Sacrifice

Celtic Human Sacrifice

Sacrifice is the gift of something of value (not always another human being) to the Gods, either by killing the victim as part of a ritual, or by irretrievably disposing of it. Caesar, Strabo, and Diodorus described Gallo-Celtic sacrificial ritual in the first century BC, and emphasized the role played by druids in the process. Caesar suggested that the selection of sacrificial victims was far from random: "They believe that the immortal Gods delight more in the slaughter of those taken in theft or brigandage or some crime, but when the supply of that kind runs short, they resort to the sacrifice of the innocent."

Sacrifice was also a response to the threat of war, pestilence, or drought to a Celtic community: "those suffering from sickness or amid the danger of conflict either kill human beings as sacrificial victims or pledge to do so."

The skeleton of a man was found behind the rampart of the Celtic British hillfort at South Cadbury in Somerset, and from his posture it is likely he had been bound then killed as a sacrificial offering. While the Cadbury victim was possibly an enemy warrior, during the Boudicca revolt in Britain women and children were also sacrificed in druidic ceremonies. Warfare and sacrifice seemed to be closely interwoven. The Gauls were known to practice head worship—cutting off the heads of enemies killed in battle and preserving them. Although not a form of sacrifice, this "head-hunting" formed part of Celtic warfare, and has Ik-en associated with Celtic ritual. Diodorus expanded on the manner these sacrifices took:

"In times of great worry they [the druids] put to death a human being, and plunge a dagger into him... and when the victim has fallen they read the future from the way he fell, or from the twitching of his limbs or the flow of his blood."

Tacitus recalled that: "...it was their religion to drench their altars with the blood of prisoners, and consult their Gods by means of human entrails."

Cauldron of Death

A similar form of sacrifice, described by Roman historian Strabo, was the suspension of a victim over a cauldron, at which point the throat of the victim would be cut, allowing the blood to drain into the cauldron. This is borne out by the Gundestrup cauldron (see pages 44—45) in which to one side of a panel there stands a larger figure holding another smaller figure over a cauldron.

Caesar reported that due to a strong belief in the afterlife, the Celts had little fear of death. The soul did not die, but simply passed into another body. His description of wickerwork sacrifices is an aspect of Celtic sacrifice that has been colored by popular imagination: "Some tribes build enormous images with limbs of interwoven branches which they then fill with live men.

For many, Celtic religion has been closely identified with human sacrifice. This is largely due to Creek and Roman writers who seemed to revel in describing this aspcct of Celtic ritual in detail. In recent years archacological discoveries have substantiated this evidence of human and animal sacrifice. While Celts certainly engaged in ritual murder, these ceremonies can now be placed in their true perspective as an integral part of the Celtic system of belief.

Below: Roman historians described a Celtic sacrificial ceremony involving the burning of victims inside a wicker cage in the shape of a man. It is more likely that wicker images were burned, and were part of a sacrificial practice, especially in times of need.

Gundestrup Cauldron Line Drawings

Left: A sacrificial victim is held over a cauldron by a druid. in this detail from the Gundestrup cauldron (see also page 44).

The images are then set alight and the men die in a sea of flame." It is now considered likely that these accounts were incorrect, possibly influenced by the writings of the earlier historian, Posidonius: only wicker or straw images of human forms were burned (as they still are in Britain on Guy Fawkes night).

A Celtic community could also make a valuable offering to the Gods by sacrificing prized domestic animals rather than wild ones, and dogs and horses were often included in burial rituals. A byproduct of this was the production of votive offerings of animals; a less drastic form of sacrifice. Countless examples of votive carvings of domestic animals have been found throughout the Celtic world. But sacrifices, despite the lurid tales shown in horror films, were rarely as prolific or commonplace as non-Celtic historians might lead us to believe.

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