Steve (akicif) wrote,
Steve
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Beltane 2003 Part Two

The weather got worse again for a while - more wind and rain - so we grabbed some hot water for coffee and killed a little time in the Library. Eventually, it was time to brave the elements and assemble for the walk-through.

This might be a good place to list the several groups of people involved in the ritual, give a brief run-down of who they all are.
  • The Green Man - who dies and is reborn, eventually marrying the
  • May Queen - whose Court consists of
  • Four Handmaidens as well as the
  • White Women Warriors - representing Purity and Order.
  • The Blue Men, also members of the Court, act as guides into and through the underworld, and to an extent play the part of Chief Stewards - if a Blue Man wants you to move, you move.
.Also making up the start of the Procession are the
  • Processional Drummers - mostly, I think, stick drummers with a fairly large overlap with the Edinburgh Samba School in real life - and the
  • Torch-bearers -that's us- shedding light on the whole thing, and acting as a border or barrier between the performance and the crowd.
There were also
  • Stewards - whose job was to keep the
  • Participants (those playing the part of an audience, but whose role included a certain amount of stamping, clapping and chanting) back from the procession,
  • First-Aiders - in white tabards with a red celtic cross,
  • Production Crew (yellow reflec jackets) and
  • Photographers - one video, one still.
Groups we would run into as the procession continued included
  • Air Point,
  • Earth Point,
  • Water Point and
  • Fire Point - all positions on the route where the various elements perform to the May Queen and do homage.
  • The Red Men - representative of Chaos and Lust, in complete contrast to the White Women, and the
  • Red Beastie Drummers - hand drummers, mostly, who accompany the Red Men.
At the appointed time for the run through, we gathered in front of the Bower (an open-fronted tent containing thrones for the May Queen and Green Man backing onto a large green domed space for the Court). This was where the needfire would be lit that would be used to light all fires used on the night. From here, a representative of each of the points would go forward in turn to light their torch and return to their groups. As the Torch-bearers line up on either side of the procession, this meant that two of our lot would be going up to collect the flame. After that, we proceeded up towards the hill that was standing in for the "Acropolis" - the unfinished Parthenon-alike on Calton Hill. There were some differences from the usual "Calton Hill" way of doing things at this point - mainly that the Processional Drummers were in one group off to the side, and that the people from the various Points were able to watch the beginning (on the Hill, there's no way at all they could have fought through the crowd to get to the right places in time).

From here we moved off down towards the Fire Arch, that symbolises the entrance into the other world, and through towards Air Point. There were some difficulties here, as the arch was narrow and the Air people, who were behind us, needed to be at the Point before us.

I'm not sure if it was accident or design, but Air Point was set up just by the wind-powered generators - how appropriate is that! I'll not say anything about the performance just now, as I'm concentrating really on the routing. There was a little confusion in that the entrance and exit to the circle around the point was offset so some of the torch-bearers had to sprint across to balance the lines. The other confusing thing - and possible safety risk - was that the Air Point banner bearers moved into the gaps between the torches. I hope their costumes and banners had been fireproofed! Actually, as the site we were using was a lot darker and less familiar than the Hill, it made sense to put the banner bearers somewhere they could see where they were going, rather than simply tagging on behind the procession.

From here we went down the hill towards the torch-changing point (we had lots of torches this year!) and then on to the Earth Point. No problems there, and so on to the Water Point - which had a stream running through it (try that on Calton Hill). Getting the torches through to the actual point would be difficult here, so we lined up nearby -- this was another bit where some thought was needed to decide how to work it "on the night".

Water Point to Fire Point was fairly easy, with the lines of torches splitting to provide an arena for the fire performers. As it was only the walk-through, plumes of exhaled flames were represented by shouts of "Fire Breathe!!".

There was some degree of anticipation in the next stretch, because it is on the path from Fire Point to the Stage - just after another torch change - that the Red Men attack the procession and are repelled (eventually) by the White Women. Of course, they weren't going to reveal the nature of the Red Men Surprise on a mere walk-through.

The Stage is where the climactic part of the ritual takes place -- the Green Man dies and is restored to life by the May Queen. Of course, it's a little longer than that...

Then back up to circle the bonfire, which is ceremonially lit by the May Queen and Green Man - a form of marriage, perhaps? And then we go through the Fire Arch back to the Bower where the various groups pay tribute to the Queen and her Consort on the afore-mentioned thrones.

