17 January, 2008

Human sacrifice in Anglo-Saxon England

Did the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) conduct human sacrifice before their conversion to Christianity?

Evidence from related cultures

The Roman writer Tacitus is quite clear that the Germanic tribes in Continental Europe used human sacrifice in the 1st century AD:

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

The same summer a great battle was fought between the Hermunduri and
the Chatti [….]The war was a success for the Hermunduri,
and the more disastrous to the Chatti because they had devoted, in the
event of victory, the enemy's army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which
consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to
--Annals of Imperial Rome, Book XIII.

Mercury was the Latin name for the god known to the English and Germans as Woden and to the Norse as Odin.

There is also clear evidence of human sacrifice among the Norse (‘Vikings’) of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who were neighbours of the early English. The names of the gods we know about were the same in both cultures, so it is possible that other aspects of their religions were also shared. 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 the funeral of one of the Rus leaders:

When the man of whom I have spoken died, his girl slaves were asked, "Who will die with him?" One answered, "I.”
Then 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.

Another Arab chronicler, ibn Rustah, described a different form of funeral sacrifice among the Rus:

When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. [….] They also put his favourite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there.
--Quoted in Brondsted, 1965, p. 305.

A grave excavated in Birka, eastern Sweden, is consistent with this practice. The grave contained two women, one richly attired and the other lying in a strange twisted position, and was interpreted by the excavator as the grave of a wealthy woman and a serf who had suffocated in the burial chamber (Brondsted 1965, p 293).

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 init 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

Evidence from Anglo-Saxon England

So, it seems reasonably clear that the 1st-century Germans and the 10th-century Scandinavians carried out human sacrifice. What about the early English?

Documentary evidence

There is no direct reference to human sacrifice in documentary sources. Bede says that when King Oswald of Northumbria was killed in battle in 642,

… the king that slew him commanded his head, hands, and arms to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book 3 Ch. 12.

The remains were retrieved the following year by Oswald’s brother Oswy. This may indicate a ritual element, perhaps reminiscent of Tacitus’ description of dedicating a defeated enemy to the war gods. Or it may be a convenient way of identifying and humiliating the dead king, much as the heads of those executed for treason were displayed on London Bridge in medieval and Tudor England. Or both; these are not mutually exclusive.

Pope Gregory the Great sent priests Augustine and Mellitus to preach Christianity to the English in 597, and in 601 he wrote a letter of encouragement to Mellitus. This letter refers to animal sacrifice, but makes no mention of human sacrifice:

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, [they may….] celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
--Bede, Book 1 Ch. 30.

This may just be absence of evidence; perhaps Gregory did not know what rites the English practiced, or did not think it right to mention such an unpleasant subject in a letter. However, it is notable that a later Pope, Gregory II, specifically mentioned the subject in a letter to Boniface who was preaching in Germany and Frisia and who had evidently asked for guidance on the practice of selling slaves for human sacrifice:

Among other difficulties which you face in those parts, you say that some of the faithful sell their slaves to be sacrificed by the heathen. This, above all, we urge you to forbid, for it is a crime against nature. Therefore, on those who have perpetrated such a crime you must impose a penance similar to that for culpable homicide.
--Letters of Boniface 16.

And in the Life of St Willibrord, written by Alcuin in the 8th century, the saint was threatened with death for having insulted the gods of people living between Frisia and Denmark:

The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who should die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown.
--Life of Willibrord

Willibrord’s unfortunate follower might be considered an execution rather than a sacrifice as such, though the casting of lots to choose a victim is consistent with a ritual component.

The absence of such references in the letters to the Christian mission in England may indicate (but does not prove) that the use of human sacrifice was less widespread there.


The (probable) temple excavated at Yeavering in Northumberland contained a pit filled with animal remains, mostly ox skulls, but no human remains were noted (Hutton, 1993, p. 270). This is consistent with the references to animal but not human sacrifice in Pope Gregory’s letter to Mellitus, but does not prove that humans were never sacrificed, as such remains might have been disposed of elsewhere.

A small number of excavated graves from early England have features that are consistent with human sacrifice (Ellis Davidson 1992):

  • At Sewerby, in East Yorkshire, a woman with rich grave goods had been buried in a deep grave, and a second woman had been buried a few inches above her at the same time, laid face down and with a piece of a quernstone over her pelvis.

