Bonfire night Weatherwatch: bonfires began as storm-season tributes to god of thunder

November used to be sacred to Thunor – or Thor – and ‘bone fires’ have been lit in his identify to chase away evil

David Hambling

Fri 2 Nov 2018 21.30 GMT

A 5 November bonfire in Lewes, East Sussex.
A 5 November bonfire in Lewes, East Sussex. The culture dates again to early Anglo-Saxon rites. Graphic: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian
To the early Anglo-Saxons, November was once “wint-monath”, or wind month, the begin of the storm season. It was sacred to the weather god Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon title for Thor, whose hammering made the thunder – Thunor is historical English for thunder. His popularity used to be mirrored in the widespread presence of hammer-formed ornaments in Anglo-Saxon graves.

Thunor was honoured in November with enormous fires to power away evil spirits. These bone-fires or bonfires also had a sensible perform: animals had been slaughtered to provide meals for winter, and the fires became the bones into fertiliser. German pagans regularly put a straw effigy of Thor on high of their bonfires, and Anglo-Saxons could have performed the same with Thunor.

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The November festivities merged with the earlier Celtic Samhain, and have been later Christianised, before being absorbed into the 5 November celebration. Although as Thomas Hardy noted in his 1878 novel Return of the Native: “it is beautiful good known that such blazes as this the heathmen have been now enjoying are as an alternative the lineal descendants from jumbled druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of wellknown feeling about Gunpowder Plot.”

Even now bonfires continue their primal appeal, giving us a permanent hyperlink to the old climate-god Thunor.

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