Burning the Witches

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

As you know, April 30th is the day when the winter goddess surrenders to the advancing year and allows the summer goddess to take over. Beltane in the Celtic calendar, Walpurgis Night in many European countries, and the pantomime-meets-Hammer-Horror of the Čarodejnice festival here in Czechia.

Čarodejnice bonfire burning the witches

Up close and personal to the Čarodejnice bonfire

The incineration of winter takes place across the country, with bonfires blazing in most towns and villages. The Čarodejnice – witches – are burnt in effigy on the pyre. Sumer is icumen in and all that. The one we attended, in Starkov, had been recommended to us as the best in the area, by an enthusiastic fellow patient in the dentist’s waiting room a couple of days earlier.

The drama began in Starkov town square, with a slapstick but complex plot involving pub revellers, aristocrats, soldiers and a scrum of cornered and captured witches, all in ornate 18th century costumes. The subtleties of the plot eluded my vestigial Czech comprehension, and my attention drifted to the town square’s colossal Maypole.

Starkov Čarodejnice town square

Čarodejnice plot unfolds obscurely in Starkov town square

The pole had been erected to mark May Day, and rose higher than anything else in this timelessly low-rise town. It had what looked like a Christmas tree fixed to the top, above a circular floral garland. Tradition maintains that any person from another town or village who steals the garland wins a barrel of beer. The lure of the liquid gold is one thing, but the height involved was shocking. Do these people know nothing of health and safety?

Maypole in Starkov
Size matters when it comes to Czech Maypoles

The Maypoles are erected annually in each village and town, and linger until the end of May. They’re not there for some commercial incarnation of an ancient tradition – they ARE the ancient tradition. They were by far the tallest maypoles I’ve seen, as if the tallest tree in the local forest had been tracked down for the job. Each village has a pole (including our own village, Bĕlý), but they don’t appear to do anything. They don’t inspire music or dancing. They simply declare “It’s May Day, that’s why we’re here”. Maybe next year we can play some music in Bĕlý, I mused… but would that be bolstering the tradition, or pasting on some irrelevant British fantasy of how things should be?

But the Maypoles were peripheral to the witch burning festival, and their meaning and purpose only kicked in the following day, the lofty calm after the fire storm. I turned my attention back to the witch-baiting drama. The Čarodejnice were eventually rounded up and herded out of town to the scene of the bonfire.

Remember the days when bonfires were lit without the need for a phalanx of policemen, a flotilla of ambulances, and a pair of binoculars to view the blaze, far away beyond the safety barriers? Those days never came to an end here, mercifully. The Čarodejnice bonfires are huge, visceral, hot and literally in your face. Wonderful stuff.

We walked a kilometre to the sacrificial field at the back of Starkov church, and queued for beer and goulash while the evening’s magnificently-attired witches were judged in various age categories, in a parody of a beauty contest. There was a display of fire juggling/breathing/arsing around, before ominous looking cowled figures, including one in a V for Vendetta mask, processed with torches to the 12-metre mountain of wood, constructed great architectural and structural engineering knowhow.

Starkov Čarodejnice bonfire
Čarodejnice first blood – Cowled men light the witches’ pyre

The pyre was soon ablaze, and sparks filled the sky and showered down on the crowd like a satanic snowstorm. People dance and flinched as chunks of bonfire lodged in collars, handbags and hair. Youths dared each other to get closer to the blaze, while the crude Guy Fawkes-like witch effigy belched flames on the top of the inferno, and fell sideways with a whoosh of fire and a huge cheer from the crowd. The Czech rock band blasted through Whisky in the Jar as the drama played out, in a devilish echo of the Irish music that had serenaded us at the family’s Brexit parody party the previous day.

It was a proper bonfire, such as you don’t see in England any more. Over there, a child with a packet of sparklers is viewed as a potential hazard, so for this expat the Czech version of bonfire night was a moving and exhilarating display of elemental power and deep-rooted folklore.

Starkov Čarodejnice witch effigy burning
The witch effigy moments before collapsing into the pyre

The last time I had attended a fire festival was in 2015, with Jan and Theo in Oxford’s South Park on November 5th. The ingredients had looked promising – a huge pyre constructed from pallets, a massive stash of fireworks, and plenty of junk food stands. We looked forward to an epic conflagration. After half an hour of local bands (there was a radio sponsored talent contest), and appallingly overpriced rubbish in a bun, we finally got to the fireworks bit.

All very impressive; but it was that fire we’d come to see, roaring from the vast pallet pyramid that grazed the bottom of the clouds. The fireworks ended. People began to drift home. When the field was almost cleared, the bonfire was finally lit, and guarded by firemen who looked as though they’d released Godzilla to stretch his legs, but would douse him in a million gallons of Thames water if he tried anything too adventurous. As we waited for the bus in a queue of several hundred, we looked back the way we had come and just made out a dim glow. That was the South Park bonfire.

Starkov's Čarodejnice bonfire in full blaze
Starkov’s Čarodejnice bonfire in full blaze

Here in Starkov it was all wonderfully unselfconscious and proper. A huge blaze, and a few minor burns. There was no effort to make money, sell tickets, etc, above the obvious small change demanded for beer and food. Waves of burning ash sparked in the nearby treetops and showered down on us in a Vesuvius/Pompeii re-enactment. We danced like ill-practiced Morris Men as mini bonfires smouldered in our hair and clothing.

The crowd pulsed backwards and forwards as the direction of the burning ash showers changed.

I thought the trees, and therefore the forest, would surely catch fire. They didn’t. They’d been through this before, every year, forever.

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