Fire plays a starring role at Samhuinn Fire Festival. Who could forget its orange glow against Edinburgh’s skyline, warming us up on chilly nights and casting a spellbinding light from the torches, fire dancers, and bonfire?
And it doesn’t just look pretty. It also ties us to the ancient communities that our celebration is based on, both through the traditional lighting methods that we have inherited and the symbolism that is still relevant in modern life.
There are many different kinds of fire that our witnesses will encounter at Samhuinn Fire Festival, so we have put together this fiery guide to the literal and metaphorical flames you can expect to see on the night.
All the fire on the Hill comes from one single flame, the Neid fire, which is lit right at the start to launch the festival. It is considered to be a purifying fire, which burns away hardships from the last season to help us face what is coming our way with a fresh slate.
In ancient communities, the hearth in every home would be extinguished to make way for this new cleansing fire. A torch was carried from the Neid fire to each family, so that their fireplace could be renewed for the Winter months. Communities faced the cold that was drawing in together and embraced the changes on the horizon.
It was believed to be bad luck if any of the fires went out, so great pains were taken to keep them alight. The flames offered protection to families, lighting up the darker months and keeping their homes warm against the elements.
At Samhuinn Fire Festival, the Neid fire is still lit using the same traditional technique that has been passed down over hundreds of years. We start it by hand with a bow, a hazel spindle, and a pine hearth board, using a bit of good old-fashioned friction to spark the kindling. Once we have a smouldering ember, it is spun through the air in a metal contraption to give it plenty of oxygen and help it catch fully alight. All the other fire on the Hill is then lit using this special flame, uniting our community as we turn to face the cold months ahead.
The veil between our world and the next draws thin on the night of Samhuinn, and guarding that final threshold will be our Torchbearers. Stood in between our witnesses and performers, they illuminate Samhuinn’s otherworldly cast who on any other night would be hidden from plain sight. They also form a protective barrier for our volunteers by maintaining the space for them to perform in. If you’re looking for clues about where to head on the Hill to catch the action at our festival, look out for their torches lighting up some of our performance spaces.
The Moncai are tricksy gods of death affiliated both with Summer and Winter. When they realise that the Summer King’s reign is coming to an end they switch allegiances easily. At first they entertain his court with their captivating fireplay, but then, being the ghastly jesters that they are, choose to assist the Winter King by tricking Summer and luring his followers to the battlefield.
The Moncai represent the dualistic nature of fire, which does not burn out with Summer’s end but continues to warm homes from the hearth through the cold months. Fire is also a destructive force all year round, and the Moncai carry it from one season to the next to remind us that death, and good things coming to an end, is a necessary constant in life.
Obsidian is explosive energy frozen in rock, a dark substance that forms when volcanic lava cools down quickly. They are the moment when ice meets fire, crystallized flame that represents Winter’s increasing grip on the world. At Samhuinn they dance with LED lights, whose cool white glow reminds us of wintry stars, the Northern Lights, and the cold night sky. As stoic Winter warriors Obsidian feed off the Winter King’s rising strength, their performance becoming ever more dynamic as he ascends to his place at the helm of the new season.
One of the most pivotal points at our sister festival, Beltane Fire Festival, is the lighting of the bonfire, which signifies the sparking of the new season for many in our community. Usually we don’t have one at Samhuinn Fire Festival – there’s not a lot of space for one on the Royal Mile! – but our move up Calton Hill means this year is going to be different. Following the Summer King’s defeat on the stage and the Cailleach giving the Winter King his crown, the three of them will head up the slope where the Summer King himself will be placed on the pyre. Our Winter festival closes with a towering blaze against the night sky, its heat bathing our witnesses’ faces in anticipation of the season to come.
Featured image by Vince Graham for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.