Pomp, Pageantry & Paganism: Beltane Fire Society Rekindles Celtic Quarter Holiday Celebrations in Edinburgh, Scotland

Rynn —  November 10, 2012 — 16 Comments
The Reds

The Reds, symbolizing the forces of chaos, sensuality and physicality, stand oblivious to winter’s return at the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Photo used with Beltane Fire Society permission.)

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on the Beltane Fire Society, a secular ritual performance and street theater group based in Edinburgh, Scotland who have rekindled public celebrations around the Celtic quarter holidays with Pagan-inspired ritual.

By Rynn Fox, Staff Writer, The Wild Hunt

Torchlight and fire sculpture light the cold winter night as a procession of mythical and archetypal figures writhe in the wintry dark. A cacophony of drums echo through narrow city streets. A black masked figure clutching a tall staff takes the stage. Oblivious, the Winter King swings his sword, nearly delivering an executioner’s blow to the Summer King—but the figure steps into the swords’ path, absorbing the blow without injury. With a toss of her head the figure unmasks, revealing herself to be the Cailleach, the ruling deity of Scotland‘s winter season.

The Cailleach summons the powers of the light and peaceful warrior

The Cailleach shows the Winter King that his powers of summoning can be used to call the powers of the peaceful warrior and of the light at the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

This was the scene on Samhuinn on Edinburgh, Scotland’s historic Royal Mile thoroughfare where 150 performers and crew brought pomp, pageantry and pagan-inspired street art and ritual performance to an audience of nearly 4,000 people. The annual event was presented by the Beltane Fire Society, an organization who has been advocating for the awareness and celebration of the Celtic cross-quarter festivals for 25 years.

Street-theater Spirituality

While it is easy to assume the group is Pagan, this secular charity distances itself from religion and spirituality. According to society Co-Secretary and Pagan Federation of Scotland member Zander Bruce, the events are “as pagan as you want them to be. Generally on a scale of pony to Pegasus, we’re about unicorn.”

This doesn’t stop many local Pagans from taking part. Nearly a quarter of the society’s members are of a Pagan or New Age persuasion. “Many of the performers and organizers are involved in the magickal scene in the Lothians [area of Scotland],” said Sandra Holdom owner of local Witchcraft store, The Wyrd Shop.

For members it is a shared dedication to reawakening folk practices and creating effective theater that binds them together, not religion.

“We have a shared vocabulary of ritual, performance, character and story,” said Bruce. “Everything is contextualized around those and everyone feels able to contribute to them.” Still the events are more than theater for some in the society. “Many people [participating] report having an epiphany when at Beltane or Samhuinn and it leads to a spiritual journey.”

Summer King versus Winter KIng

The Winter King (right, David Blumenthal) prepares to dispatch the Summer King (left, Joe Hope) at Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Photos used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

Society Co-Secretary and Pagan Tanya Simpson is one such person. She remembers her first society performance as a Torchbearer in the 2010 Samhuinn procession as being “a real catalyst for spiritual growth.”

“It helped me to feel more in touch with the changing of the seasons in a way that I hadn’t quite been able to reach with individual ritual and the combined energy of everyone taking part in the event was truly powerful,” said Simpson. “It was a new beginning for me and helped me find my place within a wider community.”

“The performance carries a strong spirituality for me – but not one that has religious connotations,” said Board Member Matthew Richardson. “For me, it’s the experience of merging performance and celebration and marking the change of the seasons in a way that involves those who might otherwise ignore their passing that it most powerful.”

“One of the most beautiful things about our events is that people – both volunteers and audience members – who are there in a spiritual context stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are there for the costumes and acrobatics or just for an amazing party, and everyone is accepted equally,” said Simpson. “Being witness to that level of inclusion is a pretty special feeling.”

Edinburgh crowds watch the performance of the Beltane Fire Society's 2012 Samhuinn ritual.

