“We’re getting ready for our May Day celebration. Who do YOU think should be ‘cleansed by flame’ this year?”
Last month, I noticed a very interesting thing take place. I am part of a Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook which has a massive array of posts, mostly to do with British folk culture as it has manifested through a number of horror films and strange children’s ‘hauntological’ television series, and someone shared the post below from the Scarfolk Council page:
The comments had been filled with the names of politicians, media barons, celebrities and public personalities, all named as worthy of being burned in the giant wicker man. But there was very little nastiness, as you often witness in comments feeds, but just a tongue in cheek, jovial atmosphere of a strangely subversive act. This was something surprisingly different from the usual hue and cry of mob activity on the internet!
For anyone who doesn’t know the reference, The Wicker Man is a horror film from 1973 starring Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Brit Ekland, a story about a British police officer who is called out to a remote Scottish island to investigate a missing child report. His morally upright character is quickly established by the villagers who attempt to lure him into different traps — including one with the beautiful Brit Ekland dancing naked outside his room. Finally, his fate is revealed to him, when he finds the villagers led by the enigmatic Lord Summerisle, circling a giant man made of sticks — the Wicker Man — and the film ends as few films ever have.
The Wicker Man is considered as one of the main reference points of the Folk Horror Revival group. And in the months leading up to this post, I felt like there was something in the air around this — the amount of people who had suddenly gravitated towards this group, posting everything from strange artworks, original illustrations, and eerie vintage photos of amusement parks. Although the Wicker Man itself, may in fact be a myth spread by the Romans to slander the celts.
But the 1st of May is still a special day in the European calendar, marking the beginning of the ‘Summer’ part of the year. It is Beltane in the Gaelic parts of the United Kingdom, Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) or Hexannacht (Night of the Witches) in Germany and neighbouring countries — and is celebrated through most of Europe by the burning of bonfires. The following day, May Day, was also chosen as the annual day for the International Worker’s organisation, a socialist movement from the early twentieth century — giving May Day both a pagan and a political significance. The most important thing to observe about May Day, however, is that it’s importance has nothing to do with churches or other institutions, but with the community and people.
Although May Day is not directly linked to satirizing public figures, there is a symbolic sacrifice in some regions, where a person will jump through the fire, and the rest will speak of them as if they are dead.
But in many other civilisations and cultures, there is a celebration at the end of their year, where they get to poke fun at political figures without fear of reprisals. In Indonesia, they put on a euphemistic pantomime making fun of some of the political decisions their leaders have made through the year. In Germany, they have puppet effigies of their leaders which they throw into the fire; this is only done symbolically, but the cheer and the shouts, and the fire leaping up to the sky, has an element of excitement that is important for us, perhaps going back to more ancient times.
That was what I felt like I witnessed in the Scarfolk Council post; a modern, spontaneous equivalent, or something that has been missing from Western countries for a long time. Often, we leave it up to movies and TV to make fun of our leaders — but this is done the sake for commerce and a career, not in the same spirit when it happens in the community.
I don’t really believe that people should be publically shamed, even if they deserve it. But I do feel that for a long time, the power to condemn has always rested with the well-educated echelons of our society, the self-appointed gate keepers of culture, secret government institutions, and the media, in a completely disproportionate ratio, that seems to have become more uneven over the years!
And the truth is that no one should be able to deny us the right to use our own discretion and god-given judgement to identify false prophets in our society — those that would lead us astray — and symbolically throw them into the fire!
Anyway, I just think that all of this is interesting. Our pagan past never completely goes away; many of the village churches of England were built from the salvaged (and stolen) standing stones of the druids. And although we are modern people who have become sophisticated communicators, we come from an emotional past.
Incidentally, a few days after the Scarborough Post came out, Radiohead released their new song, Burn the Witch — and although I’ve never been a Radiohead fan, it should’ve been no surprise to me to see that the clip had reached over a million views within a few days, reflecting something of the public nature of May Day celebrations!