Sumer Is Icumen In: The Wicker Man and René Girard

Pagan Rites and Christian Insights: The Intersecting Paths of The Wicker Man and René Girard.

The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent. C. Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico

Julius Caesar was the first author (indeed, one of the few) to mention the rite of the so-called Wicker Man as a particularly peculiar method the Celts had for performing human and animal sacrifices. I read on Wikipedia that Diodorus Siculus and Strabo also discuss it in their works. The latter, in his Geographica, describes a “colossus of wood and straw” in which livestock and prisoners were gathered to be burnt alive in honor of the deities.

Historical truth or lurid slander? Who knows. Modern historians dispute these accounts, especially Caesar’s, reducing them to rumors spread with the purpose of denigrating the enemy. It’s quite possible. Given that there is no way to settle the matter, it’s only worth remembering that in many European countries the tradition to burn, on certain days of the year, man-like figures made out of wicker is still very much alive.

***

The Wicker Man 1973
The Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy, 1973

René Girard spent much of his life as a relatively obscure professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, who, alongside an interest in narrative, cultivated a passion for anthropology. A Catholic, conservative but not traditionalist, interested in Freud and Nietzsche, by nature an opponent of Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s structuralism (to which he would be bound by an attraction, to use his own terms, deeply mimetic), Girard was obsessed with a problem that modern anthropology seemed to have put away in the closet of unacceptable or simply embarrassing ideas: what is sacrifice? Why historically in every religion do we encounter episodes of ritualized murder? Why Abel and Isaac, why the Carthaginian children sacrificed to Baal or the mountains of corpses piled up on Tenochtitlan’s pyramids? What kind of deep need is satisfied by these killings?

The answer Girard provides is the cornerstone of his imposing anthropological structure, a strange hybrid of anthropology, literature, and eccentric Catholicism, a genuine grand theory of everything that aims to bring to light nothing less than the mechanism hidden in every human behavior. Sam Kriss, who for reasons of shameless convenience I’m abudantly quoting (or mimicking?), wrote about it much better than me in his review of a Girard’s book recently published in the Penguin Classics. (1)

Human beings, Girard argues, contrary to what Romanticism induced us to believe, are not at all capable of personal autonomy: even worse, the very idea of the existence of something like an authentic self is just a myth. We are nothing but desire and we are dictated by it – consumed by the desire of being or, more precisely, to be someone else. The object of our attention is usually whoever in the community appears strongest, most capable, powerful. Therefore, we imitate them, copy them, aspire to become what they are and to possess what they have. The problem lies in the fact that in this desiring activity we are not alone: others desire the same thing. Hence a mimetic rivalry that becomes ever deeper, until it triggers violence. At this point, there is only one way to restore community peace: to proceed with the sacrifice of a scapegoat, someone on whom tensions and antagonisms must be unloaded. Preferably, the scapegoat must be somehow foreign to the community: a stranger, a sick person, somebody who is simply perceived as different, are the most immediate options. If the crisis persists or does not resolve itself, the quality of the sacrifice needs to be improved: children, daughters, sometimes even the leader of the community. Once the right sacrifice is consumed, the cycle begins anew.

In this elaboration, Girard is clearly inspired, among others, by James Frazer‘s The Golden Bough, with its grim narratives of kings and rulers who are killed by their subjects to ward off famines or plagues. However, Girard, starting from a careful reading of Nietzsche that ends up with exactly opposite conclusions, maintains that the sequence of mimetic desire (and its related sacrifice that has accompanied the human kind since the dawn of time) was interrupted by the appearance on the stage of history of a specific individual.

So Ecce Homo. Jesus of Nazareth enters the scene.

The death of Christ, innocent of the charges laid against him, reveals the brutality of the mechanism and the innocence of all those who were sacrificed before him. The senseless violence of his death unmasks the violence of the mob. His sacrifice is such a pivotal moment in human history that after it, concern for the victims becomes a significant societal focus. Indeed, after the traumatic event of the crucifixion, the world begins to embrace serious consideration for the sufferers and the wounded. Gradually, a culture of controlling mimetic impulses takes hold: it’s the victory of what Nietzsche deprecated as the morality of the slaves, the weak, and the deformed.

The balance, however, is always at risk (discriminate massacres, genocides, and world wars are there to prove it): the shadow of ritual sacrifice always looms over us, and we cannot escape it because it is part of our truest nature. Even in the rise and fall of modern celebrities, first glorified and then ritually savaged by their fans, it is possible to find the ineradicable mimetic-sacrificial mechanism that oversees every relationship between human beings.

