King Killers of Ancient Ireland
Updated: Apr 26
Most stories of human sacrifice come to us, not from the ancient Irish or Celts themselves, but from those who claim to have observed them, most notably the Greeks, the Romans and later, the Christians.
These cultures had long since put aside their own human sacrifice practices by the time they came into contact with early Celtic peoples. There can be no doubt that tales of barbaric Celtic savages running into battle against well-disciplined Roman legions, screaming under the influence of battle frenzy, naked but for body paint, and the violent, cruel deaths they inflicted on their Roman captives as they offered them up to their heathen Gods, served many purposes.
Knowing human nature, it can be assumed that much of what was written by invaders and conquerors fuelled an insatiable demand back home for titillation and political propaganda. Caesar described how giant wicker effigies were filled with human victims, usually but not always criminals, and then burned alive. Cassius described how Boudica impaled her Roman captives. Strabo talked of druids stabbing their victims and then forming prophecies based on the victim’s death throes.
Perhaps the most intriguing form of sacrifice is that of the Triple, or Threefold Death. This generally involved the victim being put to death simultaneously by three different methods, ie hanging, drowning and wounding. This method was not exclusive to Ireland, but has been found in various pre-historic and medieval cultures.
In Welsh legend, Myrddin (often associated with Merlin of King Arthur fame) predicted his own threefold death by falling, stabbing and drowning. This is exactly what happened, when he was driven off a cliff by a gang of murderous shepherds (?), fell onto a stake left behind by a fisherman, and died with his head under water.
Not so much a sacrifice as a tragic accident.
In Ireland, the threefold death of Aedh Dubh, a King (c. 588 AD) of Dál nAraidi (Ulster) was foretold by St Columba. Aedh had killed Diarmuid mac Cerbaill, and then took the priesthood but was ordained out of the church.
I must say at this point that I’m not entirely sure what this means; did he receive his ordination in an oak grove instead of inside a church? Or was it someone other than a priest who carried out the ceremony? However he obtained his priesthood, it clearly wasn’t by a recognised and accepted means.
For these sins, St Columba predicted Aedh would die from a spear to the neck, fall from wood into water, and be drowned. He was in fact killed on a boat, possibly on Lough Neagh, and subsequently fell, or was pushed, into the lake.
Whether this death was staged in order to fit the prophecy, or merely coincidental, cannot now be known. However, it has all the hallmarks of a murder or death sentence, not a sacrifice.
Chillingly, the discovery of various so called ‘bog bodies’ seem to corroborate these stories of the threefold death. Here in Ireland, the National Museum in Dublin is host to a fantastic exhibition entitled Kingship and Sacrifice where many of these bog bodies are displayed.
These men are said to be ancient Kings of Ireland sacrificed to the Gods by their clans when times were hard; perhaps crops failed, or there was war, or disease, and the King was blamed for not bringing prosperity to his people.
The bodies are remarkably well preserved. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to look into the face of a man who lived four thousand years ago… every detail is intact. You get the eery feeling they are sleeping, and could just open their eyes…
That these men were nobles cannot be denied; they are well fed and healthy, well dressed, their hands are manicured, they even dress their hair with ancient hair gel. Items of great wealth have been found in the bogs with them, but whether they are belongings, votive offerings or grave goods can only be guessed.
Another more gruesome feature they all shared in common, was the evidence of multiple, violent injuries. Such ‘overkill’ must signify ritual killing, claim the experts. I’m no expert, but in Ireland of that time it does not seem unlikely to me that their horrific injuries could have been sustained in warfare.
Irish mythology and early history would confirm how warlike these tribes were, and describe the horrific injuries warriors sustained. King Nuada lost his whole sword arm from the shoulder, but survived. Cuchulain received a mortal wound which spilled his entrails, which some versions of the story claim he used to tie himself to a standing stone, so he could die on his feet like a proper warrior.
Perhaps these wealthy men were waylaid by bandits, robbed, murdered and their bodies tossed into the bog to hide the crime. Perhaps the terrible wounds are the result of torture, carried out by enemies. Sacrifice is not the only possible reason.
