Did the Ancient Celts Perform Human Sacrifice?
2013-08-06 0:00

By Emma Oxenby Wohlfart | Suite101

The evidence for human sacrifice among the ancient Celts is two-sided. Whereas ritual killings in Gaul are uncertain, Britain was the home of some gruesome scenes.

Many Roman writers, from Caesar to Saint Augustine, have written in horror about the Celts and their custom of human sacrifice. The problem today is with proving or disproving them. Some would like to dismiss these writings as propaganda, which it to some extent it was, others readily take their word. The archaeological evidence, unfortunately, divides rather than unifies opinion.

Human Remains in a Celtic Ritual Context from Gaul

In France, numerous sanctuaries from the Celtic period have been excavated and several have been found to contain human remains. The existence of and particularly the mutilation of such human remains – some have been found headless, others have been found bodiless – has often been taken as evidence of human sacrifice.

There are some problems with this approach. It is true that the human remains at these Gallic sanctuaries are probably cultic in nature. They do not resemble the remains found in either graves or dwellings, but that does not necessarily mean that a ritual killing took place. Animals sacrificed at these cult sites generally show signs of violent death and many met their death through decapitation. This is simply not the case with the human remains.

As of yet, no human remains have been found within a Gallic sanctuary that clearly indicate a violent death. In the case of singular skulls or headless bodies, decapitation appears to have taken place after death and one cannot be certain that these humans were alive, or even intact, when they arrived at the sanctuary.

This raises a difficult question concerning the written sources, which suggest a wide variety of violent deaths: hanging, burning, drowning, garrotting, stabbing, and being torn to pieces by brute force.Where are all of these victims of violent sacrifice?

Possible Violently Sacrificed Victims in a Burial Context

A practice mentioned by Julius Caesar, which can also be seen in the archaeological evidence, might shed some light on the issue. From very earliest days of Celtic culture, it sometimes occurred that when a man died his wife or entire family was killed in order to accompany him death. Although it can sometimes be uncertain whether a violent death is a murder or a grief-induced suicide, in many cases the signs point towards murder.

The setting of the act, however, introduces a problem of definition: was a burial-site a sufficiently cultic site that the Celts themselves would have seen this as an act of sacrifice? If so, for whom was the sacrifice made? If, as is commonly theorised, a woman is murdered in order to be by her husband’s side in the underworld, is it truly a sacrifice? The corpses are not yet giving any answers.

Violent Ritual Killings in British Waters and Beyond

The situation in Britain is different. The British Isles share a pattern with Northern Europe of apparent violent ritual killings. Though not found in the context of a cult centre, bodies have been found in places of spiritual importance such as wetlands, which can be viewed as symbolic or even physical entrances into the underworld. One particularly famous victim was found in 1984 in the Lindow Bog.

The Lindow Man, or Lindow II, was in his twenties when he died. Based on his level of health and grooming, it is assumed that he was of noble birth. After ingesting a mistletoe concoction, which might have sedated him, he received a serious blow to the head, was strangled, and had his jugular severed with a blade. Afterwards, he was deposited in water.

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"The man met a horrific death. He was struck on the top of his head twice with a heavy object, perhaps a narrow bladed axe. He also received a vicious blow in the back – perhaps from someone’s knee – which broke one of his ribs. He had a thin cord tied around his neck which may have been used to strangle him and break his neck. By now he was dead, but then his throat was cut. Finally, he was placed face down in a pool in the bog. This elaborate sequence of events suggests that his death may have been ritual killing. Some people have argued that he was the victim of a human sacrifice possibly carried out by Druids.

Lindow Man’s official name is Lindow II, since other human remains have also been found in Lindow Moss bog: a human skull, known as Lindow I, a fragmented headless body (Lindow III) and the upper thigh of an adult male (Lindow IV) which as it was found close to Lindow Man may be the remains of his missing leg." Source: The British Museum



A wicker man was a large wicker statue of a human allegedly used by the ancient Druids (priests of Celtic paganism) for human sacrifice by burning it in effigy, according to Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentary on the Gallic War). Source: Wikipedia





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