When The Wickerman was first released in 1973, film critics assailed it as a cult horror classic. Few people realize, however, that the film's plot was based on an ancient fertility rite that takes place during the Beltane (May) festival of the old Celtic Calendar.

Every year at Beltane, before the crops were planted and the weather was just turning to Spring, the Celts - and before them the pagans - would turn their thoughts to preparing the ground for the year's crop. Today, farmers use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, but hundreds of years ago they used natural fertilizers such as manure or potash.

The Wickerman was an important part of the Beltane fertility ritual, but for reasons that will become evident, it was not very well publicized. As a result, the Wickerman ritual has become steeped in speculation and myth fuelled in part by the now famous movie of the same name.

The Wickerman consisted of an effigy built from waddle (twigs, debris, corn husks, dried plant matter or anything flammable) supported by the frame of a wooden cross. At Beltane, the Celts would burn the Wickerman in an elaborate night ceremony, gather up the potash it left behind and spread the fertilizer on their fields.

According to folklorist MacIain MacDonald, in olden times the Wickerman ritual was accompanied by human sacrifice.

In those days, the community or the chief would arbitrarily decide who was going to be the sacrificial Wickerman for that year. Usually it would be outcasts, criminals, the so called "village idiot", or any other undesirable whom they felt they could lose without cost. Then the villagers would get together and build a large Wickerman effigy, lure the person into the frame - because the victim had to come willingly - and set it on fire. The larger the effigy, the more potash it would create and the greater the intended benefits for all.

The ancient Celts didn't always burn human beings inside the Wickerman, but for the ritual to be done properly a living thing should be sacrificed. The practise of using humans for Beltane Wickerman rituals died out centuries ago, but smaller Wickermans are still burned in a few Celtic enclaves where its practitioners may sacrifice a small animal such as a chicken.

The Wickerman ritual made a great plot for the 70's cult horror film, The Wicker Man. In 1972, actor Christopher Lee, Peter Snell, (head of the film company British Lion) and writer Anthony Shaffer began work on a low-budget pet project of theirs.

Several years later - and missing nearly 35 minutes of original footage - the film was finally released to a mixed response. The cuts were made as the film's creators tried to find a British or American company who would buy or distribute The Wicker Man. Eventually there were several different versions released, the differences being how much was edited out. The first version appeared in theaters in 1973.

The movie's plot follows a highly religious policeman from the Scottish mainland who is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on an island inhabited by people who hold traditional pagan/Druidic beliefs. It turns out later on that the girl's supposed disappearance was merely a ruse created to lure him to the island.

Although The Wicker Man has been described by those who've seen it as a campy, low budget, B-grade horror film, it is nonetheless very accurate in terms of the Beltane fertility rituals it portrays. And thirty years after its release, the Wicker Man is still one of the most sought-after horror films of its kind.

SBB, October 1999



More Beltane

Film Reviews of The Wicker Man

Internet Movie Database Film Review

External Reviews from IMDB

Conubic Productions Review

Wicked Al's Horror Reviews

Gareth's Reviews

Fluxeuropa Review

Movie Reviews UK

Shooting Locations in Scotland

Review of the film's different versions

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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