History is full of festivals which use many and varied methods to symbolize and encourage the fertility and growth that spring brings. The pagan precursor to Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia, was dedicated to Faunas, the Roman God of agriculture, and involved the sacrifice of a goat, whose blood-soaked hide was used to slap both women and crops to stimulate fertility. In ancient Greece, the cult of Artemis Laphrae at Patrae threw live boars, bears, wolves and birds onto a burning pyre for the same purpose.
Luckily for goats, women, and members of PETA, no such rituals are undertaken at the Jeju Fire Festival on Saebyeol Oreum, Aewol-eup. The festival, which sees a whole oreum set aflame, stems from the tradition of Jeju farmers burning pastures to provide fresh grazing for their livestock every spring.
To honour this custom, Saebyeol Oreum was traditionally set alight at Jeongwol Daeboreum, the 15th day of the first lunar month. In deference to the modern gods of health and safety, however, this year’s event has been pushed back to the second week of March, when the winds are less fierce.
The festival runs over three days, with the most spectacular events being reserved for Sunday, the final day. The main and final event is the lighting of the oreum, which is done in several different locations, creating a patchwork of fire and darkness. This is immediately followed by Ganggang-Suwolrae, loosely translated as a circle dance, which is pretty self-explanatory.
Festival-goers should get to the festival site early, whether coming by car or public transport - recommended - as the traffic and subsequent parking can be nightmarish. This also allows time to wander around the various food and craft stalls at leisure before the oreum is lit, which happens almost immediately after dusk settles.
Food options are fairly basic and normally consist of steamed pork and rice with side dishes, in conjunction with lashings of soju. These (the lashings) are sometimes medically necessary as an impromptu measure against the bitingly insistent cold.
While we’re on the subject of restoratives, being British, the Fire Festival obviously invites comparisons with Guy Fawkes. The major comparison I’d draw is that on both occasions something to warm the cockles and enhance the bonhomie of the experience is definitely preferable.
After eating, people will begin to converge at the bottom of the oreum in anticipation of the lighting ceremony. In the past this has afforded some of Jeju’s foreign residents a rather unique opportunity - that of being the torchbearer. In 2011 Naomi Stanko’s “hand was taken by a Korean official,” she was “led to a front seat” to watch the ceremony and then brought to “stand next to the Jeju Governor and light the oreum.”
Ohio native Nathan Hoffman has helped set the hillside alight three years running; similarly he was keeping the cold out with some locals when he was “pulled down and handed a flaming stick.” Both agree that the atmosphere at the festival is “awesome.”
If you’re in the area at the base of the oreum you’ll also almost certainly be roped into the aforementioned circle dance, the lateral movement for which can be a bit of a challenge depending on how much you’ve indulged previously.
All told, this is probably Jeju’s premier festival in terms of atmosphere, excitement and spectacle - you’d be a fool to miss out. It also probably has more chance of improving your fertility than being flayed with the bloody remains of a moody sheep.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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