***

The Wicker Man 1973b
The Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy, 1973

There is a precise moment in time when the legend of Caesar’s immani magnitudine simulacra and the theories of René Girard intersect.

That moment is 1973, the year of release of a film, The Wicker Man, which has earned a place of honor in pop culture and beyond. Initially a flop, opposed by its own production company that didn’t quite know what to do with this bizarre folk horror tale, The Wicker Man over the years has established itself as a classic of British cinema, a cult object also in music (its soundtrack has become a sort of bible for a whole community of folk and metal musicians) and has especially become the inescapable progenitor of a genre that is increasingly popular but that rarely has been able to reach the intensity and clarity of intent of the original (Midsommar by Ari Aster is a particularly clumsy take on the same subject, but the 2006 Wicker Man remake was even worse).

Partly dark comedy, partly weird pagan musical, The Wicker Man is a horror film that easily transcends every description.

The main reason for its success probably lies in the fact that Robin Hardy (the director) and Anthony Shaffer (the screenwriter) knew what they were doing. Both of them harbored a long-time interest in religious traditions, British esoterica, and heathenism: this explains why the ceremonial and anthropological details permeating the story have such a distinct real vibe.

But what is, exactly, this story?

In a nutshell, The Wicker Man tells the hilarotragoedia of one Sgt. Howie, a rigid, stuffy Christian police officer who arrives on the remote northern isle of Summerisle after receiving an anonymous letter reporting the disappearance of a child named Rowan (apparently every woman in Summerisle is called like a tree or a flower). It seems that nobody knows anything about the girl, but Howie soon discovers that a) they are all liars and b) that Summerisle is not your average British locale. There is nothing gothic or gloomy about the island. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, it enjoys a mild, sunny climate, favorable for the growth of apples, which are its main economic resource. Moreover, May Day is approaching, preparations for the early summer festivities are underway, and for its inhabitants, every occasion is good for singing a song (the more spicy, the better) or engaging in folk dances around what evidently look like phallic symbols. The sexual customs of the islanders, in fact, turn out to be, so to speak, pleasantly relaxed and, in short, their life, not weighed down by notions such as guilt and sin, appears to proceed in perfect harmony with the rhythms of nature. To his horror, poor Howie soon realizes that the entire population of Summerisle wholeheartedly professes the good old paganism of bygone times and that this belief fully satisfies their physical and psychological needs.

As Lord Summerisle, owner of the island and leader of the cult, explains to him with charming condescension, the religion was introduced to the island by a recent ancestor of his, with the purpose of bringing some joy into the lives of the local folk (and possibly to make them a more pliable workforce – but here speaks the anti-landlord in me).

Compared to the resentful and repressed Howie (an appropriately dull Edward Woodward), Lord Summerisle (played by a fantastic Christopher Lee in total command of his chops) is funny and charismatic, a man freed from the burden of useless guilt complexes that instead oppress and castrate the sergeant.

The contrast between pagan sunniness and Christian gloom could not be more striking, just as irreconcilable are their opposite worldviews. If for Christians time is linear and life is nothing but a more or less grim waiting for a future reward, for pagans time is circular and of a circularity that embraces all things, in a Panic feeling that is well expressed by The Maypole Song, one of several songs that composer Paul Giovanni wrote for the film:

In the woods there grew a tree
And a fine fine tree was he
And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was
A bed
And on that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
And from that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
And from that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew
A tree
And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird…

words that echo the text of Sumer Is Icumen In, an English round from the Middle Ages that celebrates the arrival of summer:

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Everywhere he looks, a scandalized Howie sees fertility rituals and joyful manifestations of serene voluptuousness.

For all its pleasures and levity, even Summerisle, though, is not all sunshine and rainbows. Last year’s crop of apples was a failure, there is some strange tension in the air, people make allusions and disappear, and May Day festivities are fast approaching. In his attempt to discover what happened to Rowan, Howie finds himself entangled in a series of increasingly mysterious intrigues that, needless to say, revolve around the Wicker Man.

While Hardy’s direction is effective without being actually brilliant (but Christopher Lee with a long-haired wig is just one of several priceless moments in the film), Anthony Shaffer’s excellent script is full of black humor and skillfully muddies the waters until it is difficult to understand if Howie is onto something with his investigation or if he is just the victim of a complicated prank.

