The truth about wicker men

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.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

17 responses to “The truth about wicker men

  • celticchick

    From the research I did on Druid sacrifices, I learned that captured enemies were the usual victims and that they died from smoke inhalation and not from burning to death. I believe the account I read about was written by a Roman writer, but I would have to look at my notes.

    • Nimue Brown

      Not incompatible with the idea of going willingly – for someone who does not beelive death is the end but who is fussed about their honour, death as sacrifisce might, I speculate, be a viable choice for a prisoner of war. Thanks for the input Kelley.

  • lifexistence

    I read somewhere (I believe on Wikipedia) that some of the victims indeed went in willingly. However, it’s undeniable that people were sacrificed using the Wicker man, aside from the fact that they may have died from smoke inhalation. Although I respect every cultures’ traditions, the Wicker man calls forth grim images in my mind.

    Good post though, thanks!

    • Nimue Brown

      I really don’t think the evidence for Wicker men is credible, so I think the very use of wicker men is disputable. My feeling is that the Roman coments may have been inspired by some kind of real practice, but not the one described.

  • Kathleen Kristen Raleigh

    I can’t believe that after almost two decades, this is still being disputed.

    “Contradicting the Roman sources, more recent scholarship finds that there is little archeological evidence of human sacrifice by the Celts, and suggests the likelihood that Greeks and Romans disseminated negative information out of disdain for the barbarians. There is no evidence of the practices Caesar described (the burning of wicker men for human sacrifice), and the stories of human sacrifice appear to derive from a single source, Poseidonius, whose claims are unsupported.”

    Wells, Peter. The Barbarians Speak, p. 59-60. Princeton University Press, 1999.
    Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Ancient World of the Celts, p. 64, 184, 187. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1998.

    Besides, as the author of this article points out, it is structurally and physically not plausable that wicker men were used for sacrifices. In all likelihood, wicker men were straw representations (straw, representing the fall harvest season), that when burned resembled the appearance of a glowing God. Given the Celts’ reverence for fire deities such as Lugh and Brigid, this seems much more likely.

  • John

    Yes It is true. I have seen it on television.

  • Sean

    John,

    No it is not true, because someone said so in a book.

  • Dave

    The true wicker man sacrifice includes “the willing fool” just like the movie. The willing fool was coaxed into coming to the island the first place.

  • Aspasía S. Bissas

    I haven’t studied the subject in depth but bits and pieces I’ve read along the way lead me increasingly to believe that reports of human (and even animal, in some cases) sacrifice by pagans have been greatly exaggerated. The fact that these stories always seem to come from external cultures, often a single source, sometimes secondhand, and sometimes even decades or centuries later) seems to me to be a huge red flag (a culture that practiced human sacrifice as part of religious ceremonies wouldn’t feel it was something they needed to do in secret or to keep hidden, so where are their own accounts of their practices?) I’m not saying it never happened, but I’m sure it didn’t happen the way some would have us believe. Quite frankly, if people want to hear about humans being burned alive in sacrifice to a God, they’re looking at the wrong religion.

  • The Travelling Talesman

    Excellent application of practical sense to wild speculation. Thank you.

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