You wouldn’t leave your son, your brother, your lover to die alone.
That is the point.
One of them, anyway.
So you sit dressed in black, with a black scarf tied around your hair to keep it from your face, hugging your knees with your nose hidden between them as you look into the white smoke that billows towards you. You blink it away as it stings your eyes and draws tears to the surface. You watch the small flames stretch across the charred wood. The coal remains throbbing white then black as the flame swells and shrinks and swells again. As you watch the wood burn you think to yourself, His bones are all that remain.
He is a symbol—a metaphor. He is the Year King, the Slain God. He is burning and you are sitting beside him as the flame consumes him, as he dies, and your stomach is sinking down through the earth. You want to walk away but it is as though you are rooted there, like a tree—a watcher, a witness. Besides…you would not leave your son, your brother, your lover, to die alone.
You recall the books you’ve read, the stories you’ve heard. Mythologies, all, written by people peering into the past, hoping their sight is clear as they recall with pen and paper what they believe they’ve witnessed.
One, your first encounter, was a story, one of the young myths whose heritage was in the legends of old. It said:
In time of need, or in some tribes every seven years the new Year-King would have watched his predecessor burn, and even now some of the old sacredness attached to him. The Empire had killed or Romanized the heirs of British princes, but so long as men were willing to offer their lives for the people, they could not eradicate the Sacred Kings, who each year stood surety for those who no longer understood their role.
If there were some great disaster, and a sacrifice were needed during the coming year, despite the Roman’s prohibitions it was on this young man that the blow would fall.
…He had seen them take the Year-King away, it said. He had been smiling, believing his death would help his people. (1)
A romantic ideal, no? Some vague echo of a memory long ago sent to gather dust in the quieted halls of the Akashic libraries, perhaps, fading; coveted in mythologies which so many have forgotten or never bothered to hear, like Frey falling yearly to the scythe, his great sacrifice—a myth or a memory? It was the only thing from the story that impressed itself upon youthat burned itself against your mind, like a brand marking you.
Now that…that was a man—a god—you could love. That was a god you could weep for, a god you could kneel before, a god whose feet you would wash with the finest of oils.
One of your very own brothers walking to the place on the horizon where the sun sets and dieing with it for his people’s need, at winter’s first call.
Dieing in a brilliant blaze…and you will not let him die alone. You will sit beside him and wait until the flames recede and his bones cease to burn.
Julius Ceaser wrote in The Gallic Wars of the “Wicker Colossus,” a form of sacrifice utilized by the ancient Druids, in which men were imprisoned in massive wicker effigies and burned alive. You have not read it, but you are familiar with the myth, and less so with The Golden Bough by Sir James G. Frazer. But you understand that these documents are stories, just as is the story of the Year-King.
Perhaps they are echoes of some truth lost to dust and ash and, more importantly, the pen and paper of the victors, but you know that they can be held as little more than that—at least where He is concerned. Because, you know, they are stories about a culture written from the perspective of another culture—and not merely another culture, but the culture of the conquerors. You are well familiarized with the stories people tell to paint a falsified picture of the “other,” pictures which let the populace rest assured that it is their duty to conquer, tame, and civilize.
But you do not discount the stories entirely, either, for you are also well familiarized with the brutality of the human animal, and the world it lives it.
As he burns beside you, as you fight the urge to reach out and touch his smoldering bones, you know that he is an echo of these myths just as much as he is your answer to the myth-memory of the Year-King.
But that is not all he is. By his nature he is many things: he is everything which people look upon him and see. He is seen by some as a curiosity; once or twice as an interesting albeit crude piece of art. He is seen, on occasion, by the eyes of others as something wicked—something evil. Perhaps he is. Perhaps that was the sickened knot in your stomach as you stood him in the muddied grass and knelt at his feet to light the fire. Perhaps that was the dizzying wash through your mind as you stirred the flames, watched them crawl and creep up his legs; as you took him gently and lay him down in them, like a mother tucking her child into bed.
Or was it just that? That you were his mother, that you created him—built him, put him together, picked out his bones from fallen trees and foliage, sang to him as you tied his arms, his ribs in place, poured your energy, your heart into him as you folded over armloads of Russian sage to fill him, as you crafted his heart with knotted roots you’d pulled from the muddy earth and adorned with roses the color of blood…
And when you sing (I knew him once) (2) you weep for him. As you weep, you wonder: How many slain gods rose again at the call of their lover’s tears?
He is more than an echo. More than a fragment of a memory, be it truth or myth. And that is the point.
Well…it is one of them, anyway.
Because you are an educated woman. You are well born and well read. You are no primitive savage, as some like to call the men and women of the Paleolithic eras, people from a time before the invention of medicine, the discovery of the atom. You partake of books as though they are life force. You consume knowledge as though it were the finest of breads and wine. You know that his ashes will not assure the life of the crop or banish the hardships of the coming year—though perhaps his ashes will replenish the soil of some of the nutrients taken by so many leaching roots…
No…he wasn’t made to assure or placate anything. He wasn’t burned to appease anyone or to seal any pact.
He was made simply to be burned, you tell yourself—born to die, like all of us.
The smoke which rises from his smoldering remains dissipates into the wind and as it goes it takes with it every intangible ounce you poured into him. His ashes scatter across the grass as the breeze picks up and they take with them a million little prayers.
He dies today in honor of everything that you have been blessed with. He dies today in honor of the blessing of life, the blessing of divinity, for you know this, too: its spark exists within each thing which has the gall to simply be. It lies in the attraction which holds together the molecules that you are, that form the air in your lungs and the rocks you sit upon, the water you drink, the meat you eat…
And that is what he is. He is something forged of a hundred broken fragments and made beautiful and meaningful and wonderful, and he was made by your hands, your mind, your heart. He is your lover, your brother, your son. You are mourning him as he is dieing in the fire, and he is dieing in celebration of your life. He is proud and he is humble. He is smiling as he marches to the flame and he is holding your hand as you weep. He is love and he is perception. He is in the world and he is gone. He is dust, he is ash. He is honest, because he never learned to lie. He is a myth, a scary story, an echo, a memory. He is the Year-King, the Wicker Man, a Slain God. He is forgotten—he is remembered.
And that is the point.
One of them, anyway…
(1) Bradley, Marion Zimmer; The Forest House. New York: Penguin, 1993.
(2) Tucker, S. J.; “Neptune.” Mischief. 2010.
[Tahni is beginning to lose track of how long she has been a practicing pagan, but she believes that it’s been somewhere around eight years. She recently became a devotee of Loki, but continues to work with deities and spirits from many pantheons. She often honors the deities and spirits she works with by telling stories for and about them in her art and writing. Some of her work has been featured in Huginn, Lilith: Queen of the Desert and Unto Herself: A Devotional Anthology for Independent Goddesses. She often shares snippets of writing at tahnijnikitins.deviantart.com.]