One of the issues about ancient Druids that tends to be brought up by both supporters and detractors is that of ritual sacrifice. Those who support modern Druidism tend to try to minimize or deny the practices among ancient Druids, while those who are against modern Druidism as a viable faith tend to over emphasize it. The reality is that the Druids did sacrifice both animals and people, as did most cultures during that time and it was done for a variety of religious reasons. For modern Druids nothing is gained by denying this fact, but it is important to understand it and the meaning behind the practice. Obviously modern Druids and CRs do not advocate or engage in human sacrifice, but we do make ritual offerings and sacrifices of different types; knowing why the ancients offered what and when they did can help guide us in our modern practice.
Celtic culture in general, and the Irish in particular, were known to practice head hunting, the belief being that a person's power resided in their head. The heads of enemies would be taken with the belief that the owner of such a trophy would also possess the power of the person whose head was taken; in some cases the head would be preserved, usually with oil, or else hung up for all to see as a trophy (Ross, 1998). Archaeology at many temple sites has revealed skulls, supporting the descriptions of classical authors who discuss the use of heads as trophies given to temples; this both implies a religious significance to the taking of heads and also lends validity to other comments about human sacrifice by classical writers (Ross, 1998). The historian Livy offers this example about the death of the Roman general Postumius: "...the Boii took his severed head in a procession to the holiest of their temples. There it was cleaned and the bare skull adorned with gold, as is their custom." (Freeman, 2002). These heads were collected in wall niches or turned into ritual drinking vessels.
In modern terms this is important for several reasons. Anyone following a Celtic path needs to understand the significance and importance of the head as the seat of the soul and repository of personal power in order to understand the underlying meaning of different myths and references to the head. As Ross says, "...a symbol which, in its way, sums up the whole of pagan Celtic religion....This is the symbol of the severed human head; in all its various modes of iconographic representation and verbal presentation, one may find the hard core of Celtic religion." (Ross, 1998, p.154). In different Celtic myths this idea is central to the story itself and key to the meaning behind plot elements. For example in the story of Bran and Branwen when Bran is killed he requests that his head be removed and placed in a certain location so that he can continue to protect his people. We see severed heads that talk and prophecy in other stories, reflecting the idea that the head retained its power after the person's death. Symbolic heads were also used and archaeologists have found examples of carved stone heads, which are believed to reflect the ideas associated with actual heads and skulls. Such trophies were also sometimes associated with specific Gods, as indicated by references such as the one that states that severed heads are "the masts [acorns] of Macha", a goddess associated with war. In modern practice the head can still be valued in the same way; I keep a resin skull on my ancestor altar for this reason. The head can be used in a concrete way in the form of an actual replica skull or in a purely symbolic way in artwork.
As with the head and skulls we also see references and stories about sacrifice that should be understood in order to understand the beliefs behind the practices. The earliest reference to Druidic sacrifice comes from the 4th century BCE writer Sopater, and is a casual reference which indicates a wider understanding among the Greeks of the Celtic propensity for the practice (Freeman, 2002). The Druids were known to divine the future by reading entrails, and this could be done either with animal or human victims; Diodorus Siculus describes an instance of this in great detail and calls the practice unbelievable. Diodorus also mentions the use of prisoners of war and criminals as sacrifices, and says that the Celts would often sacrifice animals captured in battle as well (Freeman, 2002). Caesar also mentions that criminals and prisoners of war were used as human sacrifices, because, he says, the deaths of such people are the most pleasing to the Celtic gods, and Pliny the elder mentions the sacrifice of white bulls in his description of the Mistletoe rite (Freeman, 2002). Archaeology has provided evidence of the sacrifice of dogs and horses as well as cattle at sacred sites, such as the shrine at Gournay (Green, 1997). Archaeology has also supported human sacrifice among the Celts and supports the more fantastic descriptions by classical authors, including live burial and drowning (Green, 1997). In fact the Druidic practice of human sacrifice was one of the key points that the Romans used to justify destroying the religion; after the time of Caesar when Gaul and portions of Britain have been subjugated Pomponius Mela writes, "The horrible practices of the Gauls have been abolished, yet some of their customs linger on. Though they no longer slaughter human victims, they still require a little blood from them on the way to make a sacrifice." (Freeman, 2002).
The proof of ancient Druidic human sacrifice is comprehensive and hard to argue against; indeed there is no point trying to argue against it since many cultures historically practiced such sacrifices. It should be discussed though by modern Druids to help us understand the ancient Druids better. We should also be asking ourselves what, exactly, the ancient practice has to do with us. Obviously human sacrifice is a thing of the past and is against modern morals and laws, however the idea behind it deserves consideration. When we ask ourselves why the Druids sacrificed living things we can better understand the principles behind modern sacrifices, which usually consist of objects or food. All the evidence supports the idea that human sacrifice in particular was done only for the most sacred of occasions, or in dire circumstances. Caesar tells us that "...those who are afflicted with terrible illness or face dangers in battle will conduct human sacrifices, or at least vow to do so....They believe that unless the life of a person is offered for the life of another, the dignity of the immortal gods will be insulted." (Freeman, 2002). In other words human sacrifice was used when a person's life was in danger to offer the gods something of equal value to what is being asked to be healed or preserved. In a modern context this tells us that we should offer something of great value or significance when asking or giving thanks for something of great significance. This is entirely in line with the concept of reciprocity found elsewhere in Celtic (especially Irish) material such as the Testament of Morann or the Instructions of King Cormac. It is essential for modern practitioners to understand, that we must only ask for what we are willing and able to offer compensation for, and that we should offer in accordance with what we feel we have been given. In thanks for a good harvest we offer the first fruits we gather. In exchange for daily blessings we might offer incense or candles, but for something of greater importance we should offer more. There are many options in such cases, from jewelry to weapons, both of which were also used historically by the Celts as offerings usually given to water, or even silver and gold which are as valuable today as they were in antiquity. For those of us with a special skill, whether it is cooking, sowing, art, or something else, we can offer the product of our skill. Some modern CRs, particularly those living on farms, may offer animal sacrifices but my understanding is that it it does humanely and that the animal is eaten afterwards, making it roughly equivalent to kosher butchering. There are also those who are willing, in specific circumstances to offer their own blood, usually using a sterile lancet like diabetics use to test their blood sugar. More common modern offerings range from incense to butter or oil which is ritually burned, flowers, poetry or artwork, food, drink, and silver, with objects of greater value like jewelry and weaponry being offered on special occasions or in extreme circumstances. When weapons or jewelry are offered they are usually broken or rendered useless first in accord with the examples found in known ancient Celtic offering sites. Whatever we as individuals choose to offer, whether it is to the Gods, spirits, or ancestors, the important part is to be confident that we are giving something of value in exchange for what we feel we have recieved or are asking for.
Ross, A., (1998). Pagan Celts
Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids
Green, M., (1997). The World of the Druids