Bonfires dot the rolling hillside,/Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness,/Moving to the pagan sound.
It was not on All Souls Eve but on Midsummer, Sommerwende, the turning of summer, that I saw bonfires leaping from the mountains, fire dancing on an ancient bridge, and caught hints of something far, far older than St. John’s Eve.
The theme of the entire trip was pre-Roman central Europe, focusing on Ötzi – the man in the ice – and Hallstatt and La Tene culture in the Tyrol and Salzburger Land. Dr. Peter Wells was the tour leader, and I suspect that’s the trip that locked in my interest in European pre-history. We spent time in Salzburg (salt city), Hallein (salt town), Hallstatt (salt city . . . yes, you see a pattern). We began in Innsbruck, (bridge on the Inn) which is a neat old city that goes waaaaay back because it is at the head of one of the two most important passes through the Alps. It is a straight and (relatively) easy shot from Innsbruck to Venice and northern Italy and has always been.
So we happened to be in Innsbruck on Midsummer Night. A bunch of us joined the flow of people, mostly locals, going to the small and very old bridge over the river near the Altstadt. Stilt walkers, people eating and playing with fire, people in fire costumes, and a man with a bass voice as the MC. I was not as fluent in German as I am now, and he was not using Hochdeutsch, so I had a very hard time trying to act as interpreter (I’m a translator, not an interpreter. I need time to work, and my brain does not process in parallel). It was a warm, clear night, with a little breeze but not too much.
What came next had nothing to do with the feast of St. John the Baptist except in official name, and a lot to do with something very old that likely predated even Ötzi. The man talked about fire, and the shifting of the sun, and the power of fire and water, and how Innsbruck and the mining history of the region was about fire and water across time. He pulled in fire legends, and about how fire had defended the Tyrol from Napoleon (and the Bavarians – the Tyrol stuck with the Habsburgs.) Someone started juggling fire, and then St. Catherine’s Wheel fireworks went off on both sides of the bridge, spinning and throwing sparks into the growing darkness.
We stayed until around 2300 (11:00 PM) or so, because we had to catch the bus at 0700 the next morning. My hotel room faced the Dachstein, the big mountain that blocks in Innsbruck, and as I watched, I saw a fire, then another, and another appearing. I leaned out as far as I could without falling and saw bonfires igniting on the ridges and peaks all around the valley, as far as I could see. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. For how many thousands of years had the bonfires flared, in thanks or in warning?
I’ve been in that area for Midsummer a few times since, and I still get an odd feeling, something moving, probably resonating with so many generations of feelings and fears and celebration and war and warning. I also know that it’s not something for me to try to touch. I’ve written here before about my reluctance to tangle with certain things, and Sommerwende is one of those. The same something in me that makes me sensitive to that sort of energy or spirit also makes me susceptible to other things, and some doors are best left closed, no matter what your belief system calls the forces on the other side.
I had not encountered Loreena McKennitt’s “All Souls Night” at that time. When I did hear it a few years later, you can imagine what I saw in my mind’s eye. No, not All Souls, but Sommerwende. And then you may recall the lighting of the fires in the film version of Lord of the Rings, in the third movie. Oh yes, I’d seen that before, but at night, in a mountain valley, on a route of trade and invasion, fires that had been lit for thousands of years.
I can see a light in the distance,/shining in the dark cloak of night;
Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing/ a waltz on All-Souls Night.
From “All Souls Night” Loreena McKennitt, The Visit (1991) (C) Quinlan Road Music.
Something like that raises the hair on the back of one’s neck…
Indeed. I can count very few times and places I’ve felt anything close to it. Looking up at St. Barbara’s in Kutna Hora and inside St. Barbara’s itself, looking up at the Matra Mountains at sunset from the little hidden church in Hungary, Lavenham Airfield in England, a place in the Wienerwald, two or three spots in the US . . . Given the miles I’ve covered and the places I’ve been, that’s a very low number.
There are certain places, and certain objects, that cause a certain sensation. Maybe not all the time, but sometimes. I don’t know how else to describe it. I am not sure what it is, or what to attribute it to, but I’ve encountered that sensation perhaps ten times in my life. Most were near artifacts of great evil, or places of historical importance. I felt that feeling a few times when in places of great solitude. And once a few seconds before a semi-truck lost control and swerved into the lane I’d been considering moving into, and had just decided not to.
Well, the likelihood is low of any modern MC or dignitary wanting to talk about the actual holiday as experienced by actual locals. The miners who dug the new Swiss tunnel apparently wanted to kill the guy who orchestrated the opening ceremonies, especially when they made a dance number out of a terrible accident that had occurred during construction. And yeah, that one was heavy on faux pagan stuff too.
That said, a good showman or storyteller can do amazing things and bring together disparate ideas, and Switzerland is an amazing hodgepodge of itself and everybody else. So he would have had plenty to work with on St. John’s Eve.
But it’s like watching one of those Celtic Ladies specials on PBS. Lots of amazing, lots of BS history, lots of pulling factoids out of butts.