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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 106

Of all these varieties of human sacrifice, those offered for fertility, probably at Beltane or Midsummer, were the most important. Their propitiatory nature is of later origin, and their real intention was to strengthen the divinity by whom the processes of growth were directed. Still earlier, one victim represented the divinity, slain that his life might be revived in vigour. The earth was sprinkled with his blood and fed with his flesh in order to fertilise it, and possibly the worshippers partook sacramentally of the flesh. Propitiatory holocausts of human victims had taken the place of the slain representative of a god, but their value in promoting fertility was not forgotten. The sacramental aspect of the rite is perhaps to be found in Pliny's words regarding "the slaying of a human being as a most religious act and eating the flesh as a wholesome remedy" among the Britons.820 This may merely refer to "medicinal cannibalism," such as still survives in Italy, but the passage rather suggests sacramental cannibalism, the eating of part of a divine victim, such as existed in Mexico and elsewhere. Other acts of cannibalism are referred to by classical writers. Diodorus says the Irish ate their enemies, and Pausanias describes the eating the flesh and drinking the blood of children among the Galatian Celts. Drinking {240} out of a skull the blood of slain (sacrificial) enemies is mentioned by Ammianus and Livy, and Solinus describes the Irish custom of bathing the face in the blood of the slain and drinking it. In some of these cases the intention may simply have been to obtain the dead enemy's strength, but where a sacrificial victim was concerned, the intention probably went further than this. The blood of dead relatives was also drunk in order to obtain their virtues, or to be brought into closer rapport with them.822 This is analogous to the custom of blood brotherhood, which also existed among the Celts and continued as a survival in the Western Isles until a late date.823

One group of Celtic human sacrifices was thus connected with primitive agricultural ritual, but the warlike energies of the Celts extended the practice. Victims were easily obtained, and offered to the gods of war. Yet even these sacrifices preserved some trace of the older rite, in which the victim represented a divinity or spirit.

Head-hunting, described in classical writings and in Irish texts, had also a sacrificial aspect. The heads of enemies were hung at the saddle-bow or fixed on spears, as the conquerors returned home with songs of victory. This gruesome picture often recurs in the texts. Thus, after the death of Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach returned to Emer with the heads of his slayers strung on a withy. He placed each on a stake and told Emer the name of the owner. A Celtic oppidum or a king's palace must have been as gruesome as a Dayak or Solomon Island village. Everywhere were stakes crowned with heads, and the walls of houses were adorned with them. Poseidonius tells {241} how he sickened at such a sight, but gradually became more accustomed to it. A room in the palace was sometimes a store for such heads, or they were preserved in cedar-wood oil or in coffers. They were proudly shown to strangers as a record of conquest, but they could not be sold for their weight in gold. After a battle a pile of heads was made and the number of the slain was counted, and at annual festivals warriors produced the tongues of enemies as a record of their prowess.827


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