straw men

The Argei were purification rituals in ancient Rome in which effigies or simulacra – made of straw, rushes and reeds – were gathered from 27 sacred sites or sacraria around the city. The effigies were intended to absorb the evil and pollution of the city, before finally being thrown into the river Tiber. The ceremony appears to have been as much a mystery to the Romans as it is for to us today. The ritual quite possibly relates to an even more ancient, pre-roman tradition of human sacrifice. Karl Jung said that myths express universal aspects of the human psyche. (citation needed). The “straw man ritual” seems to find parallels in the scapegoat of ancient Judaism – insofar as the sin of the people is symbolically placed upon the spotless creature which is then driven into the desert to die. The Christian antitype of course is Christ the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world. The substitutionary death of a ram in place of Moses’ son Isaac also comes to mind. Is there a parallel in these ceremonies – the need for a substitutionary sacrifice or at least some common element to the burning of the Guy Fawkes effigy of England and the effigy of Judas Iscariot that is burnt annually in Cyprus? The burning of “The Guy” may have it’s origins in Irish and Scottish cultic rituals of the Samhain and Beltane when bonfires were lit in pagan purification rituals.

“Some tales may suggest that offerings or sacrifices were made at Samhain. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn (or ‘Book of Invasions’), each Samhain the people of Nemed had to give two-thirds of their children, their corn and their milk to the monstrous Fomorians. The Fomorians seem to represent the harmful or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought. This tribute paid by Nemed’s people may represent a “sacrifice offered at the beginning of winter, when the powers of darkness and blight are in the ascendant“. According to the later Dindsenchas and the Annals of the Four Masters—which were written by Christian monks—Samhain in ancient Ireland was associated with a god or idol called Crom Cruach. The texts claim that a first-born child would be sacrificed at the stone idol of Crom Cruach in Magh Slécht. They say that King Tigernmas, and three-fourths of his people, died while worshiping Crom Cruach one Samhain. Other texts say that kings Diarmait mac Cerbaill and Muirchertach mac Ercae both died a threefold death on Samhain, which may be linked to human sacrifice”

The making of a ritual effigy – male or female – seems ubiqitous: in The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion by James George Frazer the author describes how in Bohemia and Selesia an effigy of Death made of straw and rags is thrown into the water at sunset to symbolise the vanquishing of death (winter) and heralding new life (spring). In Lusatia the effigy is pelted with stones, carried out of the village and thrown into the water. In Transylvania and Moravian customs a young girl wears the garments from the recently destroyed effigy to symbolise the resuscitation of the being represented by the effigy. In Gross-Strehlitz in Poland the straw puppet – Goik – is thrown into the river. Life-giving power is ascribed to the power of the death-effigy: buried in a field it protects and nurtures the crop. In Austrian Selesia the brushwood and rag effigy is burned yet paradoxically is supposed to have powers of fertility, protection and renewal. To this day, An effigy of a woman – “La vecchia” – (“the old lady”) is burnt in parts of Northern Italy. Each New Year’s eve in Peru, stuffed figures of politicians, sportsmen or celebrities are burnt – although admittedly this is an act of political or social protest, not reverence for the god’s. Amongst the Celts, the Romans encountered The Wicker Man – a giant figure that was set ablaze in an ancient ritual. Some historians believe that live prisoners were placed inside the huge structure as a burnt sacrifice to the gods of the Druids.

There seems to be something universal which requires the destruction by fire or water of an effigy of straw – even when the reason is lost in the mists of time.

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