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Ancestral Ambivalence: A Pagan Retrospective on The Wicker Man

"He raised you to be a pagan!"
-- Sergeant Neil Howie, to Lord Summerisle

I first watched the movie The Wicker Man when I was 13 years old, in the basement of our local library, which was having an all-day film festival. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a cult film that people either love or hate, usually with equal fervor. In short (and I'm spoiling the ending here, so you should skip a few paragraphs if that bothers you), it's a 1973 low-budget British horror film set and filmed in Scotland. Sergeant Neil Howie, a straitlaced, virginal, extremely fundamentalist Christian policeman (played by Edward Woodward of Equalizer fame), receives an anonymous letter stating that a 12-year-old girl has gone missing on the reclusive island of Summerisle, and goes to investigate. The natives are friendly but unhelpful, full of opaque comments, and no one seems to be willing to divulge any information. Within the first 24 hours, Sgt. Howie begins to notice that the villagers have strange customs - the Green Man Inn, no minister, the church overgrown and fallen to ruins, trees planted on graves with dried umbilical cords hanging from them, the innkeeper's daughter who seems to be a priestess of Aphrodite, and children erecting a Maypole in the schoolyard and learning about it in the classroom. ("Can anyone tell me what the Maypole represents?" Miss Rose, the teacher, asks the class. "A phallic symbol!" they shout back, and she launches into a lecture about how the penis is sacred to their faith.)

When Sgt. Howie meets with the suave and articulate Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee in lace ruffles and a kilt), he learns that the Lord's grandfather bought the island a century ago and returned the people to their ancestral worship. He is horrified, and grows more and more horrified throughout the rest of the film. One of the best lines in the movie shows him saying about a group of teenage girls dancing around a bonfire, "But they're naked!" to which Lord Summerisle, who has described it as Divinity lessons, retorts, "Well, of course! It's not safe to jump over bonfires with your clothes on!"

This is, however, a horror film, and grows darker the further you watch. Sgt. Howie decides that the villagers must be holding the missing girl to use as a sacrifice on May Day, which is the next day. He is warned to stay in his room, but instead cold cocks the innkeeper and steals his costume, that of Punch the Fool, and joins the Beltane parade. The ritual is beautiful, and the details are amazing - the sun-shaped breads in the bakery, the Morris dancers with swords, and all the vibrant masks and costumes. At the end, he discovers that the girl's life was never in danger - he was the chosen sacrifice, lured from the mainland to be the sacred king whose life force would replenish the ailing crops and orchards. After this is revealed, he is promptly stripped, washed, clothed in a white robe, and frog marched to an enormous 30-foot wicker man in which he is imprisoned (with a lot of livestock) and burned alive. The final scene, a paragon of black humor, has the villagers all dancing and singing Sumer Is A-Cumin In while he screams in the flaming Wicker Man.

A friend of mine, another fan, saw the movie for the first time at the age of 15 and recounted that he was stunned by it for days; that it followed him in his thoughts for a long time. He couldn't help but identify with the burning policeman, murdered by the bloodthirsty pagans. Certainly my reaction was the same in terms of the way it stayed with me. I think I imprinted something at that moment, something important, and yet unlike him, I didn't identify with the Sergeant at all. If anything, he simply symbolized all the ways in which the world was wrong. I was drawn to the village of Summerisle with a longing that, to this day, catches me in the solar plexus. Was it a real place? I wondered for weeks. (The film doesn't help dispel this fantasy, as the last line of the credits thanks the people of Summerisle, which doesn't exist, for their aid in filming their age-old customs.) If so, I wanted to go there. If offered a plane ticket, I would have run away at that moment.

I was especially touched by the scene in which Willow MacGregor, the innkeeper's daughter (played by the stunningly blond Britt Ekland) is sent a teenage boy to initiate sexually as a sacrifice for Aphrodite. The villagers downstairs in the inn proceed to serenade the young lad's losing of his virginity with love songs, smiling with satisfaction at the ceiling while the sounds of sex rise and peak upstairs. I wondered what it would have been like to have one's first sexual experience in that way, applauded by one's entire community, instead of guilty fumbling in the back of a car. Watching the naked dance that Willow MacGregor does in a failed attempt to seduce Sgt. Howie (and possibly save his life) put the cap on my longing.

Even today, while many (not all) Pagan parents are reasonably sanguine about their teenagers being sexually active, how many would willingly walk them to a sacred harlot for initiation, and stand downstairs looking pleased while it went on? No, it is implied that the freedom displayed in the film comes from the uniformity of faith in the community - in Summerisle, pagans aren't an oppressed minority looking guardedly over their shoulders and attempting to shake off their repressed upbringings, but the majority rule, and the community's laws and customs reflect that. There is a context, and a tradition to work under.

There was also the troubling issue of human sacrifice, to understate the point by a mile. That's usually the one sticking point that I have in explaining why I like the film to others, Pagan or not. They point out that however nice the village life might, be, these people are still deceiving and murdering an innocent policeman from the mainland, and this glaring flaw cannot be glossed over. Unlike other horror films, this one doesn't take place in the dark of night, with lots of shadows and things jumping out. Almost everything happens in broad daylight, including the sacrifice scene, with bright colors, panoramic cinematography, lilting Scottish folk music, and smiling people (most of whom were played by recruited locals in the small Scottish towns used for filming). The juxtaposition is disturbing.

