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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 104

Human victims were also offered by way of thanksgiving after victory, and vows were often made before a battle, promising these as well as part of the spoil. For this reason the Celts would never ransom their captives, but offered them in sacrifice, animals captured being immolated along with them. The method of sacrifice was slaughter by sword or spear, hanging, impaling, dismembering, and drowning. Some gods were propitiated by one particular mode of sacrifice—Taranis by burning, Teutates by suffocation, Esus (perhaps a tree-god) by hanging on a tree. Drowning meant devoting the victim to water-divinities.797

Other propitiatory sacrifices took place at intervals, and had a general or tribal character, the victims being criminals or slaves or even members of the tribe. The sacrificial pile had the rude outline of a human form, the limbs of osier, enclosing human as well as some animal victims, who perished by fire. Diodorus says that the victims were malefactors who {235} had been kept in prison for five years, and that some of them were impaled.798 This need not mean that the holocausts were quinquennial, for they may have been offered yearly, at Midsummer, to judge by the ritual of modern survivals.799 The victims perished in that element by which the sun-god chiefly manifested himself, and by the sacrifice his powers were augmented, and thus growth and fertility were promoted. These holocausts were probably extensions of an earlier slaying of a victim representing the spirit of vegetation, though their value in aiding fertility would be still in evidence. This is suggested by Strabo's words that the greater the number of murders the greater would be the fertility of the land, probably meaning that there would then be more criminals as sacrificial victims.800 Varro also speaks of human sacrifice to a god equated with Saturn, offered because of all seeds the human race is the best, i.e. human victims are most productive of fertility. Thus, looked at in one way, the later rite was a propitiatory sacrifice, in another it was an act of magico-religious ritual springing from the old rite of the divine victim. But from both points of view the intention was the same—the promotion of fertility in field and fold.

Divination with the bodies of human victims is attested by Tacitus, who says that "the Druids consult the gods in the palpitating entrails of men," and by Strabo, who describes the striking down of the victim by the sword and the predicting of the future from his convulsive movements. To this we shall return.

Human sacrifice in Gaul was put down by the Romans, who were amazed at its extent, Suetonius summing up the whole {236} religion in a phrase—druidarum religionem diræ immanitatis. By the year 40 A.D. it had ceased, though victims were offered symbolically, the Druids pretending to strike them and drawing a little blood from them. Only the pressure of a higher civilisation forced the so-called philosophic Druids to abandon their revolting customs. Among the Celts of Britain human sacrifice still prevailed in 77 A.D.805 Dio Cassius describes the refinements of cruelty practised on female victims (prisoners of war) in honour of the goddess Andrasta—their breasts cut off and placed over their mouths, and a stake driven through their bodies, which were then hung in the sacred grove.806 Tacitus speaks of the altars in Mona (Anglesey) laved with human blood. As to the Irish Celts, patriotic writers have refused to believe them guilty of such practices,807 but there is no a priori reason which need set them apart from other races on the same level of civilisation in this custom. The Irish texts no doubt exaggerate the number of the victims, but they certainly attest the existence of the practice. From the


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