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Beltane Fire Festival is an annual participatory arts event and ritual drama, held on April 30 on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. It is inspired by the supposed ancient Gaelic festival of Beltane which was allegedly held on an evening after May 1st and marked the beginning of summer. The modern festival was started in 1988 by a small group of enthusiasts including the musical collective Test Dept., with academic support from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Since then the festival has grown, and as of 2006 involved over 300 voluntary collaborators and performers with the 11500 available tickets selling out.
The Beltane Fire Society, a registered charity which runs the festival, is managed by a democratically elected voluntary committee, and all the performers are volunteers who either join by word of mouth or by attending one of the advertised open meetings held early in the year. Senior performers and artists in the society help others through workshops with aspects of event production, prop construction, character performance techniques, team building, percussion skills and the health and safety considerations involved. The society has also held fundraising art and music events and has held a 'mini-Beltane' at a local AIDS Hospice, Milestone House.
It is important to remember that while the festival draws on a variety of historical, mythological and literary influences the organisers do not claim it to be anything other than a modern celebration of Beltane, evolving with its participants.
The current Beltane was started in 1988 by a small group of enthusiasts including Angus Farquhar of the musical collective Test Dept., choreographer Lindsay John, and dancers from Laban, as well as academics from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The event was intended as a celebration and also a protest against the then Thatcher government's restrictions on rights to gather. Originally intended to take place on Arthur's Seat, the home of earlier Edinburgh Beltane celebrations, for practical reasons the location was moved to Calton Hill. Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators' research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department's drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).
As a community event, each year the performance has evolved as new people bring their own influences and directions. The core narrative remains by and large the same though additional elements have been added over time for theatrical, ritual, and practical reasons. Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.
For many years the event was free and very lightly stewarded, however for several reasons (chiefly requirements declared by local authorities, the capacity limit of the hill, and the need for funding) the festival has moved to being a ticketed event.
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The main event of the festival is the procession of performers, starting at the Acropolis (National Monument), who perform a ritual drama based on some imagined aspects of the alleged pre-Christian festival of Beltane, and other mythologies from ancient cultures. The fertility of the land and animals is celebrated and encouraged. Led by one of the Blue Men, the procession's guides and guards, the Green Man (in winter guise) appears through the columns. Next the Need Fire is made; this is the making of fire by traditional methods, and all fire seen on the night is produced from this first flame. The Torchbearers and Processional Drummers are next over the top of the Acropolis, followed by the White Warrior Women and finally the May Queen. A horn signals the May Queen's birth, and the drums begin. The May Queen and her White Women, four of whom are her Handmaidens, proceed to be born of the Earth, greet the (four) cardinal directions in back bends and bow to the crowd of spectators (in three directions). After they finally acknowledge the Earth and the sky, the Green Man (who has been watching this from the ground) is allowed to approach the May Queen at the very top. She accepts him as her consort and the procession begins, led by the May Queen. The four Handmaidens, White Women bodyguards and Processional Drummers then join the May Queen and Green Man, and all are flanked by Torchbearers and Stewards and guided and protected by four Blue Men onto one of the footpaths running along the top of Calton Hill.
The footpath reaches an intersection, and the May Queen spins to decide which direction to turn in, choosing the leftward path which leads to the Fire Arch. Between the intersection and Arch, the Handmaidens and White Women stir the air with their wands, gathering the energies of the Earth, while the Drummers change rhythms to indicate the difference in purpose.
At the Fire Arch, the Guardians first greet the May Queen and Green Man, and perform a dance which represents the rituals necessary to open a path into the Underworld. As the procession passes through the Fire Arch, the Handmaidens and White Women begin to keen, mourning the losses of the world over the past year. This continues until the procession reaches the Point of the Element of Air.
At the Air Point, performers representing the element of Air put on a display for the May Queen and Green Man and present them with a gift. Having awakened Air, the May Queen leads the procession through the point and around the side of the hill to the Earth Point, which is situated in the midst of a stand of trees on the North-eastern side of Calton Hill. More dancers and acrobats perform for the May Queen and Green Man, and they are presented with a bannock bread before the procession continues again, passing through the point and around to Water Point, on the Northern side of the hill with a view overlooking the Firth of Forth. Again a ritual performance occurs here, including the washing of the May Queen and Green Man's faces in the "dew". After this point's gift is presented the procession heads on to Fire Point.
