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Summerism, paganism and The Wicker Man

Rupert White



Released in 1973, The Wicker Man is no longer an obscure, cult film, as it was for many years. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important British films of the 1970's, and a genre-defining example of folk horror. It is also a personal favourite, partly because it reminds me of Cornwall (the book the film was based on, Ritual, is set in West Cornwall), and partly because it is a fascinating meditation on rurality, and on the ways that cultural differences might emerge and play out in remote communities.

The Wicker Man tells the story of Sergeant Neil Howie, a devout Christian policeman working in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, as he searches for Rowan Morrison, a girl from the island of Summerisle who has been missing for several months.

As Howie, played by Edward Woodward, conducts his investigation, the islanders, including Rowan's mother, close ranks and deny all knowledge of the missing girl. After staying a night in the pub, the policeman visits the small island school, where pupils are being taught about May Day and the phallic symbolism of the may pole. The female children also deny recognising Rowan, but Howie notices a suspiciously empty desk in the classroom, and asks to see the school register. Inside the book he spots the missing girl's name, and realises the islanders have all been lying to him.

Howie then visits the Lord of Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee, to ask his permission to exhume Rowan's body. After Howie has dug up the coffin, only to discover that - apart from a dead hare - it is empty, he concludes that she is not yet dead, and in fact the islanders plan to sacrifice Rowan on May Day; which is the very next day.

In order to prevent her death, he joins the islanders' May Day celebrations concealed inside a vivid pink Punch costume, and is lured to the site of the wicker man. Here, in a spectacular plot twist, it is revealed that it was always intended that Howie himself would be the human sacrifice, not Rowan, and to the old English tune of 'Sumer is Acumin In', he is burned inside the giant wicker man, along with several farm animals.


Chocolate hares in Morrison's Post Office


Much of the power of The Wicker Man comes from its depiction of the tension between the progressive counter-culture of the late sixties, and the traditional Christian establishment. Whilst the former, which embraced sexual freedom and contact with nature, is embodied by the charismatic Lord Summerisle, the latter is represented by Sergeant Howie, who appears repressed and frigid, and trapped by a narrow morality of the no-sex-before-marriage kind.

The film is also a fascinating and unique depiction of a community that has adopted paganism as a way of life. In places this portrayal is clunky, but overall it works: it works in the sense that it's attractive and plausible and, in its use of motifs from folklore and history, also recognisable.

In fact in his meeting with the puritanical Howie, Lord Summerisle explains that the islanders adopted these pagan practices after his grandfather introduced fruit farming, and apple-growing on the island. Thus, strictly speaking what we are witnessing in The Wicker Man is not a traditional form of spiritual practice, but a syncretic Neo-paganism - the modern creation of one man - and though not given a name, it could be called 'Summerism'.

But what, then, are we to make of the patchwork of ideas that is 'Summerism'? And from where, exactly, did the creators of The Wicker Man, obtain their inspiration?


May Day on Summerisle

May Day celebrations, a pan-European phenomenon, date from the Neolithic, when human societies became more settled, and moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Roman historians have documented festivals dedicated to Flora over the May Day period, though Beltane, one of the Celtic fire festivals was, strictly speaking, celebrated on May Day eve.

Jumping over a bonfire, as depicted in The Wicker Man, is a fertility ritual associated with such Beltane celebrations. The women performing this rite in the film are naked, and interestingly both Gerald Gardner and Ross Nicholls, creators of Wicca and modern Druidry respectively, were naturists and indeed the first of Gardner's covens was formed in a nudist colony. Naturism which, throughout the 20th century, was embraced by liberals and non-conformist bohemians alike, thus formed a close and interesting relationship with Neo-paganism and particularly early Wicca and American variants like Ferafaria.


