May 1, 2009

Pyromaniacs Anonymous

My Beltane ticket reads:
"Involves fire performance, uninhibited behaviour & semi-nudity.

With a warning like that... it's got to be a good time!

Yet another Scottish festival that involves burning things... but this time, I got a fire torch all to myself! The Beltane Fire Festival is an ancient Gaelic pre-Christian festival to celebrate the beginning of summer, and the fertility of land and livestock. Beltane is derived from the Gaelic-Celtic word for "bright/sacred fire". It is held every April 30th on the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh.  
There were many characters running around the hill. The May Queen (aka The Maiden, Goddess of Spring, Flower Bride, Queen of the Fairies, and Lady of the Flowers) heads up the Royal Court of White Warrior Women who fend off the lewd, chaotic, beastly, and scantily dressed Red Men and Women. The May Queen representa purity, strength, and the potential for growth, and is said to be the origin of Maid Marian in the medieval plays of Robin Hood. The Blue Men, painted blue like Celtic Warriors, have the role of spiritual leaders: maintaining order required by nature with their knowledge of the night's rituals. The rituals consist of the death and re-birth of the Green Man (aka the May King, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, or the woodland faery, Puck). Winter, and the touch of the May Queen, kill the Horned God Green Man - but her handmaidens strip him of his garments and the Queen breaths life back into him so that he is reborn as the youthful Green Man (described as a wild exhilarating dance of love). And don't forget the No Point guys. As you can assume by their name, they had absolutely no point - just confusing, random, entertaining characters galavanting about the hillside.

Setting up torches on Calton Hill

As we made our way up to the top of the hill, even the sky seemed to be on fire, as the red sun set behind the medieval buildings of Edinburgh. We waited for nightfall then crowded around the pitch blackness of the "Parthenon" as we saw faint shadows of figures climb the monument. We waited maybe 15 minutes while they rubbed 2 sticks together to start the 'Neid Fire', the traditional new fire. (I was ready and willing to toss them a lighter).  But as the fire grew, the processional drummers began to beat a rhythm that represented the passing of time, the cycle of seasons, the pulse of life. It was only fire and the echo of deep beating drums.  

The start of the night's rituals on the Scottish National Monument

The May Queen and her White Warrior Women surfaced above the step of the Parthenon and the fire spread across torches and lit up the entire monument. We followed the procession to the Fire Arch, a gateway into the Otherworld, where the devilish Pan-like Red Men and Women were born. The procession continued and my friends and I lit our own £2 fire torches which gave an eerie orange glow to everything around us. The combination of the immense crowds, heavy winds, and our semi-drunken states proved it difficult to maintain our torches without lighting each other, ourselves, or complete strangers on fire. The hot wax dripped down the torch and burned my thumb. I quickly blew out my torch, and the eerie orange light was replaced with blackness.  

Lighting our torches

The Procession of the May Queen continued on through the points of Air, Earth, Water, and Fire. And with all of their powers combined, they are Captain Planet! We stopped following the procession because it was too difficult to battle the crowds and stick together. But we roamed the hillside and saw Yellow Women dancing, and plenty of bonfires. Though I wish I had seen the Fire Dragon, keeper of crystals and secrets, present his heart to the May Queen! We did get to see the rowdy and randy 80% naked Red Men and Women charge down the hill with their fire torches. I caught that on video:

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