  • At Mitcham in Surrey, a grave excavated in 1905 contained a small woman laid face down between two men.

  • At Finglesham in Kent a man had been buried with grave goods and with a second body laid across him.

These may be instances of funeral sacrifices, as in the Norse grave at Birka and similar to the rites described for the Rus by the Arab writers.

Further evidence comes from Sutton Hoo, believed to be the royal cemetery of the Kings of the East Angles in the seventh century (Carver 1998). Mound 5 contained a cremation burial of a young adult who had died by several blade cuts to the head. One of the quarry pits dug to produce soil to build the mound contained a body without grave goods that had been buried, probably face down, at the same time as the mound was raised or very shortly afterwards. The excavator suggests that this person may have been killed as sacrifice, vengeance, punishment or vindictive attack by a stressed foreman – there is no evidence to say which (if any).

Other burials at Sutton Hoo included one with a dark stain around the neck that could have been the remains of a rope (Burial 49), a triple burial containing a decapitated man and two women buried face down on top of him (Burial 42), several burials in which the head had been removed and replaced in an odd position (wrong way round, on the shoulder, by the knee) or was missing altogether, a burial in which the body had apparently been folded over backwards (Burial 55), several burials with the wrists and/or ankles crossed over each other as though tied, several crouched burials, and one extraordinary grave containing a body stretched out as though hurdling or running and accompanied by unidentified pieces of timber (Burial 27). This last grave has been interpreted as a wooden plough buried with a ploughman (Ellis Davidson 1992), but the excavator noted that the timbers may be from some other object such as a spade or pieces of the gallows (Carver 1998). Radiocarbon dates ranged from the sixth to the eleventh century. A gallows had stood at the centre of the site, and was radiocarbon-dated to 690–980, contemporary with the date range of most of the strange burials (Carver 1998).

Were these strange burials at Sutton Hoo sacrifices or executions? The two need not be mutually exclusive. According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls of the 1st century BC sacrificed criminals to the gods:

They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.

--The Gallic Wars, Book 6 Ch 16

The distinction between sacrifice and execution may be in part a matter of labelling. The strange burials may represent a dramatic method of despatch (reminiscent of the Roman use of criminals in the arena), or ritual killings, or both. The excavator says in his book, “..most seem to belong to the period after the conversion of East Anglia to Christianity. This group does not therefore offer strong evidence for human sacrifice.” (Carver 1998, p. 168). On the other hand, the historian Ronald Hutton cites the evidence from Sutton Hoo and Sewerby as, “fairly clear evidence [of human sacrifice] in Anglo-Saxon England” (Hutton, 1993, p. 274).


It seems certain that the early English knew of human sacrifice, since related and neighbouring cultures in Continental Europe and Scandinavia practised it. Whether they practised it themselves is open to question; the people who settled in late- and post-Roman Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries may have been drawn from tribes who did not practise the rite; they may not have taken the ritual with them, or they may have abandoned it in their new environment, perhaps because there were no large and long-established ritual centres such as the temple at Old Uppsala.

The display of Oswald’s head on the battlefield is reminiscent of ritual, and there is some archaeological evidence of burials consistent with human sacrifice, as at Sewerby or Sutton Hoo. The comparatively small number of such graves may represent absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Until the Sutton Hoo excavation in the 1990s, the existence of the strange burials there was completely unsuspected, and similar surprises may be awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel elsewhere. That said, well over 5000 Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated in Britain (Hutton, 1993, p. 275), so if it was a widespread practice one might expect to have found more of them by now.

On the whole, I would agree with Hilda Ellis Davidson’s view (1992); that the early English certainly knew of human sacrifice but that it did not play an extensive part in their society, being reserved (if practised at all) for exceptional circumstances and/or times of crisis.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text
Ellis Davidson HR. Human sacrifice in the late pagan period in north-western Europe. In: Carver M (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo. Boydell Press, 1992, ISBN: 0851153305
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.
Brondsted J. The Vikings. Pelican, 1965, ISBN: 0-14-02-0459-8.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fascinating post Carla, and a bit creepy! I will forward your blog url to my re-enactor friends who will probably be very interested.
I wonder if the finds of bog bodies in Northern Europe are in any way related to these 'sacrifices' you mention here.

Magpie said...

