The Chariot of the Sun1 by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1969)

FOLKLORE may be viewed as a long road leading back into the remote past. It is not a direct road, as early folklorists tended to think; there are many twists and turns in it and many breaks, and yet its winding course establishes a kind of continuity between the men of prehistoric times and our own. This is especially so in the case of folklore connected with the cultivation of the land, the raising of flocks and herds, hunting and fishing and all that is bound up with the seasonal round outside cities. Whether this will continue to be so now that the greatest agricultural revolution since the Bronze Age has taken place with the advent of machines and scientific farming, remains to be seen; human nature being what it is, I think it possible that the road may go on somehow, in spite of the vast changes in men’s lives.

The gilded side of the Trundholm sun chariot.
The gilded side of the Trundholm sun chariot (1400 BC).


I want to deal now with one particular symbol, that of the turning and travelling wheel of fire. This is bound up with the turning course of the sun through the heavens, and with the changing face of the year as the seasons pass like the quarters of a great clock. Back in the Bronze Age of Northern Europe, the time of the first farmers and herdsmen, we know from thousands of carvings which they left on the rocks of Norway, Sweden and Denmark that the people of this region held certain ritual ceremonies associated with the journey of the sun, its passage across the heavens in a chariot or wagon, and its descent beneath the sea to pass under the earth in a ship by night. We have no idea what language these people spoke, and we must interpret their pictures with great caution, but from other evidence from Central Europe, Greece and Crete and Ancient Egypt it may be assumed that this was a universal pattern among the early farming communities of Europe and the Mediterranean world, varying in details according to local  customs and styles of art.2 In Central Europe the chariot moving across the sky seems to have been pictured as drawn by swans, and these birds appear in Scandinavia too, although there more often the sun’s wagon is drawn by horses: sometimes the creatures are a kind of combination of bird and horse, or have elements of the serpent. A small model of such a wagon has survived in Denmark as one of the treasures of the National Archaeological Museum; it consists of a bronze disc, gilded on one side and beautifully ornamented with spiral decorations, drawn by a bronze horse, (probably originally by two), the whole about 60 cm. long. It seems likely that this is a miniature copy of models drawn in procession such as are shown in the rock-carvings. I must make it clear at this point that I am not claiming that the men of the Northern Bronze Age were sun-worshippers, a term often misused. What we know of early religions leads us to think rather that they worshipped a High God of the sky, whose powers included the rule of storms, the bringing of rain and the sun’s warmth to ripen the crops, and the giving of victory in battle, as well as the gifts of law and order to mankind to combat the forces of chaos. This god was the power who maintained the order of the world, and who brought new life to man and beast as the changing seasons passed in an endless round. The turning wheel, as I see it, became a kind of shorthand sign for all that the High God represented, and we can trace this symbol through the centuries.

Trundholm Sun Chariot
The left side of the disk shows no traces of gilding.

Long after the Bronze Age folk were forgotten except for their burial mounds along the skyline and their vigorous carvings and treasures in precious metals, the people of the Iron Age, including the contemporaries of the Romans in the North, wore brooches which represented a turning wheel. These might be in the shape of a wheel, a disc, a rosette or a swastika or hooked cross, which appears to be another form of the same symbol. The revolving disc was connected with both life and death, for it is found on tombstones as well as amulets. It passed later into the symbolism of the Christian Church, still associated with creative power and  light, and can be seen on early churches in the Mediterranean area. Here however I want to concentrate on another form of this symbol which has long survived, that forming a part of popular seasonal rites in many parts of Europe, including the British Isles, up to our own time.

Such ceremonies were usually held at midsummer or midwinter, but sometimes also in autumn or spring – the four focal points of the turning year. In many parts of the British Isles and the continent, it was customary at the midsummer festivals to roll a cartwheel down a hillside, a wheel which had been covered in straw and soaked in tar and then set alight. In the Moselle district among the vineyards such a wheel was described in detail by an eye-witness about I860,3 and here the aim of the men who set the blazing wheel on its course was said to be to send it into the river at the bottom of the hill, a very difficult thing to do. If this was accomplished, it was supposed to foretell a splendid summer for the vines. A similar rite is recorded at our own White Horse Hill in Berkshire at the annual pageant associated with the scouring of the White Horse,4 and the object here is said to have been to roll the wheel to Woolston Wells, the source of the river Ock, although this was virtually impossible. The interesting point is that the fiery wheel, like the Bronze Age chariot of the sun, was intended to finish its course in the water.

