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 ancient Gaelic festival of Beltane which was historically 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, 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 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.
The main event of the festival is the procession of performers, starting at the Acropolis (National Monument), who perform a ritual drama loosely based on some aspects of the 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.
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 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.
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.