Edinburgh's Beltane Festival originates from Scottish and Irish Gaelic pre-Christian times. The word Beltane is thought to have derived from a Gaelic-Celtic word meaning "bright/sacred fire."
It was held to mark and celebrate the blossoming of spring, and coincided with the ancient pastoral event of moving livestock to their summer grazing. It did not occur on any fixed solar date (the tradition of solstices and equinoxes is later in origin), but tended to be held on the first full moon after the modern 1st of May.
Some sources suggest that the blooming of the Hawthorn was the primary signal for the event before the development of centralised calendars. It was a celebration of the fertility of the land and their animals.
The main traditional element which was common to all Beltane festivals was the fire which gave it its name. All the fires of the community would be extinguished and a new, sacred ‘Neid Fire' was lit by either the village head or spiritual leader. From this source one or two bonfires were lit, and the animals of the community would be driven through or between them.
It was believed that the smoke and flame of the fires would purify the herd, protecting them in the year to come and ensuring a good number of offspring. The inhabitants of the village would then take pieces of the fire to their homes and relight their hearths, and dance clockwise around the bonfires to ensure good portents for them and their families.
Edinburgh's Beltane Fire Festival
The modern event that takes place in Edinburgh is a fusion of these origins with various elements taken from Spring festivals and mythology throughout Europe.
The central theme of the fire is intact, but to it is added a fantastical procession led by the May Queen, symbolising the mother aspect of the Celtic triple goddess (virgin/mother/crone).
Alongside the May Queen is the Green Man, her male counterpart, a figure with a long pedigree in the British Isles, representing summer growth and productivity.
The Queen is accompanied by her court of four Handmaidens, her White Women Warriors, whose role it is to protect her from chaos and to ensure the right and proper progression of the seasons, and the Processional Drummers, who provide the energy and rhythm for the procession as it circles the hill. The procession is overseen by the Blue Men - the spirit guides for the festival, a role of druidic origin.
The festival begins with the Horned God, the winter aspect of the Green Man, inviting the Neid Fire to be lit on top of the Acropolis on Calton Hill. This is a fire lit using a bow drill, an ancient technique which produces flames from the friction of wood on wood. This flame lights the first of the many torches of the Torch Bearers, and all the fire used in Beltane can be traced back to the Neid fire.
The lighting of the torches reveals the May Queen, the Processional Drummers strike up and the performance moves off counter-clockwise around the hill, passing under the fire arch symbolising the entrance into the magical underworld.
It then passes through sites representing the elements of water, earth, air and fire, populated by spirit-characters, representing the elements. At each site the May Queen awakens it's inhabitants and they purify a space for the May Queen and Green Man to enter and provide symbolic dance and music for their blessing. Once awoken the elementals continue to perform after the court has moved on and eventually all unite on the acropolis for a joint performance.
When the procession's circuit of the hill is almost complete, the court is ambushed by the Red Men and their Beastie Drummers, spirits from the underworld symbolising lust, chaos and mischief. A stand-off ensues between them and the White Warriors as the Red Men attempt to distract the Court from its orderly task with lewd behaviour and seductive rhythms.
The Warriors' focus proves too strong to be broken, however, and the White Women win the confrontation, allowing the procession to move off toward the hollow at the centre of the hill. Within a circle made of all the performers, the Horned God is ritually killed by the May Queen's handmaidens for the crime of reaching out to touch the Queen.
He is stripped of his winter ivy garments and resurrected by the May Queen as the Green Man, the spark of life and opening bud of the fertile season to come. After unleashing a wild and energetic dance, he is crowned by the May Queen and united as her consort, summer can officially begin. The husk of the slaughtered Horned God is carried to the sacred bonfire which is then lit by the May Queen and Green Man, passing three times clockwise around the fire in the process.
The bonfire represents the burning of the old so we may bring in the new, just as the Horned God has sacrificed himself so he may be reborn.
Their duty done, the court retires to the Bower to be entertained by the elemental characters. As the crowd follow the performers to the Bower, both Fire Point and then the Red Men form a second fire kindled from the first in the form of a fire performance and acrobatic display of human pyramids in the hollow, thus purifying the onlookers that pass between as were the herds of the ancient Gaels.
The last ritual event of the night takes place when the Red Men approach the bower and successfully seduce the White Women into dance. Chaos and order become harmony and the unity of all elements is complete. After this the ritual duties are complete, and the Court and the Elements can retire, knowing that Summer has been properly invited in.
Each year, volunteers participating in Beltane from the Beltane Fire Society charity add to, and develop variations, on the procession's narrative.
To some extent, these changes have been necessitated by growing interest in Beltane and the fact that the top of the hill can get crowded.