Where does the word bonfire come from?

A fire pit or bullet fire is a large outdoor controlled fire made of bales of straw or wood. It is believed that the word comes from the fire of bones. At the time of the Celts, there were summer festivals where animal bones were burned to ward off evil spirits. However, Johnson's explanation of the word is probably wrong, and the true origin of the word is somewhat more macabre.

A bonfire was originally a “bone fire”. Bonfires are the survival of an ancient tradition in which large fires are set on fire on public holidays. The bones of the animals were burned in these fires as part of a purification ritual, protecting evil spirits and ensuring that the land remained fertile. The word derives from the mid-15th century word banefire, originally a fire in which bones were burned.

Dr. Johnson erroneously derived it from French bon (good). People also believed that the residents of the Fairy kingdom were unable to produce fire themselves; the embers from the bonfires would be taken to the underworld and cared for there. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that bonfires, originally lit as part of summer solstice celebrations, were generally not associated with bone burning.

One of the meanings of bonfire is a fire of immolation, particularly a fire in which heretics, bibles or forbidden books were burned. Just as some religious festivals were grafted into existing calendar events, for example, Christmas replaced the pagan festival of Sun, or the winter solstice, the creation of Bonfire Night was a propaganda exercise that was incorporated into an annual event in the agricultural calendar. In Northern Ireland, bonfires are associated with celebrations of the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. As explained then, bonfire is derived from a mid-16th century English word banefire that, you won't be surprised to hear, originally referred to a fire in which bones were burned.

You will remember that towards the end of June last year in this column I wrote about Bonfire Night, which takes place on St. John's Eve, or June 23, every year, mainly in the west of Ireland. The etymological spelling bone-fire (Scottish bane-fire fire) was common until 1760, although the bonfire was also used since the 16th century and became more common as the original meaning was forgotten. Along with the Maypole, the bonfire is an important component of the Wiccan and Neopagan celebration of Beltaine, also known as May Day.

Arriving as it does just after the clocks have been turned back, Bonfire Night brings a welcome distraction from the dark nights of November. I used to think that this had more to do with the accent than the meaning and that the precise pronunciation was probably a bonfire. Couples who were going to get married on May Day would jump through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows.

Dolores Blicker
Dolores Blicker

Devoted foodaholic. Bacon scholar. Hipster-friendly coffee junkie. Friendly social media expert. Total web enthusiast. Professional zombie maven.