One of the beauties of Beltane Fire Festival is that no two festivals are the same. The celebration is deeply personal for each of our performers and witnesses, which means that interpretations of the story will differ depending on the year or whom you ask about it. For this International Women’s Day, we offer you one such way of reading the relationship between the May Queen and the Green Man.
One of the central components of the story we tell each year in our Beltane Fire Festival is how the May Queen ushers in the summer months by transforming the Green Man. As one recent interpretation of the Celtic sun deity Bel, he manifests the light, fire, and warmth that we have all sorely missed during winter.
The May Queen won’t take just anyone as her consort. The Green Man must go through a series of transformations before she will accept him, becoming more mature and respectful as the night goes on.
The Green Man is one of a number of archetypes that cycle throughout the year. When the festival begins he is still in his previous guise, the Horned God (linked to the Winter King character we see at Samhuinn). He has ruled over the Winter alone for months and has grown arrogant, forgetting that he only has this power because the goddess (who in her previous incarnation was the Cailleach, and on Beltane appears as the May Queen) gave it to him. He has forgotten who she is altogether, is now gnarled, bitter and aggressive, and believes that everyone has gathered on the Hill for him alone.
When the May Queen first encounters him, she does not like what she sees at all. Although his unkempt branches are quickly pruned on his arrival at the fire arch at the festival, he is still too overgrown and filled with ego to rule by her side.
Eventually the Green Man, pumped up by the thought that all eyes are on him, spurred on by the drums, revelry, and incredible energy of the night, ultimately breaks one of the universe’s most important rules. He reaches out to touch the May Queen.
She kills for him that. No one touches the May Queen without her permission.
Limp and helpless, the Green Man is stripped of his clothes and former self, lifted and turned three times on the stage by the May Queen’s handmaidens. Only then does the May Queen gather breath and energy from everyone present to bring him back to life, as a new Green Man. Ready to grow like a newborn sapling, her consort wakens at her bidding and dances a dance of renewal, freedom, and release from Winter’s struggles.
He remembers the goddess and the importance of her power. Then together they light the Beltane bonfire and begin their rule over Summer.
Photo by Danny Williams © for Beltane Fire Society