How The Golden Bough Inspired The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man 1973, 91 minutes* of strangely bucolic folk horror set in the remote and windswept landscape of the fictional Hebridean island of Summerisle, whose inhabitants have forgone the dusty fabled bible and returned to older ways, to old gods and ancient rites. Where did the basis for these quaint village idiosyncrasies stem from? Introducing: The Golden Bough 1890, 944 pages** of heavy academia and tantalising tidbits, written by folklorist J. G. Frazer, who reached out his university educated intellect to all the corners of the earth to deliver a fascinating if occasionally inaccurate picture of our primitive, magically minded ancestors.

*The Final Cut **The abridged version

Throughout the entire text of The Golden Bough there are whispers of what Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer were obviously influenced by. Nowhere are the pagan, folkloric ways of a secluded community better and more romantically presented than in The Wicker Man, a masterpiece that although feels completely British in its fantasy, is in fact as you shall see, an amalgamation of a collection of customs and traditions found all over the world and put together by James George Frazer, hats off to you, sir, for inadvertently being responsible for the creation of one of the greatest films of all time!


“Now, those children out there, they’re jumping through the flames in the hope that the god of the fire will make them fruitful. Really, you can hardly blame them. After all, what girl would not prefer the child of a god to that of some acne-scarred artisan?” – Lord Summerisle

Frazer has many chapters dedicated to the fertility giving powers of fire (XIV-XVI). He mentions a few instances in legend, where notable people were conceived aided by the spirits of the flame. For example the story of the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius. Ocrisia, a slave woman of Queen Tanaquil, was one day offering cakes and libations on the hearth “when a flame in the shape of the male member shot out from the fire” The Queen bade her lie down by the hearth, and so Ocrisia conceived by the god or spirit of the fire, Tullius himself. Thus Servius Tullius was divinely fathered and destined for greatness.

Frazer then goes on to give examples of the primitive fire rituals performed by those all over the world. Customs such as leading a bride to or around a hearth in hopes of making her fruitful through the generative virtue ascribed to the fire. The story of Tullius “expresses in daily life the same idea…[that] virgin mothers conceived through contact with a spark or tongue of fire.”

Frazer’s explanation for the procreative virtues attributed to fire is that the very ritual of creating fire, that is rubbing sticks together, is the sexual union that creates the child, flame. “This of itself suffices to impress on the mind of a savage the idea that a capacity for reproduction is innate in the fire, and consequently that a woman may conceive by contact with it.”

So we can see the few slips of information that inspired the fire leaping scene in The Wicker Man. The people of Summerisle seem to have one main belief, that of animism, that spirits, gods and goddesses reside in all things, the fire, the trees, the grain; these gods and goddesses may bestow their blessings upon the people when the proper rituals are performed.


-“What on earth’s that? It looks like a piece of skin.

– Why, so it is.

– Well, what is it?

-The poor wee lassie’s navel string, of course. Where else should it be but hung on her own little tree?”

Frazer attributes the custom of planting trees on graves to the Chinese “In China it has been customary from time immemorial to plant trees on graves in order thereby to strengthen the soul of the deceased and thus to save his body from corruption” Little Rowan Morrison has a rowan tree planted on her grave. Frazer says “the trees that grow on graves are sometimes identified with the souls of the departed.”

The tradition of tying a childs umbilical cord to a tree is apparently, according to Frazers sources, practiced by the Tuhoe tribe of Maoris “the power of making women fruitful is ascribed to trees. These trees are associated with the navel-strings of definite mythical ancestors, as indeed the navel-strings of all children used to be hung upon them down to quite recent times.”

In Part III of the Golden Bough in the section titled Homeopathic or Imitative Magic, Frazer tells us that in many parts of the world, the navel-string is regarded as a living being, the brother or sister of the infant or the material object in which the soul of the child resides. In accordance with such beliefs, it was apparently customary to preserve the umbilical cord with great care, lest the fate or life of the person to which it belongs should be endangered by its injury or loss.

Although not completely related, there are other passages that may have served as inspiration. In the chapter titled The Worship of Trees, Frazer speaks of punishments received for damaging trees- “How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.” This almost resembles “The little old beetle goes round and round” scene in the schoolroom as well.


“Oh, what a silly girl you are to make all this fuss. It’s just a little frog, It’ll do that poor sore throat good.”

Frazer dedicates many chapters to the rites and rituals of sympathetic or homeopathic magic. This sort of magic is based around the belief in the law of similarity, or simply put the idea that like attracts like. For example, the use of wax, clay or wooden images, fashioned to look like a particular person, imbued with the essence of that person through the use of finger nails, hair or spit, then becomes a connection to the chosen victim, who may suffer great pains or even death as the magic practitioner sticks the image full of pins or sets it by a fire to perish slowly.

