Beltane, which translates as ’bright fire’, is one of four traditional lunar Celtic festivals and is a celebration that marks the death of Winter and the birth of Summer. The Beltane Fire Society initiated a dynamic interpretation and modernization of this ancient Iron Age ritual in 1998 and has since blossomed to a cast of over three hundred performers—actors, drummers, dancers and fire jugglers. On the evening of April 30 leading into May-morning each year, they perform for an audience of over 10,000 on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.
The festival begins with the lighting of the Neid Fire at the National Monument (known to Beltaners as the Acropolis), and proceeds anticlockwise around the hill. The torch-lit procession is driven by thundering drums, which urge it inexorably toward Summer. At the procession’s head is the May Queen - the three-faced goddess figure from Celtic lore of maiden, mother and crone who embodies Spring and Summer—and the Green Man—the gnarly horned male deity who embodies Winter. They are followed by, and encounter, a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to their journey. After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of Summer, the May Queen and the Green Man light a massive bonfire, which illuminates the Hill as the festivities continue through the night until dawn. Beltane draws inspiration from the narrative of this spectacular event.
As darkness falls and the fire torches are lit, the Green Man quietly appears at the foot of the Acropolis. He stomps his branch thrice to the ground. Preceded by the Whites, her guardians, the May Queen rises to the platform of the Acropolis. A horn call sounds, and drums begin to thunder as the May Queen awakens. She and the Whites then greet the audience and the elements by bowing in a ritualistic formation—north, south, east and west. A second horn sounds and the rhythms gain force. The May Queen and Green Man meet—she is at once repelled, and he allured—and the procession begins to move down the hill. The pathway is cleared through the audience by the Blues—their bodies covered in rich blue paint and their arms extended with willow branches—and is illuminated by the fire of the torch bearers. At the foot of the hill, the procession halts at the Decision Point; The May Queen must decide whether to turn left toward Summer, or to turn right to remain in Winter. She chooses left, and she leads the procession once again, now arriving at the Fire Arch. The May Queen ignites the arch, and the Green Man is stripped of his horns and winter overgrowth. She raises her gown to form a halo and she leads her procession – a cacophony of sound with the Whites keening—through the great arch of fire to the Underworld.
In the Underworld, the May Queen begins to turn the wheel in motion toward Summer as she leads her procession anticlockwise around the hill, passing through and spinning together the elements of Air, Earth, Water and Fire. Each group of elements, characterized by their unique costumes and music, perform for the May Queen. Air is embodied by a cacophony of birds, earth by outlandish and majestic woodland creatures, water by mysterious creatures from the depths of the ocean, and fire by the acrobatics of fire breathers and jugglers. As soon as the procession arrives in the underworld, the Reds and Beasties—a swarm of naked beings and drummers swathed in red paint—begin to birth until they are fully alive to interact with the fire elements. Possessed by a chaotic and lustful energy, they desire the Whites with great intensity, and they perform spectacular acrobatics and give all their energy to distract their desired Whites with chaotic and cacophonic sounds and dances, followed by a hollering boisterous charge down the hill that leads to the main stage.
The evening quietens as the Blues cleanse the stage of a lingering darkened energy, and the May Queen and the Green Man appear. The May Queen begins to spin slowly, and then moves faster and faster into a frenzy until she strikes the Green Man, killing him instantly to the sound of a single drum beat. The Whites elevate his dead body and spin it three times clockwise, and then transfer the body to the Reds who spin him a further three times anticlockwise. The May Queen motions to the dead body thrice with a powerful force—each to a single drum strike—until the Green Man arises to perform a joyous dance in his new reborn form. The May Queen accepts him and crowns him as her consort. Everyone cheers in celebration, and the great bonfire upon the hill is lit to bring all into the dawn with abundant festivities.
Thank you to Erin MacDonald, Chair of the Beltane Fire Society, and musician Andy Walker, a long-time Beltane Fire Society member, for their generosity of time and resources, and for sharing the traditional drumming patterns created for the festival: Acropolis 7s and Acropolis 8s by Jem Le Lievre and Topher Dagg, and 6E and Bad Juggler by Tom Caine. For more information about the Beltane Fire Society please visit www.beltane.org.