The History of the Burning Man Festival

The History of the Burning Man Festival is an intriguing one
Photo by CC user mypubliclands on Flickr

When it comes to the greatest festivals that have been created around the world, we owe a debt of gratitude to creative people who have thought up concepts that no ordinary person could ever think of on their best day.

Certainly, no average person would ever come up with the concept for something as outlandish as Burning Man, a week-long festival where attendees let their inner imaginations run wild.

With costumes that run the gamut from steam punk to new age (along with pre-made ones from that allow those looking for a bit of inspiration to find it), it is a festival that everyone should experience at least once in their life.

Having said all this, it is interesting to look back into the past and understand how this week-long party came to be. What is the history behind the Burning Man festival? In this article, we will explore this festival’s origins, as well as the events that have led it to its present day form.

1986: the start of something truly epic

While today’s edition of the Burning Man Festival takes place on the blank canvas that is the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the first edition of what would become an annual obsession took place on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Jerry James, Larry Harvey and their friends were gathered there that year to celebrate the Summer Solstice in 1986.

A bonfire ritual was one of the ceremonies at that event, and they had come prepared, as they brought several effigies to burn as part of the process, one of which was named, The Burning Man.

Standing over 9 feet tall, the flames it produced ensured the attendance of others at future summer solstice celebrations.

However, just three short years later, the San Francisco Park Police quickly put an end to this tradition before it had a chance to take off. Fortunately for the world though, it was only the beginning of something much bigger.

1990: the founding of Black Rock City

In 1990, a similar but separate festival was born on the dry lake bed that would eventually become Black Rock City.

John Law and Kevin Evans planned an event that would provide a venue, far away from the trappings of modern society, that would allow creatively minded individuals to express themselves in an environment free of expectation.

Coincidentally, one of the expositions that was planned was the ritualistic burning of a sculpture. After running into people that had had experience with the summer solstice beach party back in San Francisco, it was eventually decided that this sculpture would be dubbed The Burning Man, named after the same one that had once blazed upon the beaches of San Francisco Bay.

The early years were very intimate gatherings, with none of the paid performances that sometimes mark today’s event. There only two rules in those days: Don’t interfere with someone’s performance as it was in progress, and no guns in camp.

Burning Man today

Things have come a long way since the 1990’s. Exhibits are bigger and more ambitious than ever, the organizing committee formed an LLC and the transitioned over to a non-profit organization, and the number of attendees have made this into a quasi-mainstream event.

The onset of rules has upset purists, but they have served to help to protect the legality of this gathering, ensuring its existence for future generations.

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