“Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples?”Sergeant Neil Howie, The Wicker Man, 1973
One of the historical accusations made against the Celts and Druids was that they burned sacrificial victims in giant wicker men. Victims would be live, and both human and animal. The imagery is powerful, and many people reading this will be familiar with iconic images of wicker men and the fact that they don’t look even slightly like they’ve been made out of wicker. Especially not in the film.
I spent a number of years in Redditch involved with building and burning a wicker man for a council run Halloween event. We did everything from harvesting to erecting him. The tallest we ever managed was about 14 feet high, the one year he was bigger, only one bit of him *ahem* stood up. They always were anatomically correct, although you couldn’t tell from a distance.
“Wicker” is basically another way of saying ‘basket’. Now, baskets are quite strong, but once you set fire to them, they spring apart, or can be kicked apart. The structural integrity of a figure made out of wicker does not last long when on fire, and as the raw material to space inside ratio is relevant, there’s not a lot of smoke to contend with. Wicker does burn hot mind. Now, imagine a live animal, in a wicker basket which is on fire. Think about the inevitable struggle to escape. Based on experience, there is no way you could burn a live animal to death in a wicker man. They’d get out.
The human form as sculpture is not stable, it is very hard to make people-shaped things stand up. The taller they are, the stronger the legs and supports have to be. The more propping up you have to do. The taller they are, the harder it is to get them upright and the more likely it is that the strain of lifting will cause the structure to fail.
If you put anything in the wicker man before you lift it, the weight makes it very hard to even get a twelve footer to stand. Animals and humans have to go in after the wicker man is up. If you’ve made a solid structure capable of bearing its own weight, this presents an interesting technical challenge. Where are you going to insert them, exactly? Bearing in mind that the animals would be wholly unco-operative every way.
Based on years of experience, the conclusion I have come to is that you could realistically get one person in the body of a wicker man if you left a hole in the stomach and they crawled in once it was up. Total co-operation would be essential. You might at a pinch get a couple of people or creatures in the legs, but they’d have to get in during the lifting and stay put for the lifting, possibly even help with it. That counts the chickens out straight off.
Other options are that everything goes into the wicker man unconscious, but that’s not without challenges, or is dead already, which is probably the easiest solution. But then you aren’t sacrificing them by burning them to death in a wicker man, you’ve instead got an unusual cremation method under way. Or a barbeque. Large numbers are out, because the bigger the structure is, the harder it is to make it stand. I’m not aware of any huge Celtic constructions in terms of height. Some building in stone, but not much.The mechanics around getting tall things to stand up are challenging. The properties of the wicker itself limit the available size of a loaded structure. I can’t tell you what optimally built basketry will take in this context, but I’m pretty certain that its own weight plus multiple people, with the effects of fire in the midst does not lead to something that will work.
I am personally convinced that the only way an individual could be sacrificed in a wicker man is if they went of their own free will, which is a very different sort of arrangement, when you get down to it.
Knowing about the time, creativity and energy that are required to build a wicker man, it is a huge thing to do. Simply burning that much valuable resource, that much effort and time, is a sacrifice, one a whole community would share. That, I can believe might have happened.
Nimue Brown is an author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. She has her own blog as well as patreon. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. She has published many renowned books on Druidry including Druidry and the Ancestors: Finding our place in our own history and Druidry and Meditation.