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A wicker man was a large wicker statue of a human used by the ancient Druids (priests of Celtic paganism) for human sacrifice by burning it in effigy, according to Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentary on the Gallic War). Contradicting the Roman sources, more recent scholarship finds that "there is little archeological evidence" of human sacrifice by the Celts, and suggests the likelihood that Greeks and Romans disseminated negative information out of disdain for the barbarians. There is no evidence of the practices Caesar described, and the stories of human sacrifice appear to derive from a single source, Poseidonius, whose claims are unsupported.
Archaeological evidence from the British Isles seems to indicate that human sacrifice may have been practised, over times long pre-dating any contact with Rome. Human remains have been found at the foundations of structures from the Neolithic time to the Roman era, with injuries and in positions that argue for their being foundation sacrifices.
In the modern world, wicker men are used for various events. The figure has been adopted for festivals as part of some neopagan-themed ceremonies, without the human sacrifice element. Effigies of this kind have also been used as elements in performance art, as display features at rock music festivals, as thematic material in songs, and as the focal point of a cult British horror/mystery film, The Wicker Man. Much of the prominence of the wicker man in modern popular culture and the wide general awareness of the wicker man as structure and concept is attributable to this film.
While other Roman writers of the time, such as Cicero, Suetonius, Lucan, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder, described human sacrifice among the Celts, only Caesar and the geographer Strabo mention the wicker man as one of many ways the Druids of Gaul performed sacrifices. Caesar reports that some of the Gauls built the effigies out of sticks and placed living men inside, then set them on fire to pay tribute to the gods. Caesar writes that though the Druids generally used those found guilty of crimes deserving death, as they pleased the gods more, they sometimes used slaves and innocent men when no delinquents could be found.
Wicker men are set ablaze during some neopagan festivities. A female effigy of wicker or other materials is burnt at the stake for the annual Danish celebration of Sankt Hans aften (Saint John's Eve). Typically, Celtic neopagans, Neo-druids, or Wiccans are those who use such a motif in their festivities because they, unlike other neopagan groups, are either inspired by, or follow a reconstructed form of, Celtic paganism. At other times, neopagans do not burn wicker men, but keep them as idols for protection, often merging them with the Green Man. Neopagan wicker men range from life sized to huge, humanoid, temporary sculptures that are set ablaze during a celebration, usually toward the end of the event. They are constructed with a wooden frame that is woven with flexible sticks such as willow often used in wicker furniture and fencing. Some wicker men are extremely complex and require days of construction.
The Northern Italian version of the wicker man is called La vecchia ("the old lady") which is burned once a year as part of town festivals. However, it has a more Christian connotation since it is burned on Mid-Lent Thursday, as depicted in the film Amarcord by Federico Fellini.
In 1973, a British horror film was produced titled The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy. The film tells the story of a devout Christian policeman played by Edward Woodward who uncovers the malevolent secrets of a sinister pagan cult on a remote Scottish island. He is then burned alive within a huge hollow wicker man. The film's denouement involves a wicker man effigy. An American remake of the film produced by Boaz Davidson starring Nicolas Cage was released in 2006 with the story being set on a private island in Puget Sound, Washington.
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