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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Burning Effigies for the Man

Published in The Critic.

Modern culture is enchanted by paganism. Go into the spirituality section of any major bookshop and you’ll find new releases with titles like Big Witch Energy or Rebel Folklore spelling a revival of magical beliefs and practices. On TikTok, Gen-Zs have created virtual subcultures around Wicca and other “heathen” ways, with #WitchTok popularising spells, potions and observing pagan festivals. These movements, appealing to those seeking a romantic, environmentally-focused “return to nature” have been on the ascent in Britain since the 1960s. 

Filmmakers took note, never more memorably than 50 years ago today when Robin Hardy’s cult horror film, The Wicker Man, was released. Though better remembered for its vernal imagery and soundtrack by Magnet, the film exposes a fascinating paradox: despite harking back to an ancient past, modern paganism is bound to the same ideologies it claims to reject.

This critique is artfully woven into the film, which follows Christian policeman Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), on his search for a missing girl on the fictional Hebridean island of Summerisle. The relationship between paganism and modernity unfolds through his confrontation with the islanders’ peculiar ways: naked women jumping over fires, schoolchildren singing about sex around a maypole, and (as he learns the hard way) sacrificing human beings inside a giant wicker effigy.

On the surface, The Wicker Man is about the contrast between Howie’s Protestant piety and Summerisle’s free-spirited folk religion, a tension epitomised in the scene where the publican’s daughter Willow (Britt Ekland — or, famously, her body double), tries to seduce him through his bedroom wall. Howie is almost led into temptation by her wispy song (“how a maid can milk a bull/and every stroke, a bucketful”). But, keeping to his marriage vows, he does not give in. The strength of his convictions, captured in his famous final cry, “Oh Lord. Oh Jesus Christ!” as the crowd of Summerislians eagerly await his ritual immolation, seems to endow the story with a clear moral. Howie is an upright man whose suspicion towards the islanders’ strange ways proves justified in the end. How this contrast has since been received, however — and how the director, Hardy, intended for it to be received — is much more complex. 

Despite the Summerislians being responsible for the murder of an innocent man, many of the film’s fans still celebrate their pagan spirit because of what they believe it represents. While Howie is the law-abiding archetype of repressive Christianity morality, the islanders appear to be liberated, natural anti-capitalists who frolic freely across the land in Dionysian glory, celebrating ancient rites disdained and renounced by the straitjacket of established religion. 

But if we pay closer attention, focusing less on Ekland’s (body double’s) backside and more on the details, we find this contrast is not what it seems. The first islanders we meet are unkempt fishermen and provincial pub-goers with thick accents, rendering the impression that they are noble savages. We assume they are simply following the ways of their ancestors, and that neither Christianity nor modernity ever made it to the island. We later learn, however, that this is not the case. The cemetery where they hold their midnight orgies, for example, turns out to be a Christian one. Daylight reveals a ruined Christian church hidden behind the multi-coloured Mayday ribbons. Evidently, Summerisle is not the pre-Christian haven a romantic might wish to believe it is. 

Neither, it transpires, are their beliefs really ancient superstitions; an impression we might be given by the shopkeeper who tries to cure her daughter’s sore throat with a live frog. When Howie meets the schoolteacher, Miss Rose, he learns she is an educated middle-class woman who quotes Don Quixote and talks about the “regenerative symbolism” of the phallus with noticeably rational and scientific precision. The Summerislians are not really noble savages after all — their paganism has been adopted relatively recently, and seemingly as a choice by those in charge.

This is made explicit by a fascinating dialogue that takes place about halfway through the film. When Howie wants to exhume a grave in search of the missing girl, he goes to seek permission from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). As they walk around his estate, Lord Summerisle reveals it was his grandfather, a Victorian agronomist, who introduced paganism to the island. Having developed strains of fruit trees that would prosper in its climate, he told the islanders that the old gods would use them to bring bountiful harvests if they were worshipped. Essentially, his grandfather brought paganism to Summerisle because it was profitable. 