The boys sing the maypole song


Chocolate hares or bunnies, as Howie notices them in the Summerisle Post Office, are not necessarily associated with May Day, but are part of an Easter tradition imported from Germany. Some have suggested that the hare was originally a symbol of the Saxon goddess, Ostara or Eostre, after which Easter is named, but this is disputed. However, probably because the animal is so elusive, the hare is certainly linked in Celtic and Scandinavian folklore with witches, and their magical ability to shape-shift; something suggested, perhaps, by Lionel Miskin's beautiful ceramic hare at the Museum of Witchcraft. The Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie famously exclaimed 'I sall goe intill ane haire, with sorrow, and sych, and meikle care', whilst in Cornwall the fabled witch of Treva, and Old Molly of Polperro could also shape-change at will.

Maypoles may or may not precede Christianity. In Britain the oldest recorded accounts date from only the 14th century. In The Wicker Man a may pole is located outside the school, and the boys who dance round it sing a song with lyrics by Paul Giovanni. Therefore, whilst elsewhere in the film composer Giovanni borrowed themes from nursery rhymes (eg Oranges and Lemons) and Robbie Burns (Corn Rigs), the maypole song is modern and was composed especially for the film. It is a direct and rather lovely expression of the circularity of life:

In the woods there grew a tree
And a fine fine tree was he

And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was
A bed

And on that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
And from that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
And from that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew
A tree

And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a birdů

In Cornwall the Padstow 'Obby Oss celebrations take place on May Day. Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man's director is known to have taken inspiration from Padstow for a number of aspects of the film. Notably, the very distinctive oss that takes part in the Summerisle May Day celebrations is an unusual skirt-style oss, like the Padstow osses. The Padstow osses also have a teazer, though they are not usually dressed in drag, as in The Wicker Man. Interestingly, though, when Cassandra Latham acted as a teazer to the Penglaz oss as part of Golowan, she deliberately chose to cross-dress; an example of a reverse influence, perhaps.

The Punch costume that Sergeant Howie wears is a less obvious choice. Punch himself is a figure derived from Italian Commedia Del' arte, and has no particular association with May Day celebrations, though fool characters have historically appeared with osses as teazers.

Finally, we come to the Wicker Man itself, which is a motif derived entirely from Roman historians. For example, Caesar famously describing Celtic practices in De Bello Gallico said:

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 offense, 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.

These Roman accounts are recognised as being highly tenuous and apocryphal. Reported at second or third hand, they are likely to have been a form of imperialist propaganda. Ironically, therefore, the Wicker Man itself can be considered the least plausible, and least attested, pagan reference in the film. Human sacrifice, as a historical phenomenon, remains hugely disputed. Animal sacrifice is, however, more widely recognised, if rare. There is, for example, an early 19th century newspaper account of a farmer on the Isles of Scilly burning a live horse as a form of counter magic.


The libation to 'Shoney, Lord of the Sea'


Before the May Day procession reaches the Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle briefly refers to the Gods that the islanders hold sacred. They are 'Nuada, the sacred God of the Sun', and 'Avellenau, beloved Goddess of the Orchards'. Both are subsequently invoked by Lord Summerisle at the film's climax when he says:

Nuada, mighty God of the Sun, accept our sacrifice and be appeased.

Avellenau, bountiful Goddess of our orchards, accept our sacrifice and make our blossoms fruit.

The two gods are somewhat obscure, but probably chosen by script-writer Anthony Shaffer for their Celtic connotations. The former is an Irish God, and a king of the Tuatha De Danann, though he has no specific association with the sun. The latter seems to be a Shaffer invention, her name taken from the Welsh word for apple trees, 'afellenau', from which, interestingly, Geoffrey of Monmouth also derived 'Avalon'.

It seems significant that, as in Wicca, they form a male and female pairing, yet they are not the only gods mentioned. Near the end of the film Lord Summerisle offers a libation, in the form of a keg of ale, to the God of the Sea. In earlier versions of the script (see link below), Summerisle refers explicitly to 'Shoney, Lord of the Sea', and the islanders to 'Shoney of the Lews', but the name, written Seonaidh in Gaelic, doesn't make the final cut. This seems a shame as this spirit of the sea, which was traditionally offered ale every year in Lewis, seems to have been one of the few examples in the film of folklore local to the highlands of Scotland.


Click here to download Shaffer's original script for The Wicker Man (thanks to Ingrid Pitt). See 'interviews' for Adam Scovell on Folk Horror.