Celtic Sacrifice, Prayer, and Divination

The Semites are often considered the worst offenders in the matter of human sacrifice, but in this, according to classical evidence, they were closely rivaled by the Celts of Gaul. They offered human victims on the principle of a life for a life, or to propitiate the gods, or in order to divine the future from the entrails of the victim. We shall examine the Celtic custom of human sacrifice from these points of view first.

Caesar says that those afflicted with disease or engaged in battle or danger offer human victims or vow to do so, because unless man’s life be given for man’s life, the divinity of the gods cannot be appeased.[790] The theory appears to have been that the gods sent disease or ills when they desired a human life, but that any life would do; hence one in danger might escape by offering another in his stead. In some cases the victims may have been offered to disease demons or diseases personified, such as Celtic imagination still believes in,[791] rather than to gods, or, again, they may have been offered to native gods of healing. Coming danger could also be averted on the same principle, and though the victims were usually slaves, in times of great peril wives and children were sacrificed.[792] After a defeat, which showed that the gods were still implacable, the wounded and feeble were slain, or a great leader would offer himself.[793] Or in such a case the Celts would turn their weapons against themselves, making of suicide a kind of sacrifice, hoping to bring victory to the survivors.[794]

The idea of the victim being offered on the principle of a life for a life is illustrated by a custom at Marseilles in time of pestilence. One of the poorer classes offered himself to be kept at the public expense for some time. He was then led in procession, clad in sacred boughs, and solemnly cursed, and prayer was made that on him might fall the evils of the community. Then he was cast headlong down. Here the victim stood for the lives of the city and was a kind of scape-victim, like those at the Thargelia.[795]

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.[796] 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 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.[801] 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.[802] 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 religion in a phrase--druidarum religionem dirae immanitatis.[803] 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.[804] Only the pressure of a higher civilization 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 practiced on female victims (prisoners of war) in honor 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 civilization 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 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.[808] 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 milk[810]--an obvious misunderstanding, the victims really being offered to obtain corn and milk. The numbers are exaggerated,[811] 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.[812] 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. 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.[815]

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.[817] 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.[818] “Groaning hostages” were placed under a fort in Ireland, and the foundation of the palace of Emain Macha was also laid with a human victim.[819] 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.

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 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.[821] 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.[824] This gruesome picture often recurs in the texts.  Thus, after the death of Cuchulainn, 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 how he sickened at such a sight, but gradually became more accustomed to it.[825] 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.[826] 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]

These customs had a religious aspect. In cutting off a head the Celt saluted the gods, and the head was offered to them or to ancestral spirits, and sometimes kept in grove or temple.[828] The name given to the heads of the slain in Ireland, the “mast of Macha,” shows that they were dedicated to her, just as skulls found under an altar had been devoted to the Celtic Mars.[829] Probably, as among Dayaks, American Indians, and others, possession of a head was a guarantee that the ghost of its owner would be subservient to its Celtic possessor, either in this world or in the next, since they are sometimes found buried in graves along with the dead.[830] Or, suspended in temples, they became an actual and symbolical offering of the life of their owners, if, as is probable, the life or soul was thought to be in the head. Hence, too, the custom of drinking from the skull of the slain had the intention of transferring his powers directly to the drinker.[831] Milk drunk from the skull of Conall Cernach restored to enfeebled warriors their pristine strength,[832] and a folk-survival in the Highlands—that of drinking from the skull of a suicide (here taking the place of the slain enemy) in order to restore health—shows the same idea at work. All these practices had thus one end, that of the transference of spirit force—to the gods, to the victor who suspended the head from his house, and to all who drank from the skull. Represented in bas-relief on houses or carved on dagger-handles, the head may still have been thought to possess talismanic properties, giving power to house or weapon. Possibly this cult of human heads may have given rise to the idea of a divine head like those figured on Gaulish images, or described, e.g., in the story of Bran. His head preserved the land from invasion, until Arthur disinterred it,[833] the story being based on the belief that heads or bodies of great warriors still had a powerful influence.[834] The representation of the head of a god, like his whole image, would be thought to possess the same preservative power.

