Last night myself and a couple friends went out to see the new version of the movie “The Wicker Man”. Now first off, I’ll admit I have never seen the original, despite having a love for horror and mystery/thriller movies. I tend to be too busy watching bad old vampire movies to get to many of the classics. I know the basic premise, and knew it going into the movie…..pagan cult committing human sacrifice in the manner of the legendary druid human sacrifices stuffed into a wicker man and burned.
Honestly, druids are not a major area of study for me, nor is Celtic mythology. However, like every pagan on the planet (at least I hope) I have done research into Celtic mysticism and religion along with the other areas Paganism famously was practiced in, such as the Viking and Norse cultures, the Ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, Sumerian’s, Ancient Greeks and Romans and Africans. Again, I at least like to hope Pagans research heavily into the traditional history of the faiths they profess, but I have a sinking feeling I may be expecting too much from them based on some of my recent encounters with local Pagans.
In any case, this movie will likely horrify, anger, infuriate and even send into orbit some Pagans with little sense of humor. Probably the same ones who throw fits about kids dressing up in costumes as the stereotypical witches with green skin, pointy hats and warts, saying it insults them. However, the makers of the movie definitely did their research and did it thoroughly. Be warned that I will be giving away much of the plot in this article as I examine the Pagan beliefs introduced in the movie. If you have not seen it yet and want a surprise, read this article after you see the movie.
First off the basic premise of the movie, of a group of Pagans who act something like an Amish culture, raising their own food and staying away from modern technology is an interesting twist. The nature of the people in the Pagan group is something like a commune run by a High Priestess, who in her own words, is the “Earthly representative of the Great Goddess” and who makes fertile the island and everyone on it. The society is obviously matriarchal, with the men being forbidden or unable to speak and doing heavy labor under the watchful eye of the women, who are all named after plants and referred to as “sister”, for example, “sister Lily”.
This echoes what some writers have stated about Amazon culture, that men were part of the society in some cases but very subservient to men. Other writers state that their society was all female, and the women went to neighboring tribes for unions. Boys were sent back to the fathers at birth, and girls raised by the Amazons as warriors. Obviously the emphasis in this movie was on an agrarian society, with no strife among members. All dressed similarly, and all the children and adults even looked similar. The High Priestess referred to the commune as a “colony”, and seemed to be much like a queen of her island.
As such, she was treated much like a queen bee, and the bee symbolism was constant throughout the movie. The colony raised organic honey through beehives, based their culture around bees, even calling the men that were present “Drones” and in one set of scenes, dancing in a manner reminiscent of a line of bees. It is most likely purposeful irony that the main character, who was a police officer and outsider, was allergic to bees, and shocked and horrified the whole commune by killing one near the beginning. This echoes many ancient cultures that revered and even worshiped bees, considering theirs a perfect society, and calling the priests “bees” as an honorary title. Bees and honey are seen in many cultures as symbolizing hard work, labor and it’s reward, as well as fertility and feminine power.
Another scene has the colony members, including children donning elaborate and beautiful animal masks and costumes for their celebration of death and rebirth. These costumes also echo ancient Pagan traditions of masked dances with overtones of animal spirits and fetishism in the sense of magical artifacts. This procession to the place where the giant wicker man was built and filled with sacrifices of live chickens and goats and the main character in the movie also echoes lore of Beltaine dances.
Up until now I have been drawing mostly benign parallels, but the following may upset some of the fluffier Pagans and Wiccans out there. That’s because few of them will admit or even like to read about the fact that human and animal sacrifice is nearly universal around the world in both monotheistic and polytheistic cultures. In later years these sacrifices may have been replaced by human shaped effigies, cakes in the shape of people or dolls, but originally the sacrifices were living animals or even humans. People within the Pagan and Wiccan faiths often like even less that the sacrifices were often willing.
In Inca culture, parents vied for the honor of having their children sacrificed according to some scholars. In their culture at least, the sacrifice was not the bloody, screaming affair you see in lurid satanism movies. Instead, the children were fed an extremely strong liquor with raw coca leaves( the base plant made into cocaine ) brewed into it. The children were drugged unconscious with this mixture, sewn inside tight sacks and left in caves to suffocate in their sleep.
In Maya culture, the human sacrifices were split between willing victims and prisoners of war. Even prisoners were sent to the gods with honor, and killed quickly. The Maya seem to have reserved their more creatively painful and masochistic impulses for themselves. Traditionally, for magic and religious reasons, blood was drawn as an offering from the tongue, which was often pierced and had cord or thread pulled through it, or from the ears or in males, the penis was perforated. Other areas were doubtless used too, but these seem to have been the most favored in the illustrated codex’s that have survived. It is also known, or at least speculated by archaeologists that the Maya played a sacred ball game with a gum rubber ball that was used as an omen. Often the losing team was sacrificed willingly for magical and spiritual reasons.
