On the morning of Beltane Fire Festival 2016, our community is buzzing with excitement about the event that will begin in a few short hours after months of hard work. This is the perfect time to share some words from our Green Man, Josh…
The sun circles once more through the sky and the minutes slide away, bringing us closer and closer to the final hours, to the Night. The air is electric with excitement and tension, pulses quickening with anticipation and lack of sleep.
In spite of the sense that there’s never quite enough time, no-one involved has any question of the value of what we’re doing, of this tremendous outpouring of energy for a single night, because, as anyone who’s been through a Beltane will agree, it is not really about the night itself. The festival exists as a focal point, a destination to give meaning to the journey, but the journey itself is what matters.
For me, the value of Beltane is a reclaiming of spirit. Beltane is about reconnection, not re-enactment. With an eye to the past, we act firmly in the present with our eyes on the future, weaving time into a single moment where our boundaries drop and we act as one.
I see in festivals like Beltane an opening towards a new paradigm, a rediscovery of what it means to be a human living in the world. For the past half a millenium, our culture has placed more and more emphasis on the individual. We’ve separated the individual from the community, just as we’ve separated mind from matter and nature from culture. In doing so, we’ve separated consciousness from the physical, and carved up the world into a mathematical model where value exists only in numbers and everything is levelled down. We belong everywhere and nowhere, existing paradoxically as both masters of nature and as insignificant specks in the universe. There is no room in this worldview for the sacred. “God is dead” said Nietzsche, as this era began to culminate, “and we have killed him”.
Of course, there have been wonderful benefits from this rise of materialist individualism – modern science, medicine, technology, on the one hand, democracy and educational opportunity on the other. Yet as we push this paradigm through to its logical conclusion, we also encounter a darker side, epitomised by neo-liberal capitalism and the accompanying exploitation and environmental destruction, as well as a yawning gap in our souls, a lack of meaning that cannot be filled by shopping or by the 9-5 cycle of busywork and bar-hopping that is offered by the modern economy.
I see festivals like Beltane (and not only Beltane) as some of the first footsteps towards filling that gap. In that sense, we are not a ‘modern’ festival, and certainly not postmodern, but neither are we (nor should we, nor even could we) returning to some previous era. Yet in acknowledging the roots that ground us, exploring pre-modern ceremonies with modern eyes, we become pioneers of a new, un-named era.
The reclaiming of spirit that I see in Beltane is not a resurrection of old gods, but a way of understanding that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, of something which is more than the sum of its parts, in a way that transcends intellectual understanding. It’s a way (and not the only way) of experiencing magic and transcendence without playing make-believe.
By celebrating the season’s turn, we tune ourselves into the land around us; to the trees and plants around us as they shoot into new life; to the birds that return; to the newly-energised animals. They remind us that our bodies, too, change and feel different with the lengthening days, that we are not just observers but a very part of the seasonal cycle.
By following the Neid Fire on Beltane eve, as it spirals around the Hill to light our bonfire, we – performers and witnesses – create a living spiral of colour in which each of us is essential and yet where our individualities disappear. When we dance together, we dissolve into the living mass.
In the very simple ritual of gathering around the bonfire, we connect to every ancestor who ever gathered by a fire and remember that we are not fixed points, but a living process, part of a greater living process that existed long before us and will outlive us all.
For me, Beltane is a spiral dance with a fire at its centre. It connects the individual to the community, the community to the earth, and binds us all together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is simple, it is magic, it is real.
I can’t wait to dance with you all.
Photo of Josh at a Beltane 2016 walkthrough rehearsal by Martin McCarthy