15 October, 2008

Human sacrifice in Anglo-Saxon England: what rite might have been used?

In an earlier post I reviewed the limited evidence relating to human sacrifice in early England (‘Anglo-Saxon’ England), and came to the conclusion that the early English almost certainly knew of human sacrifice, but that there is little evidence that they practised it to any great extent. A small number of graves, such as the strange burials at Sutton Hoo, are consistent with human sacrifice but other explanations are possible. I personally think it most likely to have been a rare event reserved for exceptional circumstances.

If human sacrifice was practised at all in early England, what form might the rites have taken? As there’s little evidence for it at all, it won’t surprise you to hear that there’s no definite evidence for the rites that might have been employed. However, it may be possible to make some extrapolations from related cultures, with due caution and the usual caveat that other interpretations are possible.

Sutton Hoo

The body buried without grave goods and probably face down in one of the quarry pits used to construct Mound 5 at Sutton Hoo may have been a sacrifice, but was not well enough preserved to give any evidence for the cause of death (Carver 1998).

The group of anomalous burials (see earlier post for details) surrounded the site of a gallows, so it is plausible (though not certain) that at least some of them had died on it. Whether they represent sacrifices or executions, or indeed whether such a distinction can be made, is not known. One body had a dark stain around its neck that could have been the remains of a rope. Others were decapitated, but whether this happened at or after death is not known. The dates for this group of burials span the period from the sixth to the eleventh century (Carver 1998).

Iron Age Europe: the bog bodies

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st century AD, says that the tribes living in the areas that are now Germany and southern Denmark sacrificed human victims to Mercury, but doesn’t say what rite was used.

Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims.
--Tacitus, Germania

He also says that the slaves who washed the wagon of the goddess Nerthus were drowned in a sacred lake, although this is attributed to a desire to maintain secrecy rather than to sacrifice as such.

Anon the chariot is washed and purified in a secret lake, as also the curtains; nay, the Deity herself too, if you choose to believe it. In this office it is slaves who minister, and they are forthwith doomed to be swallowed up in the same lake. Hence all men are possessed with mysterious terror; as well as with a holy ignorance what that must be, which none see but such as are immediately to perish.
--Tacitus, Germania

Remarkably, a few human bodies from the Iron Age in northern Europe have survived to the present day, preserved in acid and waterlogged conditions in peat bogs. Readers in Britain will probably be most familiar with “Lindow Man”, discovered during peat cutting at Lindow Moss in Cheshire, in north-west England in 1984. The lower half of his body had presumably been destroyed by the peat-cutting machinery (unless someone found a nasty surprise in their azalea bed), leaving only the body above the waist and part of one lower leg. The investigations into the body have been described in clear and readable detail by Don Brothwell of the University of London (Brothwell 1986). Lindow Man had been struck at least twice on the top of the head by a blunt instrument, fracturing his skull. He also had a broken jaw and chipped tooth which may indicate another blow to the lower face, and a broken rib which may indicate a violent blow to his back. He had also been strangled by a twisted cord, his neck was broken, his throat had been cut, and there was a possible stab wound to his chest. The number of different types of injury seems excessive for an ordinary murder, and suggests a ritual death (Brothwell 1986). Hutton comments that it recalls the “triple death” of Irish legends (Hutton 1993).

Although many other bog bodies have been found from sites across northern Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Ireland, many were either insufficiently preserved or insufficiently investigated to identify a cause of death. However, several other bog bodies show evidence for one or more of the types of injuries inflicted on Lindow Man:

  • Borre Fen Man - hanging/strangulation, skull injury

  • Borre Fen Woman (II) – skull injury, other fractures

  • Elling Woman – hanging/strangulation

  • Grauballe Man – throat cut, skull injury, other fractures

  • Lindow Man - hanging/strangulation, throat cut, skull injury, chest wound (possible) other fractures (possible)

  • Lykkegard Man - hanging/strangulation

  • Osterby Man – beheading, skull injury

  • Rendswuhren Fen Man – skull injury, chest wound

  • Stidsholt Fen Woman – beheading

  • Tollund Man – hanging/strangulation

  • Werdingerveen Man – chest wound

--Brothwell 1986; Coles & Coles 1989

More than half of these bodies (6/11) had multiple types of injury, though Lindow Man had the widest range. Head injuries were the most common (6), perhaps intended to stun the victim out of mercy or convenience. The other modes of death include strangling or hanging (5), chest wounds (2) and cutting of the throat (2). Placing the body in a pool in the bog (all of them, by definition) may also have represented drowning, yet another mode of death. Other bog bodies have been found pinned down in the bog by stakes or branches and may have been drowned (a woman at Jelling in Denmark, a man and a girl at Windeby in north Germany, a man at Gallagh in Ireland), although it may also be possible that the bodies were placed in the bog after death and pinned down to prevent them floating to the surface of a pool. Two of these bodies had cords around the neck that might have been used for strangulation (Gallagh, the man at Windeby) (Coles & Coles 1989).

