Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Midsummer-eve in Bohemia

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2923172Once a Week, Series 1, Volume XI — Midsummer-eve in Bohemia
1864William King Westly


The people of Bohemia still preserve many customs and superstitions derived from their pagan ancestors. At the introduction of Christianity, in the latter part of the ninth century, the harbingers of the Gospel, in accordance with the precepts of Pope Gregory, indulged to some degree the customs and prejudices of the nation they came to convert. Christianity did not wholly exterminate, but subverted idolatry, and then amalgamated the fragments with itself. The localities consecrated from of old to heathen deities were allowed to preserve their sacred character, by becoming the sites of Christian churches, often dedicated to saints whose names resembled, or were made to assimilate to, those of the idols they superseded. It was probably a similarity of name that assisted in superseding the worship of the pagan deity “Sviatoy Vit,” by that of the Christian Saint Vitus; and the latter, accordingly, became in popular belief invested with the attributes of the former; being always represented as a beautiful youth, accompanied by a black cock—a bird sacred to the idol,—and which is to this day brought as an offering by the people, in their pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Vitus. A like policy was pursued with regard to the pagan festivals and ceremonies, which were not entirely abolished, but made to coincide and blend with those of the new faith. The antagonist creeds, when brought together, underwent a fusion, and the result was an alloy.

The heathen festival of the Beltane Fire, celebrated at the summer solstice, was readily associated, and then confounded, with the illuminated rites of the Roman Church on the vigil of St. John; and in this instance it was easy to convert the pagan observance into a Christian solemnity.

For some weeks previous to Midsummer-eve, the young people, all over the country, are active in collecting fuel for the bonfires to be kindled on that day; and among the articles in request are old besoms and cart-wheels out of use. The cart-wheels, being well smeared with rosin, are set on fire and allowed to roll down the hills. The besoms, dipped in tar, are set ablaze, and the young men wave them about, while dancing round and leaping through the bonfire, or run with them, flaming in their hands, from one bonfire to another, to leap over each in turn, being in this exercise imitated and rivalled by the damsels; for it is believed that to leap three times through the fire secures the performer from fever for the year. There are various methods of building up the pile for the bonfire, but when made of bundles of firewood, the number preferred is seven. A lofty tree, standing alone upon an eminence, near a village, is sometimes selected; and, being heaped round with dry branches and brush-wood, the whole is set in flames, while the young people of both sexes dance in a circle around it. The tarred besoms are kindled at the fire; and, after being swung about and hurled into the air, the charred stumps are carried home, and stuck about the cabbage-grounds, to preserve the plants from snails and caterpillars.

In the district of Eger, the youths procure from the woods a straight and tall pine or fir-tree, full of rosin, and fix it on some elevated spot, while the maidens adorn it with green wreaths, coloured ribbons, and garlands of flowers. A pile of firewood is then built up around the tree, and at night the whole is kindled. While the bonfire is blazing, the young men climb the tree, to obtain the garlands hung on by their favourite maidens. When the tree is consumed, the young people place themselves round the remaining fire, and look at each other, through garlands, to discover whether they are still mutually faithful; and they also throw the garlands to one another through the fire, three times, without failing to catch them, if possible, for their falling would be a bad omen. When the fire has burnt still lower, each youth, holding his maiden by the hand, leaps with her, three times, over the glowing embers. The scorched wreaths are taken home, and hung about the pictures, cupboards, and windows. The peasants plant the half-burnt brands and charcoal in their fields and gardens, and under the thresholds and the eaves of their dwellings, to act as charms against evil and witchcraft. During a tempest they throw fragments of the garlands into the hearth-fire, and while they are burning apply themselves to prayers. They give morsels of the charcoal to their cattle when sick, or about to calve, and also on holidays; and with portions ignited they fumigate the house and offices, to preserve the health of the inmates; consequently, the scorched garlands are preserved for these purposes from year to year.

In some places, the people, during the bonfire, wear wreaths of St. John’s wort on their heads, or as girdles round the waist, for preservatives against sickness and witchcraft, but especially to prevent diseases of the eyes. The maidens about Eisenberg plait garlands of wild flowers, through which they look at the bonfire, while repeating some rhymes, to invoke its favour on their eyes till they see it again; and when this is done three times the prayer is expected to be granted. About Jungbunzlau, the people throw up their blazing brooms into the air, repeating a verse to ascertain how many years they have still to live; and believe, that as many times as the besom falls and continues to burn, so many years are they sure of life; but should it be extinguished by the fall, their death is certain within the year. Others cast garlands into the water, which, if drawn down by the water-sprite, betoken the speedy death of the owner. A yellow-blossoming fern is sought for on this night, from a belief that its possession confers good fortune, and the power of discovering hidden treasure. The blossoms, however, must not be touched by the fingers, but sprinkled upon a white cloth, otherwise they vanish like vapour. A like precaution must be taken when a maiden collects nine differently coloured flowers for a garland, which she places under her pillow, in order to see her beloved in a dream. To ensure success, the cloth should be washed with dew; and she must bring home the blossoms, avoiding to meet any one on her way.