The Aztecs were in many ways one of the most brutal cultures with their sacrifices. Human sacrifices to Xipe Totec, the god of rains, were prepubescent children painted all over with rubber tree sap and held underwater until they drowned. The time it took for them to die told how long it would be before the rains came. Other fertility sacrifices associated with Tezcatlipoca were first skinned, then kept alive while the priest danced wearing their skin, then burned alive, then removed from the fire so their hearts could be removed with an obsidian dagger, all while they were still alive. The subject of the sacrifice was a young woman who had borne a child, and it was considered an honor and privilege to be so sacrificed. Other sacrifices simply (if you can call it that) had their hearts cut out while alive.
Northern American tribes often practiced a form of ritual killing of captured warriors involving burning them alive according to some cultures, but this seems to have been practiced mostly by some of the Plains tribes. A form of willing self sacrifice was the Sun Dance, performed by warriors who perforated the flesh of their chests, thrust wooden pegs through the muscle and skin and then danced and hung by these pegs until they tore out in many cases. Warriors who performed the Sun dance brought great fame, honor and renown to their family and tribe, as their willingness to undergo such agony willingly was well respected.
This is the case according to most writers about Druidic cultures as well. Druids often seem to have practiced human sacrifice, but it was of willing members of their own community who were drugged senseless with herbs. In many cultures this was the case, as it was seen as a bad omen for a sacrifice to struggle. Especially with the Druids though, sacrifices found in peat bogs seem to have been clubbed unconscious or drugged that way before death. The one exception I know of was the Blood Eagle, performed on druids who broke their oaths. The offender was tied to a boulder and their lungs pulled out through slits cut between their ribs. They were then left that way to suffocate.
In my opinion, these sacrifices for religious reasons are more comprehensible than Chinese women who would throw unwanted babies into kilns along with the pottery to burn to death, since girls were considered worthless and required a dowry to marry. Those that survived up until the early 1900s had their feet painfully and horribly mutilated to force them to stay under three inches long and with the arch and toes broken and folded. The idea was this was supposed to be sexually arousing, as well as ensuring that a girl could never run away from her husband. Also incomprehensible to me is the female “castration” still practiced in parts of the world on young girls without their willingness or understanding.
The monotheistic religions too have histories of human sacrifice, including Christianity and Judaism as well as some forms of Islam. Simply read the holy texts of these faiths for examples of torture and human and animal sacrifices rivaling any in Pagan cultures or even the most gruesome movies. If someone can imagine a thing, it’s most certainly been done, and if it’s been done, it has probably been done in the name of religion.
Another form of religious sacrifice shied away from in modern neo-pagan and Wiccan books is a form of fertility ritual, the sacrifice of virginity to ensure crop fertility. Many pagans will talk about the fun that is Beltaine, which is used by many as an excuse to have a sacred boink in the name of religion, fertility and tradition. However, in some references, this was often a ritual deflowering as part of a ritual by a priest or priestess to a virginal young woman or man, and the blood from the virgin girl or semen from the virgin boy was sprinkled or buried in the field. However, admitting your religion believed in ritually deflowering young men and women, often before they turned 13 makes for bad press in the modern day.
Paganism’s roots lie both in flowering meadows and foggy, overcrowded graveyards. For every flower strewn festival with laughter and dancing were an equivalent set of rites involving blood, pain and death. Modern pagans emphasize the former and ignore the latter, even decrying it as “lies” and “Propaganda”. Every major religion with the possible exceptions of the Buddhism and Judaism religions has it’s dark side or demented fanatics…the Catholic Church and the Witch Trials and Inquisition, the Mormons and their Polygamy, Islam and the Jihads and terrorism, Hinduism and it’s Castes, especially the Untouchables, even some modern Pagans and Otherkin who want some sort of secret police assassin squad working against those who offend their delicate sensibilities. Every religion has skeletons in it’s closet, even Wicca, which is only 50 years old, though supposedly based on ancient pagan traditions. Of course, most Wiccans and Pagans have whitewashed anything they find unacceptable out of the very religions and belief systems they claim to strictly adhere to.
By no means am I advocating human sacrifice. What I am arguing against is the regrettable tendency of those in the Pagan, Wiccan and New Age movements to pretend that if they ignore the fact that those they base their spirituality on killed people as part of that religious past. Paganism has roots as dark and bloody as any other religion, whatever some superior types who think they are overly enlightened may pretend. In my opinion, the best way to deal with it is to accept that both dark practice and light practice have their place in magic, Wicca, Paganism, etc and be honest about the past we claim to base our religion on. Yes, our ancestors may have danced around naked with flower garlands on their heads. They also however advocated ritual killing of animals and humans along with plants and tortured themselves and others for reasons that may or may not make sense to us today. It happened. Hell, according to both fiction and anthropology, it may still be happening in places.
That’s life and that’s history. Lying to yourself won’t change the past, and those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.