Rituals of the World – Burning Man Festival

Bringing the desert to life!

The centre of attention is the huge statue of Burning Man.
The centre of attention is the huge statue of Burning Man.

The “Burning Man” is a story of radical individualists who get together and build themselves a city.

Each year around the beginning of September, a variety of hedonists, artists, self-expressionists, and tens of thousands of their admirers come together for eight days in Nevada to celebrate the Burning Man festival. In the Black Rock Desert, around 150 kilometers from Reno, they build themselves a temporary city complete with infrastructure for this one purpose. Although it has a hospital, it doesn’t have a single car, or at least the only ones allowed there are the imaginatively designed “art cars,” which are more exhibits than modes of transport. The whole thing began on a small scale on a Californian beach back in 1986 with around 20 friends of the founder Larry Harvey. That makes the “Burning Man” easily the youngest of the rituals presented here so far. It gets its name from the far-larger-than-life statue that is burned here each year on the sixth day of the event, which is, of course, mildly reminiscent of pre-Christian spring rituals such as those handed down by the Celts, who are said to have burned people inside their giant straw effigies as a sacrifice. However, this particular celebration has nothing to do with any such dark customs. Although Harvey is supposed to have created the first event in a state of lovesickness, his “Burning Man” is a joyful, exuberant happening.

Over 70,000 people create a large tent city in the desert of Nevada.
Over 70,000 people create a large tent city in the desert of Nevada.

Radical self-expression

However, it also has a mission to cultivate a “culture of possibilities,” establish a “network for dreamers and doers.” The community of “radical individualists” and the organizers of the event abide by ten principles, in which radicalness is a key determining element. The community practices a culture of radical openness and tolerance. Each individual lives their radical self-reference and self-expression as well as the culture of a responsible, radically participatory ethic, which sees change as only possible with the active participation of everyone. Moreover, the Burning Man community attaches great importance to the practice of unconditional giving, which consequently results in the complete refusal of anything commercial and there are no sponsors, no advertising, and no merchandizing of any kind. Those might sound like noble but not workable ideals and like a failure waiting to happen from the point of view of organizing a major event. Nevertheless, the Burning Man has grown and grown over the decades and 70,000 people came to this unusual happening out in the desert last year. The statue, however, which also became larger and larger each year until it measured a colossal 32 meters high in 2014, is meanwhile smaller than it used to be for safety reasons.

Highlight of the festival: the burning of the Burning Man.
Highlight of the festival: the burning of the Burning Man.

Part of pop culture

The event has long since been mentioned in novels, TV comedies, and song lyrics and now has a firm place in pop culture. Its character as a significant ritual goes far beyond the mere event factor, which is eminently reflected in the number of ethnographic dissertations written on the subject. And there have long been “regionals,” i.e. locally organized offshoots such as the “Nowhere” in Spain and the “Swissburn” in Switzerland. Fifty years after Woodstock, and particularly since the latest attempt to revive its spirit failed, the Burning Man appears to be all the more the legitimate successor of the peaceful, hippie utopias and the promoter of alternative forms of art and lifestyle. Although this desert festival is a very young ritual, it is celebrated with more feeling and passion than many of those with a far longer tradition.

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