It’s an understatement to say there’s a lot of fire at Beltane Fire Festival. We’ve got fire play, fire sculptures, and torches lighting everyone’s way around Calton Hill – and that’s all before the enormous bonfire that we light at the end. It’s a stunning view (and helps keep us all warm!), but the fire also has a lot of ritual meanings in the story our festival tells. We’d like to share them with you.
Connecting to the past with the sacred Neid fire
One of the old practices that we’ve inherited from ancient Beltanes is the way that we light the first fire on the Hill. The Neid fire is started 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.
Torches to unite our community
In old Celtic communities, all the fires in people’s homes would be extinguished on the night of Beltane and relit with a flame from that first Neid fire. Families were connected by a united hearth, and their togetherness strengthened their move into the new season. In the same way, our Torchbearers carry the Neid fire around the Hill lighting all the torches, sculptures, and toys, so our own community is united by the same spark.
A purifying fire to ward off harm
The Neid fire is considered to be a cleansing fire, and it played an important ritual role in Beltane when it was an agricultural festival. At those early Beltanes, cattle were driven in between two bonfires to rid them of disease and ensure a healthy food source for the coming months. We may not have real cows at this year’s Beltane Fire Festival, but we do have the singing group Guth nam Bò (Voice of the Cattle). They will embody the spirit of the cattle so central to Beltane, singing traditional Gaelic songs as they roam around the Hill and cleanse themselves in the smoke of fires.
Shedding old parts of ourselves at Fire Arch
The Fire Arch is a pivotal point at Beltane Fire Festival. It manifests the moment when the May Queen, the Green Man, and their followers pass through into the human realm. To do so each must discard a part of themselves, a painful process of letting go that urges the Green Man especially further along his journey to rebirth. Waiting at the Fire Arch are the Voice of the Hill, a group of fire pixies, whose chanting and fire play grow in intensity as the Neid fire approaches their space. Their acoustics spread across the Hill, adding to the booming drums and fiery energy of the night.
reigniting summer at the bonfire
For many in our community, the bonfire being lit marks moment the seasons turn. The Green Man has died and been reborn with an energetic dance, allowing him to shake off his past and be reunited with the May Queen as her consort. The pair light the bonfire together, and in doing so ignite the spark that will illuminate the coming months. This is the time when summer is reborn and the turn of the year is toasted in celebration around the towering blaze.
Featured image by Prem Shah for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.