The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 105

Dindsenchas, which describes many archaic usages, we learn that "the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions of every clan" were offered to Cromm Cruaich—a sacrifice of the first-born,—and that at one festival the prostrations of the worshippers were so violent that three-fourths of them perished, not improbably an exaggerated memory of orgiastic rites. Dr. Joyce thinks that these notices are as incredible as the mythic tales in the Dindsenchas. Yet the tales were doubtless quite credible to the pagan Irish, and the ritual notices are certainly founded on fact. Dr. Joyce admits the existence of foundation sacrifices in Ireland, and it is difficult to understand why human victims may not have been offered on other occasions also.


The purpose of the sacrifice, namely, fertility, is indicated in the poetical version of the cult of Cromm—

"Milk and corn

They would ask from him speedily,

In return for one-third of their healthy issue."809

The Nemedian sacrifice to the Fomorians is said to have been two-thirds of their children and of the year's supply of corn and milk810—an obvious misunderstanding, the victims really being offered to obtain corn and milk. The numbers are exaggerated, but there can be no doubt as to the nature of the sacrifice—the offering of an agricultural folk to the divinities who helped or retarded growth. Possibly part of the flesh of the victims, at one time identified with the god, was buried in the fields or mixed with the seed-corn, in order to promote fertility. The blood was sprinkled on the image of the god. Such practices were as obnoxious to Christian missionaries as they had been to the Roman Government, and we learn that S. Patrick preached against "the slaying of yoke oxen and milch cows and the burning of the first-born progeny" at the Fair of Taillte. As has been seen, the Irish version of the Perseus and Andromeda story, in which the victim is offered not to a dragon, but to the Fomorians, may have received this form from actual ritual in which human victims were sacrificed to the Fomorians.813 In a Japanese version of the same story the maiden is offered to the sea-gods. Another tale suggests the offering of human victims to remove blight. In this case the land suffers from blight because the adulteress Becuma, married to the king of Erin, has pretended to be a virgin. {238} The Druids announced that the remedy was to slay the son of an undefiled couple and sprinkle the doorposts and the land with his blood. Such a youth was found, but at his mother's request a two-bellied cow, in which two birds were found, was offered in his stead.814 In another instance in the Dindsenchas, hostages, including the son of a captive prince, are offered to remove plagues—an equivalent to the custom of the Gauls.

Human sacrifices were also offered when the foundation of a new building was laid. Such sacrifices are universal, and are offered to propitiate the Earth spirits or to provide a ghostly guardian for the building. A Celtic legend attaches such a sacrifice to the founding of the monastery at Iona. S. Oran agrees to adopt S. Columba's advice "to go under the clay of this island to hallow it," and as a reward he goes straight to heaven.816 The legend is a semi-Christian form of the memory of an old pagan custom, and it is attached to Oran probably because he was the first to be buried in the island. In another version, nothing is said of the sacrifice. The two saints are disputing about the other world, and Oran agrees to go for three days into the grave to settle the point at issue. At the end of that time the grave is opened, and the triumphant Oran announces that heaven and hell are not such as they are alleged to be. Shocked at his latitudinarian sentiments, Columba ordered earth to be piled over him, lest he cause a scandal to the faith, and Oran was accordingly buried alive. In a Welsh instance, Vortigern's castle cannot be built, for the stones disappear as soon as they are laid. Wise men, probably Druids, order the sacrifice of a child born without a father, and the sprinkling of the site with his blood. "Groaning hostages" were placed under a fort in {239} Ireland, and the foundation of the palace of Emain Macha was also laid with a human victim. Many similar legends are connected with buildings all over the Celtic area, and prove the popularity of the pagan custom. The sacrifice of human victims on the funeral pile will be discussed in a later chapter.