The gibbet was a common law capital punishment imposed in England from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. Convicted prisoners were enclosed in these hanging iron cages fully alive and then left to die within the enclosure. Their bodies were sometimes displayed for only a day or two and other times, were left to hang for months on end. In the case of a longer display, the bodies would sometimes be coated in tar (prior to death) before enclosure to allow for slower decay of the corpse. If punishment is meant as a deterrent, this form of capital punishment would be one of the most extreme forms of deterrence against crime invented by the modern penal system. The rapidly decomposing or, alternatively, tar coated corpse removes any traces of gender which the corpse had before death. The continued display of the murdered corpse adds further insult to the injury by using the deceased as an example to others, as the epitome of malfeasance which would result in the same treatment should anyone else commit the same crime.
The Wicker Man was first described in Julius Ceasar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars as a giant effigy of a human figure which the Druids then filled with sacrificial victims (or alternatively criminals slated for execution) and then burned in its entirety. Ceasar’s reports are unconfirmed by any other account and have been questioned as highly suspicious. Nonetheless, the ceremony has been represented in various forms throughout history including this one from the 1676 Britannia Antiqua and has even been the focus of modern cinema and a song by the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.
It is not surprising that this effigy, at least in its representation here, is androgynous. As polytheists, the druids believed that the source of life and the powers which controlled it were embodied in many inanimate and animate objects. It is logical that the Wicker Man, the “portal” between this spiritual world and the world of the living is only semi-human in its lack of gender. If the force that creates life is non-human, that which takes it away must also lack normal human characteristics. As the wicker man burns, consuming its living victims along with itself, it erases all vestiges of human form which contained the spirits of these victims during their short presence on earth.