The Wicker Man is a true horror classic. But did that sort of thing ever happen? Really?
The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy) has regularly been cited as one of the great horror movies. In1977, the French magazine Cinefantastique famously referred to it as “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”. The notion that ancient pagan practices of human sacrifice through ritual burnings in large wicker-work figures could have survived in rural Scotland was one that intrigued many. Yet, the rites that inspired the film are not particularly well-documented, and it cannot be said for certain that they ever happened.
The Wicker Man and The Golden Bough
The makers of The Wicker Man used Sir James Frazer’s classic anthropological work The Golden Bough (1890-1915; 12 vols) as the source. Frazer stated that such sacrifices were known “on unquestionable evidence” to have been performed by the Celts. (Frazer, 653) His evidence, though, is not entirely unquestionable. The problem is that none of the sources even claimed to have witnessed such rituals first-hand. The most well known source is none other than Julius Ceasar, who said the Druids burned criminals and prisoners of war in the wicker structures, and also that when such characters were unavailable, they “even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent.” Caesar’s use of emotive language ("they even go so low") hints that maybe he was propagandizing to show the enemies of the Roman empire in a particularly barbaric light. In any case, Caesar didn’t say he had seen the rituals, instead citing a Greek traveller named Posidonius, who had visited Gaul about 50 years earlier and written of the human sacrifice there.
So, apparently, Posidonius’s was a first-hand account, but his writings have not survived, so that remains to be proved. Frazer also cites two other ancient writers who mentioned wicker men and druidic sacrifice: Strabo, a Greek geographer, and the historian Diodorus. Strabo mentions it only in passing, saying such doings “have been reported”. Both Strabo and Diodorus, Frazer notes, seem to have derived their descriptions from Posidonius.
Even Frazer, whose argument depended on proving druidic sacrifice, was forced to base his hypothesis on one piece of writing now lost. Who knows what Posidonius wrote, and why he wrote it? He may have had first-hand experience of sacrificial rites, or he may have been transmitting rumours or outright lies. As a Roman sympathizer, he may not have been entirely impartial. The druids themselves left no written records of any sort.
No definitive archaelogical proofs have been uncovered, either. The famous “Lindow Man” did show signs of being a ritual sacrifice, but he wasn’t burned to death. Mass graves such as that at Ribemont-sur-Ancre have also been interpreted as proof of mass sacrifice, but may also be results of great battles.
Frazer first had the idea of druidic sacrifice suggested to him by various customs that had apparently survived from pagan times and that involved bonfires. He cited Beltanes fires in Scotland where the custom was to pretend to throw a person into the fire. Not unreasonably, he surmised that this could be an amelioration of an earlier custom of actually burning humans in the fire. This is an idea that cannot be wholly discounted, but, as has been seen, it is far from definitively proven.
Certain other details found in The Wicker Man have no basis, for example, the idea that the victim had to be a virgin. As Caesar states, the victims were usually criminals, and so unlikely to have been virgins. All in all, the historical basis of The Wicker Man is not entirely stable, but it sure makes a great film. Just don’t watch the remake (2006; dir. Neil La Bute). Now that really is a horror story.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1 vol. edition (Wordsworth, 1993) [see Chapter LXIV: The Burning of Human Beings in the Fires].