World Art and Culture
Instructor: Kathleen Cohen
Human Sacrifice is a fascinating and alluring topic to research and study about in ancient cultures, but may also be an unbelievable and skeptical topic for many as well. How could such a savage and terrifying act be carried out on one or more humans by other humans, and not be ashamed for such a disregard to human life? Ancient cultures such as the Celts had a much different outlook on life and lifestyle than modern cultures today. As they intermingled legends with facts, reality with the fantastic and made of life their own universe that was to be understood in those terms, it might be easier to understand why groups such as the Celts may have used human sacrifice as a vice, and event in everyday life, for the benefit of a whole population. It is understood that they believed ardently that there was a life after death, so to kill or be killed was not such a negative act, since it would only give honor to that victim in the eyes of the gods of the 'Otherworld'. Human Sacrifice can be viewed in two different ways, and was probably by the Celts as well depending on the circumstance that brought forth the sacrificial event or ceremony. One view was that, as forces of nature ( animals , weather etc.) understood by the Celts as something that could be controlled by gods or goddesses such as the Mother Goddess, if crops were failing or animals falling victim to disease it was possible to offer the gods or nature itself human blood to placate them hoping that in return they will have a positive turn of events to insure the health of the population. Still this might seem far fetched but as put by Cahill, these terms of some kind of manipulation to a view of god, it might not be as hard to understand. "There is probably not a reader-even the most convinced atheist-who has not offered from time to time an old-fashioned quid pro quo prayer: if you let me pass this exam, I will return to church; if you make sure my wife doesn't learn of my infidelity, I will give my next bonus to charity."(Cahill 136-137) Another view that is discussed is the fact that, possibly victims of sacrifice were not victims at all, or at least not in their opinions or the opinions of others that were to benefit from the sacrifice. It is believed that some people may have offered to give their lives for the honor of the people in hope for their prosperity. One example might be that they were going into a great battle, and to ensure success one might offer his blood to the war god of battle to gain his honor and success for the troops. In the following pages, Celtic culture and the possible use of human sacrifice is discussed and illustrated with ancient artifacts that could have played a part in the ideas that encompass human sacrifice and it's importance to them.
Battersea Shield (1st C) - Style La Tene - Thames River
(Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen)- Cunliffe
Shown here is a beautifully decorated shield that was made around the 1st century. It was made with bronze and decorated with red enamel. It belongs to an art style known as 'La Tene', which is named after an archeological site in Switzerland. This art style not only helps define Celtic Art but it also helps historians and archeologists chart movements and settlements of Celtic peoples. When most people think of Celtic art they possibly think of the beautiful interwoven, curvy and usually symmetrical designs and patterns as seen on this gorgeous shield. This would be the La Tene Style as seen on many different art objects such as: pottery, weapons, literary pieces, jewelry, ceremonial wares, personal and practical objects such as mirrors, harnesses and useful household items to name a few. La Tene designs have also been broken down into different categories, two of which are the 'Early Style', which was of simpler design than that of the 'Vegetal Style' which was more involved and complex, both equally as beautiful.
In learning about the Celts and their art works it must be mentioned that they had no known form of written language, so we completely have to depend upon the remainder of the art objects found, architecture, archeological findings such as bodies and grave sites and the recordings and writings by Classical writers. This may seem like a lot of information to be studied but it still leaves much to be understood about their culture, religious beliefs, mythology, society, and how these all worked together. The Classical writings about the Celtic peoples that was left behind were recordings done by such people as Caesar, and the Roman poet Lucan, during the period in which the Romans were trying to immerse the Celts into their empire. One of these famous writings is known as the "Gallic War", written by Caesar, which contained several commentaries and descriptions of the Celts and some of their activities, some of which were bloody sacrificial ceremonies. Some people have argued that because the Romans were in the midst of conquering these people, some of the recordings may have been fabricated to insure the view of the Celts as barbaric groups that should be suppressed, but then some of the archeological evidence and findings have further backed up and strengthened the descriptions by the Classical writers.
Celts were a people of about 40 different groups that shared the same language
and cultural values. During the centuries between 400-200 BCE, their territory
was as vast as the Roman Empire had become later on. It stretched from
Ireland all the way to parts of Asia Minor, and south to parts of Italy,
and also contained areas in Spain. Not until around 150 BCE when the Romans
began conquering several areas did these Celtic territories and cultures
start to diminish.
