I will never forget the first time I was part of a Wicker Man ceremony at a camp. It was the Lughnasadh camp of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, and I guess is it was 1998. The figure had been built in the woods over the course of 10 days and was made of strong hazel and willow filled with fallen deadwood. It was massive. About 25 feet tall. When it came time to bring him out of the woods it took almost everyone at the camp to lift him and carry him to the centre of the field. Then he lay there offering us another logistic issue – how to raise him.
At the time the OBOD camps were run by Julie Britton and Ivan MacBeth, both very experienced ritualists and Druids. The first Fire Labyrinth I’d seen had also been at the early OBOD camps, and Ivan was responsible for building the Swan Circle, the stone circle in the grounds of the Glastonbury Festival site. So he knew how to raise heavy objects. He was also a magician. So we attached long lengths of telegraph wire to the wicker man, and the people at the camp stood around the figure intoning the Awen whilst the great structure was raised. Then the telegraph wire was tied to strong pegs that were hammered into the earth. He stood vast against the sky. Sentinel over the field. Ready to be burned. When it came to lighting him the drums and voices rang out into the night. It was, at that time, the biggest fire I had ever seen.
In 2005 our Anderida Gorsedd held it’s first Wicker Man camp, and we worked the same magic. Also in 2005 the first Mercian Gathering was held, and they have had a Wicker Man ritual as part of the camp ever since. In 2010 the Anderida Gorsedd held its second Wicker Man camp and for this one the entire weekend became the ritual. From a concert on the Friday night where we sang the songs from the film, to making masks and Corn Dolly offerings, and building the figure on the Saturday. Then raising him to the sound of the Awen in the afternoon, to the torchlit procession and ritual at night.
If you believe Julius Caesar the Druids officiated over a Wicker Man ritual with the figure filled with living sacrifices. This was obviously the inspiration behind the 1970s film The Wicker Man, and to many this is the image that will come to mind when you say the words “The Wicker Man”. Whether these rather unwieldy massive structures filled with human beings and animals ever existed we will probably never know. To be honest I have my doubts they ever existed in the way Caesar described. Believing what Caesar said about the Britons and Gauls is loosely similar to imagining that Hitler had won the war, and two thousand years later believing what he said about the Jews. The Romans were a conquering military force, and what better way to raise capital for the wars than to portray their prey as uncivilised barbarians. Caesar’s writings are not a historically reliable source of Truth.
Let’s not be frightened of the word ‘sacrifice’. It has got rather a bad reputation, and already some of you reading this may be feeling a little uncomfortable with what I’ve just written. If you look up the word in a dictionary the first couple of definitions will speak about killing something, but at its heart is often another definition, to give up (something valued) for the sake of other considerations. In the lake of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey archeologists found a massive hoard of offerings given as a ‘sacrifice’ into the water. We talk about ‘making sacrifices’ of our time for friends and family, for our careers. I hope that slowly we are moving beyond the sensationalistic propaganda of the word towards its deeper meaning.
At modern Wicker Man rituals people will make corn dollies and tie them to the figure, offering prayers of thanksgiving for their food, their family, their lives. They will offer something they have made, something that has taken time, and has been made with love, to be taken up by the fire. If this is done by an entire tribe of people, be that the 90 at the Anderida camps or the 900+ at the Mercian Gathering each year, the energy and magic is palpable. The figure is lit, and the offerings are taken to the Gods by the consuming flames of the fire.
No wonder they are growing in popularity. In 2011 and 2012 Cerri and I were honoured to have taken part in Wicker Man rituals in South Australia at an annual event called The English Ale – a part secular, but mostly Pagan event that culminates in a procession and Wicker Man burning.
All of these experiences, from the first in 1998, through our own rituals in Anderida, to the Mercian Gathering and The English Ale have all influenced my song. It’s a song I had wanted to write for a very long time, in fact since 1998, but only now did the words and tune arrive. I hope you like it. It’s available as a download through my website, and is also on iTunes.