The Wicker Man Phenomenon

An 18th century illustration of a wicker man.

“The whole of the Gallic nation is much given to religious practices. . . they believe that unless one human life is offered for another the power and presence of the immortal gods cannot be propitiated. They also hold state sacrifices of a similar kind. Some of them use huge images of the gods, and fill their limbs, which are woven from wicker, with living people. When these images are set on fire the people inside are engulfed in flames and killed. They believe that the gods are more pleased by such punishments when it is inflicted upon those who are caught engaged in theft or robbery or other crimes; but if there is a lack of people of this kind, they will even stoop to punishing the guiltless.”

Julius Caesar — The Gallic War, 6.17.

Julius Caesar would no doubt be astonished to learn how, two millennia after his slanderous assertion that Gaulish “Druids” burnt human sacrifices in huge wicker effigies, the idea of the wicker man has penetrated into popular culture. Not only has it inspired rock lyrics by such as Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson; it has also given its name to gatherings like the Wickerman Festival taking place each July near to Dundrennan in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, and the week-long Burning Man event held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, in the United States each August, but it has also been taken on board by modern neo-pagans. For instance, to mention only two out of many, a female effigy of wicker or other materials is burnt at the stake for the annual Danish celebration of Sankt Hans aften (Saint John’s Eve). A Wicker Man is burned at Buster Farm in Hampshire, England, every Beltane (May Day).

This is truly astonishing. Imagine if the Jews were to “celebrate” the Holocaust by embracing anti-Semites, crying: “It’s true! We did murder Christ. We did use the blood of murdered Christian children in our Passover ceremonies. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are not a clumsy forgery. We are engaged in a conspiracy to enslave the world. Open up your gas ovens and let us all be sacrificed to the greater glory of the Aryan race.”

Though the Holocaust is one of the tropes of modern cinema, in films like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List, and of course the German film industry controlled by Joseph Goebbels produced anti-Semitic movies like Der Ewige Jude, Die Rothschilds, and, most notably Jud Süss (which transformed the tragic novel by the Jewish writer, Lion Feuchtwanger, into a weapon of Nazi propaganda), none of these have been embraced by their targets as gladly the 1973 British Film, The Wicker Man has had on today’s pagans.

Based on a novel, Ritual, by David Pinner, a small-time TV actor who scribbled it down while he was waiting to go on in the London production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, it was scripted by Anthony Shaffer, who had earned plaudits for screenplays like Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, the stage version of which won two Tony awards, including Best Broadway Play.

When he and Hammer horror veteran Christopher Lee took their reworking of Pinner’s novel to British Lion films, knowing of Lee’s reputation, the money men no doubt they were being offered more of the same. If they’d paid more attention to the shape-shifting mind-games of Sleuth they might not have been so dismayed at the result, in which the anti-hero, a hardline evangelical Christian policeman played by Edward Woodward is consigned to the flames because of his purity of mind, not as a punishment for his attempts to expose the goings-on in the island of Summerisle (actually filmed in Newton Stewart, on the River Cree, north of Wigtown Bay in southwest Scotland).

As Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian (May 30, 2007):

“The Wicker Man wasn’t a countercultural film. Its cult status is misleading – it makes you misremember the whole experience. For all the strangeness, at its heart is, as its director intended, a rather conservative message: cults are dangerous, faith abides. But it wouldn’t have survived in its popularity if it were that simple, and nor is it.”

The film was cut about before it was released as supporting feature for Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Don’t Look Now. The film’s star, Edward Woodward, has protested at this:

“As is the way with actors, I was already on to the next job when The Wicker Man was being slashed in the cutting room and denied a proper release. I do remember my disappointment on discovering that the film would be appearing in cinemas as a mere B-feature: I mean, this was an Anthony Shaffer picture. In contemporary terms that would be like a Steven Spielberg film going straight to video – virtually unthinkable! This is not to mention the fact that by 1973 B-features were practically extinct, so the news was a double whammv.”

Some 15 minutes of deleted scenes, many of them essential to the story, have been restored in the DVD “director’s cut” of 2002.

For instance, the entire plot hangs upon an anonymous tip-off sent to the police by an inhabitant of Summerisle, but the theatrical release omits its text:

“Dear Sergeant Howie. None of us have seen May Morrison’s daughter Rowan since last year. She’s only 12 and has been missing from her home for many months. She couldn’t have left by herself – she’s too young – and her mother won’t say anything about it, just to mind my own business. Well I reckon it’s all our business when a kid disappears – that’s why I’m writing you this letter.