The Gunderstrup Cauldron is a very important piece of artwork found by archeologists in a peat bog in Denmark that was broken into several pieces. For this reason it is considered to be a votary offering, because according to Celtic custom items would be broken into pieces before it was offered. Another reason that leads historians to believe it was never intended to be useful and only as an offering is the fact that it was newly forged. Although the cauldron depicts several Celtic motifs it seems to have been crafted elsewhere because the silver-gilt technique used to produce it is unknown elsewhere in Western Europe. Several of the characters shown on the cauldron are animals of Mediterranean influence, such as: dolphins, bulls, and also zoomorphic creatures that of course combine more than one kind of animal into one, some of these are ram-headed serpents, griffins, and cat like creatures with a stags head. Many of the characters shown are of Celtic imagery with gods and goddesses wearing torcs (Celtic tradition of decorative thick metal neck rings with an opening in the front) and military images. Historians have theorized that this cauldron was probably commissioned from a non-Celtic craftsman possibly from Romanian territory or somewhere near the Black Sea, (as this metal work is known best from this area) by an eastern Celtic chief and then sent back to the west where it was used in a particular ceremony as an offering.
Gunderstrup Cauldron is considered to be of the art style 'La Tene', which was discussed earlier. Most of the artwork on this cauldron is 2 dimensional and flat, as the images are all in frontal position or side views only. The size and scale of each figure is unrealistic in their relation to one another but is probably used in a symbolic manner, where the gods are unusually larger than the troops depicted and of much more importance obviously. Some of the images are in flattened rows stacked above one another, and others are just all flanked by one another. It may look as though some of these may be used in a narrative nature, but most of it is likely symbolic only.
This gruesome creature is one to be studied closely for its possible duties in instilling fear into the Celtic people. This overbearing beast sinks his thick claws into the foreheads of two severed heads (one in each paw) as he holds them foreword bearing them to the next possible victims. Besides the severed heads that were probably torn off of the victim's heads, he also clamps down on a dangling arm which pokes out of his gaping jaws.
The Celts were a very superstitious people and along with several gods and mythologies that played a part in their everyday lives, there were also several annual ceremonies that were very important to the prosperity of the many. Some of these ceremonies were a part of the larger belief that if things didn't go right, (weather patterns, etc.) it could possibly pose great threat and become a very dangerous time indeed. Therefore these ceremonies were important to the Celts to help insure safety and prosperity for the unknown times ahead. Among some of the rituals that took place, one such activity was possibly and most likely human sacrifice.
One of these famous ceremonies was that of 'Samhain', known now as our Halloween. On this night before Nov.1, it was said that spirits of the dead were to return to the world of the living; it was supposed to be a very dangerous night. Nov. 1 not only marked the New Year, but also the beginning of winter a possible threatening time for all. The Celts would perform rituals on this night and sometimes offer human sacrifices to placate these evil spirits and keep them from interfering with human affairs.
As the Celts believed
that the supernatural and the physically real lived in close proximity
to each other it is probable that they could of believed in all kinds of
demons and witches and encountered them at times in dark windy forests
and such places. This figure may represent a demon or spirit that could
have threatened the Celts on nights such as 'Samhain'. Definitely a creature
to steer clear from and beware of, if substantial offerings were not made.
Extremely important to the Celts were a group of people known as the Druids. The name druid and origin can be split into two parts, "dru" used as an emphasis and "vids" meaning knowledge, so together they were to mean " very knowledgeable one or wise one". These druids held much power and honor, and had many responsibilities to society as a whole. It is said that they had seven main responsibilities to cover with their positions, which were as follows: the teaching of the religious doctrine, civil justice, medicine, calendrics, divination, sacrifice, and care of the temples. Also noted by several authors was the mentioning of the druids assisting and giving advice to the kings. These druids were also so powerful that they could stop battle. So, as you can see, people held them in very high esteem. For one to become a druid, they would have to attend a school for up to as many as twenty years and because they had no writing, all of this learning was oral and to be memorized, not a small feat!
Divination, one of the jobs of the druids was the foreseeing or prediction of the future by studying something of meaning to the Celtic religion. The pattern of birds in flight, odd weather patterns and acts done by animals could all be something read into by the druids and used as some kind of divination relating to the people. Although sometimes depending on how crucial an event might be, harsher methods of divination had to be produced. If so, human sacrifices were made to send messages back to the 'Otherworld', possibly to gods or the deceased. It is said that the sacrificed individual would be stabbed in the back or the breast, and then studied, as the moment of death was the point in which the earthly world of the profane meets the sacred otherworld. The message would then be returned to the examiners in the ways in which the dying would pass on.
This mirrored image
of a head with its abstract imagery and geometric cut facial features is
most likely the depiction of some kind of divinity that played a part in
the teachings of the druids. Because it definitely has a separation by
some kind of leaf shaped sculpture between the two it may also represent
the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead, a very important
point to be studied by the druids as these two worlds were interwoven into
This sculpture of two abbreviated human figures situated back to back, no doubt is probably a representation of one or more of the deities worshipped by the ancient Celts. Very abstract in style, the essence of human form is the only thing captured by this stone sculpture, as there are no realistic features. It is also flat and two-dimensional as the arms are merged into the body and just carved as a relief to show that they are represented. It's large eyes gaze mesmerizingly forward perhaps visioning the 'Otherworld'.
