the guilt or innocence of the fire jumpers in their demeanor and skill at avoiding the flames. Previous to that interpretation, jumping the fire was a simple act of revelry with an element of daring thrown in as watchers made bets on who would jump highest.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the ritual was and remains the carrying of live coals from the bonfire to the hearths of those who rebuilt their croft or created new dwellings. It was considered fitting to set the first fire in the new hearth with these coals so that the Goddess would protect those lived there from cold and hunger.. Ashes from the fire were also gathered and scattered in the fields to help the crops to grow and flourish. Like Brighid, whose sacred springtime fire is lit at Imbolc on February 1st, Áine is a fire Goddess and her blessing is sought for the newly planted fields of Summer. These two Goddesses herald the turning of the wheel of the year away from want and toward plenty, reminding the populace of their bond to the earth that supports them and to the fire that illumines their dwellings and keeps them warm year round. In the ancient world no one doubted that the gift of fire-making came from the Goddess and was the greatest of all gifts to humankind – regardless of what Haephastus later claimed…
Books cited in the post can be found HERE.
© Delia O’ Riordan 2012
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.