The Fires of August
19th August 2014
In Greece August, not Midsummer, marks the year’s zenith. Equinoctal Midsummer is more meaningful in northern and western Europe, where festivals echo ancient religious practices of sun worship, and the longest day gives way to appoaching darkness. But Greeks love August because it marks the beginning of the harvest months, a period of abundance and pleasure. August also belongs to Panagia, the Virgin Mary. Three important festivals fall in the month, particularly the Dormition (August 15) when all Greeks try to return to their ancestral villages and islands.
Rural communities gather on the evening of 31 July to celebrate the gifts of ‘Mr August’ – red grapes, walnuts and figs – with feasting, street parties and fires, over which the bold are invited to jump. I joined the celebrations this year (short of fire-leaping) at Kalivia Limenaria on Thasos. The main street was cordoned off for the dancing and bale-jumping, food stalls handed out loukoumades (tiny doughnuts in honey), and the tavernas spread their tables out beyond the pavement. The festivities, organised by the local council and the Kastro Arts Centre, began with folk dances performed by local schoolchildren and ended with the lighting of the bales. The leapers outstripped my ability to photograph them, and in any case the air was full of smoke. Lots of fun.
I wondered where the tradition of leaping the bales came from. In Greek myth, the Eleusian mysteries commemorate the creation of a god, Demephoon, from a live flame. Harvest festivals, however, celebrate something completed, and afterwards, when the corn is gathered, the chaff must be burnt. Perhaps the ‘fires’ also indicate fever and pestilence, and purification by burning. Even the serenest month, as Patricia Storace notes, has two sides: ‘In Greece it is a month in which you imagine life would never end. But it is also a duplicitous month, a month also commemorated in foreboding verses about getting winter clothes ready, about the short days beginning, the summer meltemia gales prefiguring the sharp winter winds.’ *
Our lives are governed by the cycle of the academic year; we too feel the change of season, as May exams give way to the summer recess and then to September, our favourite month. It is good to remember other cycles, new and old orders of time.
Have a wonderful August.
*Reference: Patricia Storace, Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece (London: Granta, 1998), p. 373. Photos: H. Weeks.