The Wicker Man from a Pagan Perspective

For the last few years, I have been listening to numerous comments on behalf of my movie-loving friends about "cult movies" such as The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, Clerks and so on. The Wicker Man is most definitely on that list (of course, I'm referring to the original 1973 version, not the remake from 2006 with Nicolas Cage). So I finally decided to have a look at it one day. I have to admit that the movie as such did not disappoint me in any respect; acting, plot, camerawork, music or in any other manner, although many criticize absolutely all the actors apart from Chrisopher Lee who plays one of the main characters. However, as a Pagan, the most prominent elements of the movie for me were the Pagan ones which there is a surplus of. Some of them thrilled me, while others irritated me so I decided to express my excitement and vent my frustrations in this post. But before I begin, I find it necessary to give a short summary of the movie for those of you who haven't seen it. I warn you that I will reveal the whole plot so if you don't want to ruin the movie-watching experience for yourself, I recommend you skip this entire post. It's best if you watch the movie yourself beforehand. Either that or simply read the synopsis below. By the way, you can watch the whole movie free of charge on this web site.

I would also like to add that The Wicker Many is nowadays thought of as a horror movie although only the very end is horrific, whereas the rest of the movie is more detective-oriented in my opinion with a bunch of sarcastic, snooty moments which give it a dose of humor.


The movie begins with sergeant Neil Howie who is depicted as a devout Catholic. He receives an anonymous letter in which he is asked to visit a nearby island called Summerisle (an imaginary Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland which is famous for the cultivation of apples) to investigate the disappearance of a young girl by the name of Rowan Morrison.

In his search, Howie faces many obstacles. The locals act as if they have never heard of young Rowan, but he soon begins to doubt them. Howie is staying at the Green Man Inn where he meets the owner and his beautiful daughter Willow. On the wall of the inn, one can find photographs of the annual apple harvests in the center of which is the May Queen (according to tradition, this is a young girl, also a virgin, who bears the responsibility for that year's harvest and the fertility of the earth). There is one photograph for each year, except for precisely the current year whose place is empty (the photo was allegedly broken and had to be fixed, and there is no negative to be found). Howie continues searching and comes across other clues which indicate that Rowan really did exist and that she has in fact disappeared. One of these clues is a grave with her name on it.

In his further search for truth, and now that he has finally got the necessary proof of Rowan's disappearance, Howie goes to the highest authority on the island looking for justice - Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee). He explains the history of the island to Howie. Here we find out that Lord Summerisle's grandfather found the islanders in a depressive state when he came to Summerisle and brought them to their feet. He engaged them in the cultivation of a new sort of apples and convinced them that the harvest would be good as long as they worshiped the old gods (a part of which was the very cultivation of the apples). When the apples started to yield, the locals found meaning to their lives once again, drove away the clergy from the island and returned to the old gods believing that the harvest was the gods' way of awarding them for their effort and worship whereas the Christian God had condemned them to empty lives.

The search for Willow continues and Howie decides to dig up her coffin in which he ultimately finds a dead hare. He then accuses Lord Summerisle of taking part in some sort of Pagan sacrificial ritual in which Rowan was killed, promises to find out everything and that the islanders will bear the consequences of their actions.

Our sergeant still manages to find a negative of the missing photograph in his later search. In it, he sees that Rowan was that year's May Queen and that she was surrounded by empty boxes. Obviously, the harvest failed that year and, after some research on Pagan customs, Howie comes to the conclusion that the locals blamed Rowan for this. The apples are of extreme importance to the island since they are it's primary source of income and everyone depends on them. He believes that the locals have trapped Rowan somewhere and are just waiting for the right day to sacrifice here. And what better day than May Day (i.e. May 1). Ancient customs dictate that crop failure is a sign that the gods are displeased with something and that a human sacrifice (possibly that of a virgin) is one way to calm them down. It is only after the gods have been pleased that fertility will be restored to the land. Or at least that's how the inhabitants of Summerisle thought.

