Samhuinn fire festival 2017

“At Samhuinn, the veil between the worlds draws thin and the spirits gather close to bear witness as the courts of Summer and Winter battle for control of the seasons. In her wild ecstasy of grief and sorrow, the Cailleach ushers the last breath of Summer’s opulent decadence into the beyond to make way for the icy storms of Winter’s dark reign.” (from the Beltane fire society event description)

Samhuinn or Samhain is an old Celtic festival, celebrating the end of the harvest season and the lighter time of the year, while ushering in the cold, dark months. It is held on the 31st of October and ends on the 1st of November, as traditionally a Celtic day lasted from sunset to sunset.

Along with Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnasadh (which also have various other versions of the name), it is an old tradition, dating back to pre-Christian times, when it was widely celebrated in today’s Ireland, Scotland and Isle of Man. During Samhuinn, the veil between worlds thins and the dead were welcomed into the homes of their families, while the evil spirits were warded off with costumes and bonfires. With the arrival of Christianity, honoring the dead was incorporated into the All Saints Day, which gradually evolved into what is known as the Halloween today.

The Celtic version is still celebrated with fire festivals in many places, with perhaps the most spectacular one taking place in Edinburgh. I attended the 2017 edition by the Beltane Fire society, a volunteer organisation, which organises the Beltane and Samhuinn fire festivals in Edinburgh every year. The fire show and storytelling were truly amazing and they more than deserve every donation they ever got, especially for keeping the old traditions alive in such a way.

According to the organisers, the story follows the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a dramatic stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. This is overseen by the Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag, who ultimately decides each King’s fate and ushers in the colder months. The transformation from Summer to Winter is supported by the energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts through performance, music and dance. The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.

The actual fire festival was free (although it is fair and proper to donate some!) and took place at the Edinburgh Royal mile, the cobbled main street, which runs from the Edinburgh castle, perched on top of the Castle Rock, down to the city of Edinburgh below. The procession started at the castle with the arrival of the Cailleach and both Winter and Summer courts, with lots of fire frolicking all around. They slowly proceeded down the Royal mile to the main stage, where the epic battle between the Winter and Summer king played out, finishing with the Summer king’s death and funeral and Winter’s triumph. He even did a victory dance.

The performance was incredible and extremely well-coordinated, as I could really see how dedicated each performer was to communicating their story. Since that year’s Halloween was in the middle of the week, I came from Leeds just for the night and had to catch the early morning train back to class, but I was not sorry in the slightest. You can see some of my photos below, but it’s best not to look at them too closely, as my phone was a potato for night photography.

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