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 300,000 sq. ft. oreum set aflame, began with Jeju farmers burning pastures to provide fresh grazing every spring, known as banggae in Jeju dialect. The flames were also said to burn away any lingering bad luck from the soils.
To honor this custom, Jeju’s people have set the oreum alight every year since 1997. Once held strictly on Jeongwol Daeboreum, the 15th day of the first lunar month, it is now held in the second week of March when the winds are less fierce. Under the theme of “Healing in Jeju,” it is not only Jeju’s representative festival, but has also been recognized by government ministries as among the best in the nation.
▲ Photo by Douglas Macdonald
The festival runs over four days, Thursday to Sunday, and there are numerous events and activities lined up including shamanic rites, competitions and concerts. Saturday boasts the spectacular lighting of the oreum, creating a patchwork of fire and darkness, which is immediately followed by a circle dance which revelers enjoy with abandon.
The festival is set against the backdrop of the bleakly beautiful Saebyeol Oreum, 22 k.m. outside Jeju City on the Pyeonghwa-ro toward Moseulpo. The countryside about is equally barren and on the cold clear days of early spring, scything winds cut down from Mt. Halla and fog can quickly envelop the upland landscape. This juxtaposes strikingly with the raucous celebrations as the first fires begin raging.
Free buses running to the event drop passengers mid-mountain into a carnival atmosphere unrecognizable the other 364 days of the year. An early arrival gives time to wander around the various tents and stalls, where food options normally consist of Korean pancake (pajeon) or steamed or roasted pork (bossam) and side dishes. Treats are available, however, and last year I dined on barbecued guinea fowl. Whatever your choice, lashings of soju are inevitable, and sometimes medically necessary as an impromptu measure against the bitingly insistent cold.
▲ Photo by Douglas Macdonald
After eating, as dusk settles, people begin converging at the oreum foot in anticipation of the lighting ceremony. This often affords a rare opportunity to members of Jeju’s foreign community: to be torchbearer and ceremoniously light the festival pyres, an amazing experience if you are lucky enough to be involved.
Milling about at the oreum base is a great way to increase your chances of this and also of being roped into the aforementioned circle dance, or Ganggang-Suwolrae. Depending on how much soju and guinea fowl you’ve indulged previously, this can be a bit of a challenge. Rest assured, however: your ungainliness will be relayed over the big screen for everyone to enjoy.
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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