Lessons from the Wicker Man
On the surface, The Wicker Man is the story of how one police constable’s attempt to scrooge up a town’s May Day revelries fails miserably when the community comes together to celebrate the reason for the season. But The Wicker Man is a film with complex depth, and delving into those murky waters is aided considerably by a few of the key texts that went into crafting the film’s story. Specifically, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890); Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult In Western Europe (1921), and the companion book The God of the Witches (1931) give you a big head’s up on what’s happening in and just under the surface of the movie.
Part of the reason The Wicker Man is more successful than its occult thriller descendants like The Wicker Tree (2011) (and I am making warding signs averting The Wicker Tree) or even Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), is that The Wicker Man is grounded in a comprehensive belief system. You could dress Christopher Lee up in a bunny suit and he still wouldn’t be able to lead me to the Wicker Tree. Kill List lost me at the end with its kinda arbitrary jerk cult. Sure, maybe they were just a bunch of rich jerks playing at having a cult, but I felt a little let down. And, no, I’m not going to talk about Nicolas Cage and bees in The Wicker Man (2006). The original Wicker Man draws some of its power from the audience not being sure what the hell is going on, but the people in the film understand what they are doing. There is a logic to everything that Lord Summerisle and the people of his island do.
In the film, Scottish police sergeant and high church Anglican Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) takes a seaplane to Summerisle in the Hebrides to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper). The people of Summerisle pleasantly assure him that there never was a Rowan Morrison. Rowan was never enrolled in school. She is not buried in the cemetery of an abandoned church. And the picture of last year’s Queen of the May is just out for cleaning and repair in preparation for the upcoming festivities, why do you ask? The islanders assure Howie that Rowan will certainly not be sacrificed on Beltane to ensure a good apple harvest after last year’s crop failed. As Howie investigates, he discovers the people of Summerisle: dancing ’round the Maypole; leaping over fires (naked, of course—doing so clothed would be far too dangerous); smooching each other in the fields; singing raunchy songs; and teaching children fascinating things about fertility symbols that aren’t part of the current core curriculum.
Increasingly frustrated and suspicious of the islanders seeming lack of concern with the fate of Rowan, Howie interviews Lord Summerisle played by Christopher Lee with a mustard yellow turtleneck and a remarkable head of hair. He tells an alarmed Howie that the people of Summerisle believe in the old pagan religion. Summerisle’s grandfather was a Victorian gentleman agriculturalist and had discovered remarkable new strains of fruits and vegetables. Like many Victorian gentleman, Grandpa Summerisle also had an elaborate theory about how the perfect society should be organized. It’s easy enough for me to see the Lord Summerisle taking notes from Frazer or Murray in mapping out his pagan utopia. And so, because he felt it was good for the harvest—and it gave the farmers and fisherfolk something to do—the late Lord Summerisle reintroduced paganism to the island. Dissatisfied and grumpy, Howie continues his investigations and becomes convinced that Rowan will be sacrificed. In his heroic attempts to find Rowan, he refuses to leave the island. He also refuses the attentions of Willow (Britt Eckland), who sings to him to come to her all naked-like. Sadly, in maintaining his virginity, Howie dooms himself—kinda like an inverted final girl from a 1980s slasher movie. The moral of this story might be that sex and naps could save your life.
If you know what a wicker man is before you go into the film, the final twist becomes less important to the film’s overall impact, though the twist has a lot of visceral power even after you know what it is, especially for people who are right there with Sgt. Howie trying to save an innocent girl from being killed. The whole time, the villagers are offering Howie outs—whether pleasant (sleeping with Willow) or well-meaning but really disturbing (napping through the ritual because of some dead guy’s burning hand). As far as the villagers were concerned Howie was making a choice, and not just because most people would’ve taken Willow or Summerisle up on their offers. Howie sees himself as a righteous soldier of God fighting murderous, benighted heathens. Worse, heathens who, from his point of view, willingly chose to be ignorant and murderous. Howie seems more engaged in a spiritual battle than a police search. He is as much caught up in a religious narrative as the people of Summerisle and as trapped in it as Lord Summerisle.
