One of the roots of 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 effigies 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). Burning Man attendees informally called it “The Man,” and this name was given to each successive effigy, every year since Burning Man began.
Harvey states that he did not see the movie The Wicker Man until many years later, so it played no part in his inspiration. A wicker man was a large human-shaped wicker statue allegedly used in Celtic paganism for human sacrifice by burning it in effigy. Accordingly, rather than allow the name “Wicker Man” to become the name of the ritual, he started using the name “Burning Man”.