Human Sacrifice in the Celtic World

The other night, a group of friends and I had a go at a local pub quiz, which was predictably Halloween-themed. One of the questions, which caused a bit of dissent in our team’s ranks, was this:

What did the druids sacrifice?

Of course, the actual answer to this is ‘probably a lot of things,’ combined with some amount of ‘we don’t really know.’ Cattle, definitely. Shiny things and ornaments. Probably pigs. We knew the answer the quizmaster was looking for was ‘humans,’ because it’s a popular notion and also a suitably creepy question for a Halloween pub quiz. But did they?

Well, there are good reasons to think so. As with much of our knowledge of the prehistoric Celts, our closest sources are Roman writers. It’s always good to keep in mind that the Romans felt the Celts were awful savages, and in need of a good Empire to keep them in line, so were prone to exaggerating their faults much the way the English did centuries later. But Strabo in his Geography claims the Romans put a stop to the Druid practise of human sacrifice, and then goes on to describe how they did it: by hitting ‘a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice’ in the back of the head with a sword, or shooting him, or–and this is real horror film stuff–by building a large effigy and tossing people, animals and whatever else into it.

Julius Caeasar mentions the ‘giant burning effigy of people’ method as well, writing his account of the Gallic wars, and makes the small concession that when they can, they use criminals they’re going to execute anyway.

There’s reasonable evidence that bog bodies like the Lindow Man were killed ritualistically, though the problem with archaeological evidence is generally that it tells us a whole lot of facts without much context. But he was definitely killed more times than seems strictly necessary, so suggestions that he was subject to a ritual threefold death seems at least supportable. And there are a lot of threefold deaths in Celtic literature, from the early Merlin sources to the Life of St Columba. It makes a certain poetic sense–the Celts were terribly attached to the number three, and three of their gods were said to be appeased by different methods: burning, drowning, and hanging. So presumably if you could sacrifice the same man three times, you were less likely to risk incurring the wrath of an offended god. (Lindow Man, by the way, was almost definitely not sacrificed at Halloween–the mistletoe pollen found in his stomach suggests that he died in the spring.)

While it’s really not wise to attempt digging too much pre-Christian mythology out of medieval Welsh texts, the Second Branch does sometimes seem to have a lot of interesting stuff buried in it. Relevant to the point at hand are the parts involving a magical cauldron and people being burnt to death. The cauldron first appears in the hands of a family of giants travelling through Ireland, who so terrify their neighbours that the Irish trap them in a house and set it on fire. The giant and his wife burst out of the house and escape to Wales, where they give it to Bendigeidfran in return for hospitality, and you know, not trying to have them slaughtered. (Bran is a giant himself, so he’s totally not afraid of them.) In a cruel ironic twist, Bendigeidfran gives the cauldron back to the same Irish king who tried to roast the giants alive in the first place, as compensation for a Godfather-like thing with some horses. The Irish king, Matholwch, marries Bran’s sister, but things fall apart within the second year. In the end, there’s a battle surrounding the cauldron (because if you have a cauldron that brings people back to life, it only makes sense to keep it on hand while fighting). Bran and Branwen’s half-brother Efnisien, who’d caused the whole thibg in the first place, tosses his nephew into a fire and then sacrifices himself to destroy the cauldron. Sometimes the characters’ motivations really only make sense if they’re being pulled from something more ancient, more confusing, and considerably more weird.

So was there a real Celtic wicker man festival, a couple of thousand years ago? Probably not on Halloween, but just in case, watch where you’re walking in the dark, tonight.

Calan Gaeaf hapus, Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh, happy Halloween!

Citations:

Human Sacrifice, BBC page
Joy, Jody, Lindow Man, British Museum Press, 2009
Koch, John T. and John Carey eds. The Celtic Heroic Age. Malden, Massachustetts: Celtic Studies Publications, 1995.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. Chicago: Chicago Adademy Publishers, 1996.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Human Sacrifice in the Celtic World

  1. I always love creeping non-historians/archaeologists out by telling them about the triple death—it’s one of those murky parts of history that’s quite shiver-inducing to contemplate. And given where a bog body was found just last year, it’s a topic that’s literally close to home for me!

    What answer did the quiz master accept, in the end?

    (Agus Oíche Shamhna shona duit, freisin!)

    • It is quite creepy, isn’t it? And the lack of real knowledge makes the things our brains fill in even that much creepier.

      The quiz master was indeed looking for ‘humans’. We lost the whole thing by half a point!

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