Director Robin Hardy read The Golden Bough and worked out an overview of the Summerisle’s pagan traditions while adapting David Pinner’s novel, Ritual (1967) as The Wicker Man with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer. And Frazer is all over The Wicker Man. Frazer published The Golden Bough during a period of intriguing religious foment in Great Britain: Spiritualism, Theosophy and recreations of pagan European and Classical and Egyptian traditions were all the rage, as well as translations of Buddhist and Hindu texts. There were Classical and European pagan-themed paintings a-plenty. People were translating texts, finding texts, “finding” texts, and writing up a storm. Arthur Machen published The Great God Pan in 1894. (H.P. Lovecraft recommended Machen to his good friend Robert E. Howard). Machen was an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, along with William Butler Yeats, Maude Gonne, and Aleister Crowley. The same year the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn went kablooey over Crowley’s shenanigans within the Order, American journalist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland published Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches (1899). Leland presented it as an authentic sacred text given to him by woman from a long line of Italian witches. Leland’s book follows Aradia, the daughter of Diana and Lucifer, as she journeys through the underworld and returns. As in many other witchcraft texts, Lucifer was understood to be a maligned pagan god, the consort to a goddess and the source of life, vitality, knowledge, and light.
Frazer’s phenomenological approach to religion and culture – approaching religious beliefs and practices as objects of study without engaging in theological assessment—is still important to scholars. But Frazer does take a lot of things Classical historians wrote at face value, say Julius Caesar’s description of criminals burned alive in wicker men in Britannia. Frazer also labels nearly everything pre-modern as dealing with “fertility” or as a “fertility cult.” When it was published, The Golden Bough caused quite a kerfuffle because Frazer discussed Christianity just a wee bit in these terms. Worse, Frazer strongly implied that Jesus Christ was one in a tradition of “dying gods,” who die and are reborn every year, like Dionysus and Osiris. These gods represented the agricultural cycle, in Frazer’s analysis, and were consorts of the Earth herself. Frazer also wrote about the importance of ritual in effecting changes in the natural world and human sacrifice. Particularly, he wrote about the sacred king who was responsible for the success and fertility of the community. When the king was no longer vital, he was killed and replaced by another, ideally younger man. In The Wicker Man, Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle seem close enough in age, but there is no arguing with the vitality of Lord Summerisle’s capers or his hair.
Frazer fleshes out Julius Caesar’s (second hand) description of human sacrifice among the Celts:
Condemned criminals were reserved by the Celts in order to be sacrificed to the gods at a great festival which took place once in every five years….Colossal images of wicker-work or of wood and grass were constructed; these were filled with live men, cattle, and animals of other kinds; fire was then applied to the images, and they were burned with their living contents….These wicker giants of the Druids seem to have had till lately, if not down to the present time, their representatives at the spring and midsummer festivals of modern Europe.
For his part, Julius Caesar writes about Gaul in a very “I’m just an ordinary, plain-speaking guy. I’m totally not coming up with stuff that justifies my colonizing these uncivilized mofos” tone.
The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent. (Caesar. Book 6, Ch. 16)
Frazer saw the development of religion as essentially evolutionary. All belief systems developed from “primitive” to contemporary Western European beliefs. Which is very convenient for white Europeans and people of European-descent, as so much often is. But Frazer believed that something lurked deep within us, particularly those of us who were not educated, upper class, straight white European men. Savagery is always with us waiting to erupt and engulf us once more. You can almost see H.P. Lovecraft starting at this paragraph from Frazer:
[W]e deceive ourselves if we imagined that the belief in witchcraft is even now dead in people; on the contrary there is ample evidence to show that it only hibernates under the chilling influence of rationalism, and that it would start into active life if that influence were ever seriously relaxed. The truth seems to be that to this day the peasant remains a pagan at heart; his civilization is merely a thin veneer which the hard knocks of life soon abrade, exposing the solid core of paganism and savagery below. (Frazer, 1899: viii-ix)
To be fair, Frazer’s not entirely wrong. After all I am not a Victorian gentleman and my thoughts do turn towards may poles, capers, and bonfires. My core of pagan savagery is pretty solid.