Although over 200 gods have been recorded from Celtic findings, many of their exact meanings and representations are uncertain. Early Celts did not believe in showing representational images of their gods because they were considered other worldly beings. Although later, when Celts were influenced by Roman traditions, they began representing some of the deities in their artworks. Of course, these images were very allusive, ambiguous and abstract usually not realistic images at all.
The Celts thought of their lives as passing through their physical lives into another, so they definitely believed in a life after death. It is mentioned that the Celts felt so strongly about this life in the Otherworld that even if they were to lend money, it could be repaid in the otherworld. Not a bad way to go into business! So, people were usually buried with personal objects to be used in this world. Disregarding death as such a terrible event because of promise of the Otherworld may have also helped the Celtic warriors take more risks in battle, rendering them more successful in conquering other cultures before the Romans.
Besides being a place
to go after the physical world, most gods were supposed to reside and be
a part of the 'otherworld' as well. It is to some of these gods that humans
had been killed as offerings to these gods during times of stress when
the people needed extra help. It is believed that sometimes the sacrifices
were prisoners of war, but it has also been speculated that some individuals
may have willingly devoted their bodies as sacrifice for the good of the
Here we see the long ago death of an ancient Celtic woman, and as mentioned earlier you will notice that she has not failed in bringing along here jewelry, so she could be adorned on her way to and within the 'Otherworld'.
Along with findings of ancient burials as these, archeologists have also uncovered several 'ritual shafts' that were sometimes nearly 100 ft. below ground level, and scattered all over Celtic parts of Europe, another helpful find in defining the Celtic territories. It was first believed that these earth piercing shafts were for functional use as wells, but it was latter discovered that they were most likely used in sacrificial ritual, as most of them contained an abundance of objects. Sometimes these shafts have been found in groupings together as well, suggesting that these places were probably places of worship and or ceremony.
These shafts were probably dug so deep because the Celts believed that some of their gods lived inside the earth. These shafts were filled with numerous objects offered as votive gifts to propitiate the underworld or otherworld gods. Some of the shafts were filled with things such as: earthenware, trees (as they were considered sacred), animal bones, human bones, and metal objects. Again, most of these objects were broken into several pieces as this was the proper way to offer goods in sacrificial rituals, or maybe it was to give the archeologists more work! In one such shaft, a wooden stake in which a sacrificial victim had been tied to was found. Surrounding the stake was a mass of organic material that was analyzed to be remains of human flesh and blood.
Another shaft found
contained a female deity figure at the very bottom of the pit. This symbolic
female god could in fact be some depiction of a mother goddess, as the
ancient Celts did worship a mother goddess type deity named Morriga'n.
Perhaps these sacrifices were gifts to the great mother, the creator of
all things, fertility and the cycle of life itself to insure a healthy
crop and harvest.
(Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria)- Cremin
stated by Cremin, "The Celtic world strove for harmony with nature and
saw human beings as part of the continuum of creation."(Cremin 128), Celts
knew that because they cultivated the land, mined, fished and so on they
might disrupt the natural order of things in the eyes of nature or the
Mother Goddess. Below is an Irish poem written of unknown time by a poet
by the name of Amhaurghin, who was the noble family poet of the Sons of
Mil. In this poem you can see how the Irish have instilled the importance
of nature and it's connection to man from the ancient Celts traditions
of long ago:
I am an estuary into the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean.
I am the sound of the sea.
I am a powerful ox.
I am a hawk on a cliff.
I am a dewdrop in the sun.
I am a plant of beauty.
I am a boar for valour.
I am a salmon in a pool.
I am a lake in a plain.
I am the strength of art.
In honoring the mother
goddess, in return for using the land and nature to uphold life, it is
believed that bloody rituals were sometimes performed. Tacitus (a Classical
writer) reported that the Celts performed a ritual in which a shrouded
image of a mother goddess was paraded from village to village on a four-wheeled
cart and then brought down to a lake where she was ritually washed by people
who were immediately killed and thrown into the lake. Possibly these bronze
figures were symbolic of telling us this same story.
(B)(Musee' Bore'ly, Marseielle)-Cremin
These images illustrate the importance of the human head to the Celts. The human head was a very popular motive and re-current theme depicted in numerous Celtic artworks all over Europe. Heads were of importance to Celtic religious practices, as it was believed that the human head embodied the essence of being and imbued supernatural powers.
