Which Came First, Beltane Traditions or 'The Wicker Man'? Apr 29, 2015 16:28:35 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Apr 29, 2015 16:28:35 GMT -5
Which Came First, Beltane Traditions or ‘The Wicker Man’?
Folklore and Paganism. Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s film The Wicker Man (1973) appears to have been largely inspired by two main sources. The first, though disputed by the film makers, is the novel Ritual (1967) by David Pinner, for which Hardy and Shafer acquired the rights before commencing work on the film. While many elements in the book are quite different in The Wicker Man, a number of the themes are strikingly similar. In the book, a police detective investigates the ritual murder of a young girl in a remove Cornish village. The Pagan beliefs and strange practices of the local community lead the main character into an ever more dangerous world. There is also a sensuous young woman who tries to seduce the policeman and the image of a hare is used to represent the murdered girl. In the film, the events are relocated to a fictional Scottish island, with pagan and folkloric motifs employed to a far greater extent. In developing these motifs, Hardy and Shaffer drew upon the work of anthropologist Sir James Frazer, who interpreted a wide range of folk customs as having ancient Pagan origins. Between 1890 and 1915, Frazer published his 12-volume text, The Golden Bough, with the widely-available abridgement coming out in 1922. A monumental study in comparative folklore, magic and religion, it showed parallels between the rites and beliefs of early cultures and those of Christianity. It’s basic proposition was that human thought and behavior have evolved from the magical to the religious through to the scientific and that the archetypal ritual is the sacrifice of the tribal priest-king.
Following is a list of various motifs featured in The Wicker Man:
Sympathetic Magic. Pregnant women touching the blossoms of fruit trees, beetle tethered to a nail, woman breast-feeding while holding an egg, hanging of the navel string on a sapling, placing a frog in the mouth to cure a cough or sore throat, carrying the image of death out of the city, the Hand of Glory (severed hand) and coins on the eyes of a corpse.
Celtic Mythology. Nuada (Gaelic sun god), Shoney (Gaelic sea god), the Salmon of Knowledge, Fenian Cycle and Avellunau (Welsh Pomona?).
Classical References. The Wicker Man (Caesar and Strabo) and Druid priest with sticks and mistletoe (Pliny).
Customs and Folk Characters. Maypole (ribbons are a 19th century tradition), May Queen, Fool with inflated bladder, sword and Morris dancing, Hobby Horse, Teaser, Jack in the Green, The Green Man, John Barleycorn (ballad and inn sign), corn dollies, March hares, jumping through bonfires and Weird women (Anglo-Saxon Wyrd or fatal sisters).
Modern Paganism. Reuse of prehistoric stone circles and jumping through the “need” fire.
Festivals. Beltane (Gaelic spring festival), May Day (first recorded in Lincoln in 1244), Lammas (Anglo-Saxon Halfmoesse or loaf-mass) and Harvest Festival (19th-century survival).
Songs. “The Highland Window’s Lament” (Burns), “The Rigs o’ Barley” (Burns), “The Landlord’s Daughter” (folk song), “Gently Johnny” (folk song), “The Tinker of Ryle” (folk song), “Oranges and Lemons” (nursery rhyme), “Miri it is while Summer ilast” (13th-century song) and “Summer is Icumen In” (13th-century song).
As a result, the film includes a rich mix of Frazer’s sympathetic magic, gods of Celtic mythology, classical accounts of the Druids and modern Pagan practices, as well as folk customs, songs and festivals. Lord Summerisle explains the existence of such practices on the island to Sergeant Howie when he describes his “free-thinking mid-Victorian” grandfather, who reintroduced Paganism to the islanders, “giving the people back their joyous old gods.” These practices include a number of mainly, but not exclusively, English folk traditions and customs. The most obvious of these appear in the procession toward the climax of the film and include:
The Hobby Horse, of which surviving examples include the Padstow “Obby Oss,” the Minehead hobby horse and “Hob Nob” in Salisbury. The Summerisle horse is more like the Minehead example, but interestingly, appears to have a version of the Oseburg Viking ship head (dragon) bolted to the front.
