Beltane Fire Festival

I am freaking out.  I will be leaving Edinburgh in a few weeks, and every time I think about this I get an awful feeling in my stomach and have a ridiculous urge to physically cling to people and places in this city as if I were a form of mollusk.

I guess you could say that I will miss this place.

Rather than go on with reflections of how much I’ve changed or what I’ve learned this year, which would just be too depressing, I’d rather remember the Beltane Fire Festival, which I recently had the odd experience of attending.

Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival is a world famous event.  It’s an ancient, pagan ritual held every year on the night of April 30th to celebrate the beginning of summer.  The festival is held on Calton Hill, upon which Edinburgh’s Parthenon-like National Monument is located.

Having no idea what to expect, I made the trek up the hill with a group of friends around 9:30, just as the festivities were beginning.  It’s that incredible time of year here where it stays light until well past 9 at night, so the sun was just beginning to go down.  Ominously, there were signs located at the entrance that said “No Glass Bottles, Please Decant Your Alcohol Into Plastic.”  I took this blatant encouragement of drinking as a sign that I was in for a wild night.  Once we reached the top of the hill, we were joined by about ten thousand other revellers.  I had told some other friends that I would meet them there, but it soon became clear that I wouldn’t be finding anyone in the mass of people, and indeed the large group I had originally arrived with was soon separated (luckily, I managed to grab a hold of one friend).

The ceremony began with the lighting of fires suspended on the National Monument itself.  The ritual itself is intricate and symbolic, but the general idea (which I learned later with the help of Wikipedia) is that the May Queen, who appears in all white, is born and must acknowledge the earth and the sky.  She accepts the Green Man, who symbolises the earth, as her consort, and leads a large procession through several points on the hill where the four elements are symbolically awakened.  After the Queen has passed through the elemental points, the red men come out.  The red men represent the demonic forces of chaos.  They are also (and at this point in the ceremony I suddenly understood all those warnings on the tickets) pretty much naked.  The ceremony culminates in the lighting of a huge bonfire, where the May Queen and Green Man are united again and everyone dances and celebrates the arrival of summer.

It was all very well learning this later, but while I was there my friend and I were mostly frantically running around in the dark, trying to figure out where the procession was going next so that we could get there first and get the best view.  I have to say, though, it was pretty cool.  I felt as if I were a part of something ancient and powerful, and (apart from slowly freezing – I don’t understand how those poor red people survived!) I really enjoyed myself.  That’s the point of ritual, isn’t it?  To enjoy oneself while marking the passage of time, another year gone by.  I’m still not ready for summer and everything it means, but I’m grateful for the wonderful year I’ve had.  And maybe one day I’ll be back again to watch half-naked people dance around with torches on a hilltop.

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