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¶ The plausibility of human sacrifice in Druidic society Druidic culture is fascinating and mysterious because little is known, but those teasers of information are so interesting that the human mind can easily jump to fanciful conclusions about Celtic society, adding fuel to the ³debate on whether the Druids were sages or butchers.´(Lincoln 382) It is a blessing and a curse to have several in-depth historical accounts of Celtic and Gallic society; a blessing, for there is a plethora of information available from different sources, a curse because those accounts are tainted by the writers, merely because they were all outsiders looking in on a society very different from their own. The same applies to those that have analyzed these ancient accounts; these scholars often refer to and argue against one another, which makes it difficult to sort out fact, especially when the records we have span a millennium. In order to explore the possibility of human sacrifice as a Druidic ritual, we will need to expound upon the Druid¶s role in society, their religious rites and beliefs, as well as their ideas of afterlife, reincarnation, and immortality. The main ancient accounts that have been used in scholarly study are from Caesar, Posidonius, Diodorus, Strabo, and others, but it seems that all of these accounts are at least somewhat influenced by Posidonius¶ original writings ± which we only have fragments of. (Chadwick 17) Those fragments have made validating other accounts much more difficult, and often many of the observations of these historians contradict each other. Another major roadblock is that we have no records from the actual Druids, because they ³did not commit their
secret knowledge to writing´. (Spence 58) They did know how to use the Greek alphabet, and did record some things in writing, but St. Patrick burned 180 books, which led to the rest of the world following suit, and leaving us with nothing but other people¶s observations of a misunderstood society. (58) Irish fiction and poetry from the era do give us a good starting point for conjecture, and though they don¶t hold factual water by themselves, combined with other knowledge we¶ve gleaned the tales can give us another view of what life was really like in Celtic society. First of all, we need to realize what role Druids actually played in Celtic and Gallic society, and that Druids were widespread over Europe, meaning that Druidic culture would differ in each different place. In fact, there is more evidence of Druids in the Western part of the Celtic world (Ó HÓgáin 69-70), and in every place, the importance, power, and role of the Druids is bound to change, based on local culture. While it may be difficult to understand that Druids were not µpriests¶ of a religious sort, as we see in today¶s society, we need to understand that "in archaic societies...judicial, political, and religious functions are by no means separable in a modern sense." (Lonigan 2) "That they were philosophers rather than priests there can, in my mind, be no doubt. Nothing in our accounts suggests a priesthood. The word 'priest' is never applied to them." (Chadwick xvii) Chadwick, one of the foremost scholars of Celtic society, summed up the role of Druids quite well; "The druids are concerned with divine matters and with the due performance of both public and private sacrifices, and the correct interpretation of ritual. Their prestige as judges in all matters public and private is paramount, and their decisions are final. " (26) From what combined research says, Druids were considered ³the most just of men´ (Chadwick 19) and from what information available, it seems that Druids would likely perform these duties: ³(1) assist the king; (2) disqualify the unworthy; (3) perhaps, in terms of no. 1,
guide the king to the required level of spiritual endowment; (4) as an extension of no. 2, serve as guardians of the initiatory sanctuary; (5) provide a sacrifice for the ritual - themselves; (6) afford permanent consecration of the sacred spot." (Lonigan 104) The main focus of the Druidic group or religion, as it were, was more intellectual and philosophical than a typical religion would be; Lonigan sums it up very nicely, "the Druids devoted their intellectual and spiritual energy to achieving a comprehensive, integrated vision of reality: knowledge of gods and men; of creation and the world; of body and spirit." (98) Also, Chadwick notes in her preface, that the Druids¶ "central subjects were nature and the Universe; their leading doctrine, the immortality of the soul." (xvii) As MacBain wrote, "there is no incongruity in at once being philosophic and superstitious; the human mind is very hospitable in its entertainment of quite opposite opinions, especially in religious matters; for there is a wide difference between theories of the intellect and practices prompted by the emotions." (85) I think this statement is very astute, especially in the case of the Druids, and I believe this is supported by the fact that many societies regarded them as impartial and just judges in official (and nonofficial) matters. A Druid¶s word was final, and when ³an individual or a tribe disobeyed the ruling of a druid´, they were basically shunned, and could not attend the sacrifices (or even be one), which was ³considered the harshest penalty´. (Ó HÓgáin 74) The view of Druids expressed in different historical accounts, varies quite a bit. Chadwick tells us that "Pliny presents the druids as doctors and magicians, or a combination of the two, dealers in unnatural natural science; and he emphasizes their medical and magical practices, and their possession of magical recipes." (31) Chadwick also comments on Strabo¶s viewpoint; "The only characteristic of the druids clearly defined by Strabo is that of just judges,
