Monday, 3 May 2010

“The Wicker Man” Rises From the Ashes

Featuring the ritual burning of a Wicker Man, the Beltaine Festival at Butser Ancient Farm is an annual fundraising event “for entertainment purposes only”. Nevertheless, it has attracted much patronage from local neo-Pagans; a point tacitly welcomed by the organisers, who are now attempting to sell “souvenir” bags of ash from last year’s conflagration at an inflated price, following an approach by someone who wished to use some in a ritual (although a Wiccan friend assures me that only the current year’s ash would be efficacious for this purpose).
As a fan of British horror, the event has always been inseparably linked in my mind to the classic 1973 movie The Wicker Man, starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. As the archaeologist Richard Sermon has noted,* the Festival’s “association of modern folk traditions with ancient Paganism, May Day with Beltane, and of course the Wicker Man itself” blends together many of the elements that formed such a potent mix on screen.
Whilst in previous years this link with the film has been unconscious, perhaps even coincidental (when I once gave a friend of mine who volunteers at the Farm a copy of the dvd, she told me that neither she, nor the man who constructs the Wicker Man, had ever seen it before), this year it was conscious and explicit as a tribute to Edward Woodward, who sadly died on November 16th last year. A further bonus this year was that the Saturday on which the Festival took place actually fell on May Day itself.
The centrepiece of the Festival is, of course, the Wicker Man itself, which this year was constructed as a smaller, somewhat wonky version of the one in the film. This made it a distinct improvement on last year’s, which was controversially immolated clutching an oversized effigy of Shaun the Sheep, much to the distress of the Pagans and (one must assume) any small children present.
For an additional fee, festival-goers over the age of 16(!) were able to climb into the wicker man’s central cavity for a Sergeant Howie’s eye view of the proceedings; fortunately free from the sensation of being crapped on by goats and chickens which had helped make Edward Woodward’s experience during filming so unnervingly authentic.
The Festival’s peripheral events (the gates opened at 4.30pm) were an array of British eccentricity. On the main stage, shamanic-themed belly dancers (including a cross-dresser!) wriggled away to ethnic sounds rendered Industrial by the appalling sound system, alternating with an Irish folk band. At the same time, a troupe of determined Morris dancers and some motley-clad, black-faced mummers cavorted among the mud and thatch roundhouses. There were falconry displays, drumming workshops, forest craft demonstrations, Iron Age food-tasting and consultations with an herbalist. The beer tent was drained dry of real ale and local cider long before its closing time.
Around 9pm, a procession was formed to march down to the Wicker Man. Among the crowd, high priestesses could be spotted assembling their covens. When everyone reached the field, an incongruous church fete note was added to the proceedings in the form of a raffle to determine who among the ticket-holders should be privileged to light the flames.
The Wicker Man was, of course, by this stage empty of bodies and, sadly, the crowd appeared to be ignorant of the words to the ancient song “Sumer Is Icumen In” used with such effect in Paul Giovanni’s movie soundtrack. Instead, many spectators chose to carry out the 21st Century ritual of holding aloft camera phones to record the primeval event.
Despite the Festival’s claim to be an historical reenactment, whether a Wicker Man was ever in actual fact burnt before the film was made in 1972 is open to question. Evidence that the Druids sacrificed condemned criminals and other victims by burning them alive in an anthropomorphically shaped wicker construction comes solely from the pen of Julius Caesar, so may just be Roman propaganda.
Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay has been criticised for its over-reliance on discredited works on folklore and anthropology such as, most notably, Sir J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”.** But this is missing the point; as Lord Summerisle explains to Sergeant Howie, the island’s Pagan society is a recreation introduced by his great-grandfather, not a genuine folk-survival. So it is with the folk traditions and neo-Paganism showcased at Butser. The Ancient Farm itself is a sober-minded archaeological experiment which lets its hair down once a year and indulges in some money-spinning flights of fantasy.
It is impossible not to wonder, however, exactly how some of the more serious Pagans queuing up at the vege-burger stall reconcile their participation in the reconstruction of such a bloody and murderous ritual with the words of the modern-day Wiccan Rede: An it harm none do what ye will”.
For lovers of weirdness, the event is highly recommended. Watching the giant human effigy being consumed by flames does actually provoke some deep feelings that could easily be interpreted as spiritual. It is the same emotional charge that powers the film, turning Shaffer’s anti-religious and somewhat cerebral script into an addictive experience for many of its viewers.

* "The Wicker Man, May Day and the Reinvention of Beltane" Richard Sermon
** "The Folklore Fallacy: A folkloritic / filmic perspective on The Wicker Man" Mikel J. Koven


M-A Berthier said...

It's a very entertaining film. It's hard to avoid a certain pleasure mixed with the horror when Sgt Howie gets barbecued. ;-] Edward Woodward played it perfectly.

I've known a few Wiccans, and they've often expressed annoyance at the film. One articulated his annoyance with the assertion, "It gives people the wrong idea. We Wiccans don't burn people!"

Hahahaha, really! I'm glad to hear that, as if we didn't understand that already. The mythic connections with the modern world, albeit in an artificially-constructed environment (Summerisle) produces some of the of resonance in this film. I don't think anyone except a doofus thinks of it as a mimetically-realistic depiction of modern paganism -- of course, I must admit I *know* one such doofus, a marketing rep who attended University of California, Berkeley. You'd think she'd have known better! ;-]

Antony Trepniak said...

It seems that Pagans have mixed views / feelings about the film. But as you say, the action takes place in a small contained society and doesn't purport to be a depiction of "Wicca" or anything taking place in the wider world. I trust your "doofus" is not denying that human sacrifice took place in the prehistoric world, as archaeological evidence exists at sites such as Stonehenge (itself revered by Pagans).

One of the things the film makers picked up from Frazer is the link between Christianity and certain other religions from ancient times - i.e. the sacrifice of a god (or a person standing in for the god) - and, in turn, the connection with natural cycles.

Although I've purposely avoided seeing it, I gather that the Nicolas Cage remake of "The Wicker Man" jettisons this theme, including the balance between Sergeant Howie and Lord Summerisle to create a straightfoward horror movie about a matriarchal cult - cynically pitched at the Religious Right. It is a tribute to Christopher Lee's taste and judgment that he has constantly championed the original and refused to have anything to do with this travesty.

(I know, I should get a reviewer's job at The Daily Mail for slagging off films I've never watched!)

M-A Berthier said...

Your question about whether the doofus in question claims that human sacrifice took place is an interesting one. I never interrogated her on the subject, but her boyfriend told me that they had grave reservations about whether human sacrifices actually took place, because, supposedly, all such reports were from hostile witnesses, e.g., the Romans....

Let us say I've heard a lot of argument from both Xtians and neo-pagans on the subject of sacrifices. I am not in the argument, being in neither camp. So I get to observe from a safe distance while they go at it. ;-]