Human sacrifice in medieval Irish literature

Human sacrifice in medieval Irish literature

By Jacqueline Borsje

The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, ed. J.N. Bremmer (Leuven, 2007)

Introduction: The earliest reference to Celtic religion mentions human sacrifice. Sopater, a playwright from the late fourth century B.C.. writes about the Celts:

Among them it is the custom, whenever they win any success in battle, to sacrifice their captives to the gods…

Sopater supplies us with the main elements for a definition of human sacrifice: people kill certain other human beings for a specific reason as an offering to supernatural beings.

There are three types of written sources available that give information about so-called Celtic human sacrifice. First, Greek and Latin writings mention several types of human sacrifice purported to have been performed by various Celtic populations. Secondly, we have medieval texts from the inhabitants of countries, where a Celtic language is spoken: Ireland. Scoltand and Wales. Thirdly, folklore customs from these same countries from the last centuries have beensaid to be survivals of the practice of human sacrifice.

What strikes us immediately is that we have no direct witnesses from the Celts themselves: the information comes from Classical authors, Christian descendants of the Celts and modern scholarship. A survey and analysis of all these texts could easily fill a book, which is why the present paper is limited to the the literary motif of human sacrifice in medieval Irish literature. The other sources will be referred to only when relevant.

In this survey, early Irish examples of human sacrifice are classified in four types. The first type is human sacrifice in the strict sense: an offering to Gods for a certain purpose. The other types lack the mention of supernatural beings to whom the offering is made. They can be defined as foundation sacrifice (2), vicarious sacrifice (3), and burial sacrifice (4). The length of this paper dictates that I can analyse only the most important text in depth; the other examples will be dealt with more briefly.

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