though he also vaguely credits them with expertise in natural and moral philosophy." (21) Lincoln directly quotes Diodorus, "There are some men who are philosophers and theologians, who are greatly honored, whom they call "Druids". And they consult them as diviners, deeming them worthy of great approbation." (385) But there are many accounts other than these, yet from these three historians, we can definitely see a clearer picture of how Druids were perceived and utilized in Celtic times. The afterlife that Druids and likely all of Celtic society believed fervently in is steeped in mythology, like so many other cultures. The intensity of this belief is why rituals and predictions were taken so seriously by the general population ± why there was no uprising against sacrifice, human or animal, why Beltane, Samhain, Lughnasadh and Imbolc (their yearly seasonal festivals) were dutifully observed.Ó HÓgáin light-heartedly says, "it would appear that the afterlife was not generally understood as a sad and dreary place, but rather as a kind of new and valuable sphere of existence."(99) Druids (and many Celts) believed in a realm beyond this earthly life; as Freeman puts it, ³Celtic ideas about an afterlife as found in later Irish and Welsh literature are an ambiguous mixture of reincarnation and otherworldly Land of the Dead.´ (36) Freeman also states, "the cultural basis for otherworldly contact was present in celtic mythology and religious practice at least as early as the second century B.C." (36). Caesar writes, ³In primis hoc volunt persuadere, non interire animas, sed ab aliis post mortem transire ad alios, atque hoc maxime ad virtutem excitari putant metu mortis neglecto´, which according to the web translation by WP means, ³The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside.´ (6.14)Another translation, this time by MacBain, is, "their chief
doctrine is that souls do not perish, but pass after death from one individual to another, and this the removal of the fear of death - they think the greatest incitement to valour." (73) No matter which translation is the most correct, what Caesar meant is obvious ± why be afraid of death when you know there is something, whether it be a realm or another actual life, waiting for you once you depart? Lucan wrote, "you tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death - if what you sing is true - is but the mid-point of a long life!" (Ó HÓgáin 99) Not all scholars necessarily believe this, though those that don¶t are few and far between. One of the first scholars between writing from antiquity and modern research was D'Arbois de Jubainville, who Pokorny says "quotes many of the examples of the belief of the Celts in a life in the other world, but he thinks the report of their doctrine of rebirth an error." (5) Diodorus claims, ³the teaching of Pythagoras prevails among the Gauls, that the souls of humans are immortal and that after a certain number of years they will live again, with the soul passing into another body.´ (Freeman 37) This opinion has now generally been disproven, because there are such marked differences between Pythagorean reincarnation and Celtic beliefs. Spence states that beliefs and behaviors such as "repaying debts after death", "burning or burying of articles of personal use at a funeral" are not in unison with Pythagorean reincarnation. (93) Spence also says, "Gaulish customs are eloquent of a belief in the immortality of the individual, and his continued identity, whereas Pythagoreanism posits a change into a different body, human or animal." (93) I believe that statement effectively sums up the differences between the two schools of thought. Moving on from this, Spence states to us that ³at least two forms of reincarnation are alluded to in Irish myth...divine reincarnation and...transmigration." (97) These two ideas are quite interesting to look at. Transmigration was the "reappearance of an ancestor in the person of a descendant...the same person or soul might be expected to appear
successively in different bodies." (Rhys in Spence 93) ³Because of this belief, some people at funerals will throw letters into the funeral pyre, so that those having passed on might read them.´ (Diodorus in Freeman 37) So, reincarnation for the Celts wasn¶t from a human to a caterpillar to a wolf, or anything like Pythagoras¶ claims. Instead, Celts could stay in the Otherworld for a while, and eventually could come back in the body of one of their descendants, and again, having a continuous life in the line of lineage. A King could come back several generations later, as a different body by same soul and mind, and so forth. Divine reincarnation is likely one of the most interesting aspects of Celtic belief. "The pagan Irish believed that supernatural beings could become clothed in flesh and blood...could take various shapes...as birds, animals or men." (Hyde in Spence 94) "There was also a belief...among the ancient Irish that divine personages, national heroes who are members of the Tuatha Dé Danann, or sidhe race, and great men, can be reincarnated; that is to say, can descend to this plane of existence and be as mortals more than once." (Wentz in Spence 93) This meant that your neighbor could be one of the fae folk, or maybe even one of the Old Ones, so if a fantastical belief like this is taken so seriously, adhering to rituals and customs would seem like a pretty good idea. So, there is Celtic µreincarnation¶ in a nutshell, and I find it worth mentioning that thebasic similarities between Celtic and Pythagorean thought ended up being beneficial to the Druids. According to Spence, "superficial resemblance...to Pythagoras...was enough to give the Druids a reputation for philosophy.´ (93) This could potentially be the reason we are so interested in Druidic beliefs, instead of just dismissing them as a crazy woodland cult. Now that we have established a basic picture of the role Druids played in society, and why the Celts were so serious about their traditions, we can move on to the subject of sacrifice, and why exactly the Celtic people would accept it as a necessity rather than barbarism.
