The Wicker Man stirs up the most primal instincts in the Pagan community. Tribal pride is inflamed. That this officer is led to his death by his arrogance, pride, prejudice, and asceticism makes us feel clever, natural, wise and tolerant. We take the story to the mythic level and think of this as a trickster story. Surely some nice policeman came through and gave all the right answers and went home with his pockets full of apples and a lovely maiden on his arm. Howie was just that nice policeman’s evil stepbrother, right?
We do this with a lot of the barbarism that existed in ancient Paganism. We either think of it as something long ago that has nothing to do with us or we imbue it with the mythic. Cerridwen ate Gwion. She ate him. It’s cannibalism. He was merely a disobedient slave that she consumed. We don’t sit and think of Cerridwen as a cannibal with little regard for the life of slaves when we’re chanting about the wonders of her magic cauldron.
The Romans executed their prisoners of war as offerings to their Gods. The Celts were headhunters. In Scandanavia women were ritually killed to accompany warriors into Valhalla as their wives. Every culture and faith have these stories of horrific acts, yet we revere Mars, Cerridwen, Odin and honor these Gods who once received blood offerings. Entire villages were raided, raped, pillaged and sold into slavery, and our Gods were invoked in such actions.
The barbarism associated with Columbia strikes closer to home though. We still see the scars of genocide and slavery on our land. It’s here around us, not across the ocean, sanitized by miles of salt-water. We’re cognizant of torture being performed at the behest of our government by our armed forces. We’re in the midst of two wars that aren’t going terribly well. We’re concerned about our troops.
Paganism is open source religion. You can pick and choose what you like, disregard what you don’t like and no mighty Pagan pope will tell you you’re wrong. No one can tell you that worshiping Gandalf or Tyr or Lilith or Avellenau is wrong or will damn your soul. However, if you’re actively working to reclaim words and concepts for the Pagan community, like Witchcraft, the swastika, humane animal sacrifice, Druidry, Left Hand Path, sacred sexuality, etc…, can you really say one Pagan thing is worthy of reclamation and another is not based on a history of barbarism?
I think Columbia and The Wicker Man act as cautionary tales. Aside from the pride they evoke, they also remind us of what we are like at our worst. The world is not all love and light, and a grisly reminder keeps our exuberance in check. I think this may be why we love them. They are not tepid. They are the mirror in which we can see our highest ideal and depths of depravity, they are the map that reminds us which way is forward by urging us away from the dark places we have been.