Tag Archives: human sacrifice

Druidry and Sacrifice

While I wasn’t raised Christian, I went to a Church of England primary school and it was there that the concept of self-sacrifice entered my consciousness. I took onboard that it was a good thing, and that we should be willing to help others even when that’s painful or difficult. I wondered, sometimes, how a person could tell when they qualified as the ‘others’ who needed helping. I did not find an answer.

I feel confident that for our Celtic ancestors, sacrifice was not self-sacrifice. It was other people, and creatures. There might have been an element of giving things up when people threw swords and bling into bodies of water, but there’s also status to be derived from ostentatiously giving things up, so I’m not sure.

When it comes to modern Druidry, we’re clearly not going to be sacrificing what is other than ourselves. As an animist, I find offerings difficult because they remain their own thing, and not you. A picked flower is not your sacrifice, it’s just a less bloody way of sacrificing something else. So we may talk instead about sacrifices of time, energy and the like. And always, there’s that question of when you get to say that perhaps making the sacrifice shouldn’t be on you. What looks like a small sacrifice to a well resourced person who lives in comfort is a much bigger deal if you don’t have those privileges.

In the past, I have made all kinds of sacrifices to Druidy. As a younger person, I repeatedly sacrificed both my bodily and mental health through my volunteering. Because sacrifice is what you do when you’re serious about your path. I can’t say it led me to any kind of spiritual experiences and it didn’t make me a better person. If sacrifice is supposed to be utterly selfless, then there’s a case for saying that regular burnout and trashing my health is good Druidry. But no matter what I did, it never really felt sacred to hurt myself like that. It just hurt.

Except I’m entirely sure it was a terrible way to carry on, and that a culture that encourages this is an awful idea. I do not, at this point in my life, believe that this kind of sacrifice is a good idea at all. I think we’re much better off looking at sacrifice in terms of rebalancing. If you have a lot, and more than you need, sacrifice. Give away. Share. Offer up. You can afford it. If you’re struggling, ill, under too much pressure, I don’t think it should be your job to make sacrifices, or for that matter to become some kind of living human sacrifice.

There was no one to tell child-me when you get to say ‘I am the one who needs helping’. We need to do this for each other. We need to avoid competing for the best excuses not to give, and we need to avoid putting pressure on people who need taking care of. We need to recognise that what we give comes at different costs, depending on circumstances. We need to keep an eye on our own privilege in terms of where we let ourselves off the hook, and what we expect of others.

Human Sacrifice

This is a highly speculative blog post, I’m not claiming any of this is ‘right’ but it may be a productive way of reimagining a more uncomfortable aspect of human history.

I’ve been watching ‘Planet Earth’ recently – as a box set arrived over the festive period. I’ve seen great herds of wildebeest crossing rivers and being eaten by crocodiles. I’ve seen vast flocks of bats, and the snakes who wait at the mouths of their caves. Seals being eaten by sharks. Pretty much every creature that gathers in large groups to travel or feed, seems to get these predators. The large numbers improve the odds of survival for any given individual, but also attract the hunters.

We are a soft and squishy species. Our hides, teeth and claws really aren’t up to much. Tool use, developing into weapons of both hunting and defence, have changed the game for us considerably. Once upon a time, we must have been wandering ready-meals. No doubt we faced all the same issues as the wildebeest and seals. We’re also smart, we have a knack for thinking about cause and effect, a habit of seeing patterns, that will show us patterns where none exist sometimes.

Imagine if the wildebeest figured out that by deliberately giving someone to the crocodiles, the majority would pass safely. Nature takes its tolls and tithes, and more often than not, these are fairly predictable in terms of timing and location. Whether they wanted to or not, our human ancestors were losing people to the wilderness. Storms and floods kill, so do famines. It’s not a great leap of logic to go from pacifying the crocodiles in a very literal way, to trying the same trick with the sea.

Oddly enough, I suspect giving human sacrifices to other dangerous things may have worked to a degree for wholly pragmatic reasons. Every time you do it, you pass on a degree of knowledge that you are dealing with something dangerous here, something that will have its tribute in blood. Every time you do that deliberately, you remind everyone else not to get complacent about the river, even if it hasn’t killed anyone in ages. You enact the dangerousness, you reinforce the need for respect. You quite possibly do reduce the chances of other people dying there.

The world was a much more dangerous place for our ancient ancestors. It strikes me as possible that the practise of human sacrifice would have started out as a much more pragmatic activity, much more immediately connected to life as experienced. It’s only later, when you get away from the immediate needs and start to build institutions around the process, that you might develop something innately sinister. As a species we don’t really know when to stop. We find something that works, and default to the assumption that scaling it up, doing it more often and in a more organised way will be even better. We have an innate assumption that more is better.

In just the same way we’ve gone from useful bartering tokens to money systems that people kill for, and that bring about numerous deaths around the globe every year. We needlessly kill and maim vast numbers of people on the roads each year, for the sake of going further and faster. We are still practicing human sacrifice on a large scale. We’ve just labelled it differently so that we can uphold our illusion of being more civilised now.