"In Irish legend, a Druid, after drinking a bull's blood and eating its flesh, could identify the next king in a dream.´ (Severy 608) One needs to keep in mind that even if human sacrifice was practiced in this society, it was extremely rare. The majority of sacrifices, which seem to have occurred frequently, are of animals. More specifically, white bulls, and the Druids were merely the overseer at these events, though that does mean they were the most likely to carry out the sacrifice, to see that it is done properly. (Lonigan 102-3) Borsje discusses a survey she conducted of ³twelve medieval Irish examples of human sacrifice´ and of those she states that ³only four refer to a proper human sacrifice: a human being killed as an offer to the Gods.´ (52) That focuses on the idea that µsacrifice¶ of humans doesn¶t necessitate death. Rituals which did not include the death of a person were far less likely to be recorded by observers than a ritual in which someone is physically killed, just because of the shock factor in it. Schneider mentions that "the keynote of Caesar's account of the Druid cult is their love of sacrifice." (1) and Freeman includes a quote from Caesar stating that "at least we can be glad that the Romans have wiped out the murderous cult of the Druids, who thought human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism were the greatest kind of piety." (46) I do believe this is an exaggeration, at least in the regard of cannibalism, for I¶ve found no substantiation of that in my research, but Caesar did have enough contact with Gallic society to make his accounts noteworthy. (Freeman 40) Something to keep in mind while discussing sacrifice, is that "Druidism may have had variant characteristics contemporaneously in different parts of the Celtic sphere at any given time"(Lonigan 83) What happens on the East side and the West side of the Gallic/Celtic world would likely be completely different, just due to local cultural differences. So, Druids in one area could practice human sacrifice, but in another geographical area absolutely not practice it, and guess which group will be written about and passed down? One needs to also remember that "one may perfectly well
combine such practices as headhunting, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and the like, with extremely sophisticated and intelligent religio-philosophical systems and rationales´(Lincoln 382), as we have seen in many other societies of the world. However, there are quite a few records that have led us to believe Druids would ³officiate at sacrifices wherein the future is divined from the fall, twitching limbs, and gushing blood of a human victim."(Lonigan 92), as well as examples such as Spence provides, "a method...to promote fertility in vegetation appears to have been ...to mingle the blood of a slain victim with earth which bore no fruitful thing" (108), and "I think it probable that the Druidic act of shooting a man to death by arrows holds the significance of a rite associated with the desire for rainfall" (107), which brings us to the subjects of Samhain and Beltane, which are the seasonal markers where we have records that human sacrifice occurred, and, of course, the Lindow man. Samhain, better known to us as the holiday of µHalloween¶, was held on the cusp of winter, November 1st, where there would be a great bonfire and festival of the dead«who would be ³scouring the countryside, causing dread´. (Spence 99) "The Druids sacrificed a black sheep and offered libations to the spirits of those who had died during the year." (Spence 100) Also, "the great assembly or parliament...was held at Tara on this date with much solemnity." (Spence 100) On a much darker note, sacrifices were held on Samhain; "we are informed by Keating that the Irish Druids on the eve of Samhain burned their victims in a holy fire." (105) And sadly enough, we find out from Borsje that ³"Only one fourth of the Irish population escaped death...the people die during Samhain night." (35) Often, they would use criminals as the sacrifices, but if a need arose, the innocent would be used. A quote from Freeman¶s book tells us a bit more about the use of criminals: ³They will keep some criminal under guard for five years,
them impale him on a pole in honor of the gods ± followed by burning him on an enormous pyre along with many other first-fruits. They also use prisoners of war as sacrifices to the gods.´ (38) Beltane seems innocent enough at first glance. It was a time to barter and trade goods, have a festival, and ³was intended to promote fertility´ (Spence 100) In fact, "A similar rite at May-time seems to have been celebrated in nearly all parts of Europe." (Spence 105) But Beltane was a dark time, too, as Celtic and Gallic rituals seem to always be. Sacrifices were surely held at this time; Spence mentions that³these holocausts were held at the spring festival of Beallteinn (May 1st) appears to be highly probable, and that they were thought to have had a definite effect upon the fertility of the soil is certain." (104)What we know of the events that befell the Lindow Man fall closely in line with the rituals at Beltane (May 1st). This is a long quote, but I think it puts the summation of this ritual far more succinctly than I could: ³The Gauls have certain wise men and experts on the gods called Druids, as well as a highly respected class of seers. Through auguries and animal sacrifice these seers predict the future and no one dares to scoff at them. They have an especially odd and unbelievable method of divination for the most important matters. Having anointed a human victim, they stab him with a small knife in the area above the diaphragm. When the man has collapsed from the wound, they interpret the future by observing the nature of his fall, the convulsion of his limbs, and especially from the pattern of his spurting blood. In this type of divination, the seers place great trust in an ancient tradition of observation. It is a custom among the Gauls to never perform a sacrifice without someone skilled in divine ways present.