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The Acropolis

Neid Fire being created

The main event of the festival is the procession of performers, starting at the Acropolis (National Monument), who perform a ritual drama loosely based on some aspects of the pre-Christian festival of Beltane, and other mythologies from ancient cultures. The fertility of the land and animals is celebrated and encouraged. Led by one of the Blue Men, the procession's guides and guards, the Green Man (in winter guise) appears through the columns. Next the Need Fire is made; this is the making of fire by traditional methods, and all fire seen on the night is produced from this first flame. The Torchbearers and Processional Drummers are next over the top of the Acropolis, followed by the White Warrior Women and finally the May Queen.

Acropolis from behind

A horn signals the May Queen's birth, and the drums begin. The May Queen and her White Women, four of whom are her Handmaidens, proceed to be born of the Earth, greet the (four) cardinal directions in back bends and bow to the crowd of spectators (in three directions). After they finally acknowledge the Earth and the sky, the Green Man (who has been watching this from the ground) is allowed to approach the May Queen at the very top. She accepts him as her consort and the procession begins, led by the May Queen. The four Handmaidens, White Women bodyguards and Processional Drummers then join the May Queen and Green Man, and all are flanked by Torchbearers and Stewards and guided and protected by four Blue Men onto one of the footpaths running along the top of Calton Hill.

May Queen at Fire Arch

The footpath reaches an intersection, and the May Queen spins to decide which direction to turn in, choosing the leftward path which leads to the Fire Arch. Between the intersection and Arch, the Handmaidens and White Women stir the air with their wands, gathering the energies of the Earth, while the Drummers change rhythms to indicate the difference in purpose.

Fire Arch

At the Fire Arch, the Guardians first greet the May Queen and Green Man, and perform a dance which represents the rituals necessary to open a path into the Underworld. As the procession passes through the Fire Arch, the Handmaidens and White Women begin to keen, mourning the losses of the world over the past year. This continues until the procession reaches the Point of the Element of Air.

Elemental Points

Air Point

At the Air Point, performers representing the element of Air put on a display for the May Queen and Green Man and present them with a gift. Having awakened Air, the May Queen leads the procession through the point and around the side of the hill to the Earth Point, which is situated in the midst of a stand of trees on the North-eastern side of Calton Hill. More dancers and acrobats perform for the May Queen and Green Man, and they are presented with a bannock bread before the procession continues again, passing through the point and around to Water Point, on the Northern side of the hill with a view overlooking the Firth of Forth. Again a ritual performance occurs here, including the washing of the May Queen and Green Man's faces in the "dew". After this point's gift is presented the procession heads on to Fire Point. Again, dancers and acrobats perform and offer the May Queen and Green Man a gift. The procession wends its way down the side of the hill to a lower footpath, where the Handmaidens and White Women begin gathering the energies of the awakening Earth and sending them deep into the hill.

Fire Point

The procession pauses below the City Observatory to watch the Fire Point display on the hillside above and another gift is presented.

Once awakened by the power of the May Queen the Elements do not follow the procession but are drawn towards each other and move from their "points" towards a place where they can gather and unify, thus restoring the natural order.

Red Men

Red Men charging

Having awakened the four elements, the May Queen guides the procession around the Western side of the hill. The first of the Red Men, imps created with the May Queen's appearance at the Monument and representing the forces of Chaos, spot the procession as it passes below and are attracted to the May Queen and her Warriors. As the procession rounds the hill, the Red Men begin to taunt the White Women, and then stage a series of charges as the procession reaches the base of the hill on the South side of the Observatory. This represents the Red Men's interest in capturing the May Queen on behalf of their their lord the Green Man. The White Women ward the Red Men off in the end without 'killing' any of them as any unnecessary 'deaths' would lead to a lessening of the energies needed to bring about the change of the seasons from Winter to Summer.

The stage

The Stage

The procession completes a full circle, arriving back at the path intersection, and turns to cross over the top of the hill and down into a valley where a stage has been set up for the final display. The Handmaidens perform a ritual to 'cleanse' the stage while the Torchbearers, Stewards and White Women form a circle around the open space surrounding the stage. The May Queen and Green Man mount the stage and the May Queen begins her ritual to awaken the Earth to summertime.

The Green Man, dead

Green Man killed

While she and her Handmaidens and the White Women begin to spin and focus the energies they have been gathering throughout the night, the Red Men are allowed to approach the stage and circle it, increasing the power further. Overcome with the May Queen's beauty and goaded by the presence of the Red Men, the Green Man can no longer resist and catches the May Queen. This act is strictly forbidden, and the Green Man is ritually killed by the Handmaidens, lifted and turned anticlockwise, his bulky Winter form stripped away and thrown to the Red Men, he is then turned clockwise and presented to the May Queen.

The Green Man, reborn

Green Man reborn

The May Queen takes pity on the Green Man and brings him back to life, like a young sapling breaking the earth after Winter's hoarfrost is melted away. Overwhelmed by the new life that fills him the Green Man dances presenting himself to the four directions, repeating the actions of the May Queen from the beginning of the procession.

The bonfire

The May Queen then crowns the Green Man and leads the procession up the hill to the bonfire, on a high Northern point overlooking the valley on the hill and the city of Edinburgh below. The White Women and Red Men surround the bonfire (making an outer and middle layer respectively) with the Handmaidens forming the innermost layer. A set of wax hands are then lit and the May Queen and the Green Man make their way into the very centre of the Reds and Whites.

Bonfire w/ White Women

They walk around the bonfire with the lit wax hands three times, on the fourth circuit they light the bonfire with the flaming hands in four places. They then walk thrice more around the bonfire as the Beltane blessing is announced to the gathered people. The lighting of the bonfire signals the end of Winter and the coming of Summer, and the Green Man's Winter form is symbolically cast into the pyre. At the same time the stage is occupied by Fire Point, this symbolises the old tradition where farmers would drive their herds between two bonfires at this time of year to bless them.

The Bower

Elemental flag

Once the bonfire is lit, the procession passes through the crowds to the May Queen's Bower, on the side of the hill below and behind the Acropolis, where the procession can finally relax. The Fire Arch Guardians formally present their gift to the May Queen and Green Man, and Handfastings are held as the couples are blessed and jump together over the Willow-switch withies of the Blue Men, representing a relationship which will last through all trials.

After this, the four Elements and other groups (these vary but will usually include "No Point", that entertain spectators without being in a fixed location) formally present their gifts to the May Queen and Green Man, and the Red Men are presented before the Handmaidens and White Women.

Symbolically, they seduce/are seduced by the White Women and Handmaidens, representing a union between the White Order and the Red Chaos. The rest of the performers are then invited into the Bower circle to dance and celebrate the arrival of summer, and finally so are the spectators.