The Wicker Man
There’s an iconic film which I would recommend to anyone interested in the subject of paganism. I’m sure many of you will already have seen it. It’s called The Wicker Man. It stars Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Britt Ekland. It was written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy and released in 1973, to no great acclaim.
Ostensibly it is a horror movie, and there are some genuinely scary bits in it: but it is much more than this as well.
I won’t go into the history of the film. Suffice it to say that it has grown in reputation over the years, to the point where you could justifiably call it a cult movie now, and that there are two versions available: the original 1973 theatrical version, and a later 95 minute version known as the Director’s Cut.
The plot is very interesting and compelling. A Christian police officer from the mainland is investigating the death of a child on a remote Scottish island, which, he soon discovers, has reverted to the worship of the old pre-Christian gods. This allows the film makers to explore the nature of those pre-Christian religions in a way which is both arresting and, at times, deeply moving.
All of the practices shown in the film were meticulously researched by the writer, being based on James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the definitive study of pre-Christian religious beliefs.
There’s one particular scene which exists in the Director’s Cut, but not in the theatrical version, which sums up both the meaning of the film, and the subject we are exploring here today: pantheistic paganism.
It is a highly complex scene in which a number of things are happening all at once. It takes place at night. Christopher Lee, as Lord Summerisle, brings a young man to Britt Ekland’s initiatory embrace, while Edward Woodward, as the Christian copper, is praying by his bedside next door. The atmosphere is sultry, sensual, and we can feel Woodward’s frustration, knowing what is happening on the other side of the wall. Meanwhile, downstairs in the pub, the company are singing an erotic ballad called Gently Johnny, with highly suggestive words, and at a certain point Christopher Lee begins to quote parts of I Think I Could Turn And Live With Animals by Walt Whitman, while we see cutaways of two snails in slimy, lubricated, sexual embrace:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd... They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God... Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
He spits out the word “respectable” with a kind of dismissive snarl.
By now we already know that the kind of society that is being depicted here is one far removed from the world we live in today. It is mysterious and haunting. The whole scene has a peculiar kind of intimacy that seems to suggest some inner connection between all the creatures here, human, animal and divine. Only Edward Woodward is the outsider.
There’s one line that sums it all up for me. As Lord Summerisle introduces the young man to Britt Eckland’s character he says, calling quietly up to her window, “Another sacrifice for Aphrodite, Willow.”
“You flatter me your Lordship,” she replies: “Surely you mean to Aphrodite.”
“I make no such distinction,” he says: “You are the goddess of love in human form and I am merely your humble acolyte.”
That’s the line: “I make no such distinction.”
Willow McGregor is not just the representative of Aphrodite, a priestess, a go-between, as priests are in Christianity: she is Aphrodite. In this moment of ritual engagement, at least, priestess and goddess are one and the same.
This is the core belief of pantheism. It is what distinguishes it from all other ways of understanding the Universe. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary pantheism is “a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe”. According to Wikipedia it “is the belief that all of reality is identical with divinity or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god.”
That’s a very good summation.
The term itself is fairly modern, constructed from the Greek words for All (pan) and God (theos) and dates from the 17th century. It is the belief that God is All, that there is no thing that is not God. However the idea is anything but modern, and could well be the core understanding underlying many (if not most) of the pre-Christian, pre-Abrahamic belief-systems.
Everything is God. The Earth is God. The Sky is God. The Sun is God. The ocean is God. The stars are Gods. Places are Gods. Rivers are Gods. Mountains are Gods. Valleys are Gods. Forests are Gods. Trees are Gods. Meadows are Gods. Flowers are Gods. Animals are Gods. Insects are Gods. All creatures are Gods, including ourselves.
That’s right: it puts us, the human race, at the centre of the drama, as the only part of God that doesn’t yet know it is God, or has forgotten.
There is some argument to say that it is our separation from nature and the world around us that has led us to our current crisis.
We see nature as something outside of us, whose purpose is merely functional: something we exploit and shape for our own ends.
In Christian belief, human beings are fundamentally sinful. We are separated from God by an act of disobedience, by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For this Original Sin we were cast out of the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps this could be understood to mean that we are cast out from nature. Is it this objectification of nature — treating nature as an object outside of us, rather than a process of Being, of which we are a part – that explains our modern malaise: our sickness and the sickness we have brought to the world?
We do not know how early humans thought or how they perceived the world. When we look back at them we tend to project our own feelings on to them. Use of psychedelic medicine may help us to bridge that gap. Certainly, the sense of something inherently alive in every moment, in every space, something immanent and present in the very fabric of existence, which characterises the best of psychedelic use, may be a helpful tool for our understanding of our place in the world.
Maybe this explains why the psychedelics are looked at with such horror by the dominant culture: why a perfectly natural fungus such as the Psilocybin mushroom, which has never killed anyone, and was rated as the least harmful drug in Professor Nutt’s drug harm index, is nevertheless placed alongside heroin and crack cocaine in its legal status: not because it is a threat to the person who takes them, but because it is a threat to the objectifying disease that inhabits us, the cultural meme that says that the world is dead and that we are the only conscious, living beings within it.
Pantheism is the cure for this. Pantheism says that everything is sacred, that everything is alive and imbued with Spirit, that everything is worthy of worship.
Who needs a church when we have nature to adore? Who needs a Gothic arch when we have the sky? Who needs incense when we have the air to breathe? And who needs an altar when the rustle of the wind in the trees is all the evidence you need of the Living God’s presence?
A church is a building which encloses us. Nature is outside. Only by stepping outside, not only of our buildings, but of ourselves, into the nature from which we were wrought, can we find our true humanity, and bring life, and health, back into the world.
More on Paganism by CJ Stone: Paganism Is Not A Religion