One of the first historical references to a “Wicker Man” came from Julius Ceasar, but the myth building that solidified the story of the ominous Wicker Man in popular consciousness was a 1973 horror flick starring Christopher Lee. Radiohead recreated the plot of this classic movie in their Chris Hopewell-directed stop-motion music video for their new song “Burn the Witch.”
The film was an adaptation of Ritual, a 1967 novel by David Pinner. Set in the fictional island of Summerisle, The Wicker Man explores isolated cult practices taken to extremes. A man is sent to Summerisle to investigate the death of a young girl and discovers a neopagan cult that practices human sacrifice via a massive human effigy made of wood. This large burning figure is an arresting image, and is now commonly recreated as part of neo-pagan and Celtic-style festivals. Despite this exceptional creepy movie and a bone-chilling literary legacy, many historians now believe that the historical Wicker Mans were just as harmless as modern day ones, if they existed at all.
The only references to this pre-Christian ritual are from Greek and Romans, like Ceasar, who had an agenda to present the Celts as barbarians with brutal practices. Accoring to Ceasar, the Druids would construct huge man-shaped structures and burn sometimes hundreds of criminals
From Book Six of The Gallic War:
“The whole Gallic race is addicted to religious ritual; consequently those suffering from serious maladies or subject to the perils of battle sacrifice human victims. … Some weave huge figures of wicker and fill their limbs with humans, who are then burned to death when the figures are set afire. They suppose that the gods prefer this execution to be applied to thieves, robbers, and other malefactors taken in the act, but in default of such they resort to the execution of the innocent.”
In the Geographia, Strabo claimed that the Celts would “throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.”
After these vivid descriptions, illustrators further spun the legend of the Wicker Man with fanciful depictions, often with real human heads at the top.
The logistics of this type of sacrifice would be incredibly difficult to construct, especially if the aim is to fit hundreds of people and animals inside the burning statue. Unfortunately, there are no Celtic accounts of this practice to counteract the tales laid out by the powerful Romans. In a way, the Romans used the legend of the Wicker Man as a literary structure to burn the reputation of Celtic paganism. A victor’s god/s receive the cultural bounty of the spoils of war.
Other stories of interest:
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please show your support by sharing this link. You can also support this blog and help it keep running by contributing to Patreon. Every share and cent is much appreciated!