EDINBURGH – In a break from tradition, this year Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society have cast a woman in the role of the Green Man.
The actor, Rosamund McCormack, has been a volunteer with the society for many years. She will be playing opposite Rosa McKay, who has been cast as the May Queen. McCormack will play the Green Man in both this year’s virtual festival and in next year’s festival, which the society hopes will be back in-person.
The Beltane Fire Society hosts the largest Beltane celebration in Europe. Founded in 1988, the society’s festivals strive to combine Scottish folklore and history with modern Pagan imagery and performance traditions. Rather than trying to precisely reproduce the original iron age festivals, the society is attempting to recreate the experience of attending one by producing a spiritually and culturally relevant celebration of the changing season.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic making in-person gatherings impossible, the Fire Society held last year’s celebration digitally and has done the same for this year’s.
While this is the first year that the Fire Society has cast a woman in the role of the Green Man, it is not the first time they have had performers take on characters with a different gender to their own. Where other Beltane and May Day celebrations tend to cast along gendered lines, the Society has long acknowledged that anyone of any gender can house the right masculine or feminine energies to play these archetypal figures. Add in the gender-bending legacy of Scottish street theatre, a formative influence on the society, and there is a lot of space for spiritual experimentation and gender play within their festivals.
Previous years have included a man playing the Cailleach, the crone ruler of winter, and women in the roles of both Summer and Winter Kings. The May Queen’s retinue also regularly contains people of all gender identities, taking on the role of white-painted female spirits defending their ruler against the aggression of the Green Man and the wild Red Spirits.
The Fire Society confirmed to The Wild Hunt that while this is the first year they have explicitly advertised the role of the Green Man to people of all genders, all genders were always welcome to audition for the role. At this year’s annual general meeting of the society, members decided their previous language did not make this point clearly enough, which prompted the society to take action. All of the society’s literature was rewritten to remove “unnecessary gendered pronouns,” and the calls to audition for every part – not just the Green Man – were worded to make it explicit that people of any gender could apply.
As for whether the society was actively seeking a woman this year, as some people and publications have assumed, the answer is no. “We did not set out to choose someone who does not identify as male for this role this year,” a spokesperson for the society said. “Rosamund simply brought the right energy and ideas for this festival and was the best choice.”
In a statement posted to the society’s website, McCormack commented on her role as the Green Man. “The role of the the Green Man appeared to me like a snowdrop in December – surprising, exciting and somewhat daunting,” she said.
“This springly being of the Green Man offers up a sacrifice – of that which must be burned upon the fire,” McCormack added. “Then from the clavies relit by the May Queen and collective energy to be transfigured into a piece in the puzzle of the abundant unfurling of the summer months. A collaboration with all other elements lining up to reap and build upon the intentions and actions that have been made.”
The stream of the festival can be viewed here or through the video embedded above. Although it is free to view, the society, which sustains itself entirely through donations, asks for viewers to make a voluntary gift.
Today’s article 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.