Burning Tar Barrels
Burning tar barrels are carried on the heads of villagers in Allendale, Northumberland on New Year’s Eve.

Another version of the burning wheel was the blazing tar-barrel. This was usually associated with midwinter festivities, and the most entertaining example I know comes from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. At Lerwick the custom of the tar-barrels survived late into the last century, and was kept up by the young men and boys of the town against stern, even frenzied opposition from the police, the older citizens, the housewives and the local newspaper editors. The opposition is understandable – though regrettable to folklorists – when one reads the memoirs of some of the old men of Lerwick, who recall the great days of the tar-barrels, which were burned on the 5th, I2th or 19th January, that is the nights before Yule, New Year and Up-Helly-Aa by the Old Calendar.5 The barrels, which might be casks, washing tubs,  wooden baths or any suitable container, were mounted on wheeled platforms either singly (for small boys) or in sets of two, four or six, and then pulled along by chains by the members of the gang responsible for the vehicle. The materials could not be purchased but had to be obtained secretly by ingenuity, so that many farmers, housewives and shop-keepers found their tubs, wooden gates or chains missing before the festival. The tar also had to be obtained by stealth from the gasworks, and all the materials carefully hidden away from authority, parents or rival gangs some time before the event. The barrels were fixed on the platforms, filled with straw, chips and tar, taken to the market cross and set alight, and then dragged blazing along the main street of Lerwick from one end to the other until they showed signs of burning out, when the remains would be broken up and made into a bonfire in some suitable open space. The rest of the night was given up to ‘guizing’, when the gangs put on elaborate disguises and costumes and ‘visited’ a number of houses.

The Up Helly Aa Torchlit Procession

The rite of dragging the barrels however was no easy achievement and indeed developed into a trial of strength and cunning. The police were determined to capture any wagons they encountered and let them burn out in a spot where they could do little damage. There was also fierce competition between the rival gangs, especially between those from the opposite ends of the town, and there was much fighting as the large, unwieldy vehicles tried to pass one another in the narrow street, and considerable damage to shops and houses. A favourite gambit was to distract the attention of the police by bringing along a small ‘barrel’ and then to drag out a large one and rush it along the street before it could be intercepted. There are many sagas of memorable happenings, like that of the local daredevil who locked the police in their own station and lit a bonfire outside the door, and of the unhappy chief constable who found himself sitting in a blazing barrel and had to jump into the harbour to cool himself down. Finally opposition grew too strong, and a decorous torch procession was substituted for the barrels, which was ended by everyone flinging the torches into a heap and making a bonfire. Out of this developed the now famous ceremony of the Up-Helly-Aa, probably under the influence of a young author and antiquarian, J. J. Haldane Burgess, who was steeped in Norse lore. A ship on wheels was drawn in the  procession, a rough model of a Norse longship, and at the end the torches were tossed into this, so that it went up in flames. This has been elaborated through the years until it has become an impressive and picturesque ceremony, bringing many visitors to Lerwick. It is not, as might be thought, a direct survival of the burning of a funeral ship of the Viking Age, and yet it has developed naturally out of an age-old ceremony of a different kind, which had taken on its own local pattern of gang-warfare and mock battles. The new development of the burning ship is itself fully in keeping with the ancient pattern, since processional ships are found in the Bronze Age in association with the sun-wheel, and the sun was pictured as journeying at night in a ship through the Underworld.

Guy Fawkes Night

There are many variants on this Lerwick theme: I will mention one, that of rolling the barrel at Ottery St Mary in South Devon, now part of the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations but presumably connected earlier with either the autumn or winter bonfires. The art of barrel-rolling needs both skill and courage, and small boys are trained by their elders and allowed to use little barrels just as the Lerwick boys had little tar-barrels of their own to pull about in the upper town before they were allowed to join the gangs in the main street. Here is an account by an onlooker as recently as 1966:6

. . . ‘Thunderflashes detonated and rockets sped skywards, as unseen hands applied matches to touchpapers, and then I noticed that streams of people were beginning to make their way back up the hill towards the town. I heard someone say something about ‘the Barrels’, and suddenly at the top of the hill I saw a single flame leap out of the darkness and the crowd begin to scatter. Bounding down the slope towards us came a blazing barrel gathering speed every second, and then a man caught it and lifted it high above his head. It was an extraordinary, almost uncanny sight. Down the narrow street he bore his fiery burden, running from side to side to the accompaniment of delighted shrieks and screams as the crowd jostled to get out of his way. He dropped the barrel, and another man seized it and carried it on his back for another twenty yards or so before a third challenger won possession. Eventually the barrel fell to pieces in a shower of sparks and the crowd moved on…

These are two out of many examples which might be taken from the British Isles or further afield.