While Frazer’s theories haven’t survived well in academia, The Golden Bough has had a tremendous impact in art. Director Robin Hardy used The Golden Bough to create rituals and symbols for the film. But I also see Frazer’s concern that civilization is a tenuous thing in Sgt. Howie’s disgust and fear on Summerisle. Howie himself works very hard to be an upstanding and thoroughly civilized man. He strives to hold back the tide of sin and chaos that beckons on the other side of communion, heavy woolens, sexual probity, and the law. Howie is faced with something worse than something completely alien; he is faced with a deliberate, rationalized and chosen regression into savagery and darkness—a conscious rejection of progress and modernity. And, of course, Lord Summerisle very pleasantly agrees that is exactly what he is doing.
But while Robin Hardy is very explicit about the influence of The Golden Bough on The Wicker Man, there are some other books lurking in the background (even if Hardy didn’t read them himself), thanks most likely to Ritual and to Christopher Lee’s own interest in the occult. The Wicker Man is chock full of love for British folk tradition; from the music to the hobby horse, may poles and bonfire jumping. And while Lord Summerisle’s mistletoe and sickle are straight from Frazer, the holidays celebrated are straight out of Margaret Murray’s reconstruction of the Western European paganism. Where Frazer deplored the savage within, Murray was sympathetic to the witches, and is especially sympathetic to the lady witches. Murray’s books certainly make The Wicker Man seem like a holiday classic.
Murray was born in Kolkat, Bengal, India in 1863, the daughter of a British businessman and a British missionary. She was an Egyptologist, archaeologist and folklorist during a particularly exciting time in all those fields. She spoke many, many languages. She joined the archaeology department of University College, London in 1894 and was University College’s first female lecturer in archaeology. She was also the first woman to publicly unwrap a mummy as part of a 1908 public lecture at the British Museum. Mummy-unwrapping was a huge thing for like a hundred years, mostly as a disturbing entertainment. Murray defended this particular unwrapping as necessary to understand the mummification process and it turns out her work on that particular mummy had enduring influence on Egyptology. She retired from University College in 1935. But even after retiring, Murray went on digs in Egypt and Petra. She was president of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955. And she wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on “witchcraft.” She didn’t live to see the tide turn against her witch-cult theory. Murray published her autobiography, My First Hundred Years in 1963 and then, with a spectacular sense of timing, died.
While Murray wrote hundreds of non-witch-cult-related papers and books, her most famous publications were The Witch-Cult In Western Europe (1921) and The God Of The Witches (1933). She had begun studying European folklore when World War I stymied her fieldwork in Egypt and Jordan. She turned to the transcripts of the European witch trials. In Witch-Cult in Western Europe, she tried to find middle ground between writers who took the witch trials very literally and those who dismissed the witch trials as mass hysteria most likely caused by hysterical women hysterically imagining all kinds of things. While public figures who believed inquisitors and witch hunters were reporting factual truth were pretty rare by the 1920s, there was still the Rev. Montague Summers. Writing at the same time as Murray, Summers believed that witches (and vampires and werewolves) were literally witches (and vampires and werewolves) and were out to sour your milk, steal your seed and probably keep penises as pets in a jar full of sawdust. Also, most women, being women, would sleep with the devil no matter how chilly he was, just out of spite. Murray suggested that maybe we should look at the witch trial records and see what we could learn, which seems reasonable and is how people have proceeded with the trial transcripts since. But continuing along Frazer’s lines, Murray argued that a unified and identifiable pre-Christian and pre-Roman religion in Britain survived into the Renaissance, when it was very literally demonized and violently suppressed.