The walk through went pretty well - there were just a few things to iron out about the Air and Water points. After this, it was time to hit the cafe/bar for a veggie burger and a hot drink (at this point we discovered that they'd beer as well, so I could've saved even more weight) before returning to the tent to ensure I'd sufficent rolled smoking devices for later (even in daylight it was far too wet and windy to roll anything - I didn't want to even think about trying in the dark). I also sorted out the ingredients for mulled wine (after all, I'd no vacuum flask this year) and moved what seemed like a sensible amount of food and drink into the smaller shoulder bag. At this point I'd also managed to pass around a few drops of Stroh (very strong Austrian rum made from sugar beets - it has the advantage that a very small sip warms you quite nicely and you can't really drink it in any larger quantities), but I'd only had the one can of beer earlier so was quite safely sober (torch-bearers need to be in their right heads for the performance, while some of the other groups can indulge fairly spectacularly without problems. It's a bit like stewarding at GBBF without getting first crack at the staff bar afterwards).

All of a sudden, it's time for the face paint. After last year's two-parter, it was a comparatively complex pattern, so it took a bit longer for us all to get painted (the guy doing the black lines between the red and the yellow was incredibly painstaking, for example).

There was one more touch on the costumes - long, thin glow-sticks (think luminous drinking straws) attached to the surcoat part. This was an incredibly cunning idea, as it meant we could all see each other when the torches had gone out.

Then it was time to collect a torch each and assemble outside the Bower. At which point the rain stopped almost completely.

It's strange, that -- I've been a torch-bearer every year since 1998, and before that was on the Hill for all but one Beltane since 1992, and it has never once rained during the procession. Taking that with the year Lunasadh was late and we'd all of August's rain in a night, one'd be forgiven for thinking that something was going on...

Anyway, we managed to form our two lines from the base of the acropolis and each lit our torch from that of the person in front (it was pretty windy, though, so this took most of the time until we were ready to move off towards the Fire Arch). I was keeping my eyes on the torch ahead of me, so didn't notice until we were almost through the arch that there was a line of flame on the ground, marking the path - a neat effect, but it was just as well we weren't overly crowded. As ever, passing through the Fire Arch was a - dare I say it - religious experience, really feeling like passing out of this world into another.

We made it to the Air Point without any problems, where the music blended nicely with the quiet roar of the wind-generators. I didn't see that much of the dancing, though, as I was watching a toddler playing around the edges (no safety issue involved - the kid had a grown-up attached, just it was nice to see the kid having fun dancing to the music and chasing sparks). By the time it came for us to leave the Air Point, the combination of time and high winds had almost put the torches out, so the banner bearers were quite safe.

We moved down towards the Earth Point, restocking on torches on the way (this was when the banner bearers had to be pretty careful), and while I was near the back, I did manage to get a view of part of their performance. It started with a group of people lying on the ground who slowly rose up, bringing spears and shields with them - if you can imagine the soldiers who grew from Cadmus' dragon's teeth performing a haka, that'd be about it. I missed the next part, 'cos it moved out of sight, but I'd guess that someone from Earth Point presented the May Queen with a Beltane bannock (there were certainly bits of bannock being passed around later on).

From here, we continued on to the Water Point - or rather as close as we could get - lining the hill on either side. I couldn't really see any of this bit, but the music, as it came over the wind, definitely sounded watery.

Fire Point next, and this was when the "participants" began to seem as if they were channeling the more awkward members of the Calton Hill audience. Okay, so none of them leapt out and attempted to share their Buckfast with the nearest performer, but it was very hard to get them to keep back behind the line of the torches when the Fire Point performance got going - poi, staffs, juggling clubs, devil sticks and firebreathing all together and managing to keep up with the accelerating rhythms of the processional drummers. Suddenly crescendo, climax and collapse, before moving on to the next bit.

Throughout the procession, the Red Men had been doing the "hide in shadows" thing, skulking around in darkness and making strange animal noises at those of us on the periphery. There was also something that looked vaguely like a large red caterpillar, after the fashion of a Chinese carnival dragon. When the Red Men charged down the hill at the procession, it became obvious that the "caterpillar" was an enormous phallus. It was also obvious (if obscured by the suddenly advancing crowd) that the Red Men (who aren't all men, by the way - and yes, sometimes the White Women aren't all women) weren't wearing as much as Edinburgh Council would've liked them to wear on Calton Hill. In contrast to previous years, the Red Beastie Drummers were wearing.... suits! They managed to look like some hellish variety of New Orleans funeral band - which is to say, pretty neat. Eventually the attack was beaten off by the White Women and we reached the Stage.

As the Green Man danced, surrounded by the Handmaidens, the Red Men cavorted around the edges. The Green Man collapses, is lifted up, and then lain down on the ground where his outer layers of leaves are torn off. Eventually a stronger and fitter Green Man is revealed, but he's still dead until the May Queen walks over to him and raises him back to life. As he revives, he jumps and dances again, and takes the hand of the May Queen - another incredibly moving bit.

We moved on to the unlit bonfire and formed a circle round it while the May Queen and Green Man light it. More drumming, and we process to the front of the Bower.

