In current times, associated with Beltane, how much do we actually know about the Wicker Man? And was animal and human sacrifice a major part of the Celtic religion?
Interestingly, we only have 2 ancient sources about the Wicker Man. Only the Roman general Julius Caesar and the Greek geographer Strabo mention the wicker man as one of many ways the druids of Gaul performed sacrifices.
In the mid-1st century BC, Caesar wrote in his Commentary on the Gallic War that a large wickerwork figure with limbs was filled with living men and set on fire. He says that criminals were the preferred victims, but that innocent people might also be burned if there were no criminals.
Writing slightly later, Strabo says in his Geographica that men and animals were burned in a large figure of wood and straw, although he does not make clear whether the victims were burned alive. He adds that the ashes were believed to help the crops grow.
Also in the 1st century BC, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in Bibliotheca historica that the Celts sacrificed human and animal captives by burning them on huge pyres along with the first fruits. It is probable that both Diodorus and Strabo got their information from the earlier Greek historian Posidonius, whose work has not survived.
In the 1st century AD, Roman writer Lucan mentioned human sacrifices to the Gaulish gods Esus, Toutatis and Taranis. In a commentary on Lucan—the Commenta Bernensia dating from the 4th century and later—an unnamed author added that sacrifices to Taranis were burned in a wooden container.
Archaeological evidence of human sacrifice among Celtic peoples is rare. Many modern historians and archaeologists state that the ancient Greco-Roman accounts should be viewed with caution. Both Greeks and Romans “had good reason to dislike a long-term enemy” and it may have benefited them to “transmit any bizarre and negative information” about the Celts. Their desire to depict Celtic peoples as “barbarians” may have “led to exaggeration or even fabrications”. (Mary Voight, The Violent Ways of Galatian Gordion)
The Wicker Man, although associated with ancient Britain, was only mentioned in respect of the Gauls, the name given to continental Celts.
In modern times, large wickerwork figures were burnt in France during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wilhelm Mannhardt recorded that a wickerwork giant was burnt each Midsummer Eve (not Beltane) in Brie. Until 1743, a large wickerwork figure of a soldier or warrior was burnt every 3 July on the Rue aux Ours in Paris, as the crowd sang “Salve Regina”.
At Luchon in the Pyrenees, snakes were burnt alive in a tall wickerwork column decked with leaves and flowers on Midsummer Eve. Far from being a pagan festival, young male Christians with torches danced around the burning column, whilst the townsfolk and clergy sang hymns. Snakes represented Satan, and this sadistic, barbaric ritual was about the Christian conquest of evil.
In recent times in Britain, neopagan movements have recreated burning of the Wicker Man at various festivals, in particular Beltane. However, the modern practice is more inspired by the 1970’s cult movie than any actual historical evidence.
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