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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.