Bonfire may have deep meaning

by Heather Kofke-Egger | 10/22/99 5:00am

In addition to being a rite of passage for first year students, the bonfire bears strong resemblance to the religious rituals of several faiths.

According to English Professor Donald Sheehan, the bonfire could be an example of mimetic desire.

He said the bonfire is a perfect example of the way desire and passion spread through a crowd, pulling people in and increasing the energy and power with every new member.

This feeling isn't foreign to students who have participated in the sweep and bonfire in the past.

"By the end of it, everyone's really excited and your adrenaline's pumping. People get really into it," said Julie Peng '02, who took part in the ritual last year.

Participating in the bonfire is considered a source of fun and entertainment by most Dartmouth students, but according to Sheehan, this ritual practice involves people on a much more psychological level.

Sheehan explained that the mimicking behavior characteristic of the bonfire is part of what makes the event both so powerful and so potentially dangerous.

"A group that's fueled with such passion could do terrible things so we have a ritual to contain that," Sheehan said.

Dartmouth Night allows the community to connect with Dartmouth and its history. Sheehan said the bonfire allows students to attain a sense of transcendence from personal consciousness, but may not allow them to connect to something greater.

This sense of transcendence and connection with a greater whole is part of fire rituals that take place in religious and cultural contexts as well.