I have attended two Wicker Man events, the first, a few years ago was held at Beltane. It was a very controlled event, the effigy huge and separated from the crowd, no one being allowed near him.
The second was this year, a gathering held between Lammas and Autumn Equinox, this felt intimate (even though it was a large camp), was still brilliantly organised but strangely had a feeling of familiarity. Although in a separate field to the main camp, this Wicker Man was not isolated, quite the opposite, as everyone was encouraged to go and spend some time with him, to place talismans or messages within his structure, which would be burned with him, sending our hopes and intentions up with the smoke, out into the universe. Being a part of this ritual burning ceremony was profoundly emotional.
Having this experience made me want to know more about the origins of the Wicker Man. There are only two historical references, firstly in Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, he writes that the Celts believed “that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the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”. As a result leading to the assumption that human sacrifices were commonly performed by druids, employed by those who are afflicted by diseases or engaged in battles. Caesar also claimed that human sacrifices involving criminals were “more acceptable to the immortal gods”, though when supply was short, the innocent would also be sacrificed. Caesar described one example of the way the druids carried out this task, which involved “figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men,” These figures are the so-called ‘wicker men’, which would then be set on fire, and the men in them would perish in the flames.
The second reference is in Strabo’s Geography, where he claims that the Celts “devised a colossus of straw and wood” for the purpose of sacrifice, recording that “cattle and wild animals and all sorts of human beings” were thrown into this colossus, and then burnt. Strabo also states that the ‘wicker man’ was just one method of human sacrifice, and two other examples of how the druids performed human sacrifices are given, “they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples”.
Today we have no idea if the druids actually used ‘wicker men’ for human sacrifices, because they did not keep written records themselves, and the ones we do have were written by those who wished to discredit them. Also it does not seem a practical way to perform human/animal sacrifice, because although wicker objects are quite strong, they lose their structural integrity quite quickly when set on fire, so anyone inside would be able to escape before being overcome by flames (unless they were drugged, but that is not mentioned in either of the two sources).
So back to the title of this blog and what I believe may always have been inserted, by the people gathering round to watch him burn…
Inside the Wicker Man are all our hopes and prayers.