Some Irish legends feature a “Triple Death”. For example, Adomnan’s Life of Columba says that St Columba prophesied that Aed Dub (Aed the Black) would die by falling, drowning and stabbing.

And Aid, thus irregularly ordained, shall return as a dog to his vomit, and be again a bloody murderer, until at length, pierced in the neck with a spear, he shall fall from a tree into the water and be drowned
--Adomnan, Life of Columba, Chapter XXIX

In another Irish legend, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, king of all Ireland, is killed by his foster-son Aed Dub by drowning, burning and stabbing (see Wikipedia).

The significance of the multiple modes of death is unknown. It has been suggested that certain modes of death were sacred to particular gods (Powell 1983), so perhaps a person killed using several modes was believed to influence several gods. Or it may be that the elaborate ritual was required to differentiate the sacrifice from a commonplace death – after all, people could drown by accident, or could be stabbed, beaten or strangled as a result of war, a brawl or an ordinary murder. Perhaps a multiple death was intended to mark the person out as a gift presented especially to the gods.

Norse documentary sources

Multiple modes of death are also found in documentary descriptions of Norse customs. In the tenth century, an Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, wrote a detailed description of the Rus, who were Norse traders living on the River Volga in what is now Russia. In it he describes a human sacrifice at the funeral of one of the Rus leaders:

… they laid her at the side of her master; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.

According to the Icelandic poem Havamal, the Norse god Odin was hanged on the World Tree and stabbed with a spear.

I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,

If we take hanging and strangling as equivalent, this is the same death as that meted out to the slave girl on the Volga, and Havamal is explicit that this is a sacrifice to Odin.

The Greek historian Procopius, writing in Byzantium in the 6th century AD, says of the inhabitants of Thule (modern Norway and Sweden):

This sacrifice they offer to Ares, since they believe him to be the greatest of the gods. They sacrifice the prisoner not merely by slaughtering him, but by hanging him from a beam or casting him among thorns, or putting him to death by other horrible methods.
--Procopius, Gothic War. Quoted in Ellis Davidson (1964).

Ares is the Greek war-god, whom the Romans called Mars. Procopius presumably substituted the name of the Greek god he considered to be the nearest equivalent to the Norse deity concerned. The two most obvious candidates for a Norse war god are Tyr or Odin, both of whom could be considered gods of war.

Adam of Bremen, writing in 1070, described extensive human sacrifice at the temple of Old Uppsala in Sweden:

There is a festival at Uppsala every nine years […] The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.
--History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen

He is clear that the victims were hanged, and if his reference to “blood” is literal rather than poetic it may indicate that they were also stabbed, as described in Havamal and the account of the slave girl on the Volga.

The medieval Norse saga Gautrek’s Saga contains a vivid account of a sacrifice to Odin. In the saga, King Vikar prays to Odin for a favourable wind, and when the lots are drawn to decide who will be the sacrifice in payment, the lot falls to King Vikar himself. King Vikar tries to cheat his fate by staging a mock sacrifice. He stands on a tree stump with the soft intestines of a calf looped around his neck and fastened to a branch above, and one of his men thrusts a blunt wooden rod at him with the words, “Now I give you to Odin”. As soon as the words are uttered, the rod becomes a spear piercing King Vikar through, the intestine becomes a strong rope and the branch jerks the king into the air and hangs him (Ellis Davison 1964). Odin, the master of deceit, is not easily cheated.

This colourful story is from a late source and may be no more than vivid fiction, or it may be based on a genuine tradition of a rite used to send a victim to Odin by hanging and stabbing. It is consistent with Havamal, but if the saga writer was familiar with Havamal he could simply have copied the rite and added some dramatic details.


Irish and Norse legends, and accounts of Norse customs, all describe human sacrifice involving death by multiple methods. These might be dismissed as no more than bizarre stories invented by chroniclers about barbaric peoples of far away and long ago, if it were not for the evidence of the bog bodies.