A possible survival of the sacrifice of the aged may be found in a Breton custom of applying a heavy club to the head of old persons to lighten their death agonies, the clubs having been formerly used to kill them. They are kept in chapels, and are regarded with awe.[835]

Animal victims were also frequently offered. The Galatian Celts made a yearly sacrifice to their Artemis of a sheep, goat, or calf, purchased with money laid by for each animal caught in the chase. Their dogs were feasted and crowned with flowers.[836] Further details of this ritual are unfortunately lacking. Animals captured in war were sacrificed to the war-gods by the Gauls, or to a river-god, as when the horses of the defeated host were thrown into the Rhine by the Gaulish conquerors of Mallius.[837] We have seen that the white oxen sacrificed at the mistletoe ritual may once have been representatives of the vegetation-spirit, which also animated the oak and the mistletoe. Among the insular Celts animal sacrifices are scarcely mentioned in the texts, probably through suppression by later scribes, but the lives of Irish saints contain a few notices of the custom, e.g. that of S. Patrick, which describes the gathering of princes, chiefs, and Druids at Tara to sacrifice victims to idols.[838] In Ireland the peasantry still kill a sheep or heifer for S. Martin on his festival, and ill-luck is thought to follow the non-observance of the rite.[839] Similar sacrifices on saints’ days in Scotland and Wales occurred in Christian times.[840] An excellent instance is that of the sacrifice of bulls at Gairloch for the cure of lunatics on S. Maelrubha’s day (August 25th). Libations of milk were also poured out on the hills, ruined chapels were perambulated, wells and stones worshipped, and divination practised. These rites, occurring in the seventeenth century, were condemned by the Presbytery of Dingwall, but with little effect, and some of them still survive.[841] In all these cases the saint has succeeded to the ritual of an earlier god. Mr. Cook surmises that S. Maelrubha was the successor of a divine king connected with an oak and sacred well, the god or spirit of which was incarnate in him. These divine kings may at one time have been slain, or a bull, similarly incarnating the god or spirit, may have been killed as a surrogate. This slaying was at a later time regarded as a sacrifice and connected with the cure of madness.[842] The rite would thus be on a parallel with the slaying of the oxen at the mistletoe gathering, as already interpreted. Eilean Maree (Maelrubha), where the tree and well still exist, was once known as Eilean mo righ (“the island of my king”), or Eilean a Mhor Righ (“of the great king”), the king having been worshipped as a god. This piece of corroborative evidence was given by the oldest inhabitant to Sir Arthur Mitchell.[843] The people also spoke of the god Mourie.

Other survivals of animal sacrifice are found in cases of cattle-plague, as in Morayshire sixty years ago, in Wales, Devon, and the Isle of Man.  The victim was burned and its ashes sprinkled on the herd, or it was thrown into the sea or over a precipice.[844] Perhaps it was both a propitiatory sacrifice and a scape-animal, carrying away the disease, though the rite may be connected with the former slaying of a divine animal whose death benefited all the cattle of the district. In the Hebrides the spirits of earth and air were propitiated every quarter by throwing outside the door a cock, hen, duck, or cat, which was supposed to be seized by them. If the rite was neglected, misfortune was sure to follow. The animal carried away evils from the house, and was also a propitiatory sacrifice.

The blood of victims was sprinkled on altars, images, and trees, or, as among the Boii, it was placed in a skull adorned with gold.[845] Other libations are known mainly from folk-survivals. Thus Breton fishermen salute reefs and jutting promontories, say prayers, and pour a glass of wine or throw a biscuit or an old garment into the sea.[846] In the Hebrides a curious rite was performed on Maundy Thursday. After midnight a man walked into the sea, and poured ale or gruel on the waters, at the same time singing:

“O God of the sea,
Put weed in the drawing wave,
To enrich the ground,
To shower on us food.” 

