Today’s offering comes to us from Siobhan Ball, a writer and archivist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history, making her lots of fun at parties. She’s written for Autostraddle, Broadly, and Diva, and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press.
Edinburgh, Scotland is home to Europe’s largest Beltane festival, with thousands traveling from around the world to be there. Last year the Beltane Fire Society’s sister festival of Samhuinn got an upgrade, moving from the smaller open spaces in the city centre to Beltane’s spectacular venue of Calton Hill, a public park topped with a pseudo-acropolis where the ritual begins.
The Fire Society is peopled by a combination of Pagans, historians, folklorists, and enthusiasts, and the result is a mixture of reconstructed historic practices, modern Pagan beliefs, and traditional Scottish folk customs, all woven together for a visually spectacular ritual and performance. Telling the story of Summer’s death, the rise of the Cailleach, and the transition between Summer and Winter Courts, the Fire Society balances the twin goals of reviving and preserving at-risk elements of Scottish folk culture and celebrating the powers and energies of seasonal change.
Eleven different groups of dancers, acrobats and musicians will represent various mythic figures and spiritual forces on the night. The Cailleach, like the May Queen at Beltane, the Summer and Winter kings and their courts, as well as the Reds, mischievous spirits of Summer, are the heart of the festivals, appearing each year. Others, like the Aerie and Catsi, popped up for a season or two, only to give way to new groups like Valraven, representing different aspects of the supernatural world.
Like her Summer counterpart, the Cailleach chooses a theme, and many of the performers pick up on it, weaving it into their own costumes and performances. This year’s choice is grief. While some have taken the idea of grief in global or political directions, others have kept it closer to home.
Feòrag of the Torchies, the torch bearers who kindle the sacred neid fire and stand guard on the border between performers and celebrants, told us that for them and several of their group members, this Samhuinn is about the personal grief of bereavement. As it is the Torchies’ duty to ritually keen for the death of Summer while remaining silent and stoic throughout the rest of the night, this interpretation aligns these participants further with the ritual purposes of their group – allowing and enabling catharsis for what’s been lost.
Meanwhile, the Wild Hunt group are continuing on from Beltane’s climate change theme, and while some are incorporating grief into their performance, others are moving straight into rage. Representing the spirits of wild nature in their dangerous and predatory forms, aligned with the death part of the cycle and the Winter Court, the Wild Hunt has previously taken an all-natural approach to costuming and character. Now, with the planet burning, they’ve assumed a dieselpunk theme, representing the rage of nature and the evolution of wild things driven into a polluted, human world.
Victoria Trimm, one of the group leaders, describes them as “city foxes post evolution,” and her own character as something like a “terminator moose,” rescued from death by the Cailleach and augmented by parts salvaged from human wastefulness. Their costumes are almost entirely made from second-hand finds, including discarded pieces of metal from a scrapyard; the emphasis on reuse and conservation is part of the Cailleach’s direction on finding a way forward to survival.
Survival in a hostile world is also important for other groups, such as The Voice of The Sea, or Guth na Mara, a Gaelic choir “embodying the mysterious, beautiful and vengeful aspects of the sea.” The sea was an integral part of life for the pre-industrial Scots-Gaels, and still is for many, but it was also a dangerous, liminal space that, though giving life through the provision of fish, seaweed, and other foodstuffs, also took life just as readily through storms and shipwrecks.
That the group actually sings in Gaelic, as one member, Nicky, put it, “is quite a long held ambition,” as there was previously a ban on the use of recognizable language by any of the groups. Though this ban removed the language barrier, making the rituals more accessible in some ways, getting to incorporate one of the ancient languages of Scotland was important both culturally and spiritually for many connected to the festivals. After centuries of attempts by the UK’s dominant cultural forces at eradicating both the Gaelic language and culture, the language’s position is still tenuous, and bringing it back into these revived Gaelic festivals feels like another step toward the preservation of both. It should also be noted that an inability to understand Gaelic also detracts nothing from their performance, as the sinister and mysterious nature of the treacherous winter sea Guth na Mara represents comes across powerfully, and may even be enhanced by a listener’s lack of understanding.
Not all participants are Pagans, as the Fire Society welcomes members of all religious backgrounds who align with their ethos. Creating rituals that allow people to connect with nature and the changing seasons regardless of their religious beliefs is one of the goals of the society, and many of the non-Pagans and atheists who have participated say they found comfort and meaning in those parts of it. “The ritual is important,” says Voice of the Sea’s Nicky, who is one of those atheist members. “It’s not a show, it’s a ceremony, and that is a different thing. It matters to me that it is religious ceremony, even though it’s not my religion.”
When we asked her to describe what it is about Samhuinn she finds spiritually meaningful she had this to say: “There’s always an anticipation as the light fades and we wait for things to begin. A silence and a sense of all being part of a thing larger than ourselves. Then suddenly the drums start and it’s all energy and fire and life springing up.”
These feelings are nearly universal among attendees. One of the beautiful things about the Fire Society’s work is that it allows people of all spiritual paths to find common ground in the sacredness of the natural world, and spiritual meaning in the change of the seasons.