Thursday 12 October 2017

Burning rolling wheel

"At Lower Konz, a village situated on a hillside overlooking the Moselle, the midsummer festival used to be celebrated as follows. A quantity of straw was collected on the top of the steep Stromberg Hill. Every inhabitant, or at least every householder, had to contribute his share of straw to the pile. At nightfall the whole male population, men and boys, mustered on the top of the hill; the women and girls were not allowed to join them, but had to take up their position at a certain spring half-way down the slope. On the summit stood a huge wheel completely encased in some of the straw which had been jointly contributed by the villagers; the rest of the straw was made into torches. From each side of the wheel the axletree projected about three feet, thus furnishing handles to the lads who were to guide it in its descent. The mayor of the neighboring town of Sierck, who always received a basket of cherries for his services, gave the signal; a lighted torch was applied to the wheel, and as it burst into flame, two young fellows, strong-limbed and swift of foot, seized the handles and began running with it down the slope. A great shout went up. Every man and boy waved a blazing torch in the air, and took care to keep it alight so long as the wheel was trundling down the hill. The great object of the young men who guided the wheel was to plunge it blazing into the water of the Moselle; but they rarely succeeded in their efforts, for the vineyards which cover the greater part of the declivity impeded their progress, and the wheel was often burned out before it reached the river. As it rolled past the women and girls at the spring, they raised cries of joy which were answered by the men on the top of the mountain; and the shouts were echoed by the inhabitants of neighbouring villages who watched the spectacle from their hills on the opposite bank of the Moselle. If the fiery wheel was successfully conveyed to the bank of the river and extinguished in the water, the people looked for an abundant vintage that year."

This is a passage from the book "The Golden Bough" by James George Frazer.

The book then goes to say that similar custom of rolling a burning wheel down a hill side existed in many other places in Europe:

At Eisenach on the fourth Sunday in Lent young people used to fasten a straw-man, representing Death, to a wheel, which they trundled to the top of a hill. Then setting fire to the figure they allowed it and the wheel to roll down the slope.

In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland at the same season similar customs have prevailed. Thus in the Eifel Mountains, Rhenish Prussia, on the first Sunday in Lent, a great wheel was made of straw and dragged by three horses to the top of the hill. Thither the village boys marched at nightfall, set fire to the wheel, and sent it rolling down the slope.

In the Rhön Mountains, situated on the borders of Hesse and Bavaria, the people used to march to the top of a hill or eminence on the first Sunday in Lent. Children and lads carried torches, brooms daubed with tar, and poles swathed in straw. A wheel, wrapped in combustibles, was kindled and rolled down the hill;

In neighboring villages of Hesse, between the Rhön and the Vogel Mountains, it is thought that wherever the burning wheels roll, the fields will be safe from hail and storm.

Bonfires were lit in almost all the hamlets of Poitou on the Eve of St. John. People marched round them thrice, carrying a branch of walnut in their hand. Shepherdesses and children passed sprigs of mullein (verbascum) and nuts across the flames; the nuts were supposed to cure toothache, and the mullein to protect the cattle from sickness and sorcery. When the fire died down people took some of the ashes home with them, either to keep them in the house as a preservative against thunder or to scatter them on the fields for the purpose of destroying corn-cockles and darnel. In Poitou also it used to be customary on the Eve of St. John to trundle a blazing wheel wrapt in straw over the fields to fertilise them.

In Wales three or nine different kinds of wood and charred faggots carefully preserved from the last midsummer were deemed necessary to build the bonfire, which was generally done on rising ground. In the Vale of Glamorgan a cart-wheel swathed in straw used to be ignited and sent rolling down the hill. If it kept alight all the way down and blazed for a long time, an abundant harvest was expected.

In Switzerland, also, it is or used to be customary to kindle bonfires on high places on the evening of the first Sunday in Lent, and the day is therefore popularly known as Spark Sunday. In some parts of the canton also they used to wrap old wheels in straw and thorns, put a light to them, and send them rolling and blazing down hill.

