The Shadow of a Pagan Sacrifice

Crackling fire, the wooden figure of a man burning… –

You will have guessed it, today I am going to focus on the song “The Wicker Man” (Brave New World, 2000) and the film of the same name it is based upon, released in 1973. The more I am looking at this, the more I think that this is not about a straightforward film to song adaptation, but rather a network of influences ranging from the impact of The Wicker Man on future films to the Maiden mobile game, Maiden’s stage production, and a crucial point in band history.

Watching the Wicker Man

Despite my long lasting effort to finally get hold of this film, The Wicker Man is considered a British cult film. (cf. the description and the trailer here.) It has definitley influenced other films. The most obvious for me is Midsommar (2019). Both films depict an isolated community that follows its own rules, rites, and pagan religion, both show the role of the intruding outsider(s) who constantly point fingers at rituals they (in some cases rightfully) consider barbarian, in both cases said intruders have been lured on purpose into the community, and both end with human sacrifice in fire.

But I also see faint traces in another film of 2019, namely the new adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary (1983). The film depicts a trail of children wearing animal masks and banging a drum, a clear echo of the Mayday ceremony of The Wicker Man. And then there is of course the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, dedicated to artistic creativity and culminating in burning a large man-shaped structure, founded in 1986. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man)

The film is a bit strange to watch, at least for me, as it is constantly on the verge of parody. Am I watching a horror film or am I watching a parodic depiction of the then relatively newborn Wicca movement? Wicca is a neopagan religion, proclaimed in 1954 by Gerald Gardner. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca) The rites and belief system depicted in the film seem grotesque, but the strongest element pointing at a possible parody is a very cheap looking Stonehenge reproduction that has somehow and magically found its way to the North of Scotland. Stonehenge is of course by no means an isolated phenomenom, but it is the most famous site used and visited by believers of neopagan religions. Have a look at the procession moving there in the film and tell me what you think of the figures and costumes, such as a big man wearing a skirt that produces a horse head at the front with which he constantly makes clapping noises by opening and closing the wooden horse mouth. Another bewildering or amusing effect of the film, depending on your disposition, is the music. The film is filled with the most harmonic folklore music and it is all about sex. I hope you start to see my point why I am tempted to consider this film a parody in so many aspects.

To find this combination of horror and comedy, be it intended or not, in a Maiden context is not surprising, as it is this tradition that would much later give birth to what I call the merging of Hammer productions with Monty Python (which may come from the involvement of Julian Doyle who was indeed responsible for Python films (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Doyle_(filmmaker))): The Chemical Wedding (2008), penned by no other than Dickinson.

I am mentioning all this because once we enter the Maiden version and universe, all of this gets dead serious. But before we go to the song, we will do a detour to other parts of the Maiden-universe. Our first stop is the mobile game Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast (Navigator Games).

Legacy of the Wicker Man

The first level of the Maiden mobile game is the “Isle of the Wicker Man.” The Wicker Man is a playable character who functions as the first boss opponent. But there is also a plethora of wicker animals that function as allies and opponents alike. The level ends in front of a large wicker man where you have to fight the smaller boss character. But none of this is in any way ironic.

This world linked to neopaganism, and thus also Celtic religion, has arguably also lead to the introduction of the fourth clan raid boss, Cernunnos. Cernunnos is a Celtic god and I can only explain his presence in the game with “The Wicker Man.” (–> https://forum.ironmaidenlegacy.com/showthread.php?14576-State-of-Nation-Summer-2022)

In other words, this song has inspired an entire world, a clan raid boss, and a large part of the storyline of the Maiden game. But, in my eyes, all of this is more or less independant from both the song and the film, other than using the idea and the imagery. Characters such as the wicker animals or the Raven Witch are independent additions that pick up the theme, but do not go back to any of the sources. And all of that was born in the shadow of a wooden edifice.

Before we all get too excited, we also have a video for this song which features Dickinson throwing around a big white ball, a really bad ugly Eddie puppet hunting a man to a wall, who then tears down a red curtain which suddenly appears out of nowhere, behind which is a Maiden gig, then a white light comes that turns all spectators into Eddies, which then means that the band burns the wicker man which is surrounded by half naked women. This causes the white balls to explode and prompts Eddie to drive away in the car of the guy. Hm. And this masterpiece of logical narration was released on Dickinson’s birthday. On the plus side, those white balls became the playable levels in the game and are rather cool. Once played, they change colour.

Playing the Wicker Man

We can not only play the Wicker Man in the Maiden game, but the film was more or less accuratly reenacted during the respective Brave New World tour, as can be seen in the video record Rock in Rio (2002). The band had erected a gigantic wicker man statue at the back of the stage. Then some not so naked copies of the ladies from the video would show up and lead Dickinson inside the statue. Who is sacrificing whom here is a bit open to debate when you watch it without the context, but this is what you see in the film. The victim is prepared by the female main characters to be sacrificed inside the wooden man-shaped structure.

It is interesting that “The Wicker Man” marks the definite beginning of what many consider the new golden era of Iron Maiden. “The Wicker Man” is the first song of the reunion album Brave New World. I have already pointed out before that the title is misleading as the new world the title track is based on is the right opposite of a “brave new world,” namely a dystopian vision of the future. (–> here). And now, thinking about it, we learn that this new beginning starts out with a classical horror film and a disturbing vision of human sacrifice? And, even more so, we see this on stage? As soon as Maiden have Dickinson back, they sacrifice him first thing on the tour? I cannot think of a more disturbing brave new world. Most likely coined by coincidence, the combination of these two oustanding works of British fiction makes for a new horror version that is even more disturbing than each of them in isolation.

Singing about the Wicker Man

What I find confusing is that the song strongly parts way with the film in some aspects. Whereas the first stanza complies with the film ending, the following part does not fit in with the belief system represented in the film. The pagan comunity denies the existence of death and believes in reincarnation, which fits in with the lyrics, but there is no room in their world for eternity. They explain to the policeman that they believe that souls go to nature, and, as far as I understand it, disintegrate to become trees or animals. The lyrics, however, speak of an infant. This would point to reincarnation as a new human being, but this is definitely not part of the film. On the one hand, one might say that the community has lied to the policeman as they string him along throughout the whole film anyway, but on the other hand, disintegration into plants makes sense as they need a human sacrifice to multiply their crops. This aspect of fertility has vanished from the song.

The second stanza complies again with the film as the film shows a dead body with coins on his eyes. This refers to Greek myth and the ferryman Charon who is supposed to bring you to the realm of the dead by crossing the river Styx (or, in some sources Archeron) – but against payment. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styx) Thus, the dead would often be buried with coins on their eyes to be able to pay the fare. This is of course at odds with the philosophy that departed souls disintegrate and become one with nature. But this must be considered a logical mistake within the film. In the song this reference strenghtens the threat of immanent death.

This immanent death is the death of the victim destined to be sacrificed to appeace the goddesses of the orchards and the sun respectively and produce more crops. In the film, he tries to reason with the lord of the island. He explains that his death will not produce new crops and when the harvest fails again, they will have to sacrifice another human being next year. This time, they will sacrifice something bigger – the lord himself. This has already rang true in the song, as we learn that the wicker man has been erected again.

Before his death, the victim also threatens the whole community with death. I assume that this is what we hear in the chorus. It is directed at the lord or at all of them? But, thinking this through, it must be directed at all of them. If the crops continue to fail, the Mayday ceremony must be repeated each year – and each year a new victim will die. In the end, all of those who surround the wicker man have it coming.

Aside, this song is a very eery foreshadowing of the spoken introduction of “If Eternity Should Fail” (Book of Souls, 2015) as the victim is robed in white before his death. But we will have to keep our feet still and wait until we learn more about this song in Dickinson’s upcoming solo album. Other, much later echoes are “Starblind” (The Final Frontier, 2010, read more here) where maidens are sacrificed to gods and we meet a sun goddess as well as “Navigate the Seas of the Sun” (Bruce Dickinson, Tyranny of Souls, 2005) where gravity and death are linked, too, and we meet the sun goddess again. As mentioned above, the wicker man is an offering amongst others to the goddess of the sun.

So, what remains in the end? The wicker man has to be seen as an iconic symbol that mostly lives of its powerful imagery and has thus spawned many reproductions, but not all of them carry much meaning. Although I cannot help but think that the wicker man teaches us that everyone can become the victim when you partake in human sacrifice – even the singer of Iron Maiden.

Sources

  • Smith Adrian, Harris Steve and Bruce Dickinson. “The Wicker Man.” Iron Maiden. Brave New World. EMI, 2000.
  • The Wicker Man. Hardy, Robin (dir.) British Lion Films, 1973.
  • Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast. Navigator Games, 2017
  • “THE WICKER MAN: THE FINAL CUT – Official Trailer – Starring Christopher Lee.” Uploaded by Studiocanal UK. YouTube. https://youtu.be/yXFYU3v-wL4 (30.08.2013) [09.01.2023]
  • Midsommar. Aster, Ari (dir.) Square Peg, B-Reel Films, A24, 2019.
  • Pet Sematary. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Wildmyer (dir.) Di Bonaventura Pictures, Room 101 Inc, 2019.
  • “Burning Man.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man (26.12.2022) [09.01.2023]
  • “Wicca.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca (09.01.2023) [09.01.2023]
  • “Julian Doyle (filmmaker).” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Doyle_(filmmaker) (24.04.2022) [09.01.2023]
  • The Chemical Wedding. Dickinson, Bruce and Julian Doyle (screenwriters). Bill&Ben Productions, Focus Films, 2008.
  • “State of the Nation: Summer 2022.” Leviathan. Iron Maiden_Legacy of the Beast Forum. forum.ironmaidenlegacy.com. https://forum.ironmaidenlegacy.com/showthread.php?14576-State-of-Nation-Summer-2022 (08.07.2022) [09.01.2023]
  • “Iron Maiden – The Wicker Man (Official Video).” Uploaded by Iron Maiden. YouTube. https://youtu.be/-sQ3Af3DpeM (07.08.2015) [09.01.2023]
  • Rock in Rio. Iron Maiden. EMI, Sanctuary. 2002.
  • Murray, Dave. Harris, Steve and Bruce Dickinson. “Brave New World.” Iron Maiden. Brave New World. EMI; 2000.
  • “Styx.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styx (27.12.2022) [09.01.2023]
  • Dickinson, Bruce. “If Eternity Should Fail.” Iron Maiden. The Book of Souls. Parlophone, 2015.
  • Smith Adrian, Harris, Steve and Bruce Dickinson. “Starblind.” Iron Maiden. The Final Frontier. EMI, 2010.
  • Dickinson, Bruce and Roy Z. “Navigate the Seas of the Sun.” Bruce Dickinson. Tyranny of Souls. Sanctuary, 2005.
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