On Montol Eve
Closer examination proves the menhirs are made of papier mache, but I don't fancy taking my chances with the hooded men in case they are not, similarly, ersatz. The wind picks up as I make my way around to the other side of the circle, but suddenly there is the hiss of flame, and I turn to see a young man in Victorian dress, with a full beard and wild curly hair, juggling with a pair of rods lit on fire at both ends. It's fiercely cold, but he's in billowing shirtsleeves, making his way around the hilltop in a slow circle.
It's hard to judge time in the dark; my mind is playing tricks with me. I keep thinking I hear drums in the distance, but when the wind shifts, the sound is gone. It's quite scary, actually, up here on mine own, except for the hooded men, who keep disappearing, silently, into the dark by the side of the hillfort, and the man with the fire, who I'm still not entirely sure isn't actually a haunting, some slippage of time from another era. The sound is picking up, those are definitely drums off in the distance, insistent, primal, growing louder and louder as whoever - or whatever - draws nearer.
The tension is unbearable. I run back down the hill, and I find myself back in the safety of the twenty-first century, the familiar suburban street lined with cars and streetlamps. And yet, still the drums get louder and louder, coming nearer and nearer. Compelled and yet afraid, I find myself breaking into a trot, until I get to the breast of the hill, and I freeze in my steps.
Coming up the hill is a ghostly army, wreathed in unearthly blue lights, their bodies jerking in a rough dance to the beat of the music, creatures in masks and fancy dress, leading an army - of imps? of piskies? Of children! An army of dancing children are following these masked blue devils, holding up a sea of glowing triangular lanterns. For a few moments, I dither, caught between wanting to run forward and join them, dancing wildly up the hill, and turning and running for my life. I run back to the darkness of the hillfort, feeling giddy and wild, the anticipation stronger than fear. Despite the piercing cold, my heart is beating fast.
Back on the hillfort, the hooded men have prepared the circle, lighting torches all around the perimeter, as the drummers and entranced children flood around the enclosure, settling at the far end, their rows of pyramidal lanterns like the sails of some phantom fleet of ships beached on the ground. The tall, pale menhirs have been lit from within, glowing with an ethereal light. And as the drummers start to play again, more fire-jugglers make their way into the ring. One boy has flaming torches at the end of chains, swinging them about like comets. Another and another appear, each bursting onto the scene with a fire-breathing puff of flame leaping up into the night, until there are half a dozen. A tall girl with elfin ears has a circle of flames like a hula hoop which she is dancing around in slow, sensual circles.
A rumour goes round the circle that the other half of the procession has been delayed, but soon enough, another drumbeat is heard off in the distance. More revelers pour around the circle, filling up the makeshift stands three or four deep. Some are tourists like myself, but most are in fancy dress, masked, carrying lanterns. The hooded druids take up their places around the circle, holding flaming torches, and then, slowly, the ragged procession enters the circle. They are led by a dancing creature, half pierrot, half fool, shaking his bespangled umbrella at the crowd. Behind him, follows the Lord of Misrule, with staff and turban, and a hooked mask with a long nose like plague doctors wore 500 years ago. And following him, the band.
The are terrifying. Dressed in long black coats, masks and high black hats, decorated with feathers and ribbons and beads, they are all decked out in Victorian finery, but dusty, ragged, as if the Lord of Misrule has pulled them from their graves to dance and cavort, playing fiddles and horns and pipes and drums as they process about the circle once, twice, three times, bowing and scraping. They look like the ancient Celtic dead, marching abroad on the darkest night of the year.
The Lord of Misrule comes forth with a lighted torch, and thrusts it into the beacon, piled with wood and doused in petrol. The crowd holds its breath as the fierce wind toys with the flame, then the wick catches and the fire takes hold. The bonfire is lit, let the dancing begin!
Five small girls, all in black, with gauzy cloaks and suggestion of fairy wings, creep about the crowd and slip into place. At a signal from the drums, they leap forward and as one, carefully raise their hands towards the fire, then start to dance. Slowly, elegantly at first, they bow and flutter and pirouette, then, as the drums pick up, the dance becomes wilder, as they throw themselves about with wild abandon. And then...
THE CREATURE breaks into the circle! At least eight foot tall, it's dressed in a long ragged black cloak and hobnailed boots, but where its face should be is a horse's skull, glittering white and checkered silver in the moonlight. Round and round, it wheeled wildly, night-mare spirit of the dark, dancing closer and closer to the fire until we cried - with terror or delight - fearing it would be burned up. The fairy-girls danced with wild abandon as the music seemed to lift with the wind. Then the horse-skull-man-god stamped its terrifying feet one more time, and was gone, taking with it the darkness that would swallow the sun. The danger was passed and the earth had turned the solstice. From now on the days would grow longer again.
The Lord of Misrule lead his ragged band of the dead around the circle again, playing an apocalyptic drone-folk dirge for the dying sun. Then, collecting up the hooded men behind them, they passed out of the fort, back down to the town for feasting and celebrations. The more intrepid of us, seeking the magic and warmth of the fire, pressed close to the beacon, watching the flames flicker and the embers glow. There are really only two things at which humans can stare, entranced, for ever - at fire, and at the sea. At the top of Penzance, back to the fire and face towards the sea, I felt suspended out of time, ageless and eternal.
As I make my way back down the hill to the modern high street, my eyes look at everything anew. The bright and shiny shops, all glittering with Christmas decorations, the teenagers tottering about in high heels, all this now seems like the dream, and the phantasmagorical creatures at the top of the hill more real than the flimsy modern world of missed buses and Tesco's sandwiches. I feel shellshocked as I collapse onto the bus and make my way home to dream of dancing monsters.
Details, performers, etc. of Montol Eve in Penzance, Cornwall