These individuals demonstrate clearly that death by elaborate and multiple methods was inflicted in Iron Age northern Europe, including Britain, north Germany and Denmark, and the victims placed in the peat and water of bogs. The pattern of injuries varies from one to another, presumably indicating variations in the rite as well as variations in the survival of evidence. Wounding with sharp implements, hanging or strangulation, and violent blows to the head are all represented among the bodies, and their location in watery places may represent actual or metaphorical drowning. It is worth remembering that alternative rites, such as burning, would either leave no trace (if the ashes were dispersed) or might be difficult to distinguish from an ordinary cremation burial. Drowning and/or disposal in bogs might have been a common factor among ritual deaths, or just the common factor among the ones that happen to have left evidence for us to identify and interpret.

Exactly how widespread human sacrifice was, how long it persisted, and what rites were used when and in which societies, remains uncertain. No definite sacrificial victim from the early medieval period in England has yet been identified (Lindow Man has been dated to around the first century AD), which might be interpreted either as absence of evidence or evidence of absence. However, if human sacrifice was carried out in early England, one might reasonably conjecture that the rites involved would have been likely to resemble either those used on the earlier Iron Age bog bodies, or those recorded for later Norse culture.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text
Brothwell D. The bog man and the archaeology of people. British Museum Press, 1986, ISBN 0-7141-1384-0.
Coles B, Coles J. People of the wetlands: bogs, bodies and lake-dwellers. Thames & Hudson, 1989, ISBN 0-500-02112-0
Ellis Davidson HR. Gods and myths of northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020670-1.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Hutton R. The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles: their nature and legacy. Blackwell, 1993, ISBN:0-631-18946-7.
Powell TGE. The Celts. Thames & Hudson, 1983, ISBN 0-500-27275-1.


Gabriele Campbell said...

The Roman sources say that offiercs captured at the Varus battle were sacrified to the German gods, either by drowning them in the nearby bog, or stabbing/decapitation. There could be some truth in those stories. Tacitus mentions the altars of the Germans when he tells about Germanicus' visit to the battlefield six years later.

Carla said...

Yes, it's nothing if not consistent. What a pity that the acidity in bogs dissolves tooth enamel, otherwise we might be able to do isotope analysis and see if any of the bog bodies were actually Romans from the south!

Rick said...

What a wonderfully morbid subject!

As you note, the 'boundaries' of human sacrifice are ambiguous, since executions often have a ritualistic element, if only to instill a sense of helpless resignation in the victim. (And in what sense is burning a heretic NOT a form of human sacrifice?)

Kathryn Warner said...

I'll echo Rick, and say what a fascinatingly morbid subject this is!

Rick said...

How appropriate to the season, too! Which no doubt is why Carla posted about it.

Carla said...

Rick - I suppose the distinction is in the intent. In theory an execution is intended as punishment for something the person has done, whereas a sacrifice is intended as a gift or bribe for the gods in the hope of favorably influencing their behaviour. But intent doesn't fossilise, not even in bog bodies :-) And as you say, the boundaries blur because human behaviour is rarely clear cut. There's a theory that all capital punishment is really a form of human sacrifice because the killing is carried out to mitigate a threat to society. I can sort of see the logic, though I'm not convinced I quite buy this. It seems to me that there's a distinction between a threat perceived from human activity (stealing, murder) and a threat perceived from supernatural forces (the gods will make the harvest succeed/fail, make your army win/lose the battle). Hard to maintain the distinction when the activity in question is religious observance, though!

Perhaps the key difference is that the identity of the victim matters less (or not at all) in human sacrifice, as shown by the common practice of casting lots to choose the victim. Whereas even burning heretics (or witches) mostly made an attempt to follow some sort of judicial process and come up with some sort of charge against the person as an individual backed up by some sort of evidence, however flawed. The Inquisition didn't just pick someone off the street (hence its name). What do you think?

Alianore/Rick - actually the timing is pure chance!

Meghan said...

"There's a theory that all capital punishment is really a form of human sacrifice because the killing is carried out to mitigate a threat to society."

Whoah! Never thought of it that way...@_@;

Carla said...

Meghan - Well, yes, exactly. I did say it was a theory, and I think it's a sociological theory to boot. Those are quite often over my head :-)

Anonymous said...

Carla, that was quite an interesting read. Not something I have studied myself, so a lot of it was new to me. The only example I was familiar with was the account from ibn Fadlan. Thanks.

Carla said...

Steven - You're welcome! Glad you found it interesting.