Most stories of human sacrifice come to us, not from the ancient Irish or Celts themselves, but from those who observed them, most notably the Greeks, the Romans and later, the Christians. These cultures had long since put aside their own human sacrifice practices by the time they came into contact with early Celtic peoples. There can be no doubt that tales of barbaric Celtic savages running into battle against well-disciplined Roman legions, screaming under the influence of battle frenzy,and naked but for body paint, or the violent, cruel deaths they inflicted on their Roman captives as they offered them up to their heathen Gods, served many purposes. Knowing human nature, it can be assumed that much of what was written then by invaders and conquerors fuelled an insatiable demand back home for titillation and political propaganda. Caesar described how giant wicker effigies were filled with human victims, usually but not always criminals, and then burned alive. Cassius described how Boudica impaled her Roman captives. Strabo talked of druids stabbing their victims and then forming prophecies based on the victim’s death throes.
Despite all this, recent scholars claim there is little evidence to prove it.
Perhaps the most intriguing form of sacrifice is that of the triple, or threefold death. This generally involved the victim being put to death simultaneously by three different methods, ie hanging, drowning and wounding. This is method is not exclusive to Ireland, but has been found in various pre-historic and medieval cultures. In welsh legend, Myrddin (often associated with Merlin of King Arthur fame) predicted his own threefold death by falling, stabbing and drowning. This is exactly what happened, when he was driven off a cliff by a gang of murderous shepherds (?), fell onto a stake left behind by a fisherman, and died with his head under water. Not so much a sacrifice as a tragic accident perhaps.
In Ireland, the threefold death of Aedh Dubh, a King c588 of Dál nAraidi (Ulster) was foretold by St Columba. Aedh had killed Diarmuid mac Cerbaill, and then took the priesthood but was ordained out of the church. For these sins, St Columba claimed he would die from a spear to the neck, fall from wood into water, and be drowned. He was in fact killed on a boat, possibly on Lough Neagh, and subsequently fell into the lake and drowned. Whether this death was staged in order to fit the prophecy, or merely coincidental, cannot now be known.
Chillingly, the discovery of various so called ‘bog bodies’ seem to corroborate these stories of the threefold death. Here in Ireland, the National Museum in Dublin is host to a fantastic exhibition entitled ‘Kingship and Sacrifice’ where many of these bog bodies are displayed. They are remarkably well preserved. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to look into the face of a man who lived four thousand years ago…every detail is intact. That these men were nobles cannot be denied; they are well fed and healthy, well dressed, their hands are manicured, they even dress their hair with ancient hair gel. Items of great wealth have been found in the bogs with them, but whether votive offerings or grave goods can only be guessed. Another more gruesome feature they all shared in common, was the evidence of multiple, violent injuries. Such ‘overkill’ must signify ritual killing, claim the experts. I’m no expert, but in Ireland of that time it does not seem unlikely to me that their horrific injuries could have been sustained in warfare. Irish mythology and early history would confirm how warlike these tribes were. Even the experts are divided in their opinions, but stories of human sacrifice and ritual king killing is certainly much more media worthy and attractive in terms of fund raising.(Oh how cynical am I?)
The same exhibition houses the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, a silver vessel found in a bog in Denmark. It features an image of a man with his head in the cauldron, which has been generally accepted as a human sacrifice by ritual drowning. I find this rather odd; the cauldron in the past was seen as a vessel of birth and regeneration, a symbol of the life-giving female womb. The legend of the Dagda’s cauldron is a perfect example of this; from it, all were said to go satisfied, even the dead could be rejuvenated in it. Perhaps,then, this image on the Gundestrup Cauldron portrays not a ritual drowning, not a human sacrifice, but a re-birth, a kind of baptism even.
Our modern sensibilities lead us to abhor any kind of ritual killing, and rightly so. But ancient peoples lived closer to the land, to birth and death and all the messiness that goes in between, than we do. The survival of the community far outweighed the value of the individual. Perhaps for them, the sacrifice of one for the good of many was worth the cost. On the other hand, perhaps they valued all life equally. The evidence we dig up out of the earth today is as open to interpretation as the legacy of the mythology our ancestors left behind.