One of the most popular events in Scotland's cultural calendar became the latest victim of the coronavirus outbreak this weekend with the cancellation of Edinburgh's annual Beltane Fire Festival. Inspired by the ancient pagan celebration of Beltane, the modern festival - traditionally staged at Calton Hill on the evening of 30th April - incorporates art, myth and drama from different cultures throughout the world, and begins with a spectacular procession from the National Monument involving costumed performers bearing flaming torches. It's a dramatic piece of ritual theatre and one which normally attracts thousands of pagans and tourists from throughout the world to Scotland's capital over the May Day weekend. This was the first time the fire festival has failed to go ahead since the event's inauguration in 1988. However, all was not lost as the Beltane Fire Society organised a virtual celebration to honour the event instead. People were encouraged to gather on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to mark the Celtic holiday, with the sharing of poems, pictures, audio and video related to the event.
So what's it all about? Put simply, Beltane is all about honouring light and life and like other fire festivals has much in common with the Christian celebration of Easter with its emphasis on sacrifice, renewal and the coming of the light. Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival and is most commonly celebrated on 1st May, around halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, the festival was widely observed throughout Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, and is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Beltane honours spring at its peak and looks forward to the beginning of summer. It marks the return of fertility to the land when livestock would have been put out to pasture, celebrating the new life that will emerge as the seasons transition.
The word 'Beltane' originates from the Celtic God 'Bel', meaning 'the bright one' and the Gaelic word 'teine' meaning fire. Together they make 'Bright Fire', or 'Goodly Fire' and traditionally bonfires were lit to honour the Sun and encourage the support of Bel and the Sun's light to nurture the emerging future harvest and protect the community. Bel had to be won over through human effort. Traditionally all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. "This was the Tein-eigen, the need fire. People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew." (From Sacred Celebrations by Glennie Kindred).
Such gatherings would often be accompanied by a feast, while yellow May flowers, such as primrose, were placed in doorways and windows during the 19th century in Scotland and Ireland, perhaps because they evoked the colours of fire. Loose flowers were sometimes made into bouquets and garlands, which would be fastened to cows and farming equipment, with such customs being observed across Europe on May Day. People also used to visit holy wells during Beltane, with people leaving offerings and praying for good health. Water drawn from a well on Beltane, along with morning dew, was thought to bring beauty and maintain youth, with maidens washing their face with it to increase their sexual attraction.
The Maypole is a popular and familiar image of May Day and Beltane. A phallic pole, often made from birch, was inserted into the Earth representing the potency of the God. The ring of flowers at the top of the Maypole represents the fertile Goddess. Its many coloured ribbons and the ensuing weaving dance symbolise the spiral of Life and the union of the Goddess and God, the union between Earth and Sky. Another common element is 'jumping the broomstick' - this goes back to a time when two people who could not afford a church ceremony, or want one, would be accepted in the community as a married couple if they literally jumped over a broom laid on the floor. The broom marked a 'threshold', moving from an old life to a new one.
Mead and cakes were often shared in communion as part of the ceremony. Mead is known as the Brew of the Divine, made from honey which is appropriate for a love ceremony (and is the oldest alcoholic drink known to humankind).
May Day festivities have also long been associated with the legend of Robin Hood, and in Tudor times the characters of Robin and Maid Marian were traditionally crowned as the May King and May Queen. Beginning in the 15th Century, and perhaps even earlier, Christian revellers in certain parts of England celebrated May Day with plays and games in which Robin Hood was worshipped as the central character with a near religious level of devotion. Nottinghamshire has even been described as "May Day County" by historian Frank Earp. To this day, the Foresters Morris Men dance around the statue of Robin Hood by Castle Gate in Nottingham at sunrise on May Day, while Sherwood Forest is the centrepiece of the rest of the day's festivities. I've spoken at some length previously about my personal affinity with Robin Hood (Robin Hood - A Symbol of Hope) as an archetypal champion of the underdog whose legendary adventures provide us all with a symbol of hope against tyranny, oppression and injustice. Robin is also synonymous with the "Greenwood" and can therefore be considered an archetype of fertility, new growth and regeneration, exhibiting numerous Christ-like traits. Clad in his traditional Lincoln Green, he is the spirit of the forest, or an incarnation of "The Green Man" nature god whose leaf-ringed face glimmers down at us from many a carved cloister in English village churches. These nature themes have been brought vividly to life in the marvellous Wildwood Tarot deck created by John Matthews, illustrator Will Worthington and actor and author Mark Ryan (who played the Saracen Nasir in hit 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood). The Wildwood Tarot is a beautiful deck of cards, steeped in forest lore and using archetypal images based around the Wheel of the Year and symbolising the cycles of the seasons and the magic of nature.
