by Max Sparber
There is a puzzling little horror film that came out of England in 1973 called “The Wicker Man.” The film occasionally pops up on lists of the best horror films ever made, and has attracted a solid cult following, but viewers who turn to it looking for a typical story of monsters and mayhem are generally bewildered. For one thing, but for an extended, anguished climax, the film isn’t particularly frightening. It tells of an irritable and earnestly Christian Scottish police detective, played by Edward Woodward (best knows as television’s “The Equalizer”), who is summoned to investigate the disappearance of a small child on a remote Scottish island. He arrives just as the islanders are preparing for their annual May Day festivities, and he quickly comes to realize that the islanders have reverted back to paganism, directly inspired by Sir James George Frazer’s 1922 history of magic and religion “The Golden Bough.” The island’s teenage girls leap naked through bonfires, the grade schools teach earnest lessons on the phallic symbolism of the May Pole, and the film ends with a disquieting human sacrifice.
The film has done better with English audiences than American, in part, one
expects, because the American May Day, when observed, is the International Workers
Day. This workers’ holiday is celebrated on the British Isles, but it
is coupled with a traditional feast day, including May Poles, Morris dancers
and bonfires. “The Wicker Man” effectively unpacks this festival,
revealing the pre-Christian origin of many of the day’s activities, although
adding its own dash of cinematic suspense.
Perhaps one of the reasons “The Wicker Man” has developed such a
following in Great Britain is because anyone who has attended the traditional
British May Day festival—or any number of similar agrarian festivals—knows
the creeping feeling that the entirety of the United Kingdom is still one step
removed from paganism, and might revert back at any time. (Some have, by the
way; a 2001 census of England and Wales had 30 thousand respondents identify
themselves as “pagans,” while another 7,000 identified as “Wiccan;”
508 respondents further clarified their beliefs by identifying as “Celtic
An early pagan May Day holiday was called Beltane, and was originally a Gaelic
holiday, celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Mann; a similar May
holiday was celebrated by the Celts of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. The holiday
falls at the approximate mid-point between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer
Solstice. The primarily agrarian British Islanders used the holiday to mark
the first day of summer, and most of its rituals related to tending to crops
and cattle. The druids, for example, would create something called a “need-fire,”
which is a bonfire created by the friction of rubbing two pieces of wood together
(or rubbing a rope on a stake). Cattle are then driven through the need-fire
in the belief that this wards off illness; people could also pass through the
need fire. The day after May Day, cattle were taken to their summer pastures.
Other Beltane practices were similarly utilitarian: Farmers would walk their
property, mending fences and boundary markers.
the festival of Beltane incorporated elements of the German May Day, which was
more of a fertility festival. The May Pole, for example, is a tradition that
originated in Bavaria in the 16th century and is plainly a phallic image. The
English added their own twist to the traditional May Pole, having children dance
in circles around the pole while holding brightly colored ribbons.
A popular, if frequently suppressed, custom of May Day was the “Greenwood
Marriage,” during which men and women would steal away from the festival
into the surrounding countryside. This practice is dramatized in “The
Wicker Man” by having Detective Howie emerge late at night from a pub
to find an entire Scottish hillside covered in coupling partners. Children produced
by the liaisons were reportedly seen as being children of the entire village,
rather than of one set of parents.
Some of these practices may be attributed to Roman influence on Northern Europe,
as the Romans brought with them their three-day holiday of Floralia, which fell
at approximately the same time as May Day and honored the Roman goddess Flora.
This holiday had a strong sexual element, featuring bawdy theatrical events
and scattering of beans to ensure fertility; a series of games played at this
time, called the Ludi Florales, were notorious times of licentiousness, and
“Flora” became a common term for prostitutes in ancient Rome. During
the Ludi Florales, attendees wove flowers through their hair, a practice that
continues to this day in modern May Day events. Some festivals also elect a
May Queen, a local girl who, for the day, is considered to be a representation
of Flora. ||
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