Burning the Wickerman

 

There’s nothing quite like watching a 30ft wickerman burn to the ground, but I get to do it every year at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, my last workplace before going freelance in 2018. Each year I volunteer on the Beltain bar, serving local beer and ciders while swigging my own delicious pint in the corner, eating vegan burgers, catching up with friends and seeing in the warmth of the season.

The wickerman is the centrepiece of Beltain - or Beltane - one of the Gaelic fire festivals that takes place midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. According to ancient lore, Beltain was a celebration of life and fertility, hailing the start of summer and warmer days to come. It was said that if you bathed in the first dawn dewdrops of Beltain, your year would blossom with beauty and youthful spirit.

On the night in question, the Celtic people would traditionally build two large fires using wood from the nine sacred trees: birch, rowan, ash, alder, hawthorn, oak, holly, hazel and willow. Herds of startled cattle were then driven between the two flames as part of a cleansing ritual, purifying the beasts and promoting their fruitfulness. The wickerman was thought to be another Beltain tradition - the concept of a huge man made of timber and straw was first recorded by Julius Caesar in his Commentary on the Gallic War around 58BC.

Thousands of years after our ancestors first celebrated these ancient rituals, the fire festival continues in this small pocket of England, a curious event reincarnated for those who wished to forget the turbulent jumble of modern Britain, and slip back into the primitive shadows of our past. This year’s wickerman design was inspired by the date it happened to fall upon, known as Star Wars day - May the fourth be with you. Our Jedi-style wickerman burnt long into the night, serenaded by the gang of ancient drummers beating away at his feet.

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