Beltane · folklore · ritual · Wicca

A Tale of Two Beltanes

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I love to see how other groups perform ritual. Well, that’s not changed, and today we’ve got a two-fer.

Obviously, because of the current restrictions thanks to COVID-19, most large rituals can’t happen, but we have today some video from last year and the year before, showing two different Beltane rituals; one in Britain and one in Ireland. Neither is specifically Heathen, but I think both are instructive in their own way.

The first one comes from Glastonbury in 2019:

You can tell right from the beginning that it’s a Wiccan ritual. The calling to the corners, the “hail and welcome”, the “God and Goddess”, and so forth.

That said, I do like the imagery of the Green Man, the May King/Queen, and the engagement of the audience in the dancing. Live music is great, even if the whole seems a bit disjointed and feels more like a street fair than anything. And the yii-yii-yii noise people keep making sounds more at home at a soccer match than a religious ceremony.

But then we get into a proper procession, with a drum-supported chant, as they bring the Maypole through the streets of the city. I note the Maypole is carved with runes, quite incongruously. Some people think slapping runes on everything makes it more holy or cool, or something. I’m much more of a runic minimalist these days.

That said I love the fact that there’s a procession through the streets, with live music. The finding of the May King is well done, too. But then they get into a straight-out-of-Llwellyn Wiccanate ceremony, and although I found the costumes and the music conducive to ritual, and the planting of the May Pole well done, the ritual as a whole felt… off. It lacked a certain authenticity. Like it could have been at a renaissance fair.

But they finish with the dancing of the Maypole, and again the live music is a welcome highlight. But I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something both silly and contrived.

The second one comes from Uisneach, Ireland, in 2018:

This one has a lot in common with the first. There’s the live music, and the own seems to have turned out for the event. There are costumes, but somehow this seems a bit less contrived and a bit more organic.

In a way, I think the Christian elements of this event make it better for me. The women in white are led by two with what are obviously halos, and others can be seen with what look like horns. But everyone is wearing white, which speaks of a certain ritual unity, and something less chaotic than the Glastonbury video.

It’s also the case that it is much more obviously a fire festival, and the fact that it’s done at night highlights that. I have no idea how old the dance at 2:45 is, but it feels like something that just sort of grew up over the centuries. I love the spiral fire forms, which again feel like something that stem from antiquity, even if they aren’t older than the Victorian era. The great bonfire at the end also just seems more authentic to me, precisely because it is evocative without being overt in what it’s trying to portray. It leaves the exact interpretation up to the viewer, as opposed to the sacral marriage of the May Queen and May King, which was a bit too on-the-nose.

In this case, it seems to me like the additions of modern technology (the lights in the headdresses and drums) add to the effect, rather than detract from it. Because the whole is so obviously a ceremony focused on fire and light, it seems right.

On the whole, although I personally preferred the second video, I found much to commend the first. The procession and live music was excellent, and the carnival atmosphere felt right. But the intrusion of Wiccanate ritual felt forced, and detracted from the celebration of the holiday. By contrast, the second video, which was an unapologetic and unexplained fire ritual, felt more organic and “real” to me; it felt like something that would have been done for hundreds of years on that hill.

Leave a Reply