Even the experts are divided in their opinions, but when all is said and done, stories of human sacrifice and ritual king killing are certainly much more media worthy and attractive in terms of fund raising.
It’s a sad fact that the public is more likely to be persuaded to visit the exhibition to see a man gruesomely and ritually sacrificed, than some brave man who gave his life in battle.
The Gundestrop Cauldron. (Hover curser for attribution.)
The same museum also houses a replica of the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, a silver vessel found in a bog in Denmark. It is made up of many decorative plates, both internally and externally, and so is unlikely to have been intended for common use.
Gundestrup cauldron. Scene depicting man being dunked head first into a pot by a giant, or is it a God? (Hover curser to see attribution)
One of the plates features an image of a man being dunked by a giant head first into a pot. This scene has been generally accepted as a human sacrifice by ritual drowning.
To be quite honest, I find this rather odd; the cauldron in the past was seen as a vessel of birth and regeneration, a symbol of the life-giving female womb. The legend of the Dagda’s Cauldron is a perfect example of this; from it, all were said to go satisfied, even the dead could be rejuvenated in it, and he was its male guardian.
Perhaps, then, this image on the Gundestrup Cauldron portrays not a ritual drowning, not a human sacrifice, but a symbolic re-birth, a kind of baptism even.
Our modern sensibilities lead us to abhor any kind of killing, and rightly so. But ancient peoples lived closer to the land, to birth and death and all the messiness that goes in between, than we do now. The survival of the community far outweighed the value of the individual. Perhaps for them, the sacrifice of one for the good of many was worth the cost.
But in a society which depended on each individual to fulfil their role in the community in order to ensure survival, which revered fertility of mankind and the land, and respected life, it doesn’t seem likely that they would be so willing to permit human sacrifice. Would they really have been willing to kill the very man sanctioned by the Goddess of Sovereignty to rule? Perhaps, if they felt he had offended Her.
The evidence we dig up out of the earth today is as open to interpretation as the legacy of the myths and stories our ancestors left behind.
This post was published way back in the beginning of my blogging journey on Feb 13th 2014. Not many people read it. I have updated it a little since then.
Comments on “King Killers of Ancient Ireland”
Sacha Black May 21, 2016 Interesting and rather gruesome. Reminds me of the cauldron in Conor Kelly. Me thinks there are some influences at play 😀 Ali Isaac May 23, 2016 Really??? What gives you that idea? Lol! 😂 Roy McCarthy May 20, 2016 Well worth the re-post Ali. Thankfully humankind has (mostly) evolved to a point where such cruelty is seen as unthinkable. Ali Isaac May 21, 2016 Absolutely, Roy! One way or another, I don’t think I’d have lasted long in those days. I’m so short sighted I’d have been no use to the community, for a start! Lol! And I could never kill an animal even for food, much less another human being. Éilis Niamh May 22, 2016 I’d be right with you in the uselessness category, Ali! I don’t know how long I would have lived, if at all. To be honest that used to bother me, but then I understood there would be nothing to take personally about what that existence or its end would be like… I find myself very grateful to live in this century! And that’s a thought that occurs to me often… 🙂 Ali Isaac May 23, 2016 You and me both Éilis! I share those thoughts. I am so short sighted I can not see my way around the house without my glasses. I definitely couldn’t drive. If I lived in ancient times, I would have been a burden. I think I would have to do something to make myself valuable to my community to ensure my survival, maybe like becoming a healer, or storyteller. But our lack of sight is a physical thing. Who’s to say our bodies from previous existences had the same inadequacies? Maybe they didn’t. Éilis Niamh May 23, 2016 I agree, it’s more likely that they didn’t. In my case, for instance, I probably wouldn’t have encountered the person who caused me to go blind in a different time period. I suppose the good news is that being a druid, or (stereotypically) harp player would have been valued professions for someone with vision challenges of any kind. I’ve read a few stories in which a person was born blind and wasn’t left in the wilderness as a result. And I once read a quote (will look up from whom) which says “The only useless man is a dead one.” Though given my own experiences I’d have to question that claim as well. (I’ve been corrected on the point often, incorporeal people are very much alive, just in quite a different way and circumstance.) 