All over Northern and Central Germany, from Altmark and Anhalt on the east, through Brunswick, Hanover, Oldenburg, the Harz district, and Hesse to Westphalia the Easter bonfires still blaze simultaneously on the hill-tops. In some places tar-barrels or wheels wrapped in straw used to be set on fire, and then sent rolling down the hillside.

In Swabia, lads and lasses, hand in hand, leap over the midsummer bonfire, praying that the hemp may grow three ells high, and they set fire to wheels of straw and send them rolling down the hill. At Obermedlingen, the “fire of heaven,” as it was called, was made on St. Vitus’s Day, the day of Svetovid. On the summit of a mountain, a cart-wheel, smeared with pitch and plaited with straw, was fastened on a pole twelve feet high, the top of the pole being inserted in the nave of the wheel. The wheel was then set on fire.

In Lower Austria bonfires are kindled on the heights, and the boys caper round them, brandishing lighted torches drenched in pitch. Whoever jumps thrice across the fire will not suffer from fever within the year. Cart-wheels are often smeared with pitch, ignited, and sent rolling and blazing down the hillsides.

All over Bohemia bonfires still burn on Midsummer Eve.  Sometimes an old cart-wheel is smeared with resin, ignited, and sent rolling down the hill.

The Golden Bough does not mention it, but similar customs are also known from other Central and Eastern European Slavic lands:

In Slovakia, the Midsummer Night is called "Vajana". The root of this word is verb "váľať" meaning "to roll". Basically Midsummer Night is the night when fiery wheels are rolled down the slopes of hills.

In Belarus, Ukraine and Russia one of the solar-fire rituals performed during the Kupala Night (Midsummer Night) was to roll a flaming wheel down a hill and into a river or lake at the bottom, if there was one. The wheel symbolized the wheel (circle) of the seasons, as well as the sun-disk. In this ritual, the wheel was stuffed with straw or hay (the yellowish color of which resembled the sun) so that the wheel itself was barely visible, and in many cases an axle protruded a meter or so on each side, which people used to guide it down the hill. The idea was for it to roll all the way to the bottom, into the water if any; if it did not roll all the way down, the harvest would be bad. A wheel was also burned on a long pole. Wheels were also put on high poles and then burned either alone or a bonfire was piled around the pole with the wheel and then then whole thing was set on fire.

In "THE LITHUANIANS, an ethnic portrait" by Juozas Kudirka we read that "The Midsummer Day is a festival of simple people, connected with the veneration of fire. Young girls adorn their heads with flower wreaths. A tall pole with a wooden wheel soaked in tar or filled with birch bark is hoisted at the top of the highest hill in the vicinity. Men whose names are Jonas (John) set the wheels on fire and make bonfires around it. In some places a second pole is hoisted with flowers and herbs. Young people dance round the fire, sing songs about rye, play games, men try to jump over the fire. The burning wheels on the poles are rolled down the hill into a river or a lake at its foot, men jumping over it all along."

I would like to talk about this interesting ritual. 

First I would like to say that I believe that this was originally a ritual performed only on the summer solstice night. In most parts of Europe it was still performed on that day or on the Christian saint day which replaced Summer solstice day as a holy day. The reason why this ritual was recorded to have been performed in some parts of Europe during Lent, is because Christian clergy tried to remove the original meaning from this ritual by moving it to another part of the year. 

But what was the original meaning of this ritual? 

We know that wheel is a symbol directly linked with sun. But why is the burning wheel rolled down the mountain? 

The most popular proposed explanation is that the burning wheel was rolled down the mountain on the eve of summer solstice to symbolize the decrease of the sun's declination angle which begins on that night. 

The variation of the declination angle over the year is represented by a sinusoidal line. We can see how the decrease of the declination angle can indeed be represented by the image of the sun rolling down the slope of the hill.   

The effect of the Declination variation is the variation of the height of the point the sun reaches in the sky at noon. The sun reaches the highest point in the sky at noon on the day of the summer solstice. From that day, the height of the point the sun reaches at noon gets smaller and smaller, until at the winter solstice, the sun reaches the lowest point in the sky at noon. Then the process reverses. 