The Teaser is a character associated with the Padstow Obby Oss and leads the horse in the May Day procession. But with the usual Summerisle twist, the Teaser is transformed into a Druid priest/priestess, complete with golden sickle and mistletoe, as described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder.
The Fool, with his inflated bladder, is found in many of the English dance traditions, including Morris dancing, sword dancing and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. In the film, this character is clearly identified as both the “king for a day” and Mr. Punch, with his exaggerated hunchback.
Sword Dancers, whose traditional form of dance ends with the interlocking of swords to form a star or “knot,” are found mainly in the northern counties of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. On Summerisle, the scene is given a more Scottish flavor with the six dancers wearing kilts and carrying claymore swords.
The Men with Antlers are almost certainly based on the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers in Staffordshire, which is performed each year on Wickes Monday in September. Their present customs are a 19th century addition, but nevertheless, include a fool whose costume is very similar to that used in the film.
Jack in the Green was a foliate figure often associated with chimney sweeps, with surviving examples known in Bristol and Hastings. In the film’s May Day procession, Jack is carried along in a horse-drawn cart.
An early illustration of these dance traditions can be found on the Betley Window from Staffordshire, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It contains 12 diamond-shaped painted panes depicting a late medieval Morris dance or masque. It is believed to date from the early 16th century and includes a hobby horse, fool, maypole and Morris dancers. The significance of such “ritual” dances is explained in the film when Sgt. Howie consults a book on folklore in the Summerisle library:
May Day Festivals. Primitive man lived and died by his harvest. The purpose of his spring ceremonies was to ensure a plentiful autumn. Relics of these fertility dramas are to be found all over Europe. In Great Britain, for example, one can still see harmless versions of them danced in obscure villages on May Day. Their cast includes many alarming characters: a man-animal or hobby horse who canters at the head of the procession charging at girls, a man-woman, a sinister teaser, played by the community leader or priest, and a man-fool, “Punch,” the most complex of all the symbolic figures, the privileged simpleton and “King for a day.” Six swordsmen follow these figures and at the climax of the ceremony, lock their swords together in a clear symbol of the sun. In pagan times, however, these dancers were not simply picturesque jigs, they were frenzied rites ending in a sacrifice by which the dancers hoped desperately to win over the goddess of the fields. In good times, they offered produce to the gods and slaughtered animals, but in bad years, when the harvest had been poor, the sacrifice was a human being. In some cultures, it would be the king himself, in others, their most beloved virgin, and very often, he or she would be kept hidden for months preceding the ceremony; just as the sun is hidden from earth in winter. Methods of sacrifice differed. Sometimes the victim would be drowned in the sea, or burned to death in a huge sacrificial bonfire. Sometimes the six swordsmen ritually beheaded the virgin. The chief priest then skinned the child, and wearing the still warm skin like a mantle, led the rejoicing crowds through the streets. The priest thus represented the goddess reborn and guaranteed another successful harvest next year.
This text, though fictional, could almost have been taken verbatim from Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It parallels “primitive” beliefs with modern folk customs and includes the sacrifice of the tribal priest-king as the central ritual. While still popular in New Age and Neo-Pagan circles, Frazer’s work has now been largely rejected by most anthropologists. However, in the 1970s, Morris dancing and sword dancing were still believed by many to be the remnants of pre-Christian death and fertility rituals. More recent work suggests the majority of our folk customs are unlikely to have ancient Pagan origins, with many first appearing in the late medieval period. This would include the work of Ronald Hutton, who has made a special study of ancient religion and the ritual year in the British Isles. Nevertheless, Frazer’s ideas have exerted a huge influence on modern literature and culture, as The Wicker Man demonstrates.