Ritual witchcraft, or the Dianic cult, embraces the religious beliefs and ritual of the people known in late mediaeval times as ‘Witches.’ The evidence proves that underlying the Christian religion was a cult practised by many classes of the community, chiefly, however, by the more ignorant or those in the less thickly in habited parts of the country….[Diana] is found throughout Western Europe as the name of the female deity or leader of the so-called Witches, and it is for this reason that I have called this ancient religion the Dianic cult. (The Witch-Cult In Western Europe)
According to Murray, the Dianic cult maintained a continuity from an Upper Paleolithic Ur-religion, the worship of a great mother goddess and her consort, a horned god who died and was reborn every year all the way to the capers and Howie-burnings on Summerisle today. In The Divine King Of England, she argued that until recent times in Britain, the king was a sacred figure, simultaneously a ruler and a representative of the horned god. And further, that the king or stand-ins for the king had periodically been sacrificed throughout British history to ensure prosperity. But if he were still healthy and lucky, he could find a replacement to stave off the inevitable. And so, in The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle finds his stand-in even as Howie taunts Summerisle with Summerisle’s own inevitable sacrifice. Though, I have to say, by the standards established in the film, Summerisle is excluded from sacrifice what with all his bonfire-jumping and “field-plowing.”
In this reconstruction of a pagan tradition, it’s important that the sacrifice be a virgin. But where we tend to assume that the virgin will be female, according to this kind of pagan thought, the sacrifice should be male. The female principle is eternal, always giving birth to new life, watching it grow and then die. And in each phase of life, the goddess shows a different face. But the male principle is the life itself which grows and dies. Which kind of sucks for the dudes. In this case, though, Howie is a virgin and even when given an out in the form of naked Britt Ekland singing to him a song about how they should have sex, he resists. If he hadn’t, if he had slept with her, he would be ineligible for the wicker man. But Howie chooses not to. And according to the beliefs of the people of Summerisle, Howie’s refusing an out.
Murray’s theories fell into disrepute, but like Frazer, Murray has inspired a lot of art. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe appeared on the shelves of Lovecraft’s scholars and antiquarians. Lovecraft recommended Murray to his pen-pal Robert E. Howard. And Murray’s work also inspired a lot of modern Neo-Pagans. In the more popularly accessible, The God Of The Witches, she coined a term that some pagans still use, “The Old Religion.” She even helpfully provided some flying ointment recipes in an appendix to The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.
And in the 1950s and 1960s, there was another revival of interest in witchcraft, the occult, and paganism.
Doreen Valiente and Gerald Gardner used Murray’s work in developing the rituals of their Wiccan tradition. Murray even wrote an introduction to Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954). And this leads us right to the first time Christopher Lee met author, spy and defender of the good and decent against the occult menace, Dennis Wheatley. Christopher Lee was a huge fan of Wheatley’s books. They met when Lee attended Wheatley’s lecture on magic promoting his latest occult thriller, The Satanist (1960). The men became friends and according to Lee, Wheatley got him interested in the occult. Though by 1959, if Lee was reading Wheatley, he must have had some interest in the occult as Wheatley’s hero, the Duke de Richleau, switched his focus from worldy threats to occult ones. I should make clear here that Lee, like Wheatley was concerned about the dangers of meddling with occult forces. While it’s fun to think of Lee wearing a silk robe embroidered with hermetic sigils that was just not his deal. As Lee wrote in a foreword to The Devil Rides Out:
I first met Dennis Wheatley approximately twenty-five years ago in the book department at Harrods. He was giving a lecture, which was extremely well-attended, on the subject of ‘Magic and the Supernatural’–on which of course he was an expert. He made it eminently clear during this lecture, as indeed he has in all his books, either as a preface or in the course of the book itself, that when White Magic becomes Black Magic and the occult and supernatural are used as a means of serving Satanic forces, they are immensely dangerous to the mind and soul. As he said many times to me in conversation, Dennis had never participated in any ceremony of any kind, being only too well aware of the great dangers involved. His knowledge was therefore based on a great deal of reading over the years and on many conversations with people who were scholars or writers like himself. Through their knowledge of the ‘left-hand path’, as it is so often called, they were able to affirm how desperately perilous is any study or practice of this Art.
