The Up Helly Aa fire festival took place yesterday. For those who don’t know much about it, it takes place in the Shetlands, and culminates with the ceremonial burning of a Viking galley. It’s a lot more than just the ship burning, but that’s the centrepiece, and it’s what most people fix on. The sight of the ship burning in the January night is truly awe-inspiring, and it’s one of the key inspirations for Longship.
Longship started, in part, because I was thinking of traditions. They’re odd things. Some have been around forever, and some only seemingly so. Quite often what we see as a tradition is actually a revival of something older, an attempt to recapture something that we think we’ve lost. Despite appearing to be a Viking festival, Up Helly Aa has only been in existence since 1880, long after anyone we would recognise as Vikings were gone.
Revivals are interesting because they hint at a feeling that something is missing from our modern culture, something that was done right in the past that we don’t any more. Be it druids reviving the solstice at Stonehenge, or pilgrimages in Suffolk, revivals become new traditions, ones that we instinctively connect with a forgotten past.
Ancient tradition or not, Up Helly Aa always appealed to me because of the symbolic burning away of the past so that something new can replace it. Longship tries to capture some of that feeling, that idea of letting go. After the ship burns, there’s the promise that there’ll be another one waiting. For as long as the tradition lasts, at least.
Then there’s the sight of the ship burning itself. Watching the flames engulf the ship, slowly at first before building to a crescendo and consuming it utterly is hypnotic. It’s a powerful image, one that I’ve always loved, ever since I first read about Viking ship burials. I’ve always wanted to see one in person. Longship is about as close as I’ve got.
Maybe next year I’ll finally make it along to Up Helly Aa and be able to see it for myself. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s an ancient tradition, revival or whatever. I’m just glad that it’s there.