May Day and Beltane. The events in the film take place just before and during May Day, which is equated to the Pagan festival of Beltane, one of Frazer’s “fire festivals” in the Celtic Calendar. When Sergeant Howie is examining girls’ names in the school register, the page is headed “Belthane Term,” while outside, the boys dance around a maypole. The Celts are first recorded in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, who locates them in the area of the upper Danube.” Later Roman historians referred to a number of peoples within their empire as being either Celts or Gauls. In the 19th century, archaeologists attempted to find evidence of these early Celts in central Europe and identified two possible cultures named for the locations in which they were first discovered, Hallstatt and La Tène. However, the Celtic language group wasn’t defined by this name until the beginning of the 18th century by Edward Lhuyd, then curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and its relationship to these archeological cultures is still a subject of much debate. Nevertheless, as their greatest extent, what we now call Celtic languages were spoken throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, Britain and Ireland.
The following passage comes from the 10th to 11th century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle. During his wooing of Emer (Tochmarc Emire), the hero Cúchulainn is required to sleep for a year before she will agree to marry him. In describing the year, Emer also provides the earliest recorded reference to all four of the Irish pagan festivals that marked the changing of the seasons: Imbolc, Beltane, Brón Trogain and Samhain.
“No man will travel this country,” she said, “who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltane at the summer’s beginning and from Beltane to Brón Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.
Three of the festival names have survived in Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic, as the month names for May, August and November. However, in later sources, Brón Trogain is known by the name Lúghnasad. In 1897, an important discovery was made at Coligny, near Lyons in France, when numerous fragments of a bronze Gaulish calendar were found, dating to the 2nd century AD. The calendar consisted of 12 lunar months (and two intercalary or leap months); however, the month names were very different to those recorded in the other Celtic languages, apart from Samonios, which appears to be cognate with the Old Irish festival of Samhain.
In the 19th century, during the “Celtic Revival,” these early Irish festivals were rediscovered by folklorists and academics, such as Sir James Frazer, who attempted to reconstruct a pan-Celtic year that was said to have existed not only in Ireland and Scotland, but also throughout Britain and the former Celtic-speaking parts of Europe. This Celtic Calendar was believed to have included the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes, as well as the four recorded festivals that marked the changing seasons. In addition, it was thought that bonfires had been a central part of all these festivals, giving rise to the idea of fire festivals. The resulting calendar has been used extensively since the 19th century to explain the origins of various English folk customs and festivals, including May Day.
Unfortunately, there are a number of significant problems with the reconstructed calendar. First, while Imbolc, Beltane, Lúghnasad and Samhain are found in the Goidelic branch of the Celtic language group (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic), they are not found in the Brithonic branch (Welsh, Cornish and Breton), which, therefore, casts doubt on the claim these were pan-Celtic festivals. Second, the early Irish texts do not mention festivals on the solstices or equinoxes, hence, the lack of Old Irish names for these. Third, these festivals, which were not necessarily observed by the Celtic Britons, are assumed to have passed from them into English folk traditions. So it would appear the Celtic Calendar is in reality a recent academic construction. Still, the concept is now so deeply embedded in both popular and academic belief that it is repeated throughout the literature on Celtic culture, history and archaeology, but without reference to original source material.
If, on the other hand, we examine the Germanic language group, which includes English (and Lowland Scots), we find a far greater level of agreement. Such broad agreement among the Germanic languages, when compared to the Celtic, would suggest a common year is more likely to have existed in the Germanic- rather than Celtic-speaking parts of Europe. Furthermore, May traditions in England appear to have been very different to Beltane traditions recorded in Scotland and Ireland. May games were first recorded in 1244 when the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, complained of “ludos quos vocant Intuctionem Maill” (“games which they call the Bringing in of May,” May Day was celebrated on various dates in May and traditionally marked the beginning of summer. May customs included the May queen and garland, maypole dancing, May Day songs and washing one’s face in the May morning dew, as well as Morris dancing, hobby horses and Jack in the Green. Beltane traditions in Ireland (Beaultaine) and Highland Scotland (Bealltainn) were very different and involved the lighting of bonfires and rites to purify livestock such as cattle and sheep. A somewhat lurid, if not hostile, description of the English May traditions and Morris dancing is provided by the Puritan Phillip Stubbes in The Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1533:
All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withal. For there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely Satan, prince of hell. But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather), which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground round about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbors hard by it. And then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled ...
