Monday, May 27, 2013

Esis's Chronicles 172
Origin of The Midsummer Fire
© Eso A.B.

This blog a ‘break’ in the regular series.

Johns Eve or the Midsummer Festival in Latvia is only weeks away. Here are some reflections on the significance of the festival by one who many years ago became an afficianado of the festival and has never been able to let go of an interest in it..

The sad truth about the demise of the Latvian Midsummer Festival is that it is not the result of Soviet repression (as many allege, but a consequence of the Latvian intelegentsia smothering its own communal roots by surrendering to the neo-Christian propaganda about God being a Being out of nature.

The smothering of this ‘day of the community’ has other sources as well. One cause is an overly tight hugging of Johns as a purely Latvian festival with no relation to anyone else. I remember the poet Imants Ziedonis, recently deceased, telling me that Latvians can be proud of being the only ones who wear oak leaf wreaths on their heads. I was surprised to hear this, because a wreath of leaves or flowers is an old tradition if one remembers the laurel wreath of the Greeks and Romans and poet ‘laureates’ .

Recently, while rereading Euripedes “The Bacchae” another image and potential source for the Festival came to mind.

When Dionysus (Yahnis in Latvian) comes to Thebes, many of the city’s inhabitants, apparently mostly women (once inhabitants of the wood, now starved for nature by the desert regime that is the city), join him in a bacchanal that winds up Mt. Cithaeron to a holy communal gathering place there. The name ‘bacchae’ originates in Bacchus, who is the Roman God of wine; however, Bacchus is a late replacement for the name of the Greek God Ion

The Bacchae are behaving orgiastically and apparently lewdly. Word of this gets to King Pentheus, who (also starved for nature) imagines the event as a pornography show. To better see what the women are up to, Pentheus climbs a tall pine that grows close to the grounds where the ritual is to take place. Unfortunately, the Bacchae see him, and climb the tree to pull the King down to earth.

When the King is down, the Bacchae fall on him and tear him into bloody pieces. Then everybody rushes back to Thebes, with an elderly lady leading the runners. The lady holds in her hand by the hair the head of King Pentheus. Only when the Bacchae reach the marketplace of Thebes, does the lady awaken to the fact that she is none other than the mother of the King.

The Bacchae, realize that a great tragedy has happened, and a great communal wailing ensues. Incidentally, the word ‘tragedy’ has its origin in the greek name tragōidia, “billy-goat-song”. Taking the behavior of King Pentheus into account, he may have been thought to be impersonating a billy goat. The Latvians have a folk poem, it goes: “Kaza kāpa debesīs, Dievam sūdzēt….” (The billy goat climbed up to heave to complain to God…) There is an ancient statue of gold that shows a goat on its hind legs chewing the leaves of a small tree.

Then the Bacchae hit upon a brilliant idea. Some of them rush back to Mt. Cithaeron, and go to the pine tree which had hid King Pentheus. The Bacchae dig around the pine until they have loosed its roots. Then they fell the tree, strip it of its branches, shorten the trunk somewhat, and carry the rest of the trunk back to Thebes.

Meanwhile, the Bacchae who have remained in Thebes have dug a deep hole in the ground. This is where the top of the tree is now placed, and the tree, with the aid of pulleys and pichforks, it is pushed and pulled until it is with its roots in the air, and stands in a vertical position. A ladder is then brought to the tree. The crevices of the roots are filled with tar and resin, and to the roots is secured the head of the King. (In later years the head of the king is replaced by the head of a sacrificial goat,) The roots are then put to a flame.

One may imagine that it is in this ceremony that we must seek the origin of the image of the head of the Medusa and/or the Latvian Midsummer wreath .

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