Burning the old witch is an ancient tradition. The ritual is widespread in different parts of the world. In Europe people used to burn the old woman, who looks like a witch. In traditional pyre, in fact, it is burnt a puppet of a woman who holds a child.
In the Vedic period, in fact, the newer local deities like Shiva, Vishnu, and Krishna got prominence. The old traditions then got syncretized with religious tones and these figures. Shiva absorbed many of the qualities of Madan or Kamadeva. He incorporated aspects of ancient fertility cults. So much so that in some places the same Kamadeva got started to be burnt in the bonfire.
Reading the Puranic story with an anthropological eye, there is a clear view of the new cult. They triumph over the old one represented by local deities relegated as demons. The new deities get celebrated as the archaic ritual of Holi.
To understand how Holi has gone to become a celebration of color, you have to know the bonfire rituals. The ash obtained by means of the fire were buried as sacred fertile fertilizer for the land. This custom was then in the Vedic era given the shape of Holika Dahan. Religious meanings got attached to a pure celebration of nature.
The ashes got spread as a propitiatory fertilizer on the fields. It got applied even on the children's body for invigorating them. This use of ashes, powders, and ointments has led more recently to the festival we know today. The next morning, when the embers are cold, sacred ashes get applied on the people with colored water.
The parallels in other archaic myths help us understand the nature and role of the ancient gods. Different cults that have developed their theory of rebirth or resurrection. It is often in parallel with the representation of the grain that is reborn with the new crop.
In Holi, it is clear, in fact, even the peasant cult of the grain. In the rural areas on the evening of Holi, there is a village festival with the sacrifice of the new harvest.
The tradition of burning or drowning a human-shaped puppet at the end of winter has deep roots. To find out the origins we have to go back to prehistoric times. The tradition of burning a human-shaped puppet developed as a magic ritual. It was to drive off the winter season and invoke the arrival of spring.
Spring was the season of fecundity and fertility. Holi is a festival that marks the passage from winter to good weather. It gets celebrated on the last full moon of the winter. It corresponds to February or March.
The old one is a puppet created with branches and straw. In some cases the puppet is also embellished with clothes, to make the image more real. This cult has found its timing at the beginning of the year. In the Mediterranean, the summer season comes immediately after the first winter frost.
In the Paleolithic and in the Neolithic era it was a rite of fertility. The old is misery, hunger, misfortune, and giving it a fire is good for the future. The Carnival resumed right in the Middle Ages and at this specific time of the year. The old man became the victim of the popular outburst for the garden that did not bear fruit. The day of the old rite has changed many times over the centuries.
The peasants accumulate the material needed to make the puppet in the field. Often a long and straight plant had the task of acting as a perch. Around it was then stacked wood, beads, wicker, straw, hay, chairs, aisles, benches. Day after day, pyre increased in volume. The rite got performed on the day indicated as suitable for the transition from winter to spring.
In some places it burns on Thursday while in some on a particular night. The fire also has the task of eliminating insects hidden beneath the ground. The heat propagated by fire distances the insects that may be harmful to the growth of the plants.
The tradition of burning, drowning or sacrificing a human character continues. People celebrating the Carnival burning puppets representing the carnival.
For the Latins, Anna Perenna was a symbol of human wickedness. In Balkan countries, even today, a leafed puppet get thrown into the water by the children. It includes Europe, from Portugal to German-speaking countries and to Slavic-speaking countries.
It is still common in several regions of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. This custom is also popular in other countries. In Italy, on the Fat Tuesday, people burn a puppet.
It represents destroying the winter season, marking the arrival of spring. This period coincides with the time of respite in the seasonal jobs of the people. People become playful, interpreted by the overturning of the roles of everyday life. The agrarian rites get inspired by the natural need of renewal through the expulsion of evil. For this reason, the act of burning remains common even in local diversity.
In many places, a funeral procession touches all the taverns of the city and ends only at night. People carry a grotesque puppet with a big belly made of rags and cork. With the face blackened by the soot of burnt cork powder, people meet on the street. At sunset, they throw the puppet on fire on a slope on the outskirts of villages.
In some locations, it is still celebrated an ancient tradition of the old Sega. There is also the funeral of the carnival and the widow who get hung in the streets of the city.
In many places, the Carnival culminates with the destruction of the puppet as a wish of better times. It is also customary to burn the Carnival King. In regions, people burn puppet of an old and ugly lady who almost looks like a witch. This variant has influences dating back to the witch hunt period.
Another tradition related to the Carnival is to eat traditional sweets. They get made with a dough of flour that get fried or baked in the oven and dusted with sugar.
The Giobia celebration of the ancient tradition of pre-Christian origin that still remains. In medieval times, Giobia got associated with the human appearance, often of an old woman or a witch. At the end of January, it is still celebrated today. The robe of a puppet symbolizes an elderly woman to exorcise the negative forces of winter. On the last Thursday of January tens of puppets depicting an old and bad looking woman get burned.
An old tradition tells that the Gibiana was a witch, often lean, with very long legs. She lives in the woods and thanks to his long legs never lay foot on the ground but moves from tree to tree. So everyone can observe those and she makes them scared, especially the children.
And on the last Thursday of January, she goes looking for some baby to eat. But a mother made her a trap. She took a doll and filled it with knives and scissors, then put it in bed instead of her daughter. At midnight she hears the steps of the Gibiana. The frightened little girl clings to her mom while she feels the Gibiana climb the steps and enters the room. Gibiana is fierce and swallows the doll, thinking of eating the baby. There is a scream. Mom goes to the girl's room and finds the Gibiana's body shredded by knives and scissors.
The carnival of Mazatlán is currently one of the most important in Mexico. The first event of the carnival is the burning of "Bad Spirit", and on a ninth day is the burning of Juan Carnaval.
One of the oldest carnivals in Belgium is in the town of Binche. On the last day of the Carnival of Aalst, the Sphinx of the carnival get burned.
In Argentina, in the Andean region, the most important ceremony is the devil's burning. Celebrations point to the ancient indigenous traditions belonging to the pre-Hispanic Andean civilization.
The wisdom of peasant culture
From the bonfire ash color, years ago the old countries knew how to make predictions for the future. If the ash is clear and serene it is for well-being. If it is dark there are bad omens. If the fire was alive it was clear, good wish for the season. If the wind swirled there would be serious trouble for the harvest.
A handful of ash got spread, and it is still spread for those who keep this tradition in the fields. The intent was to drive out insects and parasites which could damage the crop. When the bonfire was over, the smell of burning mixed with the scent of carnival sweets and the light air of spring.
It was a rite of fertility, practiced by our populations in the Paleolithic and in the Neolithic. They gave human sacrifices to the divinities of nature, later replaced by puppets.
It was in the Middle Ages that the ancient pagan puppet lost its growing significance. Christianity syncretized the pagan customs and popularized the period of Lent. It became the victim of the popular outlet for fasting and abstinence. The tradition was also syncretized through Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday.