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Dispelling Some Myths: The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man is a giant effigy supposedly used by the Druids to perform human sacrifice, according to the writings of Gaius Julius Caesar[1]. In Book VI of his Commentary on the Gallic War[2], Caesar writes of the sacrificial rituals of the Gauls. The main evidence for this practice is just one sentence (highlighted below) in chapter XVI:

"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 cannot 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[3] of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, 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."[4]


Just how reliable are Caesar's claims? Modern archaeological research has yielded evidence that human sacrifice was practised among the Iron Age tribes of Europe[5]. In three of the most famous cases, the bodies of men recovered from bogs in Lindow, Cheshire and from Grauballe and Tollund, both in Jutland, Denmark, are thought to be ritual sacrifices. There is, however, no agreement amongst scholars whether the men's deaths were indeed sacrifices and were not the results of ,say, a homicide, a violent robbery, or the execution of a criminal. Significantly, all of these deaths predate the Roman era, so was Caesar reporting a established tradition, a contemporary one or was he embellishing his account? Was human sacrifice being practised by the Britons, Gauls and Germans? As with a lot of ancient history, we simply cannot be certain.


Although Caesar spent several years campaigning in Gaul, his Commentary is largely concerned with self promotion. Aware of his target audience, and like many ancient authors, he eagerly writes of the more bizarre, salacious and negative aspects concerning the Gauls and Germans. This was at a time when the latter were much feared and disdained in Rome. His description of the wicker man, therefore, would have appealed to his readers' contempt for the barbaric acts of others[6]; this despite evidence of the Romans themselves practising human sacrifice as part of very specific rituals. Caesar's agenda, and his evident hypocrisy, suggest we should regard his and other ancient sources with some scepticism.


What of the druids? Nevertheless, Caesar's Commentary remains one of the best preserved accounts we have of the druids. Superficially, Caesar provides what seems to be a first-hand account, yet much of his knowledge of the druids is not drawn from personal experience. Rather, Caesar draws on and incorporates much of the hearsay from other authors. A major influence, for example, on Caesar's account was that of the Greek polymath, Posidonius of Rhodes, who wrote a clear and well-known account of the druids in Gaul. In the absence of independent corroboration, scholars such as Webster (1999) now regard Caesar's tales as highly anachronistic[7]. Once again we ought to be cautious that our knowledge of the druids and understanding of druidic rituals are drawn almost solely from Caesar's surviving accounts[8].


Regardless, like Posidonius, Caesar ascribes this type of ritual human sacrifice to the "barbaric" Gauls. Nowhere in his Commentary, when Caesar describes his forays to Britain, does he record Britons using the Wicker Man. In an earlier article on the ancient Britons, we argued that, while they may have shared many societal, cultural and artistic traits with their nearest Gallic neighbours, the Britons were never really "Celts" in the sense of a pan-European culture. That some Roman authors wrote of druids in Gaul and in Britain does not mean we can safely infer that the rituals of one group were mirrored by the other. While not improbable, conclusive proof that druidic practices were identical on both sides of the Channel is lacking and we simply cannot be so certain. It would seem, therefore. that despite the popular myth there is no contemporary, or current, evidence of wicker men being used for human sacrifice in Iron Age Britain.


Another problem with Caesar's description Asked to imagine what a Wicker Man might look like, the popular modern image seems to have been ultimately derived from an 18th-century engraved illustration in Thomas Pennant's[9] book, A Tour in Wales (shown above). This fanciful representation undoubtedly inspired the effigy used in the cult 1973 film, "The Wicker Man", and its subsequent remake in 2006. There are, however, a number of problems facing the building of a full-size effigy that copies Pennant's vision.


In an article on "The truth about wicker men", Nimue Brown (Brown, 2011) considered some of the logistical challenges with using a wicker or a wooden frame to hold someone in place while burning them. Essentially it's just not practical or realistic, as Brown explains:

"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."


Our practical experience of burning wicker validates Brown's comment on the heat that can be generated, and supports her assessment on the length of time structural integrity of a wicker item could be preserved. Her comments on a live creature's struggle to escape cannot be substantiated, however. Any experiment would be highly unethical, not to say unlawful.


Brown also states, from her practical experience, that the larger the wicker man is, the more inherently unstable its structure becomes. Adding even more weight, in the form of human or animal sacrifices, simply compounds this problem of stability and structural integrity. The technical challenges alone makes the wicker man, as described by Caesar and imagined by us today, highly improbable.


Conclusions? The surviving historical sources combined with archaeological evidence reveal that human sacrifice was practised by Iron Age tribal societies (and the Romans) for very specific reasons. While other Roman authors write of human sacrifice, none appear to follow Caesar's lead in recording "osiers...fill[ed] with living men, [and] set on fire". Most accounts merely allude to woodland groves, altars, and blood offerings. How widespread or common these customs were is uncertain. Caesar's description of the Wicker Man is attributable only to the druids in Gaul and cannot be assumed to have a corollary in Britain.


The artisan skill and technology of the time does not preclude the building of wicker effigies. The sheer size, however, if Caesar is to be accepted, would be immensely challenging to keep the structure upright and stable. Not impossible, just technically difficult. Moreover, the practicalities of getting (unwilling) sacrifices inside and keeping them there long enough to be consumed by fire is equally problematic.


Suffice to say, Caesar's Wicker Man is most likely a fanciful creation.

Notes:


1. Wigginton, P. (2018), "What is a Wicker Man?", Learn Religions, retrieved August 14th, 2020.

2. Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō ("Commentaries on the Gallic War") is Caesar's first-hand account of the Gallic Wars, written as a third-person narrative. In it Caesar describes the battles and intrigues that took place in the nine years he spent fighting the Germanic peoples and Celtic peoples in Gaul that opposed Roman conquest.

3. Oblation: a thing presented or offered to God or a god.

4. Caesar, G. J. (1915), Caesar's Commentaries, Book VI, chapter XVI, translated by Macdevitt, W. A., retrieved August 14th, 2020.

5. Lindow Man marked the first discovery in Britain of a well-preserved bog body; its condition was comparable to that of Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark. Before Lindow Man's discovery, it was estimated that 41 bog bodies had been found in England and Wales and 15 in Scotland.

6. The sacrifice of animals and other objects to the gods was an everyday part of Roman life. Yet, despite having strict beliefs against the practice of human sacrifice, which was seen as the act of uncivilized people, the Romans were guilty of it too.

7. Webster, J. (1999), "At the End of the World: Druidic and Other Revitalization Movements in Post-Conquest Gaul and Britain", Britannia 30: 1–20.

8. Writing over 150 years after Caesar, Tacitus also provides a brief account of the druids in Britain. In his Annals, written sometime around AD 116, Tacitus recounts his father-in-law's conquest of Anglesey and, in so doing, associates this island off the Welsh coast with the druids' spiritual centre. Tacitus writes of demolishing "the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a duty to consult their deities by means of human entrails." (Tacitus, Annals, Book XIV, chapter 30, retrieved from LacusCurtius on September 7th, 2020). Tacitus was not an eyewitness to the events he describes, however. Rather his works draw on the Roman Senate's official records. Like Caesar, Tacitus copies earlier authors speaking to Roman prejudice and not necessarily to fact.

9. Thomas Pennant was a Welsh naturalist, traveller, writer and antiquarian. He was born and lived his whole life at his family estate, Downing Hall near Whitford, Flintshire, in Wales.



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