A similar but perhaps more kindly use of this belief system can be seen in the Medieval Doctrine of Signatures, which sets out the idea that what ever a plant or growing thing naturally resembles on the human body, so it must hold the virtues to heal that body part.

A frog, who instinctively croaks within its throat in search of a mate, seems to imitate what it feels like for a human to be afflicted with a sore throat. What better animal to attract a sore throat than one that naturally croaks? The frog (though I must say the amphibian used in the film looks much more like a toad) is placed into Myrtle’s mouth, so as to remove her symptoms, as the sore throat naturally belongs to something that lives its life croaking. So we see another example of the film representing for its audience the primitive belief system ruling the lives of these remote Islanders, setting the stage for a primitive sacrifice.


“..But with the Hand of Glory, there’s no telling when you wake. He might sleep for days!”

Once again we come to the use of sympathetic magic “for just as the dead can neither hear nor see nor speak, so you may on homeopathic principles render people blind, deaf, and dumb by the use of dead men’s bones or anything else that is tainted by the infection of death” Frazer goes on to give examples from many different cultures of the use of bones and graveyard earth to put people to sleep. A charm much prized by robbers or secret lovers. For the Hand of Glory specifically we return to European culture, where I shall quote Frazer’s complete passage on this fascinating subject: “…the Hand of Glory…was the dried and pickled hand of a man who had been hanged. If a candle made of the fat of a malefactor who had also died on the gallows was lighted and placed in the Hand of Glory as in a candlestick, it rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented; they could not stir a finger any more than if they were dead. Sometimes the dead man’s hand is itself the candle, or rather bunch of candles, all its withered fingers being set on fire; but should any member of the household be awake, one of the fingers will not kindle. Such nefarious lights can only be extinguished with milk”.

In the Wicker Man, Sergeant Howie manages quite well to extinguish the flames only with his hand, but it would have been a rather humdrum scene indeed if he had needed to go back down behind the bar in search of milk…


“-Will you tell us what it is please, that the May pole represents?

-Phallic symbol!

-The phallic symbol, that is correct, it is the image of the penis, which is venerated in religion such a ours, as symbolising the generative force in nature.”

In the chapter titled Relics of Tree-Worship in Europe, Frazer begins “It would be needless to illustrate at length the custom, which has prevailed in various parts of Europe such as England, France, and Germany, of setting up a village May-Tree or May-Pole on May Day.” Although he does go on to give quite a few instances of this tradition, the reasons for such a custom are similar throughout the places they are practiced. Above all it is a ritual for fertility and the celebration of the coming of spring. It is another form of sympathetic magic, in that a fresh green bough flowing with sap could bestow its abundant blessings on all things, encouraging a bountiful harvest and a plentiful supply of milk. Dancing round the Maypole, encouraging the return of the sun, was usually practiced by the village peasants. Frazer mentions a rather romantic anecdote from Samuel Pepys diary: “One May morning long ago Pepys on his way to Westminster saw many of them [milkmaids] dancing thus to the music of a fiddle while pretty Nel Gwynne, in her smock sleeves and bodice, watched them from the door of her lodgings in Drury Lane.”

Other writers of the time did not find the custom quite to their taste, including the puritan Phillip Stubbes, who wrote the following at London in 1583 on the subject of the gathering of the May tree: “Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall. And no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present among them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely, Sathan, prince of hel.”

Further on in this chapter Frazer decides to change his view on the motives behind the may pole tradition “However in these and similar European customs it seems that the influence of the tree, bush or bough is really protective rather than generative; it does not so much fill the udders of the cows as prevent them from being drained dry by witches, who ride on broomsticks or pitchforks through the air on the Eve of May Day (the famous Walpurgis Night) and make great efforts to steal the milk from the cattle.”

It is clear that in the case of the Wicker Man, the power of the May Pole is indeed a generative one, and is practiced in celebration of the continuous cycle of life, as denoted in the lyrics of the song they sing while they dance:

“In the woods there grew a tree
A fine, fine tree was he
On that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
On that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
In that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
Of that feather was a bed
On that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
From that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
From that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew a tree…”


“Chop, chop, chop…”

Sword dancing in Scotland is an old and varied tradition, dating at least to the 15th century, similar to Welsh and English Morris dancing. The sword dance was performed by laying two swords on the ground in the form of an X, the dancer would then proceed to perform a complex series of steps and movements between and around the swords to the tune of the bagpipes. The dance was ceremonial in nature, but in days of old was said to be used as a test to determine a warriors agility, his skill in avoiding touching the swords with his feet would be a good omen for an upcoming battle.