That night, Willow attempts to seduce Howie with her song, but he manages to resist the temptation only thanks to his firm character and his promise to God (he is celibate). In the morning, deciding that he will have to return to the mainland for backup, Howie finds his seaplane (in which he arrived) has broken down and that he has no other choice but to continue the search for Rowan on his own. Since this day is May Day and therefore a day of great festivities as well as parades on Summerisle, everyone is wearing masks, costumes, singing, dancing and celebrating. One of the main characters is Punch, the fool. Traditionally, someone is chosen to play the fool each May Day. This person is usually the local buffoon and is treated as a king for a day. This year, the owner of the Green Man Inn was chosen for this honor. Howie decides to knock him unconscious so he can steal his Punch costume and join the parade in disguise to find out more about Rowan's disappearance. So he joins the parade which finally ends on the beach where it culminates. Lord Summerisle announces a sacrifice and reveals Rowan who is tied up in front of the entrance to a nearby cave. Howie runs to her rescue, frees her and escapes through the cave only to find that he is trapped on the other side. Rowan and Howie are met by Lord Summerisle and a few other locals. He now finally understands that Rowan lead him right into the trap.

In a somewhat lengthy monologue by Lord Summerisle, we find out the whole story: the islanders lured Howie onto the island so they could sacrifice him and they have been manipulating him all along. It is true that the harvest failed and that the islanders now believe that his problem can only be solved by appeasing the gods. But an animal sacrifice, or even that of a child will not do now. As Lord Summerisle puts it, there is nothing better in this case than the "right kind of adult". This implies that the adult came willingly, that they suite both the figure of the king (a figure of authoriy and law such as a sergeant) and the fool (which the locals have managed to turn Howie into). This person also has to be a virgin. Our sergeant matches all the criteria. He is then cleaned, dressed in clean white robes, tied up and taken to the summit of a cliff where he is met by a huge wicker man filled with animals. And one place is reserved for him. Howie is then locked up in this gigantic sculpture which the locals then set on fire. The final scene shows a burning wicker man, Howie praying to God in his last moments and begging the islanders to really think about what they're doing. Meanwhile, they merrily sing and dance in a circle around the fire and call upon the summer.

Pagan Elements in the Movie

The first Pagan element of the movie which is immediately noticable is the music; it's mainly filled with folk songs which are packed with Pagan references. The movie itself begins with the song "Corn Riggs" whose chorus reads:
Corn Rigs and barley rigsCorn rigs are bonnyI'll ne'eer forget that Lammas nightAmang the rigs wi' Annie.
 You probably noticed the direct mention of Lammas, one of the eight Neopagan sabbats. The whole song touches upon different aspects of this sabbat and, more importantly, the central theme of the movie - fertility. Speaking of which...

Perhaps the most well-known song from this movie is, in my humble opinion, the one with the most Pagan symbolism in it - "May Pole".