Those on shore took up the strain in chorus.[847] Thus the rite was described by one who took part in it a century ago, but Martin, writing in the seventeenth century, gives other details. The cup of ale was offered with the words, “Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you will be so kind as to send plenty of seaweed for enriching our ground for the ensuing year.” All then went in silence to the church and remained there for a time, after which they indulged in an orgy out-of-doors. This orgiastic rite may once have included the intercourse of the sexes—a powerful charm for fertility. “Shony” was some old sea-god, and another divinity of the sea, Brianniul, was sometimes invoked for the same purpose.[848] Until recently milk was poured on “Gruagach stones” in the Hebrides, as an offering to the Gruagach, a brownie who watched over herds, and who had taken the place of a god.[849]




Prayer accompanied most rites, and probably consisted of traditional formulae, on the exact recital of which depended their value. The Druids invoked a god during the mistletoe rite, and at a Galatian sacrifice, offered to bring birds to destroy grasshoppers, prayer was made to the birds themselves.[850] In Mona, at the Roman invasion, the Druids raised their arms and uttered prayers for deliverance, at the same time cursing the invaders, and Boudicca invoked the protection of the goddess Andrasta in a similar manner.[851] Chants were sung by the “priestesses” of Sena to raise storms, and they were also sung by warriors both before and after a battle, to the accompaniment of a measured dance and the clashing of arms.[852] These warrior chants were composed by bards, and probably included invocations of the war-gods and the recital of famous deeds. They may also have been of the nature of spells ensuring the help of the gods, like the war-cries uttered by a whole army to the sound of trumpets.[853] These consisted of the name of a god, of a tribe or clan, or of some well-known phrase. As the recital of a divine name is often supposed to force the god to help, these cries had thus a magical aspect, while they also struck terror into the foe.[854] Warriors also advanced dancing to the fray, and they are depicted on coins dancing on horseback or before a sword, which was worshipped by the Celts.[855] The Celtiberian festival at the full moon consisted entirely of dancing. The dance is a primitive method of expressing religious emotion, and where it imitates certain actions, it is intended by magical influence to crown the actions themselves with success. It is thus a kind of acted prayer with magical results.



A special class of diviners existed among the Celts, but the Druids practised divination, as did also the unofficial layman. Classical writers speak of the Celts as of all nations the most devoted to, and the most experienced in, the science of divination. Divination with a human victim is described by Diodorus. Libations were poured over him, and he was then slain, auguries being drawn from the method of his fall, the movements of his limbs, and the flowing of his blood. Divination with the entrails was used in Galatia, Gaul, and Britain.[856] Beasts and birds also provided omens. The course taken by a hare let loose gave an omen of success to the Britons, and in Ireland divination was used with a sacrificial animal.[857] Among birds the crow was pre-eminent, and two crows are represented speaking into the ears of a man on a bas-relief at Compiegne. The Celts believed that the crow had shown where towns should be founded, or had furnished a remedy against poison, and it was also an arbiter of disputes.[858] Artemidorus describes how, at a certain place, there were two crows. Persons having a dispute set out two heaps of sweetmeats, one for each disputant. The birds swooped down upon them, eating one and dispersing the other. He whose heap had been scattered won the case.[859] Birds were believed to have guided the migrating Celts, and their flight furnished auguries, because, as Deiotaurus gravely said, birds never lie. Divination by the voices of birds was used by the Irish Druids.[860]

Omens were drawn from the direction of the smoke and flames of sacred fires and from the condition of the clouds.[861] Wands of yew were carried by Druids—“the wand of Druidism” of many folk-tales—and were used perhaps as divining-rods. Ogams were also engraved on rods of yews, and from these Druids divined hidden things. By this means the Druid Dalan discovered where Etain had been hidden by the god Mider. The method used may have been that of drawing one of the rods by lot and then divining from the marks upon it. A similar method was used to discover the route to be taken by invaders, the result being supposed to depend on divine interposition.[862] The knowledge of astronomy ascribed by Caesar to the Druids was probably of a simple kind, and much mixed with astrology, and though it furnished the data for computing a simple calendar, its use was largely magical.[863] Irish diviners forecast the time to build a house by the stars, and the date at which S. Columba’s education should begin, was similarly discovered.[864]

