What is it about Paganism in a modern context that causes the (non-Pagan) mind to flash onto Human Sacrifice? I guess that this is a Pop-Cultural trend that started in 1973 with the original Wicker Man movie (which I thought was a really good, Twilight Zone-type film that postulated the possibility of Celtic Paganism continuing into the modern age- of the 1970s- right up to continuing the practice of human sacrifice, which is something that Caesar charged of the Gallic Celts). Alright, seriously- that is an interesting and legitimate premise for a fictional movie. But first, the remake of The Wicker Man (the one infamous for sucking, and for starring Nicolas Cage), and then, the remake of the remake (called The Wicker Tree, famous for just plain sucking), both play up the idea of “modern Pagans” as deranged enough to resort to human sacrifice as part of their modern Paganism, to a degree garish enough to qualify as exploitative. The conclusion to a relatively recent American detective novel Wicked Witch Murder (spoiler alert) hinged upon a Wiccan coven’s decision to re-adopt the “ancient” Pagan practice of human sacrifice (right, like this is an idea that, say, one is going to see duplicated anytime soon, at say, PantheaCon. As in say, tonight we will be conducting the Ceremony of the Human Sacrifice- in the Oak Room, from 8-10). There is the kind-of famous Village Voice piece on local NYC Heathen politician Dan Halloran, with a cover depicting a sacrificed goat (ok, admittedly not a human, but still). And now there is The Stonehenge Legacy, a new novel by Sam Christer (Overlook Press, 2011), that presents the “international sensation 5000 years in the making.” Its premise (this is not a spoiler, as I am quoting the blurb on the book-jacket): “Eight days before the summer solstice, a man is butchered in a blood-freezing sacrifice on the ancient site of Stonehenge before a congregation of robed worshippers. Within hours, one of the world’s foremost treasure hunters has shot himself in his country mansion. And to his estranged son, young archaeologist Gideon Chase, he leaves a cryptic letter.”
“Teaming up with an intrepid policewoman, Gideon soon exposes a secret society- an ancient international legion devoted for thousands of years to Stonehenge. With a charismatic and ruthless new leader at the helm, the cult is now performing ritual sacrifices in a terrifying bid to unlock the secret of the stones.”
“Packed with codes, symbology, relentless suspense, and fascinating detail about the history of one of the world’s most mysterious places, The Stonehenge Legacy is a blockbuster to rival the very best of Dan Brown. Already sold in 35 countries and reaching the top of bestseller lists, this is a breakthrough novel of addictive and eerie suspense.”
Pretty obviously inspired by the genre-fiction more or less created by Dan Brown with The Da Vinci Code (the endorsements on the back jacket mention Mr. Brown twice, including one that praises this “creepily compelling tale that deftly mixes the near-Satanic activities of an ages-old pre-Christian cult with an entirely modern kidnap plot”), The Stonehenge Legacy imagines an “ancient pagan cult” that reveres the Stones and the Ancients that created them- by kidnapping visitors to the site, to be sacrificed at regular astrological intervals, in order to “feed” the Stones with sacrificial blood, in honor of the ancient Gods of the Craft (that term is used). As the newest Henge Master invokes, during the opening chapter (p. 10): “Great gods, I feel your eternal presence. Earth Mother most eternal, Sky Father most supreme, we gather in adoration and dutifully kneel in your presence.” “We, your obedient children, the Followers of the Sacreds, are gathered here on the bones of our ancestors to honor you and to show you our devotion and loyalty.” Then they bash out the brains of their terrified victim on top of the Slaughter Stone.
The book is well-written, with an engrossing, labyrinthian plot populated with vividly-drawn characters. Mr. Christer (a pseudonym adopted by the award-winning documentary-maker- English, I take it- who authored this, his first novel) has an agreeable habit of ending his chapters with provocative tantalizers that keep one turning the pages to find out what happens next (a talent useful in a thriller). Some of my favorite scenes involve the female police-detective sleuthing out crime scenes, to determine what sorts of culprits committed these crimes, and why.
Certain details the author doesn’t get quite right: the daughter of an American Vice-President, studying abroad, will not have a couple of bodyguards provided by her father; she will have an entire Secret Service detail, provided by the American government. As is the way with conspiracy-thrillers, the conspiracy gets larger and more fanciful as the book goes on: the “ancient pagan cult” appears finally to have initiated members in every strata of English society, with (finally) its own paramilitary-unit. Since Stonehenge is the necessary site for the “pagan cult’s” murderous activities, Mr. Christer is required often to move the action from Stonehenge itself, to the (wait for it) vast, cavernous underground space underneath Stonehenge, created alongside Stonehenge by the Neolithic builders, specifically compared to an underground version of the Great Pyramid of Giza (no, seriously; it wasn’t enough for Mr. Christer, that these forgotten people built this megalithic stone-circle at all- they have to dig out an enormous, subterranean temple, too, with adjacent passageways and chambers).
His reverence for the site is plain, as he pauses frequently to comment on its mysteries and alignments, and I appreciate his attempt to create a group of people dedicated to a sacred service for the Stones, committed to reverence for them, feeling ancient Energies alive within them, and seeking a communion and a bonding with their power. The thing is (as if one needs to point out): the Followers of the Sacreds in this story accomplish all these things- by slaughtering innocent people, in honor of the Gods of the Stones (nothing says “sanctity” to a God quite like a murder-victim, right?)
It’s not like Mr. Christer is unaware of Neo-Paganism; he opens Part Three (p. 183) on the morning of the Summer Solstice, describing the “thousands” of people who descend upon the site for the sunrise, including “Pagans, druids, Wiccans, heathens, Christians, Catholics, and Jews” (I’m not quite sure why Catholics seem distinct from Christians to Mr. Christer). It appears that he can’t really find the sympathy for such “kooky” types as these, and can’t appreciate a sense of awe and devotion to a pre-historic, Pagan monument without allowing for bloodshed and criminality.
I suppose one could resort to words like “risible”; or one could take the objective approach, and ponder whether Popular Culture indeed finds modern Paganism so alarming, that the Zeitgeist conjures up images of human-sacrificing psychos to account for it. What is it, with this paranoid projection of Pagans as the Sacrificers of Other Humans?