It turns out in the end that it’s both: Howie is a fool (or, even better, the Fool) while every knot in the story will be untied in the truly chilling climax that closes the film – a frighteningly cold scene that amounts to one of the most disturbing I ever saw in a movie. Those Britons, they’re cruel people.

I won’t say more: if you are curious, just check the film, possibly in its semi-definitive 99 minutes version.

***

The Wicker Man 1973c
The Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy, 1973

Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy had not read René Girard, but they certainly knew and had drawn from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough for the construction of their story, which was indeed one of Girard’s great sources of inspiration.

It’s curious to note how many of the French scholar’s themes can be found in the film.

At the center of it all is sacrifice: the pagan sacrifice but also the Christian one (in one scene we see Howie taking communion and the words of the liturgy are words about sacrifice). Throughout the film, the kinship between these two forms of holocaust to the deity is repeatedly emphasized.

The contrast between the island’s inhabitants and the sergeant is initially framed in Nietzschean terms: the playful freedom of the pagans is contrasted with the gloomy incorruptibility of the police officer, austere but above all resentful and darkly envious of a moral independence (literally beyond good and evil) that is denied to him. In another key scene of the film, the sergeant is tempted by the charms of the beautiful Willow (Britt Ekland) but does not succumb to the temptation of the flesh: his resistance, however, is not that of an ascetic who has managed to free himself from the slavery of desire but that of a hypocritical moralist, ready to point the finger at the sinfulness of others but not to scrutinize his own sexual instincts (a detail not inessential to the plot, Howie remains a virgin in anticipation of marriage).

So far, The Wicker Man could be seen as a fun but simplistic contrast between repressive order and emancipatory chaos, in short, a bizarre offspring of the counter-culture of the early Seventies. However, as the story progresses, unexpected details emerge, and the contours of the affair become increasingly ambiguous and unsettling. The innocence of the island’s inhabitants takes on a darker hue.

Firstly, the cult of the solar deity Nuada practiced on Summerisle is not original: it is not, in fact, a dark remnant of ancient times, perhaps survived to Christian persecutions, as Margaret Murray had fantasized about medieval witchcraft. On the contrary, it was imported to the island in the nineteenth century (the quintessential productivist century) for a completely practical purpose: to increase agricultural yield through the creation of a society whose members adhered to a model of programmed happiness. The paganism of Summerisle, ultimately, is what Furio Jesi described as a technicized myth, a myth that, having lost its authentic content (if it ever had any), has been subjugated by the powers that be in order to shape it and exploit it to better serve their own ends.

Although spurious and artificial in its most authentic nature, however, the myth of Summerisle does not cease to produce what, according to Girard, every myth always produces: imitation, retaliation, frustration, the need for a scapegoat on which to pour out the tensions accumulated by the community.

The chain is always the same: apple harvests go bad, the crisis cracks the community, a solution is needed, and if the solution proves insufficient, the stakes (the level of sacrifice) must be raised. In this inevitable mechanics lies the entire film. The mimetic tension between Howie and Lord Summerisle can only be resolved in a violent way.

At the end of the film, the viewer, first amused and then chilled by the unfolding story, is left with a difficult choice, posed in positively Girardian terms: what side is better (or maybe, less repugnant)? The pagans, who love and sing and live in sensual communion with nature but are subject to a terrible and inexorable law according to which the seasonal cycle must always repeat itself the same way, in which every crisis and anomaly is experienced as a catastrophe to be exorcised with blood?

Or maybe we should prefer the Christianity of Sergeant Howie – dull, stupid, and philistine, tediously straight-line like his chronology that does not foresee eternal returns but just a vague promise of final salvation, choked in his vital instincts but also protective of the weak and genuinely, stubbornly interested in the safety of a missing girl?

The Wicker Man refuses to indicate a choice and concludes on a note of brutal irresolution: it leaves us with the image of a sun weakened in its vigor that sinks into the cold waters of the sea – who knows if it will rise again.

The Wicker Man 2
Depiction of a Druidic Wicker-man from the 1888 New York publication “What the World Believes”. Author: Rawson, Albert L. (Albert Leighton), 1829-1902, source
  1. https://harpers.org/archive/2023/11/overwhelming-and-collective-murder-rene-girard/

Featured image: The Wicker Man of the Druids. An illustration from the 18th century depicting a wicker man, featured in “A Tour in Wales” by Thomas Pennant, wikimedia.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.