Lee approached Wheatley about making a film together and Wheatley offered Lee his choice of Wheatley’s books. Lee advocated strongly with Hammer Studios to make The Devil Rides Out (1968) and, in turn, Wheatley advocated for Lee to play the Duke de Richleau. Lee was a devout Christian and his concern with the dangers of dabbling in the dark arts makes his advocating for Hammer to take on The Devil Rides Out and The Wicker Man all the more interesting to me. I expect however, that the appeal of Wheatley’s books for Christopher Lee was not their pro-colonial and pro-monarchical stance. (Though I assume he, like all right-thinking people, supported Wheatley’s advocacy of the two-basin kitchen sink). I think Lee liked a ripping good yarn about an dashing and intelligent aristocrat fighting against evil, anti-British forces, whether political, supernatural, or both. And given Lee’s symphonic metal tribute to Charlemagne and the pleasure Lee took in being a descendant of Charlemagne, playing an aristocrat must have been tremendously appealing. For Lee, it must’ve been quite satisfying not only to play the hero in The Devil Rides Out, but to set himself up against Wheatley’s most despised bogeyman Aleister Crowley in the form of Mocata.
Lee was disappointed in Hammer’s follow-up adaptation of another Wheatley novel, To The Devil A Daughter (1976). But between the two films, he bought the rights to Pinner’s Ritual (1967). According to a 2011 interview in The Surrey Comet, Pinner had been reading Wheatley and books about witchcraft himself. Pinner doesn’t mention which books, but there were a lot available by the late 1960s, and many, if not most, pointed back one way or another to Murray and Frazer. Occupying his off-stage hours during a production of The Mouse Trap, Pinner wrote a treatment for a movie mixing the occult with a more standard detective mystery in which a very Calvinist English policeman investigates the disappearance of a little girl in Cornwall. I can see how a combination of Wheatley, Murray, Gardner, and an interminable run of The Mouse Trap could drive a man to write a story of a man lured into a sacrificial trap. Pinner’s film plan didn’t pan out, so he re-wrote the treatment as the novel, Ritual. Ritual was quite successful and in 1971, Christopher Lee bought the rights. Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer began working on The Wicker Man screenplay.
I can’t help wondering if reading The Golden Bough or The Witch-Cult In Western Europe would’ve saved Sgt. Howie, or at least his life. Then again, though he was a stick-in-the-mud, Howie was also a hero. And he would always need to know for sure that Rowan was not dead and that he had tried to rescue her if she were still alive. Howie would resist Willow’s advances and the nap-inducing powers of a hand of glory. But maybe he wouldn’t disguise himself as Punch. At the same time, it’s possible that he had read something along the lines of Frazer or Murray’s books. Howie feared Rowan was being sacrificed to ensure a good harvest. He understood the logic enough to suggest that Lord Summerisle himself was at risk if the apple orchards failed again. It’s hard to see where Howie would do anything different, being Sgt. Howie. He’d run his course to the end.
- The Golden Bough is available at Project Gutenberg in two editions, including the twelve-volume one Robin Hardy used in adapting Ritual as The Wicker Man.
- The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology is available at Project Gutenberg.
- Gaius Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War / Commentarii de Bello Gallico is available at Project Gutenberg in English.
- Christopher Lee’s forward to The Devil Rides Out.
- Interview with David Pinner.
- Interview with Robin Hardy.