One of the most recognisable elements of our Samhuinn and Beltane Fire Festivals are the runes that we mark on our skin, costumes, and banners. Runes have been used by participants in our Fire Festivals going back almost to our beginnings. As with many of our symbols and traditions, they have a wide range of interpretations for the diversity of performers and witnesses who join our celebrations. But like many symbols from our common cultural heritage, they can easily be misinterpreted. Like the Christian cross, they belong to everyone who claims them and to no one, and in recent years, we have noticed that the runes we use are being displayed by groups whose values are diametrically opposed to our values of openness, diversity, and inclusivity. As we approach our Samhuinn Festival, then, it seems an apt time to talk a little about what runes are for our society, and to pre-empt any misinterpretation.
Runing for us is a spiritual practice, under a broad understanding of what this means– a practice that helps us step out of our individual, everyday trains-of-thought into the shared space of our ritual performances. In the act of marking or being marked with a rune, we take a moment of time to focus our attention on our intentions for the performane. We are then reminded of this intention each time we see the rune, and we recognise others who share our rune as sharing our ritual. The rune, therefore, can be thought of as a meditative tool, drawing us into the moment and holding us there while we act out our collective story.
We draw our runes from a range of sources. The most commonly used are the Germanic runes derived from Norse and Anglo-Saxon peoples (which have become common signifiers across diverse neo-pagan movements), although groups and individuals often make use of Celtic Ogham signs, or create their own symbols and sigils to fit their stories. Whether created or borrowed, such symbols follow a pre-modern practice of condensing a meaning– an intention, a story, or a wish– into a tangible representation (a practice whose modern manifestation has been reduced to the corporate logo or ‘brand’). Ogham signs and Norse runes– like the Kabbalistic use of the Hebrew alphabet– have not simply a phonetic meaning, but have traditionally been attached to qualities, emotions, or actions, or to represent the cycle of the year. In this way, they were often used to help focus on a desired quality, as well as for divination.1
The rune most associated with our festivals is the Germanic ‘Algiz’ rune. This rune symbolises ‘protection,’ and at almost every single Beltane and Samhuinn has been painted on the forehead of our central characters, and usually on many more. ‘Protection’ here is interpreted by each participant in their own way, where for some it will be an invocation of the divine, while for others it represents a trust that the work of many people over many months will come together, and that they will have the confidence to be the best they can.
Ultimately, runing is a reminder that we are all a part of the same celebration. Traditionally, the Blues, as ‘keepers of the ritual,’ will rune the Goddess-character (the May Queen or the Cailleach) and Her court, while those who have been runed might rune other participants, performers and witnesses alike. In this way, similarly to how all of the fire we use originates from the single spark of the Neid Fire, the act of runing links the community together, uniting us in our shared purpose of ritually enacting the turn of the wheel and the change of the seasons.
For us, therefore, runing is above all an act of inclusion. Whether one interprets them spiritually or secularly, the point of our rituals is to connect folk to the time, place, and community we find ourselves in. We live in a time of increasing disconnection from the natural world, with individuals isolated in boxes and on devices, where every day is like every other day, and the world flat, and meaningless. By gathering together to light fires and dance in the change of the seasons, we draw our attention back into our bodies, back into the here and now, and the people we share it with. We rediscover that we too are a part of nature, and the fulfilment of living the natural cycles.
Ours is not the only movement to react to the isolating effects of modernity with a return to time and place. But sadly, alongside the many positive groups of artists, activists, and pagans calling for a reconnection to a re-enchanted world, there are some who have used the same premises to justify a culture of exclusion. The social isolation, economic deprivation, and environmental devastation of late capitalism has recently led to a rise of populist nationalism, and many of our members have been shocked to see that the symbols that have become sacred to them have also been appropriated by the so-called ‘alt-right.’
Alt-right groups, on the one hand, seem to recognise the benefits of connection to place and to community. Like us, they draw upon the common cultural heritage of the northern lands, and like us, they utilise runes like Algiz and Othala to symbolise the protection of their community and its connection to the land. Yet, stoked by fear-mongering and dog-whistles from the neo-liberal elite who try to deflect criticism of their power onto the ‘other’ of an out-group, these far-right movements end up defining ‘community’ with an unnecessary and divisive narrowness, one which ignores the long history of migration that defines these islands and this continent. After all, the Celts, whose cross-quarter days we have inherited and celebrate, were themselves Iron Age migrants who displaced an indigenous Bronze Age culture2, while Germanic and Norse runes were brought here by invaders who came first to plunder and enslave the local population before later settling to farm and trade.
Beltane Fire Society has always been adamant that we are not trying to re-create an imagined past, but to re-imagine our present by linking the traditions of this place with all who live here now, in order to build a shared future together. We welcome folks of all backgrounds to share with us the cultural heritage of this northern land while bringing with them their own experiences and symbols from wherever they’re from. We’ve had participants who identify as pagan, atheist, christian, buddhist, muslim, and ‘none of the above,’ and continue to make space for people to share ideas, philosophies, skills, and practices, as we dance together around one fire.
 While in popular thought, divination is simply ‘fortune-telling,’ I find it more useful to think of it as a tool for breaking patterns of thinking– when we find ourselves unsure what to do in a situation, it can be useful to introduce an element of randomness by drawing a rune stone or a tarot card, and reconsidering our question in the light of the quality they suggest. But that’s a topic for another day.
Photo copyright Martin McCarthy for Beltane Fire Society.