The druid religion was closely tied to the natural world, which was the domain of both humans and the gods. All of nature not only flowed from the gods, but made up their substance as well. The creatures and growing things of the earth had communion with the gods; they functioned as messengers between man and the Otherworld, even embodying the gods themselves. Animals provided meat, milk, and clothing; the trees of the forest offered shelter and nourishment; and plants provided not only food but medicine for the healers — all gifts of the gods requiring gratitude and repayment.
The Celts thus had great respect for both animals and plants. That which was sustenance for the body was also the body of the gods and therefore deserving of propitiation and respect. Sacrifice in return for what was received kept the cycle of life continuous, and ensured fertility and abundance.
Thanks to the Gods
Because the Celts viewed animals and plants as the embodiment of the gods, they sought to maintain balance between the worlds. As the living creatures gave of their substance for the nourishment of the people, the people gave of theirs for the sustenance of the gods. Sacrifice was an integral part of the spiritual lives of the Celtic tribes. Gifts of weaponry and art, trophies of war, even the blood of animals and humans were given in return for what the gods gave. As in many other early cultures, the form of these sacrifices could appear quite brutal. The Celts may have felt close connections to the earth, but they were hardly sentimental.
Caesar remarks on the practice of sacrifice, “when they have determined on a decisive battle, they dedicate as a rule whatever spoil they may take. After a victory they sacrifice such living things as they have taken, and all the other effects they gather into one place.”
Offerings of wealth were also common. Large deposits of unused, high-quality weapons, adornments, and implements have been discovered buried deep in earthen shafts, peat bogs, and in sacred wells and waterways. The spoils of war also belonged to the gods — captured weapons, treasures, and even livestock were offered en masse as sacrifice for a victory.
The issue of human sacrifice is the dark shadow that haunts the legacy of the druids. Many outsiders' accounts of druid ritual describe the brutal, bloody sacrifice of criminals and prisoners of war, and bodies of many apparent victims have been uncovered preserved in peat bogs and earthen shafts.
Historical accounts of human sacrifice among the Celts are of course not unbiased, and they tend to be secondhand accounts filled with exaggeration. Most accounts of druid sacrificial custom come from the pens of Roman chroniclers who made little attempt to conceal their contempt for their subjects.
The Romans made much of what they deemed druidic savagery, but the customs they deride are not so different from Roman treatment of criminals, and they are probably far less brutal than the customs of the gladiatorial arena, for example, or the feeding of Christians to lions.
In any case, it is well known that to the Celts, matters of justice were paramount. As the gods were the source of the legal system, it naturally follows that the dispensation of criminals would be a matter of religion as well. Druid law was based on the Celts' deeply held belief in the balance of forces and the necessity of maintaining that balance. Where breaches of the sacred law created imbalance in the natural order, punishment restored that balance. It is also important to keep in mind the religious beliefs of the Celts that death was not the end of life, but was, in fact, a birth into the next world.
A criminal was likely sacrificed to the god he had offended, in repayment for what was upset. Adding to this view is archaeological evidence that the method of sacrifice varied according to the deity receiving the sacrifice. Those sacrificed to Esus (called “Lord,” a deity who was similar in many ways to the Norse Odin) were reportedly strangled or hung from trees, while those sacrificed to Teutates (a god of war and healing comparable to the Norse Tyr or the Roman Mars), were drowned in a cauldron or body of water, a ritual closely linked with regeneration in mythical tales of war.
Some remains of sacrificial victims of the druids show signs of highly ritualized death, wherein the victim is killed three ways — usually by blows, strangulation, and drowning. One such victim is called the Lindow Man, a mummified Celt uncovered in the remains of an English peat bog. Lindow Man's perfectly preserved body shows every sign of ritual execution — he had been struck, his throat was cut, and he had been strangled.
One theory of druidic sacrifice claims that in addition to convicted criminals and prisoners of war, some sacrifices consisted of special emissaries to the Otherworld. These would be members of the priestly class, either volunteers or victims chosen by a special lottery. Some researchers have speculated that the victim would not be an offering per se, but a messenger who was chosen to communicate directly with the gods of the Otherworld.
One such sacrifice has been deduced from circumstantial evidence uncovered from the bodies of victims such as the Lindow Man, and related customs still practiced in rural Celtic communities. The evidence suggests the use of a lottery system, whereby a bannock cake (a cake of wheat, barley, oats, hazel nuts, and mistletoe) would be deliberately scorched in one corner, and then broken into bits and passed blindly among the candidates. The recipient of the burned portion would be ritually dispatched to the Otherworld. Forensic testing of the contents of Lindow Man's stomach contents — burned bannock and mistletoe — bear out these theories. Because Lindow Man died during the time of the Roman invasion, some speculate he may have been chosen as a special emissary to the gods, in a desperate attempt to stave off destruction.