As you might be aware...
Ahmad ibn Fadlan's manuscript was the basis of Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead", which is nonetheless mostly a work of the imagination in which Fadlan (ibn Fadlan actually means "son of Fadlan") is the in-story narrator.
The book was was adapted to film as "The 13th Warrior".
The sacrifice scene is in the film too, although not shown precisely as Fadlan describes it.

The book is worth a read and the film is (in my opinion) highly underrated, despite its historical and other contradictions.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - I shall be interested to hear what they think! Regia is generally more interested in the later period, isn't it, well after the conversion to Christianity?

The bog bodies are very likely related to the rituals described by Tacitus. Tacitus even says somewhere that the German tribes punished crimes that were considered shameful, such as adultery, by drowning the guilty person in a bog - which may be another example of the rather fluid line between sacrificial and judicial killing. Most of the bog bodies are dated to the Iron Age or the first century or two AD, so they are a bit earlier than the period associated with the English settlement in Britain. They're particularly interesting for the rites employed, and I may do a specific post on that at some point.

Hazel-rah - Many thanks - I knew Eaters of the Dead was based on ibn Fadlan's account, but didn't know how closely. I have to admit the title has always tended to put me off! I must give it a go sometime. I had a vague idea the film The 13th Warrior was based loosely on Beowulf. Have I got that completely wrong?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Some of the German bog bodies that were said to have been punished for adultery have now been rehabilitated. They were more likely sacrifical victims.

Isn't there a scene in Cornwell's Warlord where Nimue sacrifies a Saxon captive, or was that another Arthurian novel? I've read too many of those. ;)

I'm having some fun with human sacrifices in both A Land Unconquered (the captured Roman officers were sacrified after the Varus battle) and Eagle of the Sea.

Meghan said...

I have a lot of Scottish ancestory. Apparently the Highlanders drank the blood of their dead. :/

Gabriele Campbell said...

That makes Haggis sound like French cuisine. :)

Magpie said...

Carla, to answer your question: Both are a sort of retelling of Beowulf but with ibn Fadlan as a witness to the events.
The implication is that the 'Wendol', who are the Eaters, might have been a branch of human evolution who lived on way past their time in remote places.

One reads of human sacrifice in the story of the Trojan War. In that it was - as I recall - to get the favour of the gods in getting the wind to blow a particular way, or something. In that a King's daughter is sacrificed.. and it seems a rather drastic measure, really, in context.
It has been theorised that these kinds of non-prejudiced sacrifices (i.e. not of prisoners or slaves) was a way of motivating the troops. In crass terms: "look lads....she has died for the cause, so you blokes had better deliver a victory", but it's more than that.... In effect, the men psychologically transfer the guilt to the enemy, and are thus prepared to go all the way for their tribe.

It's an extreme point, but one can imagine that witnessing the ritual death of the girl - who is desirable on both a social and sexual level - would send a platoon of free citizen men - especially if they are young and impressionable - into a virtual frenzy. They might see that girl everytime they go to kill someone. In modern terms... 'instant serial killers'.

If that sounds far-fetched, we should pause to think that Homer ascribes the cause of the entire war to the infidelity of a single woman of status. I doubt very much that was the true and sole basis of whatever conflict the Trojan War is based on, but the symbolism is there.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I wonder if there was a hard-and-fast difference, or if the same death could be for both reasons? Yes, there's a scene like that somewhere in Cornwell's Arthur series, but I can't remember if it's Nimue doing the sacrificing or someone else. With the varus battle you're completely in the clear because it's so near in time to Tacitus' account.

Meghan/Gabriele - and don't even ask what they put in the black pudding :-) Meghan - what's the source of the tradition, and was it supposed to be the blood of their own dead or the enemy dead?

Hazel-rah - Iphigenia daughter of Agamemnon, sacrificed at Aulis for a favourable wind so that the ships could get to Troy. Interesting theory about the transfer of guilt to the enemy. I tended to think of it as demonstrating the King's commitment to the war. Wasn't the daughter's death supposed to be the reason Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon when he came home?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I've posted to the Regia list. Their parameters are indeed later, but as with many re-enactment societies, the members tend to have earlier and later interests and I know there is a strong interest in the group concerning the earlier Anglo Saxons.

