Fire is a powerful force for bringing people together, whether it’s round a bonfire, a hearth in a home, or a flame on the stove. Thousands of us are set to gather at Samhuinn Fire Festival, where the flames will connect us to our ancestors and each other through the rituals and stories that we pass down.
Read on to discover the types of fire that you’ll see at our wintry celebration, and how they unite our community for the coming cold months.
Relighting the Hearth with the sacred Neid fire
New to Samhuinn Fire Festival this year is The Hearth, the homecoming space where our volunteers will gather at the end of the night. It is here that we light the first Neid fire, a sacred flame lit using a ritual method inspired by ancient Samhuinns.
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.
In old Celtic communities, the fire in each home was extinguished on the night of Samhuinn and relit from one Neid flame. Families were connected by a united hearth, and their togetherness strengthened their move into the new season.
Passing the torch with the Torchbearers
Our entire festival is lit from that first Neid fire, and helping to spread the warmth onwards are our Torchbearers. As they go forth to carry their torches from space to space, they become a dotted line of beacons that help us all find our way across Calton Hill.
The Torchbearers illuminate the darkness, shedding light on the otherworldly creatures that have come to visit for all to see. They are a window from the mortal realm, connecting our witnesses to our performers while solemnly guarding the border between.
Burning away the past with Obsidian
The Neid fire was considered to be a purifying flame at old Samhuinn celebrations, where communities lit two bonfires and drove their livestock between them. They believed that the smoke would cleanse their cattle of any diseases and ensure its survival through the cold months.
This had practical ramifications for those ancient communities, but at our Samhuinn Fire Festival that cleansing is more symbolic. The turn of the season is a chance for us all to pause, take stock of what we are holding onto, and burn it. It will be easier to march into the unknown with less baggage.
Obsidian, the Winter King’s fierce warriors, embody this momentum towards change in their fire play. They are a destructive and chaotic force, named after the volcanic rock that forms when lava cools down. Inside this crystallised fire sits the volcano’s capacity both for violence and for renewal. As their spinning intensifies throughout the night of Samhuinn, their performance expands into an eruptive energy, one that will help to eradicate Summer and make way for a new season to reign.
Surviving our changing world with the Wild Hunt
Fire is a tool for survival through Winter, and at Samhuinn Fire Festival it signifies how we adapt to face our changing world. The Wild Hunt were once the spirits of the deep, dark forests – wolfish and clawed creatures that stalked their prey in the dark. But humanity has taken away those forests, destroying the Wild Hunt’s habitat and leaving factories in their wake.
The Wild Hunt have adapted to live alongside those machines. They are dieselpunk mercenaries for Winter, covered in soot and carrying flaming swords. Through their Mad Max evolution, they are strong against the modern world and make sure that their pack lives another day.
Mirroring Summer with our Winter bonfire
Just as we gather at the Beltane bonfire to witness the birth of Summer, so we come together at the end of Samhuinn to witness Winter’s confirmation. The Winter King has just defeated Summer on the main stage, and now his forces move towards the pyre to celebrate their triumph.
The Winter King and the Cailleach light the bonfire side by side, completing the ritual that ignites the new season’s spark. Its towering flames are a warming force as the air grows cold, and the crowd grows around them, all drawn to the warming beacon at the corner of the Hill.
Coming home to the Hearth with Valravn
One by one, our host of otherworldly creatures return to the Neid fire’s source. The winged Valravn have kept The Hearth warm all night with their fire spinning, and now they welcome the Cailleach and her entourage into the festival home. There will be nourishment, celebration, well wishes for a new season in the cosy space. This is where we reaffirm our connection with each other following a transformative night.
Featured image by Sean Bluestone for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.