Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
It’s time for the annual Halloween/All Saints/Guy Fawkes posting and this may be a particularly sinister one, although it seems to start off innocently enough with an expression you hear all the time, “You guys”—though now being replaced with “dude” in some areas.
A little etymological work gives us “a Norman French name, based upon Germanic ‘Wido’—perhaps through Italian ‘Guido’?”
And that brings us right to Guy Fawkes, who was also known to call himself, “Guido Fawkes”—and sign his name that way.
There are no known actual images of him, but here’s our favorite Victorian version, an illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s (1805-1842) novel, Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason (1840) by George Cruikshank.
(If you’d like to read it, or at least enjoy Cruikshank’s illustrations, see: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37750/37750-h/37750-h.htm )
If you’re not familiar with Mr Fawkes, he was one of a band of English Catholics with a plan.
(This is from a period illustration, a broadside sheet by Crispijn van de Passe, which I’ve seen both in Latin and German—this one even has a little French at the bottom, as well as a little Latin—but it’s not the equivalent of an actual group photo.)
When Elizabeth I died in 1603,
she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin, Mary, once Queen of Scotland.
James got the job not only because of his kinship with Elizabeth, but because he was a Protestant, and those in charge of England, mostly Protestants, intended to keep the country that way. This brings us back to Guy/Guido and his band—which was not his band, in fact, as he was brought in as a gunpowder specialist, the actual leader being Robert Catesby. As a technician, however, Guy was a major figure, as Catesby’s plot involved nothing less than:
1. blowing up the House of Lords
when the King and the Heir, Prince Henry,
were there for the ceremonial opening, while others
2. would kidnap James’ 9-year-old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth,
and put her on the throne, presumably claiming that she was a Catholic. It all sounds completely unreal—but the conspirators had actually gotten as far as managing to get 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in a basement under the House of Lords.
There is apparently some scholarly argument as to how the plot came to light, but a major factor was an anonymous letter of warning delivered to someone who planned to attend the ceremony. The letter was passed on, eventually reaching the King himself, who ordered a search to be made of the basements. A first search failed to find anything (except for Guy himself, who explained that he was only a servant), but a second search found not only Guy,
who had slow match in his pocket—not matches, which had not been invented yet—but a kind of fuse used in setting off explosions—
and then the 36 barrels, hidden under a pile of firewood and coal.
Needless to say, after two days of torture, he confessed
and named the other conspirators, 8 of whom, including Guy, being immediately apprehended, were sentenced to the usual punishment for treason: drawing and quartering. If you don’t know what this entails, here’s a LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanged,_drawn_and_quartered, but I’ll skip the grisly details (although Guy escaped by jumping off the scaffold and breaking his neck), not only because of their grisliness, but because what happened next takes us back to the opening of this essay. To celebrate the failure of the plot, people lit bonfires all over England and Parliament soon passed into law “The Observance of 5th November Act 1605”, which was in force until 1859. This led, in time, to the English tradition of “Guy Fawkes Day”, celebrated on the 5th of November each year.
It’s that word “bonfires” which caught my attention. It’s really “bonefires”, from Middle English “banefire” and, another name for “Guy Fawkes Day”—or, rather, its evening, is “Bonfire Night”.
No one is sure when the customs surrounding Guy Fawkes Day began. Traditionally, it became a children’s event, beginning with the creation of a “guy”,
a kind of scarecrow figure, who was carried about the streets
(although this one is labeled “poor joe”—a local joke?),
while children chanted variations on
the Fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”
Adding “A penny for the old guy!”
The coins collected were then used to buy sweets and fireworks, to be used during the evening when the guy was placed upon a bonefire—bonfire—and burnt.
The scarecrow-like clothing of the guy appears to have produced the early 19th-century definition of a poorly-dressed person as a “guy”, and, somehow, between that time and late in the 19th century, it gradually became a kind of loose generic term for “male person”, eventually, in the 20th century, becoming even more generic and referring, by the later 20th century, to any group of people, as in the “Hey, guys!” of the title of this posting.
But why burn the guy?
I wonder if it doesn’t have to do so much with the actual Guy Fawkes, or any of his fellow conspirators, but with the time of year: that period when, in the ancient Celtic world, summer, Sam, sat on the edge of winter, Gam, and people celebrated the Samhain (SAH-vuhn in Old Irish, SAH-win in more modern pronunciation). If people were worried about the turn of the sun towards winter, then it would be best to encourage it with as big a fire as you could. And, if you were really nervous, perhaps you might add a little something extra—
This is an illustration based upon a passage in Julius Caesar’s (100-44BC)
De Bello Gallico (“About the War In Gaul”), in which he describes a human sacrifice by the Gauls in which
“Others have sacrifices with an image of immense size, the limbs of which, woven from twigs, they fill with living people. When those limbs have been set alight, the people, surrounded by flame, are killed.”
(Alii immani magnitudine simulacra [sacrificia] habent, 4 quorum contexta viminibus membra vivis hominibus complent; quibus succensis circumventi flamma exanimantur homines.)
A reason for this sacrifice Caesar has earlier explained as:
“unless the life of a person is paid for with the life of a person, they think that they can’t appease the divine will of the immortal gods.”
(pro vita hominis nisi hominis vita reddatur, 3 non posse deorum immortalium numen placari arbitrantur,)
What better way to continue an ancient tradition than to add the guy to the pyre?
As ever, thanks for reading,
Happy: Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, All Saints,
And be sure that there’s
If you would like to see the effect those 36 barrels would have had if they had been touched off, follow this LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2G8k7zXhkI