The Imbas Forosnai, “illumination between the hands,” was used by the File to discover hidden things. He chewed a piece of raw flesh and placed it as an offering to the images of the gods whom he desired to help him. If enlightenment did not come by the next day, he pronounced incantations on his palms, which he then placed on his cheeks before falling asleep. The revelation followed in a dream, or sometimes after awaking.[865] Perhaps the animal whose flesh was eaten was a sacred one.  Another method was that of the Teinm Laegha. The File made a verse and repeated it over some person or thing regarding which he sought information, or he placed his staff on the person’s body and so obtained what he sought. The rite was also preceded by sacrifice; hence S.  Patrick prohibited both it and the Imbas Forosnai.[866] Another incantation, the Cetnad, was sung through the fist to discover the track of stolen cattle or of the thief. If this did not bring enlightenment, the File went to sleep and obtained the knowledge through a dream.[867] Another Cetnad for obtaining information regarding length of life was addressed to the seven daughters of the sea. Perhaps the incantation was repeated mechanically until the seer fell into a kind of trance. Divination by dreams was also used by the continental Celts.[868]

Other methods resemble “trance-utterance.” “A great obnubilation was conjured up for the bard so that he slept a heavy sleep, and things magic-begotten were shewn to him to enunciate,” apparently in his sleep.  This was called “illumination by rhymes,” and a similar method was used in Wales. When consulted, the seer roared violently until he was beside himself, and out of his ravings the desired information was gathered.  When aroused from this ecstatic condition, he had no remembrance of what he had uttered. Giraldus reports this, and thinks, with the modern spiritualist, that the utterance was caused by spirits.[869] The resemblance to modern trance-utterance and to similar methods used by savages is remarkable, and psychological science sees in it the promptings of the subliminal self in sleep.

The taghairm of the Highlanders was a survival from pagan times. The seer was usually bound in a cow’s hide—the animal, it may be conjectured, having been sacrificed in earlier times. He was left in a desolate place, and while he slept spirits were supposed to inspire his dreams.[870] Clothing in the skin of a sacrificial animal, by which the person thus clothed is brought into contact with it and hence with the divinity to which it is offered, or with the divine animal itself where the victim is so regarded, is a widespread custom. Hence, in this Celtic usage, contact with divinity through the hide would be expected to produce enlightenment. For a like reason the Irish sacrificed a sheep for the recovery of the sick, and clothed the patient in its skin.[871] Binding the limbs of the seer is also a widespread custom, perhaps to restrain his convulsions or to concentrate the psychic force.

Both among the continental and Irish Celts those who sought hidden knowledge slept on graves, hoping to be inspired by the spirits of the dead.[872] Legend told how, the full version of the Tain having been lost, Murgan the File sang an incantation over the grave of Fergus mac Roig. A cloud hid him for three days, and during that time the dead man appeared and recited the saga to him.

In Ireland and the Highlands, divination by looking into the shoulder-blade of a sheep was used to discover future events or things happening at a distance, a survival from pagan times.[873] The scholiast on Lucan describes the Druidic method of chewing acorns and then prophesying, just as, in Ireland, eating nuts from the sacred hazels round Connla’s well gave inspiration.[874] The “priestesses” of Sena and the “Druidesses” of the third century had the gift of prophecy, and it was also ascribed freely to the Filid, the Druids, and to Christian saints. Druids are said to have prophesied the coming of S. Patrick, and similar prophecies are put in the mouths of Fionn and others, just as Montezuma’s priests foretold the coming of the Spaniards.[875] The word used for such prophecies--baile, means “ecstasy,” and it suggests that the prophet worked himself into a frenzy and then fell into a trance, in which he uttered his forecast. Prophecies were also made at the birth of a child, describing its future career.[876] Careful attention was given to the utterances of Druidic prophets, e.g. Medb’s warriors postponed their expedition for fifteen days, because the Druids told them they would not succeed if they set out sooner.[877]

Mythical personages or divinities are said in the Irish texts to have stood on one leg, with one arm extended, and one eye closed, when uttering prophecies or incantations, and this was doubtless an attitude used by the seer.[878] A similar method is known elsewhere, and it may have been intended to produce greater force. From this attitude may have originated myths of beings with one arm, one leg, and one eye, like some Fomorians or the Fachan whose weird picture Campbell of Islay drew from verbal descriptions.[879]

Early Celtic saints occasionally describe lapses into heathenism in Ireland, not characterised by “idolatry,” but by wizardry, dealing in charms, and fidlanna, perhaps a kind of divination with pieces of wood.[880] But it is much more likely that these had never really been abandoned. They belong to the primitive element of religion and magic which people cling to long after they have given up “idolatry.”