´ (Diodorus via Freeman 38 and Spence 105) Spence also mentions of "a cake...made and cut up, and a portion of it blackened or burnt. He who received this piece was known as«'the devoted' and he had to leap through the Beltane fire three times. During the festival he was spoken of as 'dead'."(100) Brothwell also mentions this in his book, "at the 'Beltain festival', a special bannock was broken up and distributed amongst those present. The person unlucky enough to get a blackened portion was named the 'devoted'
(i.e. to the gods for sacrifice) and was then referred to as 'dead'." (96) Brothwell mentions this in his research specifically because of the Lindow Man. Both rituals mentioned above, are suspected to take place on Beltane, and Lindow Man has signs of both. Mistletoe, which is indicative of sacrifice because it was considered extremely sacred to Druids, as well as rare, so wouldn¶t be there otherwise (Spence 79), and charred wheat grains were found inside Lindow Man¶s stomach/intestine contents (Brothwell 30), which means that is what he had ingested immediately before death, so the justifiable conclusion is that he was a sacrificial victim at Beltane. He also was likely royalty or nobility of some sort, because he had no indicators of hard labor (such as calluses), and researchers aren¶t entirely sure what to make of that. Personally, I would speculate that he was a noble or royal that had committed some sort of crime, and because of his status, was used as this most important sacrifice. The conclusions that the authors of my research have come to are such as this: Chadwick believes that there is no direct evidence of human sacrifices by Druids. Gauls, absolutely, but Druids, no. (28) This book was also published over 60 years ago, and new evidence has continually come to light. Lonigan believes that human sacrifice did occur in Druidic society, but it was likely an older practice that was done away with the coming of outsiders (otherwise known as Christianity) (92). Snyder thinks that "while there is no explicit evidence of Druidism in Britain, there is plenty of evidence of ritual and worship." (20) And finally, Spence says that "There is no question, however, that practice it they did...human sacrifice was a frequent and common element in their religious procedure." (104) Personally, I feel that the Lindow Man is sufficient physical proof (to me, of course) that human sacrifice was definitely plausible in Celtic and Gallic societies, but if Druids were involved (which, I believe they were), it wasn¶t necessarily all Druids, but perhaps only a group of them in a specific geographical area.
Works Cited Borsje, Jacqueline. "Human Sacrifice in Medieval Irish Literature." The Strange World of Human Sacrifice. Ed. Jan N. Bremmer. Lueven, Belgium: Peeters, 2007. 35-52. Print. Brothwell, Don R. The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People. London: British Museum Publications, 1986. Print. Chadwick, Nora K. The Druids. Ed. Anne Ross. Wales: University of Wales, 1997. Print. Freeman, Philip. War, Women, and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts. Austin: University of Texas, 2002. Print. Lonigan, Paul R. The Druids: Priests of the Ancient Celts. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. Print. Lincoln, Bruce. "The Druids and Human Sacrifice." Languages and Cultures: Studies in Honor of Edgar C. Polomé. Ed. Mohammad Ali Jazayery and Werner Winter. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1988. 382-90. Print. Macbain, M.A., LL.D., Alexander. Celtic Mythology and Religion. Edinburgh: Enaes Mackay, 1917. The Internet Archive. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924029164759#page/n5/mode/2up>. Ó HÓgáin, Dáithí. The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell, 1999. Print.
Pokorny, Julius. "The Origin of Druidism." The Celtic Review. Vol. 5. Edinburgh: Norman Macleod, 1909. 1-20. July 1908 to April 1909. The Internet Archive. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. < http://www.archive.org/stream/celticreview05edinuoft#page/n11/mode/2up>. Schneider, Matthew. ""Wrung by Sweet Enforcement": Druid Stones and the Problem of Sacrifice in British Romanticism." Anthropoetics - The Electronic Journal of Generative Anthropology 2.2 (1997). Anthropoetics. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0202/keats.htm>. Severy, Merle. "The Celts." National Geographic V.151, No. 5 May 1977: 608. Print. Snyder, Christopher A. The Britons. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. Print. Spence, Lewis. The History and Origins of Druidism. London: Rider, 1949. Print. WP @ Ancient-Celts.com. "Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.14." A Corpus of Ancient Written References to the Druids. Ancient-Celts.com, 2007. Web. 21 Apr. 2011. <http://www.ancientcelts.com/DruidCorpus.html>.
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