Tomorrow, a happy collection of hippies, druids and general revellers will climb up Calton Hill in Edinburgh to celebrate the ancient festival of Beltane. In my experience, the festival is a positive, celebratory, and quite spectacular event with near-naked hippies sporting all-over body paint and leaves and dancing around fires, drinking warm cans of cider. There are drums hundreds of them, practically making the whole hilltop vibrate and hypnotic chanting. Revellers express their joy and drunkenness much in the same way as they do at Hogmanay by dancing around on the spot outdoors, and kissing passing strangers. Its a good party!
Bad PR From the Romans
Of course, there was no way I would have hiked up Calton Hill for the Beltane Festival if Caesar was still doing the PR. After his visits to Scotland in the first centuries AD, he described how Druids would make human sacrifices to Pagan gods by burning people alive inside giant wicker man effigies.
The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing the druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind.
Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.
Scary stuff, but he would say that, wouldnt he? Given his reluctance to take on the Scots in battle, hes not going to describe the Beltane revellers as a bunch of happy drunks on a hill.
The Real Wicker Man
Julius Caesars description of the giant wicker effigy is now replaced in all our minds by the portrayal in the 1973 cult movie, The Wicker Man. In the film, the shocking Pagan rituals of sex and human sacrifice carried out by the inhabitants of a remote Scottish island are slowly revealed to cop Edward Woodwood.
But is there any evidence that these wicker men were ever used for the purpose of human sacrifice? Obviously, no burned real or wicker men remain for us to study (although one body was found with a ceremonial wicker mask), but there is some evidence to suggest that human sacrifice occured in ancient Britain, as in Mesopotamia and Latin America.Several bog bodies found in Scotland have been thought suggest evidence of ritual sacrifice.
Rituals of Death by Fire
One Beltane custom which survived into the 18th century was to share a specially-baked cake. Whoever drew the unlucky blackened portion was called the Beltane Carline, and the group pretended to throw that person into the bonfire, and also referred to that person as if he/she was dead for some time afterwards.
Sir James George Frazer writes in his 1922 book The Golden Bough that similar rituals of pretending to burn a human sacrifice on a fire take place around Europe with considerable similarities, suggesting that the rituals could well stem from an ancient version in which humans really were thrown to the flames.
Just a Nice Spring Solstice Festival?
There are several differing accounts of the ancient practices of Beltane, however. It is thought that the festival celebrated the transition from Spring and Summer, and that far from erasing young offenders from the crime stats the bonfires celebrated Spring and fertility, and were used for burning winter bed and floor covers.
Its also said that cattle were ritually driven from one fire to another to protect them against disease (wonder how they figured that one worked?), and that a tree would be burned on the fire, leading to the Maypole tradition.
Whether the true origins of the Beltane Fire Festival were sinister horror-movie-style murders, or leaf-trailing, cattle-rousing love-ins, well never know. One things for sure though, Edinburgh City Council have not authorised the burning of a giant wicker man effigy with a criminal inside, or the dragging of cows from one fire to another, although they do allow semi-naked dancing and a lot of drumming.
I would say that it’s just as mysterious, and actually much more exciting, than (dare I say it?) the Stonehenge solstice events. The rituals are carried out in great detail, and with great fanfare, and obviously the costumes are awesome. The symbolism of the red men, who represent disorder, chaos and libido, and the white women, who represent order and purity, make for a compelling drama. Apparently, the joy of the event is in the ‘resolution of these conflicting forces’ (nudge, nudge).