Human Sacrifices

Dear George Osborn,

I heard you talking yesterday, in your Autumn Statement as Chancellor of the Exchequer. You mentioned the ‘sacrifices’ of the British people. I’d like to take a small, semantic issue with this, but it has considerable implications, so bear with me.

When people ‘make sacrifices’ as a voluntary act of love or devotion, that’s one thing. However, what’s been happening in the UK over the last few years has not been people voluntarily putting themselves through hell for the good of the economy. You did this to us. People have not made sacrifices. People have been sacrificed. I was surprised you were brave enough to even use this word, it was remarkably honest of you, because your government’s policies are killing people, and at this rate are going to kill more people before we’re done.

This report from the 3rd December, in the British Medical Journal, suggests Britain is on the edge of a health crisis caused by malnutrition. http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f7157. There’s every reason to think that malnutrition is in turn caused by poverty (given the rise in foodbanks) but your government has yet to publish its look into the subject. We’ve also got a lot of fuel poverty in the UK, Mr Osborn. Add together a cold winter, and poor diet, and there will be people who die as a direct consequence. Many of them will be elderly.

The Daily Mail has reported that poor people are killing themselves as a direct consequence of government actions and ‘austerity’. There have been a few explicit suicide notes on that topic, from people pushed over the edge. How do you sleep at night, Mr Osborn, knowing that your choices have led people to kill themselves? And then there are the sick, vulnerable and disabled people bullied by ATOS, too many of whom have already died in abject poverty because their benefits were cut. As more than 60% of appeals against ATOS are won, it’s clear we have an unfair, unjust system here. No terminally ill person should die in abject poverty, abandoned by the state.

People are dying, Mr Osborn. Vulnerable, elderly, ill, disabled people with no options are being made more sick with anxiety by your cuts. Do take a moment to read up on the impact of severe stress on the human body, and the impact of malnutrition, and unheated homes. Hospitals are seeing more people with hunger related illness (that’s doubled since 2009, are you proud?) and those freezing through the winter are going to get ill, too. But then, someone in your party (Owen Lister, Tory councillor) recommended guillotining disabled children. Some of us wonder if your aim really is to kill off the vulnerable. Is this malice, or incompetence at work?

There are frequently no jobs available for people who want to work, and yet your government blames the jobless and penalises them with draconian systems. Are you aware, Mr Osborn, that it is entirely possible to cause mental illness in people by putting them continually in impossible situations? I doubt we will ever know how many people have become sick with anxiety and depression as a direct consequence of your policies.

Human sacrifices, Mr Osborn. Human lives brought to an end in the name of the Gods of GDP. We frown on ancient peoples who sacrificed people, and animals to their Gods. I ask, how are you any different? The bodies of badgers, and the rising number of the dead stand as witnesses against the government you contribute to. Stop sacrificing people for the sake of the economy. An economy exists to serve and facilitate the people it belongs to, not the other way round!


Sincerely etc.

No Sacrifice

I don’t do sacrifice. I have no doubt that many of our pagan ancestors, druids included, sacrificed both creatures and humans to the gods. They did so to avoid divine wrath, and to seek good fortune. Sometimes perhaps also for divination. Theirs was a different world to ours. Sacrifice in that sense is about doing something to get what you want. Then along came Christianity and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, a new consciousness in which we don’t kill people to please god (unless it’s a holy war, or they are heretics or pagans…). Sacrifice is of the self in that context. It becomes martyrdom and sainthood. We give our lives for our faith. Ideally in painful and horrible ways.

I’m not interested in killing anything and I’m not interested in martyrdom. I am also absolutely convinced that all historical ‘sacrifice’ (Jesus aside, he may be a special case) was to get something for the self. Be that good luck for a voyage, or the pleasure of knowing yourself to be on the way to sainthood. If we’re calling it sacrifice, we do probably, at some level, expect to get something for it. If we really thought a deity wanted us to do something of no benefit to ourselves, or the world, where the only gain would be that we have suffered for the deity – this is not a God I want anything to do with. To do something, or be asked to do something that is good in some way, should never be thought of as sacrifice, as I see it.

I recall Bobcat saying, or writing that sacrifice should hurt. If we’re doing it for ourselves in some way, it’s not sacrifice. What she also directs people towards, is the sacrifice of ignorance. It is the only one worth doing, and it can hurt. However, we benefit when we do this. Maybe we do give up some of the blind comforts and mindless distractions of modern life, the ease of apathy. What we get is a real life in a real world, where we are able to act, where what we do counts for something. What feels like pain and a hair shirt becomes the best of who we are. That’s not really sacrifice I think, it’s just the cost of learning. If there is a cost/benefit, sacrifice is not the right word.

The burden of sacrifice is also a thing to consider. If we give everything, nobly, self sacrificing for spouse, child, queen and country or whatever we martyr ourselves for, what are we putting on them? How much pressure and expectation does that create? How much requirement to make good, to justify? Don’t do this one lightly.