Lord Summerisle, then, is an offshoot of Victorian industrial modernity; a detail which reveals a surprising affinity between paganism and capitalism. At a conceptual level, it could be said that the pagan focus on the immanent world — specifically, its sacralisation of fertility and fecundity — is what makes its followers economically fruitful. 

What’s more, Summerisle’s backstory points to the fact that modern pagan movements are, despite their romantic claim to return to an ancient past, products of a post-Enlightenment worldview. Wicca, for example, was invented in the 1940s by Gerald Gardner, a child of the British Empire who invented his new religion in a typically bourgeois rebellion against Christianity. Even the Wicker Man ritual itself, it turns out, comes not from Celtic tradition but from an eighteenth-century illustration; something Robin Hardy may well have been aware of when creating his ironic masterpiece.

That neopaganism emerged between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries is not a historical accident. It appeals to modern subjects precisely because it shares many of the same premises as the Enlightenment. It rejects Christianity and traditional morality; claims to be more “rational”, focusing on the immanent world rather than on transcendent ideals; and undermines hierarchy in favour of individual freedom and self-actualisation. 

It is on this basis that the scholar Wouter Hanegraaff claimed that “alternative” spiritualities “cannot be characterised as a return to pre-Enlightenment worldviews but … as a qualitatively new syncretism of esoteric and secular elements”. Neopagan criticisms of modern Western culture, he says in his New Age Religion and Western Culture, “are expressed to a considerable extent on the premises of that same culture”.

Both conceptually and historically, paganism turns out to be highly compatible with modern capitalism, arguably more so than Christianity, which with its promotion of the contemplative life and the realisation of things beyond this world, is less conducive to the unleashing of carnal desires that consumer culture encourages and which paganism sacralises. 

Indeed, Max Weber’s account of the Christian basis of capitalism was challenged by sociologist Colin Campbell for this reason. He contends in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism that it was not Protestantism but rather the romantic turn towards immanence and worldly fulfilment that both inspired the pagan revival and shaped modern consumerism. 

What can this tell us about paganism today? Obviously, self-made witches on TikTok aren’t exactly contributing to bountiful harvests. They are, however, ideal capitalist subjects focused on actualisation of personal desires. When Gen-Zs use magic to “manifest” their dream lives, they are expressing a desire for worldly pleasures like money, popularity, and physical attractiveness. Like the Summerislians, their apparent rebellion against modern capitalism ends up serving that same system. 

Despite this, paganism is somehow still seen as a radical gesture against the status quo. It is embraced by the progressive left, who see identifying as a witch as “empowering” because, according to the academic, Diego Rinallo, “witches fight the patriarchy, capitalism and the destruction of nature”. 

It would seem that the imagined dialectic between hegemonic Christianity and subversive paganism — the contrast between Sergeant Howie and the free-spirited Summerislians — lives on. And yet, as the film itself attests, this dialectic is ultimately meaningless; today, there is no conservative Christian hegemony in Britain. The creed of modern society is liberal individualism, making paganism far more complementary to the ethos of “the establishment” than traditional faith. 

The reality, then, is the reverse of how the film’s central dichotomy is often perceived. Neopaganism is the real bourgeois religion, embodied by the hedonistic Lord Summerisle who benefits from the sexual libertinism and economic fruits of his subjects. Sergeant Howie, meanwhile, is the subversive; while everyone around him descends into decadence, he remains committed to his faith, refusing to succumb to temptation. 

The Wicker Man deserves our acclaim — not only for its cinematic brilliance, but because it exposes the paradox of modern paganism. That Summerisle’s religion is not authentic but a noble lie told by a Victorian capitalist points to the fact that these “alternative” movements are really products of post-Enlightenment thought; the same thought that, according to Colin Campbell, shaped modern consumer culture. 

Perhaps those wishing to be genuinely subversive should take heed when browsing through new books about “rebel” folklore or creating a personal WitchTok brand.


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