[790] Caesar, vi. 16.

[791] Rhys, CB{4} 68.

[792] Justin, xxvi. 2; Pomp. Mela, iii. 2.

[793] Diod. Sic. xxii. 9.

[794] See Jullian, 53.

[795] Servius on AEneid, iii. 57.

[796] Caesar, vi. 16; Livy, xxxviii. 47; Diod. Sic. v. 32, xxxi. 13; Athenaeus, iv. 51; Dio Cass., lxii. 7.

[797] Diod. Sic, xxxiv. 13; Strabo, iv. 4; Orosius, v. 16; Schol. on Lucan, Usener’s ed. 32.

[798] Caesar, vi. 16; Strabo, iv. 4; Diod. Sic. v. 32; Livy, xxxviii. 47.

[799] Mannhardt, Baumkultus, 529 f.

[800] Strabo, ibid. 4. 4.

[801] S. Aug. de Civ. Dei, vii. 19.

[802] Tac. Ann. xiv. 30; Strabo, iv. 4. 4.

[803] Suet. Claud. 25.

[804] Pomp. Mela, iii. 2. 18.

[805] Pliny, HN xxx. 4. 13.

[806] Dio. Cass. lxii. 6.

[807] O’Curry, MC ii. 222; Joyce, SH i. ch. 9.

[808] RC xvi. 35.

[809] LL 213b.

[810] See p. 52, supra.

[811] See, however, accounts of reckless child sacrifices in Ellis, Polynesian Researches, i. 252, and Westermarck, Moral Ideas, i. 397.

[812] O’Curry, MC Intro, dcxli.

[813] LU 126a. A folk-version is given by Larminie, West Irish Folk-Tales, 139.

[814] Book of Fermoy, 89a.

[815] O’Curry, MC Intro. dcxl, ii. 222.

[816] Adamnan, Vita S. Col. Reeve’s ed. 288.

[817] Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, ii. 317.

[818] Nennius, Hist. Brit. 40.

[819] Stokes, TIG xli.; O’Curry, MC ii. 9.

[820] Pliny, HN xxx. 1. The feeding of Ethni, daughter of Crimthann, on human flesh that she might sooner attain maturity may be an instance of “medicinal cannibalism” (IT iii. 363). The eating of parents among the Irish, described by Strabo (iv. 5), was an example of “honorific cannibalism.” See my article “Cannibalism” in Hastings’ Encycl. of Rel.  and Ethics, iii, 194.

[821] Diod. Sic. vi. 12; Paus. x. 22. 3; Amm. Marc. xxvii. 4; Livy, xxiii. 24; Solin. xxii. 3.

[822] This custom continued in Ireland until Spenser’s time.

[823] Leahy, i. 158; Giraldus, Top. Hib. iii. 22; Martin, 109.

[824] Sil. Ital. iv. 213; Diod. Sic. xiv. 115; Livy, x. 26; Strabo, iv. 4. 5; Miss Hull, 92.

[825] Diod. Sic. v. 29; Strabo, iv. 4. 5.

[826] D’Arbois, v. 11; Diod. Sic. v. 29; Strabo, loc. cit.

[827] Annals of the Four Masters, 864; IT i. 205.

[828] Sil. Ital. iv. 215, v. 652; Lucan, Phar. i. 447; Livy, xxiii. 24.

[829] See p. 71, supra; CIL xii. 1077. A dim memory of head-taking survived in the seventeenth century in Eigg, where headless skeletons were found, of which the islanders said that an enemy had cut off their heads (Martin, 277).

[830] Belloguet, Ethnol. Gaul. iii. 100.

[831] Sil. Ital. xiii. 482; Livy, xxiii. 24; Florus, i. 39.

[832] ZCP i. 106.

[833] Loth, i. 90 f., ii. 218-219. Sometimes the weapons of a great warrior had the same effect. The bows of Gwerthevyr were hidden in different parts of Prydein and preserved the land from Saxon invasion, until Gwrtheyrn, for love of a woman, dug them up (Loth, ii. 218-219).

