Our festival celebrations, Beltane and Samhuinn, acknowledge the changing of the seasons. And sometimes our festival performers become metaphors for an entire myth of nature.
For instance, our ‘Reds’ symbolise summer, and in the more literal sense, we sometimes embody creatures, such as birds and snakes…
Introducing Nathrach: Our seasonal ‘Snerpants’
Our Samhuinn group, Nathrach (‘narrow’ch’) symbolises the changing season’s relationship to snakes. Snakes are strongly seasonal, and its habit of moving ‘in and out’ of the earth over Winter makes nice fodder for myth. Nathrach, mixes the ecology of snakes and the mythology of serpents into soothing stories of ‘snerpents’.
A true snake has no eyelids, ears or vocal cords. Snakes are younger than birds and older than apes. Once, there were snakes as heavy as buses. Today, there are snakes so small that it builds homes in flowerpots. Some snake species are all female – the rest still don’t need males to breed. Unlike mammals, snakes kill only to eat or in self-defence, never for sport.
In Scotland, we have brass-coloured grass snakes, and red-eyed, zig-zag backed adders. In Autumn, grass snakes hatch, adders give birth, then both feast on froglets and hibernate.
A Surreal, Starting Story
In stories, snakes are magical. Greek myths treated snakes like we treat wolves. To be hunted by a drakon (serpent) was terrifying, but to be their friend, an honour.
Snakes healed others, even from death. The god of medicine learned his craft from snakes, which is why you may notice the illustration of a snake in the health profession today (here’s looking at you, World Health Organisation).
But in stories, snakes are magical. Greek myths treated snakes like we treat wolves. To be hunted by a drakon (serpent) was terrifying, but to be their friend, an honour.Bob Ball, Group Organiser of ’22 Nathrach
In Caithness, we have the legend of the Stoorwurm, a sea serpent that slurps cattle off cliffs.
On the opposite side of the country, Scots Gaelic tradition has it that if you kill a snake, but don’t destroy the head, it will come back to life:
And grow by one hundred times.
And learn how to talk.
And grow a venomous sting.
The intimidating result is called a Beithir (beh-her).
Last year, Nathrach made a giant Beithir puppet, who gave birth to the performers carrying her. In contrast, during another Beltane, we embodied colourful healers and prophets instead, telling fortunes with sock puppets and milking a choir of cows.
What Lies A-Head…
This Samhuinn, Nathrach performs as Gorgons, Greek mythological creatures who can kill people by just looking at them, with the missing snake element added: healing.
Gorgons were protectors – one even got beheaded by a prince. Getting ready for our hibernation, we will take the head off one of our own from a king, and put it back on, showing our power for all to see.
Blog post made possible thanks to Bob Ball, group organiser for the Nathrach group at our 2022 Samhuinn Fire Festival.