Again, dancers and acrobats perform and offer the May Queen and Green Man a gift. The procession wends its way down the side of the hill to a lower footpath, where the Handmaidens and White Women begin gathering the energies of the awakening Earth and sending them deep into the hill. The procession pauses below the City Observatory to watch the Fire Point display on the hillside above and another gift is presented.
Once awakened by the power of the May Queen the Elements do not follow the procession but are drawn towards each other and move from their "points" towards a place where they can gather and unify, thus restoring the natural order.
Having awakened the four elements, the May Queen guides the procession around the Western side of the hill. The first of the Red Men, imps created with the May Queen's appearance at the Monument and representing the forces of Chaos, spot the procession as it passes below and are attracted to the May Queen and her Warriors. As the procession rounds the hill, the Red Men begin to taunt the White Women, and then stage a series of charges as the procession reaches the base of the hill on the South side of the Observatory. This represents the Red Men's interest in capturing the May Queen on behalf of their lord the Green Man. The White Women ward the Red Men off in the end without 'killing' any of them as any unnecessary 'deaths' would lead to a lessening of the energies needed to bring about the change of the seasons from Winter to Summer.
The procession completes a full circle, arriving back at the path intersection, and turns to cross over the top of the hill and down into a valley where a stage has been set up for the final display. The Handmaidens perform a ritual to 'cleanse' the stage while the Torchbearers, Stewards and White Women form a circle around the open space surrounding the stage. The May Queen and Green Man mount the stage and the May Queen begins her ritual to awaken the Earth to summertime.
Green Man killed
While she and her Handmaidens and the White Women begin to spin and focus the energies they have been gathering throughout the night, the Red Men are allowed to approach the stage and circle it, increasing the power further. Overcome with the May Queen's beauty and goaded by the presence of the Red Men, the Green Man can no longer resist and catches the May Queen. This act is strictly forbidden, and the Green Man is ritually killed by the Handmaidens, lifted and turned anticlockwise, his bulky Winter form stripped away and thrown to the Red Men, he is then turned clockwise and presented to the May Queen.
Green Man reborn
The May Queen takes pity on the Green Man and brings him back to life, like a young sapling breaking the earth after Winter's hoarfrost is melted away. Overwhelmed by the new life that fills him the Green Man dances presenting himself to the four directions, repeating the actions of the May Queen from the beginning of the procession.
The May Queen then crowns the Green Man and leads the procession up the hill to the bonfire, on a high Northern point overlooking the valley on the hill and the city of Edinburgh below. The White Women and Red Men surround the bonfire (making an outer and middle layer respectively) with the Handmaidens forming the innermost layer. A set of wax hands are then lit and the May Queen and the Green Man make their way into the very centre of the Reds and Whites. They walk around the bonfire with the lit wax hands three times, on the fourth circuit they light the bonfire with the flaming hands in four places. They then walk thrice more around the bonfire as the Beltane blessing is announced to the gathered people. The lighting of the bonfire signals the end of Winter and the coming of Summer, and the Green Man's Winter form is symbolically cast into the pyre. At the same time the stage is occupied by Fire Point, this symbolises the old tradition where farmers would drive their herds between two bonfires at this time of year to bless them.
Once the bonfire is lit, the procession passes through the crowds to the May Queen's Bower, on the side of the hill below and behind the Acropolis, where the procession can finally relax. The Fire Arch Guardians formally present their gift to the May Queen and Green Man, and Handfastings are held as the couples are blessed and jump together over the Willow-switch withies of the Blue Men, representing a commitment which will last through all trials for a year and a day.
After this, the four Elements and other groups (these vary but will usually include "No Point", that entertain spectators without being in a fixed location) formally present their gifts to the May Queen and Green Man, and the Red Men are presented before the Handmaidens and White Women. Symbolically, they seduce/are seduced by the White Women and Handmaidens, representing a union between the White Order and the Red Chaos. The rest of the performers are then invited into the Bower circle to dance and celebrate the arrival of summer, and finally so are the spectators.
Beltane at Calton Hill in Edinburgh 2008 gallery
- ↑ http://www.beltane.org/en/festivals/beltane/index.en.shtml
- ↑ www.beltane.org