The Beltane Fire Festival Welcomes Summer With Flames, Nudity, Masks, And More

Published April 30, 2016
Updated January 18, 2018

Forget buying a new bathing suit; each year, performers in Edinburgh, Scotland's Beltane Fire Festival welcome summer with flames and nudity.

Beltane, in case you weren’t up-to-date on your ancient Gaelic history, is a Pagan holiday celebrated on May 1, halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The Beltane festival marks the beginning of summer, and celebrates the fertility of the coming year. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain (more commonly known as Halloween these days), Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

Fire plays an important role in the Beltane festivities: historically, flames, smoke, and ashes from bonfires kindled during the festival were thought to have protective powers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire.

During the Beltane feast, food and drink would be offered to the aos sí, the faeries. Homes and cattle were then decorated with yellow May flowers, another invocation of fire.

In modern times, the Beltane Fire Society has revived these ancient traditions by celebrating the Beltane Fire Festival on April 30 in Calton Hill Park:

Torches Beltane Fire Festival
Sporting only red body paint and loin clothes, members of the Beltane Fire Society run through a muddy field with their torches while celebrating. Getty Images

Procession Beltane Fire Festival
A procession of women in white dresses perform on the National Monumen, called the Acropolis by members of the Beltane Fire Society, at the beginning of the festival. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Fire Symbols Beltane Fire Festival
Fiery drawings representing the journey of the Green Man and the May Queen light up the Acropolis. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Goddess Beltane Fire Festival
Performers dressed in white form a procession through Calton Hill Park. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Black Mask Torch
Members of the Beltane Fire Society take part in Samhuinn which tells the Celtic story of the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Yellow Beltane Fire Festival
A procession marches through Calton Hill park while holding torches during the Beltane Fire Festival. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

White Robe Beltane Fire Festival
Women wearing leafy green crowns and white robes make up part of the ceremony's opening procession. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Drummers Beltane Fire Festival
The procession down the Acropolis is followed by drummers. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Sunset Staffs
Members of the public wait to watch performers celebrate the coming of summer by during the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Black Paint Beltane Fire Festival
More drummers, this time wearing black body paint, follow the procession away from the Acropolis. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Woman Fire Teeth
Beltane Fire Society performers celebrate the coming of summer. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

The Annual Beltane Fire Festival
Members of the Beltane Fire Society celebrate the end of winter in white dresses and flower crowns. Photo: Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Torches Red Paint
Revelers brandish torches at Calton Hill. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Green Man Beltane Fire Festival
Wielding torches, Green Man and his female companion, the May Queen, light a bonfire during the festival to signify the start of summer. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell

Flower Goddess Beltane Fire Festival
The May Queen takes center stage during the festival. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Blue Man Beltane Fire Festival
In Edinburgh, a member of the Beltane Fire Society painted himself blue as part of the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

A Masked Performer Takes Part In The Bel
A cloaked man wearing an ominous white mask complete with antlers takes part in the Beltane Fire Festival. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Torches People Dancing
torches abound at Beltane. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

A Masked Performer Takes Part In The Bel
A masked performer gazes into his torch during the Beltane Fire Festival. Photo: AFP/ Getty Images

Red Man Beltane Fire Festival
A member of Beltane Fire Society dances near the fire during the festival. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Red Firedancers Beltane Fire Festival
Fire dancers paint themselves red and wield torches during the raucous Beltane Fire Festival. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Fire Dancers
Festivalgoers dance amid the flames. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images

Fire Dancer Beltane Fire Festival
At the end the festival, the performers dressed in red and white dance on the part of the park the Fire Society calls the Bower. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images


Next, read about seven of the most unusual religious rituals in the world. Then check out these mystical marshlands of England.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.