The lyrics allude to the central mystery of Beltane (May Day/May 1), that is to say fertility and creation (in the most basic sense sex). The Maypole remains to this day a phallic symbol and the garland which is placed on top of it symbolizes the vulva (the very act of planting the pole i.e. placing it in a hole in the ground as well as that of placing the decorative garland on top of it symbolizes coitus - the ultimate human embodiment of fertility).
There is a myriad of smaller Pagan elements presented in the movie, such as the figure of the Green Man on the sign of the Green Man Inn. This is, of course, a reference to one of the two central Neopagan gods (that is the aspect of the God) and a well-known figure in Celtic mythology. Also, the names of some of the islanders are very Pagan - Willow, Myrtle, Rowan (all names of trees the druids worshiped and which have their own mythology and importance in the Celtic tradition). In addition to all this, it is clearly stated in the movie that the islanders believe in reincarnation, which is an integral part of Nopagan belief (though it isn't mandatory, it is a part of the worldview of the majority of Neopagans). Another interesting fact is that certain locations in the movie (such as the cave in front of which Howie "rescued" Rowan) were chosen precisely because of the folklore which surrounds them and refers to their Pagan past. 
It is quite clear that the islanders celebrate ancient holidays and practice old traditions. This is perhaps most prominent in the parade preparations and in the parade itself and generally the May Day festivities. The costumes are there to represent certain forces and aspects of this holiday. The main characters are the man-horse which is introduced to us as a symbol of fertility and whose obligation it is to pursue the women of the island, the man-woman who represents the forces of chaos and who is usually played by the high priest, or other sort of leader. Finally, there is the man-fool who is usually played by the town buffoon and who is honored as a king for a day. In the procession, they are followed by six swordsmen who cross their swords at the peak of the ceremony to form the symbol of the Sun, which is fitting since May Day is dedicated to the Sun God (in case of Summerisle, also the Goddess of the Fields/Orchards). In ancient times, sacrifice was an integral part of the procession. When the yield was good, the sacrifices were the fruits of the harvest and animals, but when it was bad, it was necessary to sacrifice a person so as to appease the gods. It's interesting that the authors of the film script got all of this information about ancient customs and practices primarily from the book The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer which is to this day known among Pagans as a quality source of information. From what I have gathered, Margaret Murray was another possible source for the writers. For example, both she and Frazer mention the ancient practice of sacrificing the king who is in himself the ultimate gift to the gods. Besides, if the crops failed, or something else when awry,, who else was there to blame but the leader of that society? Sacrificing the king, fool-king or any other appropriate substitute (such as Howie was for Lord Summerisle in the movie) is therefore an ancient practice which is wonderfully represented in the movie.
 The final scene shows a wicker man which the movie was named after and the sacrifice of sergeant Howie. It is known that these sorts of wicker figures were indeed used for these purposes albeit many centuries ago and that they were otherwise burnt alone as a symbolic sacrifice to the gods. When blood sacrifices were given in these figures, they were usually animal sacrifices, and if humans were included, then they were usually prisoners of war, or those prisoners which the society condemned to death. It is thought that the main inspiration for this scene was Cesar's account of how the Druids gave their sacrifices during the Gallic wars (it's identical to the movie reproduction). Burning was an important aspect of sacrifice for the ancient Celts because they believed that fire as such symbolizes the Sun and the Sun God, that smoke carries messages to the gods and thus connects the celebrants on Earth with the gods in the higher spheres. Furthermore, it was believed that fire could bring enlightenment (symbolized by the light it gives), fertility (based on the connection between the fire's warmth and the Sun's warmth without which plants cannot grow) and that is has purifying powers. The latter is definitely true for Summerisle because the main goal of the islanders is to cleanse the island and its orchards as well as to appease the Sun God and Goddess of the Orchards so the next harvest is plentiful. Beltane i.e. May Day is generally known as one of the fire festivals (which are celebrated halfway between the solstices and equinoxes) in Paganism and has its roots in the Celtic tradition. It was customary during these festivals to light bonfires and jump through the fire so as to cleanse oneself and bring forth fertility (according to ancient beliefs, when a person jumps through flames, their reproductive organs are exposed to the fire and thus also its beneficial influences). A famous quote from the movie is from the scene in which Howie stares in astonishment at a group of young girls jumping naked through the flames. Lord Summerisle simply comments wisely: "Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!".

Of course, the aforementioned practice of sacrifice is long lost. Contemporary Pagans have long ago given up this practice and do not perform blood sacrifices (either animal or human). Appropriate gifts to the gods are food, plants, crystals, something handmade, suitable actions, seeds (which are usually planted) and so on. In this respect, the movie promotes negative stereotypes, which is the largest objection I have to it.