They [Morris dancers] bedeck themselves with scarves, ribbons and laces hanged all over with gold rings, precious stones and other jewels, this done they tie about either leg twenty or forty bells, with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across their shoulders and necks, borrowed for the most part of their pretty Mopsies and loving Bessies for kissing them in the dark. Thus all things set in order, then they have hobby-horses, dragons and other antics, together with their gaudy pipers and thundering drummers to make up the devils dance withal. Then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging above their heads like madmen, their hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing among the throng.
The Wicker Man. The final scene of the film with the islanders offering Sgt. Howie as a sacrifice to their gods Nuada and Avellunau, is based primarily on two classical sources from around the 1st Century BC. The first is a passage of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a personal account of his campaigns in ancient Gaul, which describes the Druids burning people alive in huge wicker effigies as sacrificial offerings:
The nation of all the Guals 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 these 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 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.
The second reference is by the Greek geographer and historian Strabo in his Geography, which incorporated both his own observations and earlier sources. Strabo refers not only to humans burnt in these effigies, but various animals as well:
The Romans put a stop both to these customs and to the ones connected with sacrifice and divination, as they were in conflict with our own ways: for example, they [the Gallic peoples] would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms; and they would not sacrifice without the presence of the Druids. Other kinds of human sacrifices have been reported as well: some men they would shoot dead with arrows and impale in the temples; or they would construct a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing.
The first illustration of these effigies was by Aylett Sammes (c. 1636 to 1679), an antiquary and historian who attempted to demonstrate the antiquity of British culture by linking Britain to the ancient Phoenicians. In his Britannia Antiqua Illustrata, he described the “Wicker Image,” in which he indicated the ancient Britons (not just the Gauls) would burn their human sacrifices. With the appearance of this illustration, we have the basic design for all the subsequent examples of the wicker man. From the 18th century onwards, this design was repeated many times in editions of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and related works.
In The Golden Bough, Frazer looks for surviving evidence of the wicker man in modern European folk traditions and identifies two possible candidates. The first are dancing giants, a tradition found in many parts of the world. In Europe, they are found especially in Catalonia, Flanders and Navaree, where they are a prominent feature of traditional, civic and religious celebrations. In Britain, most were destroyed during the reformation or by the Puritans in the 17th century, but Salisbury’s traditional giant, St. Christopher, can still be seen in the city’s museum. The second are animal burnings during various religious feasts in the Church calendar, in which cats appear to fare particularly badly. Frazer suggests these two customs had a common origin and are remnants of the wicker man sacrifices described by Caesar. He also claims they are found in and around what was the province of Gaul, but offers no evidence actually linking the two practices.
When Hardy and Shaffer came to film their wicker man on Barrowhead, they built a scaled-down version for one man and assorted animals. However, the basic design is still that described by Aylett Sammes, which derives ultimately from Caesar and Strabo’s classical descriptions. While there is a general consensus that human sacrifice was practiced in Iron Age Europe, Caesar’s account of the wicker man refers to practices in Gaul only and may have been simply Roman propaganda. Given that Strabo may have copied Caesar’s earlier description and the lack of any other supporting evidence, it begs the question whether anyone had actually built or burnt a wicker man before the autumn of 1972.
The Film’s Legacy. While the film was itself influenced by contemporary thinking on Paganism and folklore in the 1970s, the film’s imagery has since become the inspiration for many new celebrations. These include the Burning Man Festival in Nevada (since 1986), the Beltane fire festival in Edinburgh (since 1988), and the Wickerman Festival in Kirkcudbrightshire (since 2002), along with a host of Neo-Pagan rites that can be found on the Internet. Further influences of the film can be seen in the rock band Iron Maiden’s “Wicker Man” single (2000) and the “Pagan” army in the Warrior Kings computer game, which includes a Wicker Man, Maypole and Henge.