The sword dancing in the Wicker Man might be a little more theatrical and fantastical, but does end in a mock beheading ceremony, performed while a bagpipe rendition of Oranges and Lemons plays in the background. Frazer mentions briefly the practice of mock executions, in which the sufferer’s hat was knocked off instead of his head, similar to the character Holly wearing a false hare head in the film.


“In Great Britain, for example, one can still see harmless versions of them danced in obscure villages on May Day. Their cast includes many alarming characters…”

Continuing from the chapter Relics of Tree Worship in Europe, there are snippets of information throughout that discuss the various characters found in festival processions and the theatrical costumes worn by mummers and performers. For instance: “A great feature of the celebration of May Day at Padstow (Cornwall) used to be the Hobby Horse, that is, a man wearing a ferocious mask, who went dancing and singing before the chief houses, accompanied by a great flower-bedecked crowd of men and women”.

In England he talks of the character Jack in the Green and the various figures that dance with him “Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons…from time to time in their progress through the streets the performers halted and three of them dressed in red, blue and yellow respectively, tripped lightly round the leaf covered man to the inspiring strains of a fiddle and a tin whistle…the leader of the procession was a clown fantastically clad in a long white pinafore, or blouse with coloured fringes and frills.”

In part VI in the chapter titled Human Scapegoats in Classical Antiquity, Frazer goes into great detail concerning the practices and costumes of maskers, mummers and procession goers. The reasons for these elaborate festivities of wild masks and loud music he concludes, is to frighten away the evil spirits and demons who may blight of wither crops. He also says these homemade masks and costumes serve to change the masqueraders into representations of spirits of fertility, with the aim of promoting the fruitfulness of the earth and of women.

I would also like to mention Frazers liberal use of the phrase “cut some capers” in this chapter, which definitely made its way into The Wicker Man script!

In this same chapter, he talks about the Slavic custom of ‘carrying out death’. In The Wicker Man we see some children carrying a doll aloft as they cry “We carry death out of the village.” The doll in this case is the scapegoat, made to represent the vegetation-spirit of the past year, which when carried away carries off with it the accumulated misfortune, suffering and other evils of the past year.


“It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man!”

Part VI of the Golden Bough is made up of many chapters that discuss The Scapegoat, that is, someone who may represent all of a communities hardships, such as a failed harvest, famine, plague etc. This scapegoat can then be cast out or sacrificed for the greater good. This ultimately, is the roll of Sergeant Howie.

According to the Golden Bough, cultures the world over would practice the ritual sacrifice of the scapegoat, from the Greeks to the Aztecs. A person would be chosen, his class or station mattered little, and he would be dressed and cared for like a god or royalty, he would be ‘King for a day, revered and anointed as a king.’

In the chapter titled Killing the God in Mexico, we see some similarities to Sergeant Howie’s fate.“In the month of May it was the duty of the divine man, destined so soon to die, to lead the dances which formed a conspicuous feature of the festivities’

The book Howie reads from in the library contains pieces of folklore pieced together from all over the world. “The chief priest then skinned the child, and wearing the still-warmed skin like a mantle, led the rejoicing crowds through the streets. The priest thus represented the goddess reborn” Are the words Howie reads from the book in the library, a practice that is described in great detail by Frazer: “the custom of wearing the skin of a flayed man or woman and personating a god in that costume is intended to represent the resurrection of the deity”

There are also parallels to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when the roles of lord and servant were reversed.

The form the sacrifice takes in the film is of course the king for a day being burned alive with a veritable farmyard of sacrificial animals. This was inspired by the words of Julius Caesar, who noted down in his Commentary of the Gallic War the ancient Druidic practice of sacrificing humans in a giant man like effigy crafted from woven sticks or wicker.


This is by no means a complete selection of how The Golden Bough inspired The Wicker Man, and of course we haven’t even mentioned the true sparks that kindled The Wicker Man fire, that is the novel ‘The Ritual’ by David Pinner. But I hope all the same that this has been an interesting and informative read for any Wicker Man fan, and has given you at least a glance at the complex origins of this cult classic.

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  1. […] anche a Midsommar di Ari Aster. Non so se dipenda da un’origine comune a questi testi, spesso ispirati a Il ramo d’oro di James Frazer, o se nel caso di Midsommar ci sia proprio una discendenza dal […]

    1. kwetherell says:

      Yes! Midsommar does also seem to be influenced by the book in many aspects 🙂

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