In the villages of Leitmeritz, the maidens use seven variegated flowers, gathered in a peafield; and, placing the garland as a pillow, under the right ear, receive their answer, in a voice from underground. For the same purpose, wreaths are twisted of nine different sorts of twigs, and, being placed on the head, the wearer, by starlight, gazes into a stream where it is overhung by a tree, and there sees in the water the image of the future helpmate. At Ostrovetz, near what is called the “Hellpool,” on Midsummer-eve, may be seen a horse without a head, who for awhile accompanies the wayfarer, and then leaps into a piece of water a little beyond the pool. Others, instead of a horse, see a woman without a head, and sometimes a black dog or pig, a hare, or a white duck. On this night, also, the wood-demons have extraordinary power.

The numerous bonfires may be seen blazing for miles around in the valleys, and along the mountains, especially on the crest of the “hoary Schöninger,” near Budweis, which, as well as the fireworks displayed from an old tower upon it, are visible to a great distance.

St. John the Baptist is, in Bohemia, after the Holy Venceslas, the saint most in repute, having no less than 151 churches dedicated to his honour, besides giving his name to many places and persons, since it is believed to be endued with specific power against Satan. The day of his nativity is the only one that is observed as such, beside those of the Virgin and the Saviour, among the festivals of the Roman Church. On this day, at noon, it is believed that all the treasures hidden in the earth are laid open; but, as they are again closed as soon as the hour strikes one, those who may have entered must remain shut in till the next St. John’s Day.

It is supposed by the Taborites that their ancient heroes are still living, but buried within the mountain Blanick, where, in a trance, they are waiting the moment for sallying forth to destroy their enemies. A stream that issues from the mountain, having the smell and colour of stable refuse, is said to proceed from their horses, standing in a row, along a wall of rock. The knights, clad in full armour, and with their weapons at hand, are all sleeping in various postures, either on the ground or on benches round the cavern; some are stretched at full length; some are sitting, with their heads supported by their swords; and others are mounted, with their heads resting on their horses’ necks. A shepherd, who once entered the cavern, found them in this condition, and saw them awaken, when they asked whether the hour for their exit had come. Upon which the leader, who slept in an elevated seat, in the centre of the hall, replied,—“It is not yet time to destroy the enemies of Bohemia.” On hearing this, they all resumed their sleep. The shepherd, when he at last got out, learnt that he had been shut up for a year.

A similar adventure happened to a blacksmith, who possessed a meadow close to the Blanick mountain; and went there one morning, with a labourer, to make hay. His serving-maid brought breakfast, and the smith, with his portion, sat him down at the foot of the mountain. He had hardly finished, when a man, wrapped in a mantle, came to him, and said,—

“Follow me, friend!”

The smith obeyed, and both entered the mountain, where the stranger, turning round, said,—

“I have brought you here to shoe our horses.”

“That is impossible,” said the smith, “for I have no tools.”

“Be not uneasy about that,” returned the knight, who then brought what was required and told him to begin, but warned him not to jostle against any of the sleeping cavaliers. The smith, however, in shoeing the last horse, did, by chance, shove against the knight who sat upon it; and who, awakening instantly, cried,—

“Is it time?”

“Not yet; sleep on!” replied the smith’s employer, who reproved him for his negligence, but, for all that, paid him for his trouble by giving him the old horseshoes.

When the smith came out again into his meadow, he found all these horseshoes converted into gold; and he found, also, two labourers making hay, where he had left but one; and, on inquiry, he learnt that a year had passed since he had gone away and been given up for lost.

A nail-smith once bartered with a knight of Blanick a sack of nails for a heap of stable-sweepings, which afterwards changed to gold. The same change took place with some dung, which a hind had swept out of their stable; both events taking place on St. John’s Day. The peasants affirm that strange noises are often heard within the mountain, at such times as the knights are furbishing their arms for battle; but their outburst is not expected till the dry pond near Blanick is filled with blood, and the withered trees on the banks of the rivulet put forth fresh blossoms; and then the knights will come forth, with Duke Venceslas at their head, mounted on a white horse, and bearing in his hand the standard of Bohemia.

The Bohemians entertain many amiable fancies associated with the native fruit—the strawberry. The first handful gathered, and those which may slip through the fingers in gathering, are reserved for the poor, for whom they are placed on a tree-stump or other conspicuous spot.

A mother who has lost her infant in the previous part of the year must gather no strawberries before St. John’s Day; for, if she does, her child will not be permitted to join the blessed children when they go with the Virgin Mary to gather strawberries in the groves of Heaven. According to another version, the child will indeed get some strawberries, but not so many as the others; for the Virgin will say,—

“See, darling, your share is small, because your mother has eaten the rest.”

Cherries are, in like manner, forbidden to the bereaved mother.

In the valley at Tetschen, it is believed that a certain crag, resembling a human bust, and called “The Stone Strawberry-Lass,” which projects from a mountain, may become animated on St. John’s Day, provided a pure and pious youth, who, from his seventh year of age, has never missed or neglected the Sunday church-service, nor, during it, looked at a maiden, should strike it three times on the breast while High Mass is being performed. The tradition states that the crag was once a giddy maid, called Petronella, who lived with her pious grandmother, in a cottage lying far away in the valley.

On St. John’s Day, in 1614, which fell upon a Sunday, Petronella, disobeying her grandmother, instead of going to High Mass, went to dance and sport among the strawberry-grounds; and, as she saw her grandmother returning from church, she made game of her. The grandmother was angry, and said she would rather see Petronella a stone than as wicked as she was; and the wish was no sooner spoken than Petronella, with her strawberry-pot, was transformed into stone, as she appears now.