If you happen to be in Edinburgh on the night of 30th of April, there is no doubt about what to do. Go to Calton Hill and see the Beltane Fire Festival, one of the top events of the year that will leave you open-mouthed.
Based on the ancient Gaelic festival of the same name, “Beltane” meaning “bright or sacred fire”, this celebration marks the beginning of summer on 1st of May. Since there were no centralized calendars it is thought that the event was held on the first full moon after what is now 1st of May.
People celebrated the fertility of their animals and their land. The main element of the festivities was the fire. First, all fires were extinguished and then a new, sacred, so called “Need Fire” or “Neid Fire” ignited, from which bonfires were lit before driving the animals through them. This was supposed to purify and to protect the herd, as well as to assure a good progeny. Then, people would take logs of the bonfire home, relight their fireplaces and dance around the fire hoping to evoke positive omen for their future.
The modern festival is based on the Gaelic tradition, although the organizers emphasize that there are a number of mythological, literary and historical influences to be taken into account and that it is an evolving event that draws on the directions and influences of the performers.
The event took place for the first time in 1988 with only a small number of enthusiasts. The festival has grown constantly since then, and in 2006 there were more than 300 voluntary performers and collaborators participating. At the beginning it was free to attend the event, but the popularity of the event led to an ever-growing audience, which resulted in the necessity to sell tickets and thereby restrict access. Usually, the 11500 available tickets sell out.
The main event is a procession, with the performers enacting a ritual drama. There are Blue Men, the procession’s guards; the Green Man in his winter disguise; Red Men, representing the forces of chaos; there is the May Queen and her bodyguards, the White Women.
I have been a few times, but I am still not entirely sure of the whole plot. To me, it doesn’t really matter. I just immerse myself in this fascinating world of fire, ecstatic dancing, frenetic drumming, screaming and naked, painted bodies. It is wild, the air full of energy, and it is night. All in all: spectacular.