Most stories of human sacrifice come to us, not from the ancient Irish or Celts themselves, but from those who claim to have 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, naked but for body paint, and 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 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.
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 method was 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.
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.
I must say at this point that I’m not entirely sure what this means; did he receive his ordination in an oak grove instead of inside a church? Or was it someone other than a priest who carried out the ceremony? However he obtained his priesthood, it clearly wasn’t by a recognised and accepted means.
For these sins, St Columba predicted Aedh 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, or was pushed, into the lake.
Whether this death was staged in order to fit the prophecy, or merely coincidental, cannot now be known. However, it has all the hallmarks of a murder or death sentence, not a sacrifice.
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.
These men are said to be ancient Kings of Ireland sacrificed to the Gods by their clans when times were hard; perhaps crops failed, or there was war, or disease, and the King was blamed for not bringing prosperity to his people.
The bodies 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. You get the eerie feeling they are sleeping, and could just open their eyes…
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 they are belongings, 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, and describe the horrific injuries warriors sustained. King Nuada lost his whole sword arm from the shoulder, but survived. Cuchulain received a mortal wound which spilled his entrails, which some versions of the story claim he used to tie himself to a standing stone, so he could die on his feet like a proper warrior. Gross.
Perhaps these wealthy men were waylaid by bandits, robbed, murdered and their bodies tossed into the bog to hide the crime. Perhaps the terrible wounds are the result of torture, carried out by enemies. Sacrifice is not the only possible reason.
Even the experts are divided in their opinions, but when all is said and done, stories of human sacrifice and ritual king killing are certainly much more media worthy and attractive in terms of fund raising.(Oh how cynical am I?)
It’s a sad fact that the public is more likely to be persuaded to visit the exhibition to see a man gruesomely and ritually sacrificed, than some brave man who gave his life in battle.
The same museum also houses a replica of the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, a silver vessel found in a bog in Denmark. It is made up of many decorative plates, both internally and externally, and so is unlikely to have been intended for common use.
One of the plates features an image of a man being dunked by a giant head first into a pot. This scene has been generally accepted as a human sacrifice by ritual drowning.
To be quite honest, 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, and he was its male guardian.
Perhaps, then, this image on the Gundestrup Cauldron portrays not a ritual drowning, not a human sacrifice, but a symbolic re-birth, a kind of baptism even.
Our modern sensibilities lead us to abhor any kind of 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 now. 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.
But in a society which depended on each individual to fulfil their role in the community in order to ensure survival, which revered fertility of mankind and the land, and respected life, it doesn’t seem likely that they would be so willing to permit human sacrifice. Would they really have been willing to kill the very man sanctioned by the Goddess of Sovereignty to rule? Perhaps, if they felt he had offended Her.
The evidence we dig up out of the earth today is as open to interpretation as the legacy of the myths and stories our ancestors left behind.
This post was published way back in the beginning of my blogging journey on Feb 13th 2014. Not many people read it. I have updated it a little since then.