Many pagans that I've met do enjoy the dubious and not very useful hobby of Christian-baiting. One could attempt to excuse it by pointing out years of forced religious practice in childhood that left spiritual scars, but I've seen people do it who I know didn't have that excuse, and anyway that sort of thing should, in my opinion, be outgrown after a while. However, one of the best points for Christian-baiting is to point out Christianity's bloody history - the Inquisition, murder of native Americans, etc. etc. We seem to forget that we, too, as pagans, have a bloody history, and for that matter a much longer one than only-2000-year-old Christianity.

Did our pagan ancestors put guys in giant Wicker Men and burn them alive? Some researchers say yes, others say no. Certainly they did sacrifice humans. There are regular reports of human sacrifice in contemporary writings, and some of the bodies pulled out of bogs seems to reflect the ritual Triple Death of sacred kings - stabbed, strangled, and bashed in the head. One town in Norway had the grim reputation of sacrificing one poor unfortunate every year - always a stranger who had wandered through. People learned not to go there during their spring festival. The sacred oak grove in Uppsala was decorated by hanged male offerings to Odin, until the Christians cut the grove down and built a church from the trees. (The locals apparently were only soothed by the fact that there was still a tortured sacrifice hanging in the grove - Christ on the cross.) In Babylonia, the god Marduk was honored by the sacrifice of hundreds of infants, and there is some evidence that during times of plague or war, some women would bear babies solely for the purpose of sacrificing them.

We must not make the error of assuming that our pagan ancestors were always peaceful and nice, or that they didn't kill people - in some cases, yes, even women or children, and not always volunteers, either - to appease their gods. There's something in our nature that wants to find a Utopian past, a time and place when everyone was good to each other, a culture we can just copy in our attempts to be more ethical, instead of fumblingly forging our own answers. Time and time again, we are disappointed. Forty years ago, it was fashionable to imagine the Mayan civilization as a peaceful, advanced, intellectual people, in comparison to their bloodthirsty Aztec neighbors. Some heralded the Mayans as the remnant of the Atlantean civilization. However, they backed down fast as new discoveries were made - sacred wells full of hundreds of sacrificed skeletons of barely pubescent girls, and translations of divination methods used by Mayan royalty which included pulling spiked ropes through the King's penis and the Queen's tongue and reading omens in the blood.

By saying that we need to come to terms with our bloodthirsty ancestors, I do not mean to condone Sergeant Howie's death. I don't excuse the nonconsensual murder-sacrifice of fundamentalist policemen, or anyone else for that matter. That's not the point. Just as it is perfectly possible to be a Christian and not condone hate crime against people who don't think like you, it is possible to be a Pagan who doesn't appease the gods with the deaths of random strangers. Sacrifice is, and will continue to be, an integral part of our faith, but we now prefer to make it a sacrifice of our time, energy, and effort, and perhaps habits we would like to lose. We kill off human parts without bodies, and it is, in this time and era, better that way.

However, the bowdlerization of old pagan culture is an ongoing problem. I had an argument once with someone who quoted to me the saying, "All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals," from the Charge of the Goddess. She proceeded to tell me that what they really meant was that acts of love and pleasure were sacred, but acts of just love or just pleasure weren't. Not even wanting to get into the debate of whether hedonism was sacred, I asked the individual if she knew who "they" were. Why, the Charge of the Goddess, she said, as if it was biblical gospel. I pointed out that she was referring to Starhawk's version of Doreen Valiente's rendition of Charles Leland's bad translation of a very suspect document, Aradia. Even if Charles Leland didn't just make it all up in order to pay his rent, which is quite possible, we're talking about a text in which the Goddess assures her followers that she will teach them how to poison their enemies. If it is authentic, it comes out of a time of distrust, written by practitioners who would have laughed derisively at the concept of "An it harm none."

The ugly truth is that the bonds that modern paganism has forged with such movements as gay rights, civil rights, labor, and egalitarianism are largely a product of this era. Since our biggest opponent, the Christian Right, has chosen the other side of these issues, we get whatever's left over as a package, mostly by virtue of it all being thrown into one big radical outcast bag by mainstream culture. The sole exception might be ecology, and even there we might find arguments. Mind you, I'm heartily for all of the above movements, and for their alliance with my religion. But I am a twenty-first century pagan, and I do not deceive myself into believing that a fourth-century pagan would agree with me on all these issues.

Some people argue that we are penalized enough by those who would cast us as evil Satan-worshipers, that we must do our best to look as harmless as possible so as not to frighten people, that we must disassociate ourselves entirely from the old bloodthirsty customs or we will be accused of indulging in them still. To these folks, even the act of admitting you enjoy The Wicker Man, much less that you have traditional showings of it with your friends every Beltane, is too open to misinterpretation to be safe. The problem with this bowdlerization-for-the-sake-of-PR is that our history is available to anyone who wants to look it up, and when people discover you've been trying to cover up past indiscretions, they feel played for a fool, and are even more suspicious. It would be more honest, and better in the long run, to admit that our ancestors did things that we no longer feel are appropriate, and leave it at that.

