The Wicker Man
A Ritual of Transformation
by Walter Wright Arthen ©1988
Rites of Spring 1982: a circle of witches gathers at twilight in a familiar clearing in the southern New Hampshire woods. They come deliberately in four lines from the cardinal directions singing their invocations to the beat of a lone drum. Only moments before, the members of each line had formed their own circle, chanting together and calling the energy and power of one direction, one element, to be with them. Now, wearing colored ribbons (yellow for air, red for fire, blue for water, and green for earth) the four lines merge in a circle surrounding a human-like figure woven of reeds and grasses that stands at the center. The chanting voices weave together as do the dancers, until the movement suddenly stops, each group in its quarter. Now the celebrants turn their attention inward. The elemental chants shift into a chant to the moon. Silence. A voice calls them to sink into the earth, to be connected with Her. Ouietly, those assembled there recall the arrogance and thoughtlessness with which humans live on the earth-wasting their Mother’s riches, destroying and polluting Her body. They recall how they themselves have done so.
Remembering and mourning, they shape a wish that these things be changed. A robed priestess moves to the center and addresses the image, naming it the embodiment of destructive human thoughtlessness. Now the group invokes fire, not as hatred or destruction, but as the endless process of change and transformation that moves through all things. The figure stands silent as the first small flickerings catch and spread. Quickly, the early evening darkness is ablaze as the figure is engulfed in flame. People name the things that they wish changed, and call the names into the growing fire. The energy of the entire circle rushes upward with the flames, carrying the intention to heal and cleanse the earth. The drumming intensifies. The night air is filled with chants and dancing. Each celebrant shapes the wish. “So mote it be!”
Fire sacrifice, the burning of effigies, is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most widespread forms of pagan (and indeed human) worship. In fact, the practice persists to the present day in such ordinary forms as Guy Fawkes Day and football rallies, or more seriously in the burning of political figures in effigy. One need only remember the angry crowds at the embassy in Teheran who burned images of Uncle Sam and Jimmy Carter, or the anti-war demonstrators of the late sixties who burned dummies of Lyndon Johnson and other leaders, or the more recent effigies of Ferdinand Marcos aflame in the streets of Manila to be reminded how contemporary those practices really are. Although such political demonstrations may express wishes for the literal destruction of the person represented, in ritual contexts the burning more often is a working of sympathetic magic aimed at changing what the effigy represents or thwarting its power.
Traditionally, burning a human effigy is intended to create a spirit messenger – to connect the celebrants with energies and powers which would ordinarily be beyond their control.1 For early peoples, the energy of fire was connected with the sun which brings light, health, and growth, as well as the hearth fire of food and hospitality. Fire was the spark of life which connected human hearts with the stars; for some it was the fire of inner change and transformation, the quest for knowledge and power.
Although Frazier prefers to view fire festivals as originally rites of purification rather than as solar workings (op. cit., p. 753), there is no reason to believe that these two explanations must be completely independent. There are strong arguments for connecting fire festivals with the sun. First, consider their timing. The most important fire festivals of Old Europe were held in conjunction with the turning points of the solar year: Midsummer, Winter Solstice, the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. In some cases, we have evidence that Christian holidays were scheduled near Winter Solstice to replace earlier celebrations of the sun’s birth. Second, the actual conduct of these festivals suggests a solar origin. As an example here, Frazier cites the widespread use of a wheel which is ignited and spun aloft. Third, nearly all fire festivals use fire to fulfill symbolic functions which mirror the effects of the sun; in particular, they focus on fertilization and growth. Leaping the bonfire (and, in the process, exposing one’s reproductive organs to its flame) is widely held to promote fertility. Frequently, torches are carried through orchards, pastures, and fields to insure good crops. Even purification itself has connections with solar influences.
Many authorities also believe that burning the wicker man was once connected with actual human sacrifice (as the garish but interesting film by that title suggests). The origin of this theory is almost certainly Caesar’s account of the druids in his Gallic Wars. There he describes a ritual in which large, compartmentalized wicker effigies were filled with grains, small animals, and even human slaves, before being burned as sacrifices. Although no other ancient author confirms this account, some authorities believe that the prevalence of effigy burning, together with evidence of human sacrifice in at least some groups, implies that effigies are a later substitution for earlier, more literal, practices. Whatever the prehistoric truth may be, human sacrifice is no more implied in today’s wicker man burnings than it is in the ritual consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the mass. Both actions are symbolic of deep processes of transformation; both actions use the cycles of life-death-rebirth to represent them. Today, the woven figure may represent many things, as it always has; it may represent winter’s grandmother (Swabia), the spirit of the grain, or death itself (Silesia). But in every case, fire sacrifice involves releasing what is past, transforming energies in the present, and invoking a new future.
A related, and puzzling, feature of traditional European fire festivals is the frequency with which they take on sinister overtones for Pagans. Many groups call their fire festivals “burning the witches.” In England, some continuing bale fire sites are run by local Christian church groups that deny any knowledge of pagan origins for their practices. Given the antiquity of fire festivals and their indisputable connection with the very pagan culture which also stands behind the Craft, this current state of affairs calls for some explanation. First, calling effigy burnings “burning the witch” is very likely a remnant of the medieval and renaissance persecutions. When the authorities seized, tortured, and executed people’s neighbors and friends as witches, those people must certainly have carried a deep impression of that event. Any other effigy burning, done for whatever reason, would necessarily invite memory and comparison, and the two events might easily coalesce in popular awareness. Second, and more intentionally, giving the old festivals a new name could be a strategic reversal to protect the celebration from the unwanted attentions of those who might want to see it done away with. A festival to the old gods might escape the eyes of the church if it was called “burning the witch.”