Magpie said...

bI'm not sure what spin Homer puts on it, I don't know his writings that well, but Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon is also ascribed in part to jealousy over the latter bringing home Cassandra as a concubine. Aeschylus differs to Homer in how she is portrayed. She in turn is killed by her son Orestes, in revenge for Agamemnon's death.
I'm sure they were a quiet family and the neighbours were all shocked.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Clytemnestra may have argued about Iphigenia and Cassandra, but she had an affair with Aigisthos which didn't really help her credibility. :)

Yep, Orestes kills his mom whereof he is possessed by the Erynnies, som nasty, screaming revenge godlet-esses, and runs around half mad, accompanied by his friend - and I suspect, lover - Pylades. In the end they find Iphigenia as priestess in some non-Hellenic place and free her. Orestes is healed and Iphigenia marries Pylades and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except Odysseus. :)

Carla said...

Elizabeth - cheers, and I'll be interested in their views.

Hazel-rah - "I'm sure they were a quiet family and the neighbours were all shocked." Yes, absolutely, and gave interviews to the TV crews saying how you'd never have thought it of them :-) There seem to be several variants of the story with different motivations, but almost nobody comes out of it very well. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra remind me of Churchill's quote, "it was most provident that they married each other, thereby making two people miserable and not four". Orestes seems to me to have got an undeservedly short straw.

Gabriele - Did Iphigenia survive after all? Poor Orestes - he's caught in a loyalty conflict with no way out. I had an idea that Athena sorted out some of the mess by inventing trial by law (cannot remember the details, but I think the idea was that some external jury would decide on Orestes' sentence). Are the Erynnies related to the Furies?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Yes, Iphigenia got spirited away to the Crimean by Artemis where she serves as priestess, supposed to sacrify Greek captives. She manages to wiggle out of the job for ten years, but then the King, one Thoas, insists she finally sacrifies the new guys caught that morning. Of course, it's Orestes and Pylades, still running away from those furies.

You want to know how it ends? :)

highlyeccentric said...

Just a quick note to let you know that i linked to this post in the latest carnivalesque:

Carla said...

Gabriele - Sure, why not?

Highly Eccentric - Hello and welcome, and I'm honoured to be included in the carnival.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hehe, I guessed you would. :)

In the Euripies version, Iphigenie snatches the statue of Artemis and escapes with the two men. There had been a prophecy that Orestes would be healed if the statue came back to Greece. Thoas can only shout curses after the disappearing ship.

In the 18th century version by the German writer Goethe, Iphigenie talks Thoas into letting them go.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. I've read a little about the Lindow Man. There is so much we don't know about the period and it will be interesting to see what else the experts discover.

Magpie said...

Everyone, your knowledge of Iphigenia and co. is amazing. All I could remember was that some of Homer's lads were trying to get the wind to blow the right way.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Thanks! I vote for Euripies' version :-)

Georgie Lee - Lindow Man is one of the bog bodies Elizabeth referred to in the first comment. I may put together a post on them, as they provide evidence for the sort of rite(s) that might have been employed.

Hazel-rah - I'm very fortunate that clever and erudite people come here to comment :-) If you'd like to know more about Troy and its aftermath, you might like to try the 1998 BBC radio dramatisation "Troy", which by great good fortune happens to be being repeated on BBC Radio 7 right now. It covers much more than Homer, so I presume it draws on the other Greek writers who told stories of the Trojan War. It's three 90-minute plays, and is broadcast on successive Sundays at 10 am (repeated 8 pm the same day), or each programme is available over the net for seven days after broadcast via Listen Again. Scroll down the page to "T" and you'll see it. It's very straight and well acted, no gimmicks. (A few weeks ago they had a comedy spoof, Operation Lightning Pegasus, which is a scream but which has, sadly, expired from the page now).

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hazel, I played Goethe's Iphigenia with the school threatre group, and read the older versions just for fun. It also helped to give the character a bit more bite - in Goethe's play everyone is so damn nice. But I could use the underlying current from Euripides and make her more defiant in tone, if not in words.

Magpie said...

Ah.. no wonder Iphigenia has such resonances for you, Gabriele.
I noticed on your profile that The 13th Warrior is one of your favourite films....

Carla said...

Gabriele - wow, that's impressive! I remember reading Nigel Tranter's Macbeth the King when we did Macbeth at school, but I think that was coincidence more than research :-)

Hazel-rah - I shall have to look out for The 13th Warrior and give it a try.