Which brings me back to the village of Summerisle, which looks to be an old-fashioned pagan utopia at first glance, and a murderous cult at second glance. Both are true. I don't apologize for my strong attraction to it, burning Wicker Man and all, because something in my blood and bones and spirit cries out to live in a place where our rites are practiced openly, as part of a community; where a Beltane parade down Main Street is no more looked at askance than is a Christmas parade now, where children could be educated in a Pagan school (even if only a private one) and the community leader would agree to ritually cross-dress once a year. And even when I force myself to watch the violent ending, some part of me whispers the big question, the real question that is not answered in the film, that echoes silently through the mind of everyone who watches it: Did it work? Did Sergeant Howie's death bring back the fertility of their fields? It's easy to see what it means if it didn't.....what does it mean if it did?

The film ends with the burning; if it had one more scene, either with the fields and orchards flourishing, or with the island barren and the people starving, what message would that have sent? Surely the latter message would be obvious - rationality triumphing over superstition - but what would the former have implied? To put it simply, does human sacrifice work, as an act of magic? Of course it does. After all, the formative event in the Christian faith is the sacrifice of one individual, Yeshua ben Yosef, as an act of magic to get his new Jewish spin-off cult off the ground successfully, and no one can say that it wasn't wildly successful, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Human sacrifice is the magical equivalent of adding a turbojet engine to your spell. There might be debate over who would make the best sacrifice - innocent child or powerful adult, willing or unwilling, beloved member or prisoner - but when you get down to it, it works. However, it's hardly the best way to go about things, to make another understatement. In comparison, plague is an extremely effective (and egalitarian) method of lowering population levels, but I don't hear anyone advocating widespread disease as a way to solve earth's overpopulation problem.

In a sense, the message behind The Wicker Man is the clash of two cultures' dark sides, and the fascination is because for once, the heathens win. Since we've been losing more than winning for the past thousand years or so, we tend to cheer in seeing any kind of presumed victory. I want to live on Summerisle, wherever I choose to build it...but I don't want to have to kill people whenever there's a famine. How does one reconcile one's ancestral ambivalences?

I was recently on a panel of clergy of all faiths at a conference for queer and transgendered folks, and most of the questions ended up being directed at the one Christian of the group, a liberal Episcopalian seminary student. How, people wanted to know, do you resolve the tension between wanting to be a Christian, and being told that real Christians didn't do whatever it was that you were doing, and that you believed was neither harmful nor un Christian? He said, simply and profoundly, that he believed in his right to pick and choose. All the battles between sects, he pointed out, were mostly arguments over whether you had the right to pick and choose, and which items.

Similarly, we pagans have the right to pick and choose. I can choose to honor my pagan ancestors, who did the best that they could with what they knew, without having to do everything that they did. I can copy certain of their practices and not others. I truly believe that there is nothing that cannot be reclaimed; you just have to pick and choose which parts of it to keep and which to discard. In a sense, the fact that we are pagans who have discarded the option of human sacrifice is, in itself, a great sacrifice, one that can be seen as an act of magic towards a more united and compassionate humanity.

Every year, I hold a Beltane festival that has a decidedly Wicker Man-ish feel. We have a mummer's parade with a Hobby-Horse and Salmon of Knowledge, bake sun-shaped bread, dance around a Maypole, and set up a field kitchen with a Green Man Inn sign. And, yes, we have a Wicker Man, only about eight feet tall and filled with written wishes and paper sacrifices, and we do burn Him. I make sure to tell all the young newcomers how this was originally a vehicle for human sacrifice, so that they understand where we came from, and why we can't claim a perfect past. Even so, the ritual has now taken on a different dimension. I watch the rapt faces as He goes up in flames to the music of "Sumer Is A-Cumin In," and I realize that our act of reclamation has succeeded. We are grateful that we no longer live in times which require such harsh measures; we are grateful for our present and hopeful for our future.

As it burns, I fantasize. I write the same wish on my paper every year, and it revolves around this image: Some day in the future, a hundred years maybe, a bunch of Christians are lighting a cross on fire in someone's yard. It is no threat, but a celebration - pinned to it are Bible verses, wishes for the upcoming year, the names of the beloved dead who have passed on. The yard is a parishioner's, and a picnic feast is laid out a few yards away full of potluck dishes for the congregation. The black Buddhist neighbors look benignly over their hedge. The minister, who wears a white robe with a pointed hood, lights off the cross, and an awed gasp fills the crowd as it goes up. Somewhere, a long time ago, his outfit, and the flaming cross, meant something very different, but that's all in the past now. The people lighting this fire might be vaguely uncomfortable remembering what it once meant, and they are quick to point out that their faith now has nothing to do with such old-fashioned and unenlightened acts, and they mean it. The flames take their wishes and messages to God, and they are lightened by the act.

There is nothing that cannot be reclaimed. Say it again, over and over. Believe it.

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