On Calton Hill, it's usually necessary for the torch-bearers to fight their way through the crowd from the Fire to the Bower, so that they can hold the space around the front for the final part of the ritual. it wasn't necessary this time, just a quick walk over in time to the drums. We still spread out in a large circle around the front, though.

Starting with the Stewards, the different groups made their homage to the Queen and Consort, passing on appropriate gifts, which were shared with the White Women (that, or their drinking horns came out at the same time). The Red Men approached several times, being waved back by the Blue Men, but getting closer each time. Eventually one of the Red Men gets close enough to a White Woman who no longer shrinks back, but joins him in a dance. The dance starts sedately, but becomes wilder as the music speeds up, and more of the White Woman join in.

Usually, on Calton Hill, when the Red Men's and the White Women's dance opens up for the audience and everyone else to join in, that's the time for the torch-bearers to scurry away and dump the torches (at which point there's a sad feeling of the whole ritual being over for another year). This time, however, there wouldn't have been enough light for people to dance to if we'd done that. So, around the periphery of the dance were torch-bearers dancing with their torches, and as the torches faded out, the wonderful production folk came and gave us new ones. Eventually I moved back up to the fire to throw in my dead torch. On the way back, I acquired another one, and returned to the dance for a while. That torch began to die, and I headed towards the disposal barrel in the production area. When I reached an open space, I tried swinging the torch around my head quite quickly, and for a wonder it re-lit. I guess there must've been some paraffin all the way into the center. I shuttled between the fire and the production area a few times and eventually went back to the fire.

After that, I went to the Bower (pausing, of course, to greet the Green Man and May Queen). The space behind the Bower was a large green geodesic dome, made of long wooden staves, and covered in a waterproof material. Inside the dome was decorated with painted cloth and hanging lanterns. There were some sofas and seats inside, and small tables around the edges. In the centre, a carpeted area surrounded a hearth on which was burning a metal brazier.

This was a very comfortable, and nicely chilled, environment. I somehow managed to let three hours go by just sitting and chatting (oh, and drinking and smoking). At some point I'd caught up with Phil again and when he was ready to crash out, I went back to the tent, too. The plan there was to move my own stuff out of his side of the tent, and perhaps shift some more food and drink into my bag. It was getting on for half four by now, so I was beginning to crash a little myself. I left the bag in the tent and nipped off with the intention of saying "good night" to a few folk and falling over.

However, I reckoned without the Man with the Magic (Mushroom) Teapot, and my own lack of will-power. I'd only intended to have a small splash, but when asked to finish what was in the cup, and then being offered the same again, I thought something on the lines of "what the heck, it's Beltane - only once a year and all that"...

After meeting the Man with the Magic Teapot, it certainly didn't seem like a good idea to go to bed. On the other hand, it definitely felt as if we'd moved into the post-ritual partying part of the night. So, back to the tent to get my bag again and off to the Bower to sit and chat, taking the occasional wander around to see if drumming was still happening outside (it was, for a while) or if there were still people up at the fire (there were - including a torch-bearer with a set of pipes).

At one point, though, a strange hallucination cut in. I was seeing things in four dimensions, not three, and the fourth dimension was either significance or intensity. Interesting looking things and lively people seemed to be incredibly close (although still the right size), while sleepy people and less exciting stuff (including empty cans, rubbish bags and burnt-out torches) seemed very far away. Odd, it was. I was careful not to go look in a mirror at this point.

That particular weirdness faded away, and conversations continued. The next time I looked at the time, it was after eleven - and I still didn't feel tired. I did go and get another veggie burger and a bottle of Fraoch, though. It also became noticeable that people were getting up faster than the remaining people were collapsing, so going to crash out seemed fairly pointless, anyway.

With about two hours to go before the buses came to take us away, we heard that there was another cold wet front moving in, so it would be a very good idea to dismantle and pack up the tents so that they could be left in the Courtyard and/or the Library. Having done this, the idea was for all of us to spend a bit of time going over the site and either binning stuff (if it was rubbish) or bringing it to the Courtyard (if it wasn't). There was surprisingly little mess, so we ended up back in the Courtyard again. Pictures were taken, people were thanked, there was a collection for the site's work with trees, and then the buses arrived and it was time to drag the luggage (not that much lighter!) away.

The bus journey back seemed an awful lot shorter than the journey out -- this may have had something to do with dozing off for a while. Although I decided I was too tired to take my remaining perishables to a party, I did go to the pub for a final drink with the surviving torch-bearers and then with some of the processional drummers before joining another group until it was time to sprint for the bus (not so easy with all the luggage, but I made it).

All in all, it was an absolutely cracking weekend and, modulo my earlier comments about fresh blood, I'd be more than happy to spend Beltane like that any other year at all.
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He will take no wrong when he lieth along
'Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
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