Besides the religious
beliefs of the head, actual severed human heads were prized worth their
weight in gold to soldier's in battle. The severed head of an enemy after
a battle or defeat of any kind was a trophy to be shown off as a symbol
of one's courage and valour. As written by Siculus, another classical writer:
Most likely in sanctuaries
such as the one found in Roquepertuse where the heads of young men in the
primes of their lives were displayed in the open, these were not only battle
trophies. They could have been possible offerings to the gods; especially
those associated with battle and war to help insure the success of the
troops, and the insurance of the safety of the Celtic people in general
from the dangers of war.
(Dept. of the Environment for Northern Ireland, Belfast) - Cunliffe
Beltain was another important festival and ceremony to the Celts just as 'Samhain'. Beltain was the polar opposite on the calendar in relation to 'Samhain', so it marked the beginning of Summer, or May 1, another time of potential danger and suffering if the crops failed during this season. All rituals and ceremonies were in favor to the ancient god Belenos, who was also known as the god of fire. I'm sure it must have to do with the blazing sun during the summer time.
A striking feature of the events that took place during the Beltain festival was that of the bon-fires that were set ablaze in honor of Belenos usually done on hilltops for all to witness. According to Caesar in one of his many descriptions of the Celtic practices, was that of the sacrifice of both human and animals in a huge bonfire, in which an enormous wickerwork was filled with animals and humans and set on fire. It is a probability that he witnessed the ritual and offering of sacrifice to Bellenos, where the worshippers were hoping for the insured success of their crops and herds so the population could prosper and be healthy with food supply.
Looking at this ancient ritual site known as Emain Macha which was estimated to be built and rebuilt for 800 years, 94 BCE marking its last building phase, one can only imagine seeing a crowd of people possibly dancing, singing or chanting around a huge fire, with smoke trailing high into the sky on this hilltop. It must have been an overwhelmingly enigmatic event to witness and or possibly take place in.
This particular site
is measured at 317 yards across, and is surrounded by an earthen bank,
which is now marked by trees. Archaeologists have been excavating it for
the past twenty years and revealing some rich ancient history. At the base
of this site is a lake in which offerings were most likely deposited. Although
several objects were found at this site in the last century, they were
unfortunately melted down for scrap to benefit war efforts. However, four
bronze war trumpets wonderfully decorated were spared and can be studied.
Lindow Man (60 CE) - Celtic - Lindow Moss, Manchester/(B) Reconstruction of Lindow Man's head
(The Trustees of the British Museum, London, England)-Ross
Archaeologists and historians have done extensive research and studies on this man, to help us learn more about the nature of the lifestyles of the ancient Celts. Although answers are not 100 percent, they have very strong and almost conclusive evidence that Lindow Man was indeed a sacrifice. And beyond that, there is also strong evidence that he most likely offered himself without a struggle.
Evidence that leads researchers to conclude that he was a sacrifice is learned in the manner of his death. Apparently, he suffered the death of what was known to Celtic historians as the 'threefold death', which was done for ritual purposes. Naked, the man's head was flattened by three blows of an ax, his throat cut open from a thrice knotted sinew cord, and his blood quickly emptied through the precise cut to the jugular vein, and then placed into the bog. One might notice that the number 3 held magical powers in the eyes of the Celts, as well as bogs.
By closely studying the details of the body, forensic doctors have noted that the man not only looks at peace, facially, but there is other evidence that leads the researchers to believe that this man offered himself as a noble deed towards his religion and his people. Lindow man, besides his wounds that lead to death was beautifully manicured and apparently well cared for. He had no scars which would have suggested that he was in battle, and he also had unblemished and manicured hands, something unusual for most hardworking Celts. Just for these reasons archaeologists such as Anne Ross and Don Robins believe that he was a Druid Prince, and if you remember from my discussion of druids earlier, they were held in very high esteem and respect from the common people. These two archaeologists also believe that since at this particular time, the Romans were attempting to take control and also exterminate the druids, that he offered himself to the gods for their defeat. Quite a noble and generous gift for the hopeful benefit of his people and their culture!
Cremin, Aedeen. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli Publishing, 1998.
Cuncliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Filip, Jan. Celtic Civilization & It's Heritage. Prague: Academia, Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences., 1977.
Mac Cana, Proinisas. Celtic Mythology. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1970.
Norton-Taylor, Duncan. The Emergence of Man, The Celts. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
Pearce, Marion. Celtic Sacrifice-Pre-Chritstion Ritual and Religion. Freshfields, Chieveley: Capall Bann Publishing, 1998.
Ross, Anne. The Pagan Celts. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986.
Ross, Anne and Don Robins. The Life and Death of a Druid Prince. New York: Summit Books, 1989.
- all photographs are courtesy of Database of Art by Kathleen Cohen unless noted by titles of objects.
[ home ]
[ conclusion ]