“The Gauls who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so, employing Druids as ministers…For they believe that unless a man’s life is paid for another’s, the majesty of the gods may not be appeased.”
Dark Celtic Spirit Rituals
Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of ancient Celtic religion. The Ancient Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves.
Yet there was also a darker side of Celtic religion in which humans were sacrificed in their rituals. Some of the accounts may have been exaggerated through the biased eyes of classical historians who used human sacrifice as a rationale for the Roman conquest of Celtic lands to get rid of these practices.
Ironically, Rome had also practiced human sacrifice in their beginnings and ceremoniously executed their conquered rulers in triumphs. The great Celtic leader, Vercingetorix, was paraded through the streets of Rome before he was strangulated.
As the Celts were unwilling to write their rites and beliefs in writing, historical accounts and myths recorded by the Irish monks must be partly filled with archaeologists who study cult centers, sacred images, and inscriptions which reveal the names of their deities. What these artifacts cannot provide is the meaning a Celt may have attached to a sacred image, the intention of an offering, and the context in which ritual regalia was used.
Human sacrifice held a particularly horrid fascination for the Greeks and the Romans. Several classical authors wrote that offerings to the gods included captives taken in battle. The Galatae of Asia Minor were dreaded because of their reputation for sacrificing prisoners of war. Their enemies would prefer suicide rather than fall into their hands. The Greek poet, Sopater of Paphos (285–246 BC), wrote the Celts of Galatia sacrificed their prisoners to their gods by burning them after a victory.
The Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (60–30 BC), speaks of prisoner executions in Galatia: “The Galatian general returning from the pursuit, assembled the prisoners and carried out an act of extreme barbarity and utter insolence. He took those who were most handsome and in the strength and flower of their youth, and have crowned them, sacrificed them to the gods, if indeed any god could receive such offerings.”
Diodorus says that on great occasions the vates (seers) would nominate a person for sacrifice and, after a dagger was plunged into him, they read the future from the manner of the fall and the twitching of his limbs, and the flow of blood. He added that it was not the custom to make the sacrifice without a Druid, for it was a saying that offerings acceptable to the gods had to be made through those acquainted with their nature. He concludes that in internal wars among the Celts, both sides would obey the Druids. Even when two armies were about to open battle, if a Druid stepped between them, they would be forced to desist.
Another Greek Historian, Strabo (64/63 BC–c. AD 24), described the human sacrificial ritual as follows: “They [Celts] used to strike a man, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a knife, and then divine from his death-throes; but they did not sacrifice without a Druid.”
Strabo continues. “We are told of still other kinds of sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in temples, or, having built a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burn offering of the whole thing.
Julius Caesar wrote extensively about the Gauls in France and their rituals of human sacrifice. He indicated the Celts in Gaul immolated human victims, or vowed to do so, employing the Druids to conduct these sacrifices. In order to appease the gods, a Celt believed a life must be paid for another’s if the gods were to be appeased. Caesar added the twist that victims were preferably criminals, but if the supply failed, then innocents were used.
Caesar’s writings emphasized the ritualistic nature of the Celtic sacrifice. It was not intended as butchery but rather served a specific purpose for the warrior. The sacrifice represented a gift to the gods. The higher the value of the gift the more powerful was the gods’ favor. If a warrior fulfilled his vow of offering his captive as a sacrifice in the presence of Druids, his status was enhanced in this world and the Otherworld. It was customary for Gauls to cremate the body of a chief along with his prisoners and favorite animals.
Tacitus speaks of human sacrifices in Mona (Anglesey). He says that when Seutonius attacked Anglesey, the Druids “lifting up their hands to heaven, and pour forth maledictions, awed the Romans by the unfamiliar sight.” After the conquest, “A force was next set up over the conquered and their groves devoted to cruel superstitions were cut down. They [British Druids] deemed it a duty, indeed, to cover their altars with the blood of captives, and to consult their deities through human entrails.”
Archaeological record confirms Celts probably performed human sacrifice. On the Gundestrup Cauldron there is a figure held upside-down over what appears to be a pail of water—the portrayal of perhaps a sacrifice to Teutates, God of War.
Archaeological evidence suggests willing victims may have been killed to act as a messenger to the Otherworld. One example is of a young man whose preserved remains were recovered from Lindow Moss in Cheshire in 1984. The three-fold manner of his death (head blow, neck garroted, throat cut) followed by the deposition of the body in water suggest this was a human sacrifice possibly performed by Druids.
A bog victim in Gallagh in County Galway was killed with a garrote made of hazel rods, and the stomach of another victim at Lindow was full of hazel nuts, a strong symbol in Celtic mythology. Ingestion of the hazel nuts is proposed to induce visions, heightened awareness and lead to epiphanies.
It is possible that human sacrifice took place only at times of tension and dangers. The Lindow Man was perhaps killed at the time of the Roman attack upon the druidical center of Anglesey, and may have represented an attempt to persuade supernatural forces to circumvent the enemies of the Celtic religion.
Archaeological evidence suggests animal sacrifices were replacing human sacrifices at the time Latin writers wrote about human sacrifices. At ritual and burial sites, animal bones were found of bulls, horses, goats, rams, pigs and dogs.
Sacrifice, human and animal, was part of a body of rituals which was believed to be necessary to perform in order to ensure the smooth running of the universe, fertility of the earth, rising of the sun, and the return of spring. It was believed a ritual, properly conducted, led to the result which was sought—a successful harvest, for example. Ceremonies were held before rather than after the desired event. Ritual was woven into all aspects of life, for there was an everyday need to appease the deities.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior—300 BC – AD 100: 2001 Osprey Publishing, New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.