Over the past few days I was exposed, for the first time, to the wild photographs of Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann series, featuring participants in neo-neo-neo-(many neos-) pagan rituals, as well as the classic 1973 horror film The Wicker Man (I’m not sure horror is the right word, it’s actually quite funny), so now I am thinking about Wicker men, in all their various incarnations. The Wicker Man is a pre-Christian, “barbarian” entity and practice, referred to in Greek and Roman sources ( Julius Caesar, Strabo), and then, like everything classical, rediscovered in the Renaissance. According to the legend, the Celtic practice of human sacrifice involved effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent. (Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6.16). A century later, Strabo writes that having devised a colossus of straw and wood [the Celts] throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing (Strabo,Geographia, 4:5). Of course neither “observer” actually saw these great burning behemoths, but that doesn’t matter: their names were influential enough to establish the Wicker Man as fact even before their texts made it into print (for good discussions of some material evidence, go here and here), and after that, it was all over.
The literary descriptions of the Wicker Man are so graphic that they inspired some great artistic depictions in the early modern era, particularly in the later seventeenth century. Once the religious dissension of the Reformation had cooled, authors (and their illustrators) were once again free to explore the pre-Christian past. A particularly influential image of Julius Caesar’s Wicker Man comes from Aylett Sammes’ Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676): only the hairstyle changes in the succeeding centuries–and the sacrificial lambs get a bit more numerous and detailed.
Wicker Men from Aylett Sammes, Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676); Robert Sanders, The Complete English Traveller (London, 1771); The History of the Nations of Europe (19th century); Charles Wellcome’s Hen Feddegyaeth Kymrie (Ancient Cymric Medicine, 1903), and the 1973 film (©Archive Photos/Getty Images).
I don’t want to be restrained to this particular conception of the Wicker Man; after all it is (nearly) summer, the season of wicker! Certainly the real wicker men (and women) of the past would have been the itinerant street hawkers, carrying their wares in wicker baskets. The ultimate wicker man of this type is certainly the street basket-seller for Carle Vernet’s Cries of Paris series (c. 1820): he is a basket man. A more modern, and much more comfortable, “wicker man” is Robert Louis Stevenson, as depicted by John Singer Sargent in 1887. Commerce and comfort: wicker has been tamed.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati