Every year, on the last day of April, thousands of Scots gather on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to celebrate Beltane, the Pagan festival which welcomes in the summer months. Rooted in ancient tradition, it was revived in 1988 and has become a popular part of the city’s festive calendar. But this year is a little different as the new May Queen and Green Man, key figures at the event, are both asexual.
There are estimated to be somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 practising Pagans and Wiccans in Scotland, but Beltane is open to the wider public and attracts a diverse crowd. “It was originally a Pagan festival but it evolved into its own thing” said Beltane Fire Festival representative Gabriella Sloss. “It’s a very community-based practice based on the traditional pagan story of the May Queen and the Green Man and death and rebirth. The May Queen welcomes the summer, she enters this new world, and then there’s the marriage of the two. It ends in a big bonfire and celebration, revelling in the new season after a long, cold winter.”
Taking a lesson from nature
Traditionally, the festival has been associated with fertility. “I think for me, being asexual and holding this position as fertility goddess, on its face it seems really contradictory” new May Queen Alix Prybyla acknowledged. “People see asexual and they see someone who is not interested in anything to do with reproduction. People see asexual and they see something lacking. But I think that a fertility festival is exactly where an asexual person should be.”
Prybyla explained, “it is easy to default to viewing fertility as defined by a male and a female person having sex, dominated by males – but in nature, which is the domain of the Green Man and the May Queen, those standards don’t exist. There are many types of fertility to be found. There are plants that are pollinated by the wind and bear fruit.
Some animals undergo parthenogenesis, which is when an animal is able to grow a baby inside of them without fertilisation. I see human asexuality as another form of this beautiful, wild, natural and subversive type of fertility that is found in nature. It offers us freedom for self discovery and self love.”
Prybyla, who previously embodied the goddess of death at the event, is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh working towards her degree in evolutionary biology and studying bumblebee conservation ecology. She is also a Creole woman of colour, explaining “our daily lives are suffused with magic, and I try to bring that bit of my culture with me wherever I go.”
Maïlis Marty, a dancer and “big book nerd”, who works in a bookshop, will perform as the Green Man. “Because he is that spirit and he’s very often associated with trees, his fertility doesn’t have to be physical,” they said. “It can be just like taking nutrition from the sun, from the soil. There’s so many ways to have something fertile in nature, but as a performer, it’s also the idea of the fertility of the mind. The fertility of creativity doesn’t have to come from your body. There are so many ways to birth something, like writing a book.”
Marty expressed that, “for me personally, the reason I chose to play the Green Man, as a non-binary person, was to find the balance between female and masculine energy.”
Asexual people are a poorly understood minority group, but both performers are happy to be part of a growing community in Edinburgh. They’re keen to stress that there are many ways to be asexual. “Asexual people either do not experience sexual attraction, or we rarely and only under certain circumstances experience sexual attraction” said Prybyla. “Sexual attraction is different than libido. There are many asexual people who still find meaning in sexual relationships, and there are lots of asexual people who don’t find meaning in sexual relationships. That’s why we often refer to the sexual orientation as the asexual spectrum.”
Marty recommends the book Ace Voices, by Eris Young, for people interested in finding out more.
“Scotland is undergoing a really significant sociocultural transformation right now” says Prybyla. “There are pushes to reconcile with Scotland’s colonial history. There’s a big movement away from capitalistic individualism and towards community care and mutual aid. Many asexual people choose not to pursue conventional sexual, romantic relationships, and instead prioritise things like community, different types of love, friendships, organisations that we’re passionate about, with the same level of commitment. As asexual people we are in this really interesting position to be the midwives of these transformations happening right now in Scotland. The passion that we bring is unique, and it’s powerful.”
Beltane Fire Festival 2023 will take place on Sunday 30 April, and tickets are £16 for adults and £7 for children. Because there is a procession involved, it may be difficult for some disabled people to engage fully with the event, but some seating will be available. The ritual at the centre of the event will have BSL interpretation.
“It’s a very joyous occasion” said Sloss. “With horrible things happening across the globe, it’s really nice to come together in a large community and celebrate something as simple as the beginning of summer.”