Must’ve missed this one on the way to Cargo Cult: last August, the Huffington Post published some rare photos of the first burns. Burning Man began on the summer solstice of 1986, when Larry Harvey and his “latte carpenter” buddy Jerry James burned an effigy of a “Man” and a dog.
This collection of photos, taken by Stewart Harvey, reveals a simpler side of The Burn. Founder Larry Harvey (Stewart’s brother) and his cohorts are shown setting the scene first on SF’s Baker Beach…Behold, a rare glimpse inside the origins of what is now a worldwide way of life:
Baker Beach Arrival, 1989.
Raising the Man, Baker Beach, 1989.
Loading Seven Sections on Seven Pickups, 1989.
Pioneer Burners, 1989.
Assembling the Man, 1990.
What about earlier than that? What about the very first Burn, in 1986? For that we’ll have to go to my old mate Pig, at Mad Nomad films:
Burning “Man” 1986 – image from Mad Nomad films
The “Man” Burns
Here’s a photo of the Man burning in 1987, from CNet:
Here’s a history of the original burns:
The annual event now known as Burning Man began as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice in 1986 when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and a few friends met on Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned a 9-foot (2.7-meter) wooden man as well as a smaller wooden dog. Harvey has described his inspiration for burning these effigy figures as a spontaneous act of radical self-expression.
The event did have earlier roots, though. Sculptor Mary Grauberger, a friend of Harvey’s girlfriend Janet Lohr, held solstice bonfire gatherings on Baker Beach for several years prior to 1986, some of which Harvey attended. When Grauberger stopped organizing it, Harvey “picked up the torch and ran with it,” so to speak. He and Jerry James built an 8-foot (2.4-meter) wooden effigy for 1986, which was much smaller and more crudely made than the neon-lit figure featured in the current ritual. In 1987, the effigy grew to almost 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall, and by 1988, it had grown to around 40 feet (12 meters).
Harvey swears that he did not see the movie The Wicker Man until many years later, so it played no part in his inspiration. Accordingly, rather than allow the name “Wicker Man” to become the name of the ritual, he started using the name “Burning Man”.
There’s more official history from the Burning Man web site. We’ve also covered Burning Man’s early days before, here.
The movie “The Wicker Man” was orginally made in 1973, and starred Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, and Bond Girl/Peter Sellers’ wife Britt Ekland. In 1979 it won a Saturn award for “Best Horror Film”, and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Music. It was also nominated for a Satellite award in 2006 for “Best Classic DVD” in (DVDs were discs that movies used to come on, Millenial kiddies).
Note the antlers, the scene on the beach, and the man base. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look, it scared the absolute beejeezus out of me as a kid.
Iron Maiden released a song “The Wicker Man” in 2000.
The Wicker Man was remade by Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment starring Nicolas Cage in 2006. It’s considered to be one of the worst remakes ever. From Wikipedia:
The film holds a 15% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 105 reviews. The consensus says, “Puzzlingly misguided, Neil LaBute’s update The Wicker Man struggles against unintentional comedy and fails.” On At the Movies, the film received two thumbs down from Richard Roeper and Aisha Tyler. The film garnered five Razzie Award nominations, for Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Cage), Worst Screenplay, Worst Remake, and Worst On-Screen Couple (Cage and his bearsuit).
Wikipedia says that the both films are based on David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual.
The movie might not have played any part in Larry’s inspiration, but the idea of burning an effigy was the entire theme of the 1986 solstice burn. The Summer Solstice is a sacred date in Pagan ritual, which is also known as Wicca magic. Even giving Larry the benefit of the doubt that he’d never seen the original Wicker Man, he is a very well read person – an “autodidact” – and he seems to be very learned when it comes to history and ritual. When he first called Jerry James with the idea, he said “I want to burn a figure for the solstice”.
The Wicker Man movies didn’t invent the idea of ritual effigy burns, and neither did David Pinner’s novel. It’s an ancient druidic tradition, one of the earliest descriptions of the ritual is from Julius Caesar – the emperor, not the Shakespeare play. In those days, druids were so powerful that their intervention could stop two opposing armies from starting a war. The druids would punish those who did not bring them offerings, placing the culprits – and their animals – inside a giant wicker structure, and burning them to death in it so that the rest of the village could hear their screams, and thus fear the Druids. Fire was a significant technology back in those days, that’s why we still have the concept of “The Eternal Flame” today. Wicker Man burns still happen all over the world, including at San Francisco’s annual Illuminati theme camp hangout where commerce is banned and everyone goes by special names: Bohemian Grove.
This site describes the Wicca magical nature of the ritual quite well:
Traditionally, burning a human effigy is intended to create a spirit messenger – to connect the celebrants with energies and powers which would ordinarily be beyond their control.1 For early peoples, the energy of fire was connected with the sun which brings light, health, and growth, as well as the hearth fire of food and hospitality. Fire was the spark of life which connected human hearts with the stars; for some it was the fire of inner change and transformation, the quest for knowledge and power.
There’s some debate about whether the first, 1986 figure was 8-feet tall, or 9-feet tall. One creation myth says that the effigy was burned to symbolize Larry Harvey breaking up with his baby momma, and that the man was originally a woman. From Outside Online’s story Hot Mess by Brad Wieners:
JOE FENTON (member of the Black Rock Rangers, Burning Man’s security team): I didn’t go to the burns on the beach, but I did a paper about them for a college course on the anthropology of festivals. Larry told me very specifically that the figure was an effigy of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. He told me he wanted to burn her out of his memory.He moved off that soon afterward. I guess he figured it wasn’t very politically correct, and now that idea is actively suppressed.
Other myths suggest it was always supposed to be androgynous. The 1986 and 1987 photos seem to prove otherwise – with those horns, later removed for some unknown reason, the wide hips, and the goat-like face, it looks more like the Satyrnic god Baphomet to me. From Abraxion.com
Proposed statue for Oklahoma State Capitol building, 2013
The symbol of the left handed path, usually portrayed as half human, half goat figure, or a goat head. It is often misinterpreted as a symbol of Witchcraft in general, it is used by those who practice the black arts. The origin of the name Baphomet is unclear. It may be a corruption of Mahomet ‘Mohammed’, or even a combination of two greek words, baphe andmetis, meaning ‘absorption of knowledge’. Baphomet has also been called the Goat of Mendes, the Black Goat, and the Judas Goat.
Note the similarities to the 1986 Baker Beach effigy with the wide hips, goat’s head, the single raised arm, and the pentagram…
If anyone was there for those Baker Beach burns, we’d love to hear from you. Got photos? Video? Stories? Please share, this is history now…