Health and Safety be Damned! We look back at the traditional November 5th Tar Barrel Burning Ceremony of Ottery St Mary’s, Devon.
It’s November 5, 1963. It’s Bonfire Night, when effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned on the pyres. Catholics of Devon, beware!
In Otterly, 17 heavy wood-and-iron barrels are soaked with tar, lit, and then carried through the streets. It’s been a regular event since the 17th Century.
The barrels are coated with old-fashioned coal tar in the months leading up to the event, and then on the night they are lit outside a selection of the pubs located in the town. As the flames begin to pour out of the sides they are lifted up onto the shoulders of local participants, and carried onto the next stop. The final barrel is then carried to the square as the clock strikes midnight.
But is it to do with Catholics, treason and plot?
The origins of the tradition are murky. Some claim it’s a throwback to the days when smoking tar barrels were taken in and out of the pubs to get rid of disease.
The most likely explanation for this tradition is as a way of exorcising evil spirits in the town, a pagan ritual using the cleansing flame and the camaraderie of the townsfolk to keep the karma high and the town free from dark forces.
…the flames acted as a warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada.
Fire festivals around the time of Halloween are deeply rooted in British folklore and have been connected with the ritual burning of witches.
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