So maybe this is what our ancestors wanted to symbolically represent by rolling the burning wheel down the slope of a hill. The decrease of the height of the point the sun reaches in the sky at noon. 

But there is another possibility. 

In my post "The thundering sun god" I talked about St Ilija the Thunderer. Serbian folk tradition says that every year St Ilija the Thunderer gets so angry, that he wants to  "burn the whole world down". As I already explained in my post "Two crosses", the earth climatic, vegetative cycle lags behind the solar cycle. Becauese of this, the 21st of June, the mid summer, is the day of the maximum sun light. But it is the 2nd of August the day that marks the end of summer, that is the day of maximum sun heat. And this is the day when Serbs celebrate St Ilia the Thunderer. The period three days before and the three days after the 2nd of August, is in South Slavic tradition called Kresovi meaning Fires. These are the days of wild fires and droughts. These days are also known as the dog days, because these are the days when the dog star Sirius is in the sky with the sun.

But thankfully "Ilia the thunderer" does not burn the earth. Every year, on his day, the 2nd of August, the day of St Ilija the Thunderer, he gets persuaded by his wife, Ognjena Marija (Fiary Mary) to calm down. In Serbia there is a saying: "Od svetog Ilije sunce sve milije" which means "From St Ilija the sun starts getting kinder, milder, gentler". The first part of the 2nd of August is considered summer and the second is considered to be Autumn. And thus every year on the 2nd of August the summer ends and the autumn begins.

The 2nd of August is also the day of Perun, Slavic storm god. 

As I said already, we know that wheel is a symbol directly linked with sun. But it is also linked with thunder and fire. We can see this through the symbols of Svetovid and Perun: their wheels. The wheel of Perun is "like" the wheel of Svetovid. It is actually the fiery version of the wheel of Svetovid. 

During the second part of Summer, between mid summer, the day of Svetovid, and the end of summer, the day of Perun, the sun wheel, turns into the fiery wheel. This is symbolic representation of the effect of the ever increasing heat and drought of the second part of the summer. 

But just when the world is about to be burned to cinder by the fiery sun of the late summer, Perun arrives and kills Veles. Veles, the dragon who stole Perun's celestial cows (rain clouds), is the late summer's heat that causes drought. Perun represents the first autumn storms which finally end the drought and ensure that the crops will survive and that the harvest will be successful. The rain water extinguishes sun's fire. Autumn begins. 

Now let's have a look at the ritual again. 

The wheel is lit up on top of the hill. This is Summer solstice sun just starting to get really hot. The wheel is rolled down the hill. As the wheel rolls down the wheel's fire gets stronger and stronger because of the increased air circulation around the wheel. The people handling the wheel aim to plunge the now madly burning wheel into the river which flows below the hill and extinguish the fire. 

I believe that this was actually a magic ritual. 

The rolling of a burning wheel down the hill represents the fact that the sun's temperature increases in the second part of summer even though the days are getting shorter. 
The fact that the wheel is often rolled down the side of the hill which ends in a river or a lake and that it is seen as a good luck if the burning wheel reaches the water is very significant. It shows that the ritual is actually a magic ritual performed in order to insure the "extinguishing of the sun's fire" of the late summer by the water of the autumn rains.

I think this is very very interesting. What do you think?

By the way if you know of any other place in Europe when the same ritual was performed which I didn't list, please let me know so I can update my post. 


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    1. The sign is in Slavic countries also known as one of "Thunder signs" and as such was carved into houses and barns to protect them from thunder

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    3. It definitely is a very interesting symbol. Thank you for the link to the blog.

  2. Also a tradition in Lügde, Germany.

  3. Probably it’s analogous with the „rolling sun phenomenon”, too - your „Sun mountain” post – which, as you wrote, has a connection with a division of the solar year into three equal parts. If it’s true, the „rolling sun” could be a trace of an ancient (solar ? moreover: creation ?)-myth, too, which is lost(?)

  4. This is a slavic rite. It came to Germany as the slavs rulled over big parts of eastern and norther germany