Interestingly, the film also appears to have inspired modern re-enactments at a number of reconstructed Iron Age settlements, where public events have included the burning of a wicker man. At the Peat Moor Centre near Glastonbury in Somerset, a wicker man is constructed every Samhain (end of October) and burnt at dusk, while at Gillingham in Kent, the Iron Age re-enactment group, the “Cantiaci,” do the same at Beltane (beginning in May). At Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire, an Iron Age hill fort has been excavated and almost completely reconstructed. The site is operated by the Pembrokeshire National Park and was used by the BBC for its living history program, Surviving the Iron Age, in 2000. This was a reality program with a difference, wherein members of the public volunteered to live (if possible) as Iron Age people. To celebrate the end of their stay, the volunteers constructed a wicker man, which they burnt at Samhain. Since then, Castell Henllyss has hosted a number of wicker man burnings on Imbolc (February), Beltane and Samhain. Perhaps the best example, however, is at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. Butser was founded by Dr. Peter Reynolds in 1972 as an open-air laboratory for research into Prehistoric and Roman agriculture and building techniques and was one of the first experimental archaeology centers. Over the past years, the burning of a wicker man (above) on Beltane has become an annual fund-raising event, complete with Druids and Morris men.
Having learned of the event from its Internet pages, I decided to visit the Butser Festival of Beltane 2003 with my family and observed the events. The celebration started at 6:30 in the evening, when we joined approximately 600 other visitors. A Druid priest and priestess officiated during proceedings, which began with the Victory Morris Men from Portsmouth dancing close to a Maypole in the center of the farm. This was followed by a procession around the fields, where offerings were made to the gods to ensure a fruitful harvest. The procession also passed a wooden “totem” in the form of a hare, while one of the participants was dressed as a Green Man. Before the main event, visitors were entertained by fire-jugglers to the beat of African drums, along with a bar and barbecue and “woad” face painting. As dusk fell, the Druids put their burning torches to the 25-foot-high wicker man, which was quickly enveloped in flames and provided a spectacular climax to the evening. A subsequent press release explained the wicker man was “burnt as a sacrifice to ensure good fertility among crops and animals for this growing season.” The event was a great deal of fun and the family certainly enjoyed it. But consciously or otherwise, the staff at Butser appeared to be reproducing many of the elements found in the film – the association of modern folk tradition with ancient Paganism, May Day with Beltane and, of course, the wicker man itself. At a site like Butser, it has to be asked where public entertainment ends and education begins. Is archaeology objectively shaping our understanding of the past, or is archaeology, like any other discipline, unavoidably influenced by popular culture?
Conclusions. If we de-construct the various elements in both the film and these more recent festivals, we find that many of the underlying assumptions upon which they are based are now highly questionable. In the 1970s, traditions like Morris dancing and sword dancing were still thought by many to be the remnants of pre-Christian death and fertility rituals. However, recent research suggests the majority of our folk customs are unlikely to have ancient Pagan origins. Since the 19th century, the so-called “Celtic Calendar” has often been cited to explain various English folk customs and festivals including May Day, which was often equated to the festival Beltane. In reality, however, the Celtic Calendar is a modern academic construction. Furthermore, May traditions in England were very different to Beltane traditions recorded in Ireland and Highland Scotland. The Wicker Man’s most potent and lasting image is that of the burning effigy that gives the film its title. Since the film’s release in 1973, there has been a steady proliferation of wicker man burnings in Britain and America. However, Julius Caesar’s account of this refers only to practices in Gaul and there’s a possibility the very first wicker man ever constructed may have been the one burnt in the film. Nevertheless, no one can deny the film’s eclectic mix of imagery has had a profound effect on both popular and academic representations of our Pagan past.
Source: “Sacrifice, Society and Religion in The Wicker Man” by Lac Racant from The Quest for the Wicker Man by Jonathan Murray.