Maypole wreath

I can suggest other survivals of the wheel symbol. The round  ring or wreath at the top of the maypole or midsummer pole is one; it can be seen in Sweden in the old farmyards in the folk museums. In Germany in the last century a tar-barrel might be hung from such a pole by a long chain and whirled round and round as it burned. The cartwheel on the roof, on which the storks nest in Holland and Northern Germany, might be seen as a further variant. Here one finds another Bronze Age symbol, the far-flying birds which accompany the chariot and boat of the sun, and the stork, which must never be harmed, is still looked on as the messenger and symbol of spring. The old English Kissing Bough, the forerunner of the Christmas Tree which supplanted it in Victorian times, is another version, with its ring of red berries or red apples and candles instead of flames. In many parts of Europe boys on St John’s Eve would run about with little wooden discs which they lit in the bonfires and then hurled into the air or down a hillside. We still have our Catherine Wheels on bonfire night, and many other such examples might be found.

There was another reason for association of the wheel with the sun. It could, be used as a means of kindling ritual fire, as a primitive fire-drill. When the New Fire or the Need Fire was kindled, all lights and fires in the village had to be put out and the fire lit anew either by flint and steel or by a wheel fixed on a stake, with straw and inflammable material round the axle, which was revolved rapidly until the flame burned up, and all the bonfires and the house fires could be lit from it. This custom has been taken over by the Christian Church in the moving and beautiful ceremony of the lighting of the Pascal Candle on Easter Eve, symbolizing new life for the baptized and the light of Christ shining forth in darkness, anticipating the first Mass of Easter morning. The kindling of the Need Fire in pre-Christian days and in many country districts up to the last century took place when trouble or pestilence afflicted a village, and the herds were driven through the fire which had been kindled by the ancient rite. Frazer collected many examples of this,7 mostly from Germany and South-Eastern Europe, and one of the most interesting features is that in certain districts the flames had to be kindled by two brothers, or by two boys bearing the same Christian name. No reason was known for this, but it echoes  the Bronze Age symbolism of the two male figures continually connected with the ship and wagon of the sun, sometimes symbolized by two horses or two birds in patterns on rock-carving or metal work. These figures can be seen later as the Heavenly Twins, the brothers Castor and Pollux of the Romans, the Dioskouroi of the Greeks. They were twin sons of the Sky God, and they appeared to wayfarers and assisted men in need.

The Alcis, Divine Twins, as depicted on Gallehus horn B (Denmark, 5th century CE)

This persistent survival of ancient patterns is to me the most fascinating aspect of the study of folklore, something of great importance for our understanding of men’s minds and needs. I have confined myself here to one main symbol, and selected examples from a mass of evidence, but the story could be repeated many times over. This particular symbol, the turning, blazing wheel, may still be found in the modern world, in advertizing, in modern art, or in traditional patterns of wood-carving or embroidery. Such symbols are used unconsciously and instinctively, and may do no more than fill a gap or enliven a poster, but their roots go deep into the past and give us a link with prehistoric man.


  1. Paper read at the Folklore Symposium held at Folkestone on 22 June, 1969, in connection with the Folkstone International Folklore Festival, 1969.
  2. H.R. Ellis Davidson and P. Gelling, The Chariot of the Sun (London, 1969) where the evidence is considered in detail. The work of E. Sprockhoff on the symbolism of the journeying sun in ‘Nordische Bronzezeit und frühes Griechen- turn’ (Jahrbuch des romisch-germanisehen Zentralmuseums Mainz, I (1954) PP. 28 ff.) and ‘Das bronzene Zierband von Kronshagen bei Kiel’ (Offa 14 (1955) pp. 15 ff.) is of importance in establishing this.
  3. Revue Archéologique (series 3) 4 (1884) p. 24.
  4. D. Woolner, ‘New Light on the White Horse’, Folklore 78 (1967) p. 95.
  5. C. E. Mitchell, Up-Helly-Aa, Tar Barrels and Guizing (Lerwick, 1948).
  6. ‘The Night of the Blazing Barrels’, C. Horton, Coming Events in Britain (Nov. 1966, p. x x).
  7. J. Frazer, The Dying God (The Golden Bough, III, 3rd ed. 1913) pp. 121, 269 ff. etc.).

SOURCE: H.R. Ellis Davidson, Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Autumn, 1969), pp. 174-180.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s