Modern Revival of Ancient Beltane Festival Apr 27, 2015 22:48:42 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Apr 27, 2015 22:48:42 GMT -5
Modern Revival of Ancient Beltane Festival
Last year, with friends and family, in a sloping field just off the busy A3 from London to Portsmouth, I experienced my first Beltain (more widely known as Beltane) – the ancient festival which marks the end of winter and start of summer. Held at Butser Ancient Farm, an archaeological site, on paper it had looked like a charming low-key Celtic festival with a few folk bands and a hog roast.
It was so much more than that: dancing women in woad waving antlers to ancient gods of fertility. Children wearing self-woven blossom and wicker May coronets roaming among picnickers. And, of course, the high point of the night – the burning of a specially-built, 30-foot-high Wicker Man, stuffed with scraps of paper on which we had written our hopes for the coming year. A large crowd, some with children perched on shoulders, pressed closer to the insistent heat for a better view as leaping flames licked the man’s torso and consumed his legs. And then he shuddered, buckled and collapsed sideways down into the dark Hampshire earth. The Pagan onlookers reveled in the grisly ritual. The Wicker Man is dead; summer is a-coming in. Afterwards, we all trooped home through a wet field, oddly elated.
In our peripatetic, deeply temporal, modern society, why would anyone choose to spend a long night marking the passing of Winter and greeting Summer? You can sit at home with a boxed set of The Killing and a takeout meal. Who celebrates change – apart from the Coalition? Actually, it emerges, increasing numbers of Britons – old, young and of worldwide origin – still do. In Edinburgh, thousands will celebrate the 25th Beltane (the name is probably derived from a Gaelic word meaning bright fire) Fire Festival this year. In Yorkshire, Thornborough Henge will see its eighth annual event. Butser Ancient Farm has been building and burning its wicker man for more than a decade.
Events have sprung up from Devon to Peebles, Cardiff to Ireland (where the festival is connected to the legends of Tara). All have seen annual attendance and interest on the rise at a time when modern music festivals are seeing numbers slump.
So is Beltane just the latest groovy festival – albeit with a Time Team theme? Independent researcher and anthropologist Pauline Bambry, who has studied Beltane for five years and is writing a book on it, believes not. “Beltane is a rural pre-Christian prehistoric tradition which saw communities come together after long winters of isolation,” she says. “It marked their connection, not just to nature, but to each other. That need to belong to something or someone hasn’t changed. We can be just as isolated living in the city or in a town as the ancient Britons were in their round houses.”
Not all the traditions associated with Beltane are necessarily useful to the modern Brit, but many made sense at the time. Fires are lit as part of the celebration with farmers driving livestock between them and sometimes over the ashes. “After the animals had been kept in close confinement over winter, it was a chance to drive out the lice and parasites that had flourished, before they were taken to the higher pastures,” Bambry explains.
Many Beltane ceremonies also involved beating the bounds – literally marching around the boundaries of the village with flaming torches. It was a chance to reinstate the shape of the village and check fences were in order.
Other rites included extinguishing the home’s hearth fire (normally kept ever lit) on April 30 and then relighting it May 1st from the central village bonfire. Young couples might choose to become “handfast” on this day, “tying the knot” using a ribbon woven around their joint hands as they pledged themselves to each other for a year and a day. If the romance didn’t survive, they were free to love again once the 366 days had passed. Some young women would even jump the fires to encourage pregnancy or an easy birth.
The festivals have never completely disappeared. Unlike the other ancient so-called Quartering Days (which mark the changing four seasons) Beltane was not co-opted by Christianity into something else. The nearest Saint’s Day to Beltane is probably St. George’s Day on April 23. But the other three – Lughnasadh (August 1), Samhain (October 31/Nov 1), Imbolc (February 1) – have all been made over to feel more Christian: respectively Lammas, All Saints/All Souls Day, and Candlemas.
The Edinburgh revival is the largest Beltane festival in the UK, with thousands expected on April 30 at the Acropolis on Calton Hill. It was developed by Angus Farquhar, founder of Scottish arts group NVA. “His aim was to re-establish seasonal community celebrations,” says Matthew Richardson, Chair of Beltane Fire Society, the charity which runs the event, who first came to Belante 14 years ago when he was a student at the University of Edinburgh. “When it started in 1987, Beltane was very small – just four performers and an audience of 30 or 50. But its reputation has spread by word of mouth and this year there will be 300 performers and more than 12,500 audience members.”
Beltane on Calton Hill begins at sunset April 30, when the May Queen and the Winter King arrive at the Acropolis surrounded by handmaidens (guardians of the May Queen) and drummers to process them around and down the hill. As they travel, they are interrupted by the red men – spirits of chaos and disorder – who try to distract the May Queen. Halfway down the hill, the Winter King is killed and reborn as the Green Man and the May Queen lights the bonfire, symbolizing the light and heat of summer. Around the stage, roaming performers with torches entertain the public and fire sculptures light up the sky. “There is a sense the whole hill is alight,” says Matthew.
Smaller, but no less busy, is Beltane at the prehistoric site Thornborough Henge near Ripon in North Yorkshire. It was established in 2004 by Oliver Robinson, a web developer for 364 days of the year and a May Day Fool on Beltane, as an antidote to more commercial festivals. “I wanted to facilitate people using the Henge and gathering there for free,” he says. This Beltane celebration incorporates elements of druidry, historic folklore, a mystery play and the lighting of a fire. Uniquely, it honors Brigantia, a goddess of the old kingdom of northern England at the time of the Roman invasion. “We like celebrating our traditional indigenous local goddess,” explains Oliver.
At Thornborough Henge, enthusiasts often turn up on the preceding night to camp before the event, which takes place on the Sunday nearest to May 1. Lots of couples choose to handfast here. “They do their own way: jumping a broom, or a fire, or tying hands together. And we try to encourage everyone to dress up – at least a May Day headdress. Then it’s less like people standing together in a field,” says Oliver. He believes the event has more of a spiritual element than large commercial festivals where people don’t mingle and there are security checkpoints. “At Henge, everything we do is in a circle and people really come together and contribute to each other’s enjoyment,” he says.
Bamfrey agrees there is a spiritual dimension to celebrating Beltane which is hard to find elsewhere. “From taking in the Edinburgh celebrations, I know that I felt connected to what was going on around me. It made me feel more aware of nature and uplifted. It poured rain all night – we were absolutely drenched – but there was a tremendous buzz,” she says. It is a chance to celebrate surviving winter and prepare for the rest of the year. “It ends that sense of modern isolation,” she adds. “It proves we are all in it together.”
My own family will be back at Butser this year. After a long winter of turmoil, squabbling, it feels right to focus on simpler truths: the promise of sunshine and fertile earth, rainfall and harvest, community and harmony.
The Wicker Man. According to legend, fire was considered transformative, cleansing and revitalizing. Julius Caesar noted that Iron Age Britons practiced human sacrifice by building a huge wicker container (often shaped like a man) and filling it with people and animals before setting it alight. More recently, the 1973 cult film The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer and starring Edward Woodward, saw a remote Scottish community led by Christopher Lee, reenacting the old tradition with horrifying results. Director Robin Hardy released a follow-up, The Wicker Tree, in 2011 and is working on a third, The Wrath of the Gods, to complete The Wicker Man Trilogy.
Source: Victoria Lambert, The Telegraph, April 27, 2015.