[834] See p. 338, infra. In Ireland, the brain of an enemy was taken from the head, mixed with lime, and made into a ball. This was allowed to harden, and was then placed in the tribal armoury as a trophy.

[835] L’Anthropologie, xii. 206, 711. Cf. the English tradition of the “Holy Mawle,” said to have been used for the same purpose. Thorns, Anecdotes and Traditions, 84.

[836] Arrian, Cyneg. xxxiii.

[837] Caesar, vi. 17; Orosius, v. 16. 6.

[838] D’Arbois, i. 155.

[839] Curtin, Tales of the Fairies, 72; Folk-Lore, vii. 178-179.

[840] Mitchell, Past in the Present, 275.

[841] Mitchell, op. cit. 271 f.

[842] Cook, Folk-Lore, xvii. 332.

[843] Mitchell, loc. cit. 147. The corruption of “Maelrubha” to “Maree” may have been aided by confusing the name with mo or mhor righ.

[844] Mitchell, loc. cit.; Moore, 92, 145; Rhys, CFL i. 305; Worth, Hist. of Devonshire, 339; Dalyell, passim.

[845] Livy, xxiii. 24.

[846] Sebillot, ii. 166-167; L’Anthrop. xv. 729.

[847] Carmichael, Carm. Gad. i. 163.

[848] Martin, 28. A scribe called “Sonid,” which might be the equivalent of “Shony,” is mentioned in the Stowe missal (Folk-Lore, 1895).

[849] Campbell, Superstitions, 184 f; Waifs and Strays of Celtic Trad. ii. 455.

[850] Aelian, xvii. 19.

[851] Tacitus, Ann. xiv. 30; Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

[852] Appian, Celtica, 8; Livy, xxi. 28, xxxviii. 17, x. 26.

[853] Livy, v. 38, vii. 23; Polybius, ii. 29. Cf. Watteville, Le cri de guerre chez les differents peuples, Paris, 1889.

[854] Livy, v. 38.

[855] Appian, vi. 53; Muret et Chabouillet, Catalogue des monnaies gauloises, 6033 f., 6941 f.

[856] Diod. v. 31; Justin, xxvi. 2, 4; Cicero, de Div. ii. 36, 76; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30; Strabo, iii. 3. 6.

[857] Dio Cass. lxii. 6.

[858] Reinach, Catal. Sommaire, 31; Pseudo-Plutarch, de Fluviis, vi. 4; Mirab. Auscult. 86.

[859] Strabo, iv. 4. 6.

[860] Justin, xxiv, 4; Cicero, de Div. i. 15. 26. (Cf. the two magic crows which announced the coming of Cuchulainn to the other world (D’Arbois, v. 203); Irish Nennius, 145; O’Curry, MC ii. 224; cf. for a Welsh instance, Skene, i. 433.)

[861] Joyce, SH i. 229; O’Curry, MC ii. 224, MS Mat. 284.

[862] IT i. 129; Livy, v. 34; Loth, RC xvi. 314. The Irish for consulting a lot is crann-chur, “the act of casting wood.”

[863] Caesar, vi. 14.

[864] O’Curry, MC ii. 46, 224; Stokes, Three Irish Homilies, 103.

[865] Cormac, 94. Fionn’s divination by chewing his thumb is called Imbas Forosnai (RC xxv. 347).

[866] Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 45.

[867] Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 241.

[868] Justin, xliii. 5.

[869] O’Grady, ii. 362; Giraldus, Descr. Camb. i. 11.

[870] Pennant, Tour in Scotland, i. 311; Martin, 111.

[871] Richardson, Folly of Pilgrimages, 70.

[872] Tertullian, de Anima, 57; Coll. de Reb. Hib. iii. 334.

[873] Campbell, Superstitions, 263; Curtin, Tales, 84.

[874] Lucan, ed. Usener, 33.

[875] See examples in O’Curry, MS Mat. 383 f.

[876] Miss Hull, 19, 20, 23.

[877] LU 55.

[878] RC xii. 98, xxi. 156, xxii. 61.

[879] RC xv. 432; Annals of the Four Masters, A.M. 2530; Campbell, WHT iv. 298.

[880] See “Adamnan’s Second Vision.” RC xii. 441.


This is taken from J. A. MacCulloch's Religion of the Celts.





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