Bringing Legend to Life: How the Beltane Fire Society Creates Ritual for 6,000 People

Rynn —  November 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who has rekindled public celebrations around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual and street theater.

By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt

While each Beltane Fire Society ritual centers on a core narrative, the performance itself has its roots in Galoshan plays, a type of Scottish medieval street theater traditionally performed on All Hallows and during winter. Samhuinn depicts the Celtic story of the Summer and Winter Kings’ battle for control of the seasons as overseen by the Cailleach. For Beltane, the ritual enacts the joining of the May Queen to the Green Man and summer’s arrival. Lughnasadh celebrates the harvest, while Imbolc symbolizes the return of spring with the putting to sleep of the Cailleach.

While the stories stay the same, performance elements are shaped by group organizers, society members who take on the responsibility for a particular character or aspect.

Members of the Beltane Fire Society's Red and White groups practice in Holyrood Park for the 2012 Samhuinn event.

Members of the Beltane Fire Society’s Red and White groups practice in Holyrood Park for the 2012 Samhuinn event. (Photo by Beltane Fire Society photographer Raini Scott.)

“Individual and group roles develop over several weeks, sharing, balancing and refining elements of a narrative and character metaphysic with the logistics of action for a good final performance flow on the night,” said society Group Organizer and Board Member Milk Miriku. “Group rituals can involve doing things to help build and better connect energies, a range of meditative, focused and excited social activities plus everything in between and around, from sound baths, sewing and crafting to games, exercise, dancing and or drumming.”

It’s up to the Blue Men, a group of senior members who act as historians and tradition keepers, to ensure all ritual elements complement each other.

“Blue Men work year-round within the society performing the same role at each event. We work together on practical, ritual and performance aspects of the festivals, and share the knowledge and experience we each have between ourselves, and with the rest of the society,” said society Board Member and Blue Man Matthew Richardson. “In the run-up, we help groups shape their performances, offering advice and tying the narrative threads together.”

Together with a paid producer who manages the festival’s production aspects, they ensure any new and interlinking narratives are aligned. This means a lot of coordination for society members. “[It takes] lots of meetings. Really, lots and lots,” said society Co-Secretary and Pagan Federation of Scotland member Zander Bruce.

The months leading up to the ritual are a flurry of activity as members prepare for roles and recruit new volunteer performers, most with no performance experience, via word of mouth or past audiences—then comes training. Depending on their role, all performers are trained in fire performance, safety, crowd control and street theater. According to society Group Organizer and Board Member Tanya Simpson, the society spends at least two months promoting, rehearsing and “coordinating and training everyone, and working closely with the producer and other group organizers.”

In order to deepen their roles some of the performers choose to do personal or group psychological work.

Winter King ritually kills the Summer King

Winter King (right, David Blumenthal) ritually kills the Summer King (left, Joe Hope) at a rehearsal for the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard Winpenny.)

“We may do some deeper or shadow work but not necessarily with a polytheistic focus, more something archetypal or emotional that everyone can connect with,” said Bruce. One such activity was particularly moving for him. “One thing I’ve loved doing is keening, whereby the group gathers and is talked through a focus or path-working, down to the bottom of their buried pain, anger and grief, to then be brought up and urged to express that pain through their voice, to share and to support one another. This has been a beautiful and transformative experience.”

In some ways though, the group has become a victim of its own success. Some critics have said that the events, especially the Beltane festival, are being coming too commercialized. A charge Sandra Holdom, owner of local Witchcraft store The Wyrd Shop, dismisses.

“The local [city] council charges a fortune for the use of [Calton] Hill and the clean up afterwards. It must also be remembered that all public events, by law, must have first aid, security, toilet facilities etc. Also, being fire festivals, there must be a fire marshall on site. There is almost no profit involved.”

But in the end, the hard work pays off—especially in terms of memories.

“[I remember] dancing with ma Red and watching the sun rise with Kings in the heat of 09. Ripping flower hearts out as a Hag six months later, smashing my staff on the stage with my crone sisters as the balance of power crossed to let the cold in,” said Miruku. “Steam rising from the Green Man as they dance and I shiver in awe and in the cold rain with a torch at the stage in 08.”

Beltane Fire Society 2012 Samhuinn Procession

Members of the Beltane Fire Society’s Red and White groups dance down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at the 2012 Samhuinn procession and ritual performance. (Photo by Richard Winpenny.)

All holiday names are in traditional Scottish-Gaelic spelling as provided by the Beltane Fire Society.
All photos used with permission of the Beltane Fire Society and photographers Raini Scott and Richard Winpenny

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  • Ashley Yakeley

    Reminds me a bit of the Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings and Deptford.