Edinburgh crowds watch the Pagan-inspired spectacle of the Beltane Fire Society’s 2012 Samhuinn. (Photo by Richard P. Winpenny. Used with Beltane Fire Society and photographer permission.)

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 photographer Richard Winpenny.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066316113 Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

    Wonderful! I’ve been inspired by Edinburgh’s Fire Society ever since I heard about them a few years ago — definitely something that I want to experience some day. For me, paying attention to the turning of the Wheel of the Year has been one of the most beneficial aspects of being Pagan, and I love that the Fire Society brings this to the streets for all in such a powerful, colourful, archetypal way. Blessings!

  • kenneth

    Their model of BYOB spirituality and a kind of overall secular neutrality is brilliant! It gives everyone the space they need for ritual meaning or pure fun, and it heads off the inevitable quarrels about who’s king and queen, arguments that you’re doing the ritual “wrong” or giving one trad or another the short end. We ought to consider such a model for public events in the states. If I’m not mistaken, this modern Edinburgh approach mirrors that of the early neo-pagan or proto-pagan revivals of the 19th Century. Many of those folks coalesced around folklore/national identity groups which were officially non-religious or even Christian, but which gave pagans a resource and a cover of social respectability for what they were doing at the time.

  • Scathach

    I love this! I wish we could do something like that here – I’m a pagan in that I honor the seasons and nature but I don’t really identify with the old pantheons. I want to take my husband to something that we can both identify with and doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief when speaking about this or that deity – which is highly personal across the planet – though the passing of the seasons is something that everyone can appreciate.

  • Gareth

    I went to the fire festival this may and loved it. I really liked the way the festival bridged both the secular and religious, neither aspect felt forced, suppressed or on the coat tails of the other. The after party was in underground vaults was excellent with good music and ice cream. I missed the part where people went into the woods to some vigorous socialising.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    If the fire festival isn’t religious, what is it?

    Religious doesn’t have to mean theistic, after all.

    • Gareth

      It’s a secular cultural festival.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        People haven’t convinced me that Christmas is a secular, cultural festival. I don’t think this will be any different.

        • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

          Awfully hard when every other song on the radio from after Samhain (if you are lucky) is praising Christ.

        • Gareth

          Think of it like the names of the days of the week.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            What, most people are ignorant and/or retarded?

        • kenneth

          Festivals have a way of taking on their own identity. Christmas is a pagan holiday that was stolen by Christians but since celebrated in pagan style by a secular society.

          I don’t think this fire festival will every be secular in the sense of sterile isolation from religiosity. Most people drawn to participate fully will probably be pagan of some sort, or at least have those leanings. At the same time, there’s a value in not making that official in any way. It gives people room for spiritual practice without trying to mandate it or define an orthodoxy for it.

          I have something similar less than an hour’s drive from where I live in the Midwest. It’s a ren faire, and it’s not religious in any sense of the word, it’s really just a commercial entertainment venue, and one rooted in the time period of Protestant England. Nevertheless, it has a huge pagan dynamic and identity within the culture of those who attend.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I know about ren faires. They seem more like LARP than historical reenactment, from what I have heard.

          • Blue Celt

            Yes, it is an eclectic arts festival, and only some participants are Pagan. The Pagan participants are eclectic Neopagans, and have never claimed to be traditional. It’s more like Burning Man than traditional Scottish polytheism. Still, it’s an engaging spectacle, and many people enjoy it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Happydog-Potatohead/780639610 Happydog Potatohead

    Well written article. Very interesting to see the universality of the experience; it has something for everyone, no matter what you were out for that night. That is exactly the way it should be done.

  • Pitch313

    I would rather have celebrations that are (p)agan and not-religious than ones that are religious and not (p)agan! Samhain for all comers, even the idly curious, rather than all too much preaching-induced fear of the Samhain spirits! Go! Pagans! Go! (p)agans! Go! Dancing in the streets!

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