Not since Caligula has hedonistic self-expression been more rampant. Over the next six pages, we present three ways to let it all hang out. First up is the pagan leap from spring to summer, as BELTANE shows that May Day is there to get you fired up. Words: Abi Bremner Pt‘otog'aarszMarius Alexander
JETTING OFF TO WARMER CLIMES MAY BE MOST PEOPLE'S idea of celebrating the arrival of a Scottish summer. but that's not the way our ancestors saw it. Back in the olden days. letting loose on an exposed hillside was all the rage. a tradition that has been revived with bells on in Edinburgh over the past thirteen years. ()n Calton Hill. for one night only. techno-paganism rules supreme and the l().()()() or so spectators. who turn up in various states of mind. are treated to a fiery display which fuses primordial passion with timeless rhythms.
‘Beltane means sacred or bright fire.‘ says Topher the Drummer of the Beltane liire Society. explaining that the origins of the festival lie in Scotland’s pre-(‘eltic past when the population relied on herding and marked the seasons with communal celebrations. 'All the small fires in the community would be extinguished the night before and a "need" fire would be lit as the single fire source for the whole village. From the "need" fire. a bonfire would be lit — quite frequently a pair of bonfires — between which the livestock would be driven. It was believed that the smoke would purify the animals and ensure fertility and good fortune throughout the summer.’
All of which is good and proper. and no doubt constituted excellent animal husbandry at the time. But there’s a certain hedonistic aspect to the revelry on (‘alton Hill which goes beyond the childish delight adults still get from the lighting of a bonfire.
‘Beltane has evolved greatly from its origins.‘ says Topher. "and certainly in the late Roman era there was an influence from the Roman gods and goddesses which
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Primordial passions and timeless rhythms unite to delight audiences in all states of mind
'The drunken element is partly the Romans’ fault and partly just the nature of how it is on Calton Hill
now.’ Topher The Drummer
included Bacchus and Bacchanalian ceremonies. So the drunken element is partly the Romans’ fault and partly just the nature of how it is on Calton Hill now. It‘s a thing which has happened all by itself and so it's a phenomenon unique to Edinburgh.~
This may go some way to explaining the atmosphere on Beltane night. with the population of I-idinburgh. old and young. intent on making merry. It will be standing room only as a strange array of actors and acrobats make their way round the hill before the performance reaches its climax at the Acropolis and spring can finally turn into summer.
The current Beltane ritual borrows from many cultural traditions. including the linglish May Day celebrations and the ancient Greek theory of a world divided into four elements. But those without a grounding in alternative philosophy should not be put off. ‘Many people see the performance aspect of the festival rather than any kind of ritual. so it has been developed to be a great piece of theatre as well.‘ says Topher.
And it certainly is. with bright costumes. carefully constructed puppets and plenty of those elements favoured by any self-respecting modern pagan: fire and drumming. But what of the men and women who brave plummeting temperatures wearing nothing but a sheet costume and some body paint to take part'.’ You might have them written off as a bunch ol hardcore hippy nutters. but not so. ‘We attract a very wide range of people.’ says Topher. ‘Some of whom are long-term lidinburgh residents. some of whom are students who are