The imagery of Tarot, like myths, legends and ancient festivals, is based upon archetypal themes embedded within the collective psyche of humanity. Our ancestors used such imagery to convey profound spiritual truths by way of allegory. As we've said, Beltane is traditionally a fire festival. In a previous blog, Bonfire Night - Burning the Weeds of Attachment, I discussed the symbolic significance of ritual bonfires as a representation of new life arising out of the ashes of the old. Regular readers of my blogs will recognise the reappearance of one of my recurring themes here - death and rebirth - a subject which I covered at some length when discussing the symbolic significance of the phoenix (Regeneration - The Death and Resurrection Show). The very act of burning wood, or other forms of fuel, to release the energy it contains to power our machines or generate heat and light is a powerful example of how new life can be generated from the destruction of the old. It is a form of energy transference inherent in all types of sacrifice, symbolic or otherwise. Our ancestors held festivals to honour these natural laws and also encoded the concepts within myths and fables, such as the story of the phoenix which rises anew from the ashes of its own destruction. The use of this kind of mythological storytelling stimulates and illumines the imagination, enabling the mind to draw out the deeper meaning encoded within the metaphor.
The message of fire festivals such as Beltane is one of the need to let go of those parts of ourselves and our lives which no longer serve us. We may be attached to our habits, to our emotions, to material possessions, to our pleasures, to the past, or to the status quo. But true independence of spirit involves releasing ourselves from these ties, which are in fact shackles holding us back. There is an inherent danger in human nature that we tend to cling to the old for the sake of comfort and security - whether that be an old shirt, a job, a habit or a relationship - but sometimes we have to recognise that change is necessary for growth. Have you ever wondered why spring cleaning feels so satisfying? Purging ourselves of unneeded old possessions provides us with a buzz because we’re severing attachment to things which no longer serve us, in much the same way as the human body sheds dead cells. Beltane is a great opportunity to take a look in your wardrobe to see what rubbish can be thrown out. Are you hoarding old clothes that you haven’t worn in years and never will again? It’s human nature to try to cling on to these things because of the memories associated with them but in truth this is simply keeping you chained to the past and unable to move forward with your life.
Living in the past is not helpful, so do yourself a favour and have a proper clear out. You can give your old clothes to a charity shop or to someone who really needs them. Not only will this make you feel good but you’ll have created loads of extra space in your cupboards and freed yourself from attachments which were holding you back. Try it now. It’s surprisingly liberating. But we must have the courage to let go of the past, to allow the old to “die” in order to clear the space for potentially-exciting new chapters in our lives. As the saying goes: "A new broom sweeps clean".
By releasing our attachments to the past, we clear the way for new growth. This is the spiritual rebirth, symbolised by the rising of the phoenix, the return of the sun or "the coming of the Bright One" - the Lord of Light and Life. Whether you choose to perceive the Bright One in the form of the sun, the pagan deity Bel, as the "Lord of the Greenwood" Robin Hood, or as Jesus Christ is entirely a matter of personal preference, but the fundamental spiritual law symbolised by the concept of The Bright One remains the same, regardless of faith or culture. The true Bright One is the inner light - the ultimate potential which resides within ourselves. We all have an inner phoenix - a radiant, shining star within, carrying the limitless potential to achieve all our hopes and dreams. As Christ himself said: "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you". Beltane provides an annual reminder of the existence of this inner phoenix and of the hope for complete personal renewal, rebirth and regeneration. But in order to allow that regeneration to take place, we must first be prepared to make sacrifices. We must ask ourselves which aspects of our life and persona we're prepared to shed in order to pave the way for new growth. These concepts are central to the work we do at Phoenix Coaching and Therapy to help clients to regenerate their lives. To find out how we can help you in your own personal journey of renewal, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org