With Beltane approaching this Sunday(!) we sat down with James Turner and Màiri McKay, members of the Blues of Beltane Fire Society, to talk a little bit about the festival, how it’s going and their thoughts surrounding this year’s festival.
For those that don’t know, the Blues are an important part of Beltane Fire Society, made up of many different roles – some pastoral, some pragmatic, but always acting as a source of support for all members of BFS. At Beltane Fire Festival, they also act in a performance role, holding space and points throughout the night and acting as internal stewards for our performers. James describes the role as being “quite like the glue – the groups of the festival are like the big lumps of wood or stone that make up the whole thing, and we’re in the middle. And sometimes the glue needs to fix things”. It’s a problem-solving position from beginning, throughout and on the night, facilitating the ideas of everyone within the society.
Looking back on how Beltane has evolved throughout the years, it’s really exciting to see the many ways that people can experience the night itself. Màiri says, “You can bring as much or as little spirituality to it as you want. It is a public ritual, it’s also street theatre and a lot of people see it in that sense. But there are a lot of people that come and really take something from it”. At its heart, Beltane holds a space for deep spirituality, but it is also a source of celebration, fun and communities coming together.
Beltane’s roots certainly come from the ancient celtic traditions, however today’s festival is very much a culmination of those ancient traditions, modern retellings of stories, and archetypes that can be found across history and many different cultures, taking fragments to create a mosaic which unites the Beltane community. When initially first getting involved, Màiri had thought that Beltane was purely “a modern take on an old thing”, but ultimately there are few documented references to ancient Beltane celebrations. There are records of two bonfires lit during this season for cattle to be taken between the two; the smoke from the bonfires would be used to cleanse the cattle of fleas going into the fertile season.
These two bonfires are something we try to maintain going forwards, with one literal bonfire on the hill and a representative bonfire in whichever form best suits that year’s festival. The introduction of the staple characters in the festival (The May Queen, The Green Man, the Blues and Reds etc), were really a modern movement that started in the 80s when Beltane Fire Festival first began. Since then they have remained a crucial part of the Beltane Fire Society mythology.
James notes, “Beltane is malleable; if someone has a good idea and it fits, we’ll embrace it. We can do what we want as long as it’s engaging and meaningful in its way”.
An exciting aspect of this year’s festival is the positive representation of asexuality and non-binary people, with our May Queen (Alix Prybyla) identifying as an asexual cis woman, and our Green Man ( Maïlis Marty) identifying as asexual and non-binary. You can read more about this here. As a community with a large number of LGBTQIA+, BFS has always provided a safe space for all community members, and are deeply committed to not working in binary restrictions. Màiri notes, “the rulebook is non-existent!”, noting that the freedom of this way of coming together creates a space for more creativity and perspectives to come into the making of each festival. This idea of stepping out from traditional ways of working is something that really resonates with James, who says “ the minute you give people permission to to not follow the rules, suddenly you get this blossoming and you get people saying “Hey maybe I’m not straight or maybe I’m not the gender I was assigned at birth” and you give people that space to just think about who they actually are and what the actually want to do”. This is an ethos that runs deeply throughout Beltane Fire Society.
It is this forward thinking that allows Beltane to be the exciting and subversive festival that it is. We talked at length about how in previous years of the festival, the focus was on a deep, carnal, sexual energy with sexual imagery at the forefront of the night and how this transition to a more nature-based representation of Beltane pulls the focus onto a new aspect that is equally powerful and subversive. James says, “It’s very easy to be shackled by what you’ve seen before, what you’ve done before and we fall into that trap ourselves. And one of our jobs as Blues is to remember what’s been done before, what was good but also say okay – let’s mix it up!”.
This year’s Beltane, with this representation of the May Queen and the Green Man moves away from this sexual energy, and more into the celebration of the fertility within nature and the changing of the seasons, which is ultimately at the root of the festival itself. When discussing our figureheads, Màiri says “Everything that they embody and all of their messages are so beautiful, and pure and colourful”. This year’s MQ and GM are putting a clear stamp on their interpretation, and bringing connection, nature and the changing of the seasons to the forefront of Beltane, and it is the desire to reinterpret, adapt and celebrate in different ways which really speaks to the Blues who selected them, and as a result the members of BFS.
When asked what they would say to those who haven’t experienced Beltane before, James says ““There’s loads of people out there who just can’t even imagine going to something like Beltane, and I just think if someone’s never been, what’s stopping you? Come and have a look, because it might be really fun – there are much worse ways to blow a tenner!”.
In a world where we have been separated by COVID or political tensions, it’s so easy to fall back on an evening of Netflix on your sofa, but what Beltane Fire Festival offers is a night of real community connection and a unique experience which might really impact you deeply. James says, “People are often dumbstruck by how much emotion they feel” – an experience like Beltane might take you out of your comfort zone, but what you can gain from this experience like no other is certainly worth investigating!