Burning Man’s primary purpose or tenet is to provide a space where people can be entirely and unreservedly themselves. It is a place for expressing everything you hold back in everyday life, creatively and with no shame or judgement.
But there is so much more to Burning Man than that. And we will address all the questions surrounding Burning Man’s symbolism in full. Once and for all.
What did Burning Man mean when the founders started it? What was their intention? What does Burning Man mean now, after years of growth and metamorphosis? Why do they burn the man, and where does the temple come in?
To understand the symbolism of Burning Man, we must go back to the beginning.
How it started- The origin story of Burning Man and how the symbolism emerged
The founders and cofounders
But the seeds were sown shortly before that. The story goes as per Larry’s 1997 speech that it was indeed largely to do with his broken heart and a mid-life crisis. The mid-life crisis had spanned two years (presumably after the break-up) when one morning, he woke up tired of it all.
In his speech, Larry spoke about how when you are mourning the death of a relationship, ‘it’s the anniversaries that are the hardest’. He had been thinking of one such special anniversary on that fabled morning.
For the previous two years, he and his ex-lover had doused the sand on the beach in gasoline and used a burning stick to write with fire. “It was supremely romantic.” Said Larry when recalling the event.
So, due to two years of unhappiness, Larry decided enough was enough. That was when he called up his friend Jerry James and famously said: “Let’s burn a man, Jerry.” So, they built a man that was just taller than themselves and decided to burn it on the summer solstice at Baker Beach, San Francisco, as a kind of celebration. But then, it was time to move on.
It drew a crowd. People started to sing. Then a woman ran up to the man and held his hand as the wind quelled the flames just for a moment. In that instant, the Burning Man community was born.
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The following year they decided to do it again. Each year it grew. It took a collection of peoples’ craftsmanship to create this effigy, and they had poured their hearts and souls into it. They had spent so much time and effort on this that they collectively felt like the man was them. Like it was an extension of themselves.
By 1989, a crowd of 300 people gathered to witness the spectacle of the massive burning figure. When the police came and prohibited them from burning it, a mob formed. The crowd had come to witness a spectacle, and they weren’t getting it.
This was completely against the culture that had already started to form around the event. For the group who laboured over the man, it was a communal effort of creative cooperation, a shared investment of hard work and art.
What had been a communion for us was just a cheap spectacle for them. And you know, our society is largely organized around cheap, and expensive, spectacles…in which you are anonymous, you’re passive, you consume a product, you share nothing with anybody, you go away, come back and get some more later when you feel empty again.Larry Harvey – 1997
And so, the Burning Man of Black Rock City was born. The event was moved to the Black Rock Desert. Now, it required commitment, survival, and teamwork from everybody who came to make the event happen.
Here out in the middle of nowhere- they realised- they could create any world they wanted, with nothing and no one to contradict it.
What it has grown into- What it Means to People now
Burning Man’s Culture
Since 1990 Burning Man has grown exponentially. An entire Burning Man culture has blossomed from humble beginnings. Now, participating in Burning Man is somewhat of a pilgrimage. People go there to create and explore and to simply be. It requires deeply personal participation.
Seeded from the original community, the ten (10) principles now guide the entire temporary city. The original guerrilla art has inspired many to create their own and participate in this altogether magical place.
Where people get to be themselves with no drawbacks, and reality is what they decide it is for the period that they are in Black Rock City.
For the people who attend (now called ‘burners’), going to Burning Man is like going home. For many, it is the one place they feel truly free. Free of constraints on who they can be, free of conventional society. To them, Burning Man is a symbol of their true selves.
The Man started as an ointment for a wounded heart and became a symbol that would act as a salve for things unexpressed and ineffable to many people in the future.
Now it symbolises the principles that emerged- especially radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, communal effort, and immediacy.
But the point of the man himself is that there is no one official interpretation of what it means to burn him. That is, it is personal for each person.
That is, we never stopped to say, This is what it means, it represents this.Larry Harvey – 1997
The temple only became a part of Burning man in 2000, when David Best and Jack Haye erected it in honour of their friend who had passed away in a motorcycle accident. It started as a memorial to him, but year after year, it grew into something that everyone could be a part of.
While the burning of the man is a celebration of sorts, including performances, dancing, singing and shouts- the burning of the temple is a sombre occasion which takes place in eerie silence. And while the symbolism of the man is up to interpretation, the symbolism of the temple is defined; clear.
The Temple is a place where burners leave all manner of things they want to leave behind. Photos of loved ones who have passed or love notes from ex-lovers to mementoes which represent hardship.
So, in a way, the temple actually touches more closely to the original intention of the gathering. Moving on, moving past the difficult things in life and overcoming them.
In a nutshell
In a nutshell, Burning Man started as a kind of cathartic act, a spontaneous statement. It had the implicit symbolism of moving forward from an emotional stasis. However, the moment that first man burned on Baker Beach, it turned into something more.
People resonated with it, they wanted to be a part of it, and that is when it became something special. The bold act was the impetus for an entire community to form- a group of people who wanted to share in the spark that lit their souls on fire, even if just for one week.
Many people wonder if this deep connection and passion that burners have for the event hints toward a cult mentality. Take a look at our article discussing on if Burning Man is a cult or not and find out if Burning Man meets the criteria.