I’d be delighted if the idea of sacrifice fell out of pagan language altogether. I don’t think it’s helpful. It does more to mislead than to assist us. We do need to let go of our ignorance and all that it allows us to blindly, carelessly do. That’s a process, one to work on every day, and there is no end to it. Let’s not call that a sacrifice, let’s call that learning to be present, happy, fulfilled in the world. Let’s call it entering into conscious relationship with everything. Presenting spirituality as pain, is not going to encourage many people to start living more spiritual lives. Probably the opposite.

More than anything, what we need to do, is learn to love. When actions are born of love, they flow naturally. When we are steeped in honour, keenly alert to justice and compassion, when we are open to loving what we encounter and treating it with care and respect, doing the right things is not monstrously difficult. Often, it becomes a no-brainer. If we think we’re being noble and self sacrificing in what we do, it’s probably a sign that we’re doing what we think we ought to do, not what we feel is right. The more consciously we’re trying to do the right thing, the more it suggests that we’re fighting some inner impulse to go the other way. Now, when a person is steeped in all the dispassionate, consumerist, soulless vices of normal life, that may indeed be a struggle. It may seem that giving up the hours before the telly, the total car dependence, and all other mind eaters and planet killers, is hellish. It may feel like sacrifice. But it isn’t. For as long as we feel like we’re depriving ourselves for our religion, we live in constant risk of lapsing back into old habits of doing and thinking. The answer is not spiritual flagellation, or bigging up the idea of how much we’re doing for the gods. The answer is love.

Love yourself, and you will not want to fill your body with rubbish or your mind with desensitizing, noxious crap. Love your community and you won’t turn a blind eye to what others need, it will become a pleasure to help. Love your planet and it will be natural, and easy to try and take care of it. Love the sky, the plants and birds, the creatures. Love the oceans. Love your children, your grandchildren, love ten generations on as yet unborn and love your ancestors. Love the inevitability of death and the cycles of living. Love the process of aging and the way nature manifests in your body. Love being alive. Do what comes from this.

The truth about wicker men

One of the historical accusations made against the Celts and Druids was that they burned sacrificial victims in giant wicker men. Victims would be live, and both human and animal. The imagery is powerful, and many people reading this will be familiar with iconic images of wicker men and the fact that they don’t look even slightly like they’ve been made out of wicker. Especially not in the film.

I spent a number of years in Redditch involved with building and burning a wicker man for a council run Halloween event. We did everything from harvesting to erecting him. The tallest we ever managed was about 14 feet high, the one year he was bigger, only one bit of him *ahem* stood up. They always were anatomically correct, although you couldn’t tell from a distance.

“Wicker” is basically another way of saying ‘basket’. Now, baskets are quite strong, but once you set fire to them, they spring apart, or can be kicked apart. The structural integrity of a figure made out of wicker does not last long when on fire, and as the raw material to space inside ratio is relevant, there’s not a lot of smoke to contend with. Wicker does burn hot mind. Now, imagine a live animal, in a wicker basket which is on fire. Think about the inevitable struggle to escape. Based on experience, there is no way you could burn a live animal to death in a wicker man. They’d get out.

The human form as sculpture is not stable, it is very hard to make people-shaped things stand up. The taller they are, the stronger the legs and supports have to be. The more propping up you have to do. The taller they are, the harder it is to get them upright and the more likely it is that the strain of lifting will cause the structure to fail. If you put anything in the wicker man before you lift it, the weight makes it very hard to even get a twelve footer to stand. Animals and humans have to go in after the wicker man is up. If you’ve made a solid structure capable of bearing its own weight, this presents an interesting technical challenge. Where are you going to insert them, exactly? Bearing in mind that the animals would be wholly unco-operative every way.

Based on years of experience, the conclusion I have come to is that you could realistically get one person in the body of a wicker man if you left a hole in the stomach and they crawled in once it was up. Total co-operation would be essential. You might at a pinch get a couple of people or creatures in the legs, but they’d have to get in during the lifting and stay put for the lifting, possibly even help with it. That counts the chickens out straight off.

Other options are that everything goes into the wicker man unconscious, but that’s not without challenges, or is dead already, which is probably the easiest solution. But then you aren’t sacrificing them by burning them to death in a wicker man, you’ve instead got an unusual cremation method under way. Or a barbeque. Large numbers are out, because the bigger the structure is, the harder it is to make it stand. I’m not aware of any huge Celtic constructions in terms of height. Some building in stone, but not much.The mechanics around getting tall things to stand up are challenging. The properties of the wicker itself limit the available size of a loaded structure. I can’t tell you what optimally built basketry will take in this context, but I’m pretty certain that its own weight plus multiple people, with the effects of fire in the midst does not lead to something that will work.

I am personally convinced that the only way an individual could be sacrificed in a wicker man is if they went of their own free will, which is a very different sort of arrangement, when you get down to it.

Knowing about the time, creativity and energy that are required to build a wicker man, it is a huge thing to do. Simply burning that much valuable resource, that much effort and time, is a sacrifice, one a whole community would share. That, I can believe might have happened.