In any case, the common meaning of effigy burning remains the most persuasive and the most likely. The sacrificed image represents the spirits of vegetation, the cycle of fertilization, growth, maturity, and death which defines the parameters of life on earth. The dried stalks of last year’s growth must be burned and returned to the soil to prepare the way for new growth. Death is intrinsically linked to the emergence of new life. Everything enters the fire and is transformed.
The wicker man ritual at Rites of Spring in 1982 was prepared carefully beforehand. The effigy itself was made in a garage. The process was deliberate and magickal. Materials were all carefully and ritually gathered, many of them coming from one particularly polluted site on the banks of the Merrimack river in Lawrence, MA. The figure’s body was an old woven laundry hamper, and the rest assembled from natural grasses and fibers. The image was brought to the site of the gathering tied to the top of a car and covered with blankets. One person who helped make and transport the figure said later that “…it looked so real … I was afraid that we’d be stopped for driving around with a dead body on the car!” Fliers for the festival invited participants to bring bits of paper and trash from near their homes for use in the main circle, During the weekend, the effigy itself was hung out in the open, and participants were asked to stuff whatever paper and trash they might have brought with them into the figure. This made the wicker man quite literally the vessel of human wastefulness and despoiling. Shortly before the main circle, a parade formed to escort the effigy to its place at the center of the ritual space.
After the gathering, several participants reported that the places from which their trash had been gathered were dramatically improved. Perhaps the most remarkable case, however, was the littered and junky shore of the Merrimack from which much of the wicker man himself had come. Shortly after the festival, the city of Lawrence undertook to clean the area and convert it into the center for a municipal boating program. It is now clean, green, usable space!
The most important difference between traditional fire festivals and the Rites of Spring wicker man circle is that in traditional cultures, the same workings are done at the same season year after year. At Rites, the major rituals differ each year. Some might regret this, and organizer Andras Corban agrees: “it would be good to have symbolic continuity, but people would get bored if we did exactly the same thing every year.”
Repetition is part of the essence of ritual action. As rituals are repeated, they gain in depth and power. How strong it is to stand where one’s mothers and fathers have stood, doing the same work! Repetition also provides for connection across generations. But, the power of repetition can be counterbalanced by the rigid oppressiveness of sameness. Repeated ritual can become mechanical almost as easily as it can gain in depth. On the other hand, ritual provides a kind of language which allows for the communication of subtle meanings across generations, even when those transmitting the message do not understand it. When a ritual is handed down, it remains possible for later generations experiencing it to look behind the performance to the essential pattern within it, even if the majority have forgotten the mystery. Our problem, as we recreate our tradition. is to rediscover the patterns of old rituals and to make them contemporary. Certainly, we observe the same seasonal cycles, the same rotation of dark and light. We observe the Sabbats and turnings of the moon. These things give us a common basis. But this shared foundation needs to be combined with the changing work we have as individuals and as a community to find rituals that fittingly express development as well as continuity.
The wicker man circle was done twice more: once at Pagan Spirit Gathering in Wisconsin, USA, and once at Spiral Gathering in Georgia, USA. Each of these events took a shape of its own which reflected the participants, the occasion, and the ambient energies. The circle at PSG included some improvements on the effigy itself. At Rites, the figure had little internal supporting structure, When it began to burn, it collapsed on itself rather quickly and became simply a bonfire. At PSG on the other hand, the image was constructed on a rectangular wooden frame, and the arms were hinged, so that when the priestess addressed the wicker man, his arms could be raised as if in response. His arms remained up throughout the burning, and his frame retained its shape, creating a vivid image. Though, in other ways, the circle at PSG lacked the focus and intensity which had been present at Rites of Spring.
The wicker man burning at Spiral was the last of the three, and a relatively small contingent of people were there from the original group. Perhaps for both reasons, the parts of the ritual were not so tightly connected this time, and the energy of the circle was more diffuse and less satisfying for the oganizers. Nevertheless, the power of transformation was present.
But why is all of this important? What lessons can be drawn from the history? Burning the wicker man was one of the first major public ritual dramas developed by EarthSpirit Community. It brought lessons about coordinating complex movements, about what worked and what didn’t, and most of all about the power which large groups can bring to ritual. Intentionally drawing from the heritage and tradition of old Europe, the organizers tried to find ways to shape that heritage to modern needs. This brought further confirmation of the fact that as witches we are recreating an interrupted tradition. No doubt there are lines of connection stretching back to very early times, even if the burning times, the christianizing and secularizing of Europe, and the scattering of traditional peoples everywhere have made a detailed tracing of these connections virtually impossible. Much of what has been passed down has been influenced and distorted in the process. But, we have fragments and hints from the past, we have the work of scholarly folklorists, and we have our own direct experience of the sacredness of the earth and her life. So we hunt for clues and affinities, we channel, we experiment, and we learn. We trace the parameters of possible forms of community, the ways of working together, and we search out the building stones for the new culture and community that are in the making. We are literally a people giving birth to ourselves. What matters most of all is that we keep this process in view.
Our evolution as a community is perfectly expressed and affirmed in the wicker man ritual. We recognize the elements of life-that-has-been as they enter the fire and are transformed by the power of will into a new, healing shape. She touches us, and we are changed.
1. See, for example, Sir James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, one volume abridged edition (New York: MacMillan Company, 1958), Ch. LXII, LXIII, and passim : but see especially, Ch. LXIV “The Burning of Human Beings in the Fire.”
WALTER WRIGHT ARTHEN co-editor of FireHeart and a memberof the Board of Directors of the EarthSpirit Community. He is a frequent contributor to FireHeart. His writing blends wide experience with many spiritual paths and a commitment to building bridges betueen the Pagan community and secular culture.