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Encyclopedia > Beltane Fire Festival

Beltane Fire Festival is an annual event, held on April 30th on Calton Hill in Edinburgh to celebrate the coming of the Gaelic cross-quarter day of Beltane (May 1). The festival was started in 1988 by 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. April 30 is the 120th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar (121st in leap years). ... The top of Calton Hill with the National Monument and Nelsons Monument Calton Hill is a hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, just to the east of the city centre. ... Edinburgh (pronounced ; Dùn Èideann () in Scottish Gaelic) is the second-largest city in Scotland and the countrys capital city. ... Gaelic as an adjective means pertaining to the Gaels, whether to their language or their culture. ... A cross-quarter day is a day falling halfway between one of the four main solar events (two solstices and two equinoxes) and the next one. ... This article is about the Gaelic holiday. ... Test Dept. ... The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a renowned centre for teaching and research in Edinburgh, Scotland. ...

The Beltane Fire Society, which runs the festival, is managed by a 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' has been held at a local AIDS Hospice, Milestone House. Occupational safety and health is the discipline concerned with preserving and protecting human and facility resources in the workplace. ...

Although purporting to be a quasi-traditional event, most of the festival is actually of modern origin.


The main event of the festival is the procession of performers, starting at the National Monument, who re-enact the pre-Christian Beltane which celebrated the fertility of the land and animals. First the Green Man (in winter guise) appears through the columns, followed by the May Queen, who bows to greet the cardinal directions and the crowd of spectators. 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 National Monument, on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, viewed from the front The National Monument, Edinburgh is Scotlands memorial to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars. ... The Green Man is a symbol of uncertain origin and meaning, commonly employed as a decorative architectural device in the British Isles and many parts of continental Europe. ... The May Queen is a girl (usually a teenage girl from a specific school year) who is selected to ride at the front of a parade for May Day celebrations. ... ...

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, dancers 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 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 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. The Firth of Forth from Calton Hill The Forth Bridges cross the Firth Satellite photo of the Firth and the surrounding area The Firth of Forth (Abhainn Dhubh [Black River] in Scottish Gaelic) is the estuary or firth of Scotlands River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea...

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. Front of the observatory The City Observatory is on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. ...

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, but the Handmaidens and White Women, busy gathering the Earth energy and sending it back out into the world, do not notice the threat. 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, for the Green Man is their lord. 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.

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. Overcome with the May Queen's beauty and goaded by the presence of the Red Men, the Green Man, eventually 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, then lifted and turned clockwise and presented to the May Queen. She 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 as the May Queen had at 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 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.

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 a 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 relationship which will last through all trials. Handfasting is a Neopagan (especially Wiccan) term for a wedding. ...

After this, the four Elements 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 the White Women and Handmaidens, representing a union between the White Order and the Red Chaos. Finally, the rest of the performers are invited into the Bower circle to dance and celebrate the arrival of summer.

External links

  • Beltane Fire Society website



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