“Child lover, Summerisle.

“P.S. I enclose a picture of Rowan Morrison”.

In folkloristic or ethnographical terms, the film is a farrago of nonsense. For instance, while the Woodward character is being sacrificed, the island populace sing Sumer is icomen in, a Wessex-dialect six-part polyphonic song (extremely avant garde for its day, when two or three-part polyphony was the general standard) discovered in a medieval manuscript in Reading Abbey dating back to 1220.

Though it celebrates the bucolic joys of spring (“The cow lows after the calf, the bullock stirs, the stag farts. Merrily sing Cuckoo!”) and William of Wycombe, one of the monks who wrote it down, was later punished for “incontinence” or rather sex with a nun, there is no evidence that it was ever sung in a ritual context. It is, in fact, a medieval pop song, and its provenance an abbey that was demolished in the Reformation. Nor are there any accounts, from then till now, of it being sung in any context, ritual or otherwise.

Songs associated with Beltane, would be more likely to be like Jean Ritchie’s May Day Carol:

I’ve been a-wandering all the night
And the best part of the day
Now I’m returning home again
I bring you a branch of May

A branch of May, my love, I say
Here at your door I stand
It’s nothing but a sprout, but it’s well budded out
By the work of the Lord’s own hand

Note that though the first verse may echo Stubbes’

“. . . Against May, Whitsonday, or other times, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of great trees, to deck their assemblies withal . . .”

Anatomie of Abuses, 1583

the song has been “Christianised” by the time it reached Ms Ritchie’s home village of Viper, Kentucky.

In fact, the words of Sumer, like all the other songs in the movie, including Robert Burns’s Corn Rigs (the only song originally from Scotland), were put into modern English by Peter Shaffer, Anthony’s brother:

“Summer is icumen in, loudly sing cuckoo. Grows the seed and blows the mead, and springs the wood anew. Sing, cuckoo! Ewe bleats harshly after lamb, cows after calves make moo.”

One of the things that shocks Howie is the sight of naked children jumping through ritual fires. Here’s a snatch of dialogue between the police sergeant and the Christopher Lee character, Lord Summerisle:

LORD SUMMERISLE: We’re a deeply religious people.

SERGEANT HOWIE: Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests… and children dancing naked!

LORD SUMMERISLE: They do love their divinity lessons.

SERGEANT HOWIE: [outraged] But they are… a-are NAKED!

LORD SUMMERISLE: Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on!

This illustrates something of Shaffer’s shape-shifting dialogue; the pagan honcho comes across as rational in his explanation of why the children are naked, while it is the fundamentalist Christian whose reaction is irrational.

Though modern pagans have taken on board the ritual of leaping through flames (not necessarily naked), this is another example of the film’s impact on the movement, since the only examples of this behavior in Frazer’s Golden Bough are from continental Europe:

” . . . in Swabia, lads and lasses, hand in hand, leap over the midsummer bonfire, praying that the hemp may grow three ells high, and they set fire to wheels of straw and send them rolling down the hill. Sometimes, as the people sprang over the midsummer bonfire they cried out, ‘Flax, flax! may the flax this year grow seven ells high!’ At Rottenburg a rude effigy in human form, called the Angelman, used to be enveloped in flowers and then burnt in the midsummer fire by boys, who afterwards leaped over the glowing embers.”

If, as Barthes says, myths are language, what is this celluloid myth saying to us (and, in particular, those pagans who have taken its signs on board)? In semiotic terms, writing on the signification of the imagery of Joseph Mankiewicz’s film of Julius Caesar, he says:

“. . . the sign is ambiguous: it remains on the surface, yet does not for all that give up the attempt to pass itself off as depth. It aims at making people understand (which is laudable) but at the same time suggests that it is spontaneous (which is cheating); it presents itself at once as intentional and irrepressible, artificial and natural, manufactured and discovered. . . For although it is a good thing if a spectacle is created to make the world more explicit, it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified. And it is a duplicity which is peculiar to bourgeois art: between the intellectual and the visceral sign is hypocritically inserted a hybrid, at once elliptical and pretentious, which is pompously christened ‘nature’.”

“The Romans in Films”, in Barthes: Mythologies, p.28

And modern Paganism, remember, presents itself as a “nature” religion !


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