Leaping Over the Flames – the tradition of jumping over fires in Corfu

I’m working on my version of Rumplestiltskin today, cutting down the text from the book by a quarter. It’s for a short video I’m shooting next week, which will promote my Grimm’s Fairy Tales Series and The Orchard Book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Rumplestiltskin is an odd character, isn’t he? He’s ugly, but at the same time he can do magic.  As a child, I remember thinking, why doesn’t he change his appearance and become handsome?  He offers to help the princess, but at a price.  And what a price! Her own child!  The leprechaun is definitely a baddie.

Then there’s that bit with him leaping over the fire.   When I first heard the story I thought he was going to fall in and get burnt to death. What a dangerous thing to do. But wait!  Rumplestitlskin isn’t the only one to go leaping over flames.  Lots of people do it, in real life, and they don’t get passed off as nutters!   I saw a lot of kids jumping over bonfires last month, in the village of Kato Korakiana on Corfu.

It was the 23rd of June. The 24th is the feast day of Saint John the Baptist when lots of Christian communities celebrate his birth.  The early church fathers  used the festival to replace the summer solstice when people lit fires to cleanse their environment of malicious spirits, to protect themselves from the evil eye and honour the mother goddess.  The tradition continues to this very day in many countries, mixing the summer solstice, Saint John’s Day and sometimes even harvest.

In France, fires are lit on hilltops. Fishermen at sea set burning barrels afloat on the water.  In Spain, people leap over piles of burning furniture and straw. The celebrations in the Valencia region, are called the Fallas.  Kids let off firecrackers. There are firework displays. The highlight of the fiesta is a parade of gigantic figures, usually politicians, made of papier-mache.  They are herded into the main square of the town and set alight.

The custom is also popular all over Germany, where the story of Rumplestiltskin comes from.  The old rogue must have been celebrating the summer solstice when the princess’ spy chanced upon him.  Perhaps he was trying to make sure the dice would fall in his favour the next day at the palace.  It didn’t, as we all know and the baby prince was saved. Phew!

Orchard catologue 2012


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