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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 the defining example of the folk horror genre. It is also a personal favourite, partly because it is reminiscent of Cornwall (the book the script was based on, The 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 maypole. 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; 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

 

The Wicker Man is, ethically, highly ambiguous and much of its power comes from the tension set up between the two male protagonists, which remains unresolved. Sergeant Howie, who embodies the Christian establishment, is contrasted with the more progressive and charismatic Lord Summerisle, and appears repressed and frigid; trapped by a narrow morality of the no-sex-before-marriage kind. Ultimately Howie turns out to be the more humane of the two men, however.

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 is attractive and plausible, and in its use of motifs from folklore and history, it is also recognisable.

In fact in his discussions with Howie, Lord Summerisle explains that the islanders adopted their 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 'Summerism'? And from where exactly did the creators of The Wicker Man, obtain their inspiration?

 

May Day on Summerisle
 

A number of commentators (eg Ashurst Nuada #2 (1999) and Brown Inside the Wicker Man (2000)) have noted the importance of James Frazer's The Golden Bough to script writer Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy, and the fact that the film's most obscure motifs can be clearly traced back to this enormous study of comparative religion would support this. The beetle tied to a string - an Arabic custom - is mentioned by Frazer in an early chapter on sympathetic magic, as are the 'hand of glory' and the 'navel-string' (this term from Frazer is used in the film rather than the more contemporary 'umbilical cord'). The frog in the mouth as a cure for a sore throat, meanwhile, appears in a later chapter of The Golden Bough on the 'transference of evil'.

May Day celebrations, which are at the film's core, are also discussed by Frazer. They are a pan-European phenomenon which 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, generally, 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 (actually wearing nude body suits), and it is no coincidence that both Gerald Gardner and Ross Nicholls, creators of Wicca and modern Druidry respectively, were naturists. Naturism, throughout the 20th century, was thus embraced by liberals and non-conformist bohemians alike, and 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 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. Robin Hardy, in interviews, has referred to the hare as a symbol of the 'transmutated soul' (Cinefantastique, 1977). Probably because the animal is so elusive, it is certainly linked in Celtic and Scandinavian folklore with witches, and their magical ability to shapeshift; 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 change form at will.

Although in the film it is referred to, explicitly, as a 'phallic symbol' or 'image of the penis', and in Frazer's book as an ancient 'relic of tree worship', the maypole may or may not precede Christianity. In Britain the oldest recorded accounts date from the 14th century. In The Wicker Man the maypole is located outside the school, and the boys who dance round it sing a song with lyrics by Paul Giovanni. 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

Hardy, The Wicker Man director, is known to have taken some May Day motifs from Padstow in Cornwall. Interestingly, when first witnessing the 'Obby Oss in the late sixties, he was made to feel very uncomfortable, noting that the locals 'put up a wall of evasion about it' and that 'it was very unpleasant being a stranger in that town on that day' (Cinefastastique, 1977).

The oss that takes part in the Summerisle May Day celebrations is an unusual skirt-style oss, like the two Padstow osses. The Padstow osses also have a teazer, though they are not dressed in drag. Interestingly, though, when Cassandra Latham acted as a teazer to the Penglaz oss as part of Penzance's Golowan, she deliberately chose to cross-dress; an example of a reverse influence, perhaps.

The Punch costume that Sergeant Howie wears on May Day 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. Fool characters have historically appeared with osses, however, and the Abbots Bromley fool, who carries a pigs bladder on a stick and appears alongside a male Maid Marian, appears, in this case, to have been a clear influence.

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.

Though embraced unquestioningly by James Frazer at the turn of the last century, contemporary historians consider these Roman accounts as being highly tenuous (eg Hutton, 2007). 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, and not referenced by Frazer, but were 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 makes a libation, in the form of a keg of ale, to the God of the Sea. In earlier versions of the script, Summerisle refers 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).

Click here to download a pdf of Cinefantastique Vol6 no3 Wicker Man edition (1977)

See 'interviews' for Adam Scovell on Folk Horror.