Samhuinn Fire Festival

The first Beltane Fire Festival was started in 1988 by a small group of enthusiasts seeking to resurrect ancient Celtic celebrations of the summer solstice. Since then, Beltane has become of the world’s biggest Celtic rituals with a permanent managing staff and attracting people from all over the world to Edinburgh each year (https://beltane.org/about/). This success led to the revival of another annual Celtic ritual on the 31st October, called Samhuinn (https://beltane.org/about-samhuinn/). I had the opportunity to witness Samhuinn recently and will first explain what happened at the event and then discuss its popularity and authenticity.

About the event

The event began around 9pm with a procession of figures down the Royal Mile from the Castle esplanade to outside the Festival Fringe Box Office. Torchbearers lined and led the way, followed by dancers and musicians and the three key figures in this festival – the Winter King, the Summer King and the Cailleach or Divine Hag.

Samhuinn Fire Festival 2017, Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The Winter King. Copyright Neil Barton for Beltane Fire Society.
Copyright Vince Graham for Beltane Fire Society.
The Cailleach or Divine Hag. Copyright Vince Graham for Beltane Fire Society

They processed slowly down the Mile, to the sound of drums, and then reached the constructed stage on the street. There, under the gaze of the Divine Hag who acted as mediator, the two Kings fought with the assistance of their courts. There were no words spoken during the whole spectacle which lasted for about two hours – the story was enacted via music, dance and noise. Eventually the Winter King defeated his rival and was crowned by the Divine Hag, thus acknowledging the changing of the seasons and the onset of winter.

According to Butler fire has an important symbolic role in neo-Pagan celebrations (Butler, 2009: 74) and this was certainly the case at Samhuinn. Those lining the path held torches; when the differing courts came on the stage to help their leader they often used fire in their displays; and a giant metal structure stood behind the stage and was lit at the beginning of the celebration.

Popularity

samhuinn 2015
Samhuinn 2015. Courtesy of https://www.greatergrassmarket.co.uk/blog/2015/11/samhuinn-fire-festival-2015

Samhuinn is unquestionably popular. We arrived at 8pm and already the area was filled with people and hundreds lined the path all the way up to the Castle. There are many potential reasons for the great popularity of this festival, such as the commodification of Celtic mythology and history, the increase in tourists and tourism activities in Scotland and the general popularity of Hallowe’en celebrations, which all undoubtedly contributed here.

Authenticity

To say it is an authentic ritual is problematic. Samhuinn is undoubtedly a constructed performance. There was a stage and actors and weeks of strenuous rehearsals and a dramatic story all involved in this event. The Beltane Fire Society even use performative words in their own description of it and it should be remembered that this neo-Pagan ritual was first celebrated in 1995 – so comparatively recently.

Samhuinn Fire Festival 2017, Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The stage used for Samhuinn. Copyright Neil Barton for Beltane Fire Society. All Rights Reserved.

However, Samhuinn is performed and run entirely by volunteers and to attend is completely free, therefore there is no obvious commercial drive behind it. So, those who take part must do so for other reasons – perhaps genuine belief in what they are celebrating. Furthermore, the vibrancy of the performance and the energy throughout the entire event drew the crowd in, and I could almost believe what was before me was a ‘real’ Pagan ritual. It very much felt authentic.

Conclusion

Frost tells us that festivals are difficult to explain because they have ‘non-linguistic, essentially phenomenological’ parts to them (Frost, 2015: 573), and this is the case for Samhuinn. Despite its constructed nature and recent beginning, Samhuinn is very popular, highly engaging, and has to be seen to be fully understood.

 

References

Butler, J., 2009. Neo-Pagan Celebrations of Samhain. In: M. Foley & H. O’Donnell, eds. Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 67-83.

Frost, N. (2015). Anthropology and Festivals: Festival Ecologies. Ethnos, 81(4), 1-15.

https://beltane.org/about [accessed 02/11/2017]

https://beltane.org/about-samhuinn  [accessed 02/11/2017]