The transition from Winter to Summer at Beltane Fire Festival brings with it a tension between newness and repetition – we celebrate the change of the seasons, but also a cycle that comes again and again each year. Nowhere is this more evident than in the story of the Green Man, who must undertake a personal journey to renew his reign over Summer with the May Queen. His is a transitional role, made even more so by the fact that we have a new volunteer performer play the Green Man each year. No two Green Men are the same, although he must go through some key moments each year that we wanted to share with you here.
What Winter has left behind
When we first meet the Green Man, he is still dressed in a version of his wintry guise (known as the Winter King at our sister festival Samhuinn, and the Horned God at Beltane). After ruling alone over Winter for so many months, he has become overgrown, mean, and puffed up with an enormous ego. He has forgotten the May Queen and his duty to her that he is destined to fulfil.
A step too far
The Green Man’s branches are quickly pruned when he reaches the Fire Arch, making him slightly more palatable to the May Queen. But this one makeover is not enough. He is still too filled with ego.
Eventually, after a tumultuous journey around the Hill, and emboldened by the thought that all eyes are on him, spurred on by the drums, revelry, and incredible energy of the night, he breaks one of the universe’s most important rules and reaches out to touch the May Queen.
Death will be an awfully big adventure
The Green Man’s transgression spurs the May Queen to kill him, but his death is also something that has to happen so that he can complete his cycle of renewal. Dying is not the end – it is the beginning. Every year the Green Man must die so that he can shake off the final vestiges of Winter and be born again.
The power of three
In order for the May Queen to restore the Green Man, a final part of the ritual must take place. He is stripped of any remaining layers of his former self, and is picked up by the May Queen’s handmaidens, the Whites, who turn him three times anti-clockwise (the same direction as the procession that makes its way around Calton Hill).
The breath of life
Gathering energy from the crowd, the otherworldly visitors, and the magic of the Beltane night, the May Queen summons all her strength and breathes new life into the Green Man.
Emerging from slumber
The Green Man wakes up a new person, a fresh sapling ready to grow alongside the May Queen as her consort through the Summer months. He dances a dance of renewal, freedom, and release from Winter’s struggles.
Sealed with a kiss
At last, the Green Man is ready to rejoin the goddess at her side, and she crowns him her consort. The couple share a kiss, which for many represents the conception of Summer and all new things that it brings with it.
Igniting a new era
If the kiss kickstarts a new beginning, then the bonfire is what confirms it. The Green Man joins the May Queen in lighting the fire, which reaches high into the sky and bathes its witnesses’ faces in the light and warmth that we can look forward to in the months that follow.
The wedding breakfast
The Green Man restored and the bonfire now lit, he and the May Queen retire to the Bower where they watch the festival community celebrate together, receive gifts from their guests, and bless couples who have chosen to be handfasted together on Beltane night.