Such a depiction of Paganism supports the main theme of the movie - the struggle between the "new" Christian customs and the old Pagan ones. This is noticeable in the contrast between the two main characters i.e. the devoted Catholic sergeant and the Pagan civil leader and also in the sergeant's attitude towards the local customs. He continuously protests them and in several occasions strongly attacks them. Yet, Lord Summerisle also speaks his mind and directs criticism at Christianity a few times:
Sergeant Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.
Sergeant Howie: What?
Lord Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Sergeant Howie: Oh, what is all this? I mean, you've got fake biology, fake religion... Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Lord Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost... 
Sergeant Howie: And what of the TRUE God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?
Lord Summerisle: He's dead. Can't complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.
What is at hand is essentially the opposition of the old and the new which is expressed literally in certain moments (as in the examples above), while is is expressed metaphorically in others. The well-known scene in which Willow seduces Howie is an excellent example of this. During the whole song, Willow is naked in her bedroom and in it literally asks Howie to join her. The beginning of the song is somewhat polite, but as the songs nears its end, it is based more and more on double entendres which excite the imagination and which surely caused murmuring among the public back in 1973:
Fair maid, white and red,Comb you smooth and stroke your headHow a maid can milk a bull!And every stroke a bucketful.
All this time, Howie is preoccupied with resisting her call. Besides, is there any man that wouldn't be enticed by these lyrics? For a moment he almost gives in, but he somehow manages to resist in the end. Metaphorically, this scene depicts the battle between natural human longing and irrational rejection of pleasure, between Pagan customs and Christianity, primeval liberal tradition and a new rigorous one, between the old and the new, between life and death. I mention the latter because Willow's invitation was a test for Howie. If he had broken his promise to God and slept with her (yes, before marriage), the locals would not have deemed him fit for sacrifice any longer and would have spared his life. In this sense, Paganism (or more precisely complying to Pagan customs) represents life in the movie, whereas Christianity represents death as Howie was sacrificed because he remained faithful to his God. At the end of the movie, the Pagans still won though. But not only because they sacrificed the movie's representative of Christianity and the Christian God, pious England and educated civilization. They had already won when Howie had returned to his bed and decided to reject Willow's invitation. The very manner in which he stretched out his arms towards her room and scratched the wall proves that Howie is a man who has never lived a day in his life and whose faith has left him unfulfilled.

The locals contrast Howie in this respect because they openly celebrate sexuality in every way possible (from making love in the fields, performing other fertility rituals, openly talking about sex to uninhibitedly changing sexual partners). The celebration of sexuality is present in Neopaganism also. Every sabbat has a sexual aspect (in the sense of celebrating a certain phase of the relationship between the God and Goddess), symbols of sexuality are present in rituals and fertility in all its aspects is celebrated in ritual, but also outside it (the fertility of humans, animals and especially the earth).

When The Wicker Man was filmed, Neopaganism and Wicca were just starting to reveal themselves to the public. The reared their heads in the 50s with Gerald Garner, and by the 70s had somewhat announced themselves to the public through books and magazines. This was all very new and controversial back then, but this movie brought some of the fundamental elements of Paganism closer to the public. From a contemporary perspective, the only problem is that it could have promoted negative beliefs about Paganism (and created negative stereotypes) only due to its end. Therefore, although The Wicker Man cannot be understood as an accurate depiction of modern Paganism, it resembles it in some aspects. We as Pagans can only be thankful because it brought to light one potential taboo in time and made the general public aware that Paganism even existed.

At the end of the movie, the forces of chaos (the islanders) dominate. It is by means of masks, wild dancing, enthralled singing and celebration of life through orgasmic enjoyment that they oppose the new tradition which fetters its followers. Cosmos (order) is destroyed in the act of burning the wicker man. This corresponds to the predominant mentality in the period of Paganism's upsurge in popularity when numerous local and global problems prompted people to find alternative solutions and sources of hope for social and their personal dilemmas. I believe that the movie points to the natural alteration of traditions which is followed by the modification of balance between the forces of chaos and cosmos. Such a change doesn't necessarily have to be bad, bit it is almost always drastic. Because in order for a new order to be created, the old has to be brought down. This stance is possibly a bit extreme, but the whole movie is extreme and quite shocking.

All in all, I sincerely recommend you watch the movie, but I ask that you remember that The Wicker Man is on no account an accurate reflection of modern Paganism, but it does interestingly depict some of its elements.

Until next time! Yours,
Witch's Cat

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