🙂 So Anyway I’ve gone on a tangent. It’s been wonderful for me to not have to keep comparing myself and abilities against people whose abilities made them excellently fit to survive and always come up wanting. It used to plague me, even as a child. True, our ancestors struggled to survive even in good conditions, but because of that I feel that there might actually have been a bit more of an acceptance in most cases (presumably kings were in exception) about impairments of any kind, it was so easy to acquire them that it was more possible to distinguish the physical capabilities of a person from the wholeness of their character. Not always done, of course, but now I think that we struggle to draw that distinction far more often in our current day. Although that could just be because this is the time in which I am living and immediately experiencing things. Ali Isaac May 23, 2016 I never thought of it that way. Yes, lots of warriors must have been disabled in battle for example or when out on hunts. If they survived, what would society have done to them? Cast them out? Sacrificed them? Or found them a productive role? The latter, I hope. TanGental May 20, 2016 Its always difficult to apply modern sensibilities to historic practices and then interpret . Love the bog people exhibition though. I’d love to see that. They have recently found a group of heads when excavating the new Cross rail tube line. Always interesting why. I remember Gordon talking about heads and bodies being separated in Dorset and discovered as part of the Olympic works in 2010. Love this sort of stuff. Ali Isaac May 21, 2016 Me too! And London is full of interesting archaeological finds, isn’t it? Hardly surprising, really. Did they find the bodies nearby, or just the heads? Sounds like a mass execution. TanGental May 21, 2016 Just heads. Yes mass execution. I await aging Helen Jones May 20, 2016 I’ve seen the bog bodies at the British Museum, and they are fascinating, aren’t they? Like you say, looking upon the face of a person who lived thousands of years ago is quite powerful, especially the way their eyes are closed as though sleeping. And that’s another interesting thing – if their deaths had come by surprise, would their eyes have been closed? It’s hard to imagine killing a person to appease nature or the gods, but it was a different time, when people thought differently. Another example would be the sacrifice of first born children – it makes me ill to even think of it, yet archaeological evidence confirms that it did, in fact, happen. I cannot imagine the mindset behind that. Ali Isaac May 21, 2016 No, me neither. Its hard to get your head around. The thing about the closed eyes, that’s an interesting thought, Helen. D. Wallace Peach May 20, 2016 I don’t know if there is a culture on the planet that doesn’t kill, and even today humans certainly find unpleasant ways to do it to thousands of people, including children. It’s always interesting to me that certain methods of killing are “acceptable” and certain methods are considered barbaric. Interesting post, Ali. hoodedman1 May 19, 2016 Sacrifice plays a part in many Irish legends, and in British folklore too, and certainly there are burials dating back to the neolithic and bronze ages that could well be considered suspect. They fall outside of normal burial customs of the day. Although probably all these men were not sacrifices, there is a good chance some of them were–the fact that so many burials bearing pretty much the same features appear all over northwestern Europe implies a ritualistic aspect to the death. Even if the killing was done for a perceived crime, and not purely for ‘pleasing the gods,’ the way it is carried out (garroting, throat slitting, head injury) has a ritualistic overtone in its overkill and repetitive method. The times were not fluffy bunny, and the warriors of the Atlantic facade were not particularly peaceful peoples. As you probably know they also venerated the human skull and took the heads of their enemies. Ali Isaac May 19, 2016 You are absolutely right, we must not impose our modern values on the peoples of the past. Their lives were far harsher than ours, we live an easy and comfortable life in comparison. The stories show quite clearly that they were not averse to killing. But I do not believe that every gruesome death is related to ritual. Its too easy to dig something out of the ground that can’t be understood and claim it as ritualistic. I have written about the heads on this blog, and also about their war like ways. Garroting would be unusual, throat slitting and head injury not so much. In the frenzy of battle, many bodies would bear more than just one injury which may have led to their death. I dont believe there are many stories of sacrifice in Irish legends, although there are lots of deaths and killings. Tara Sparling May 19, 2016 I was gobsmacked by that exhibition too, Ali, those bog bodies are startling. And I just love it when you question the prevailing theories on this stuff. It would have made you either a goddess or a witch back in the day… Ali Isaac May 19, 2016 They did it very well, I have to say. Oh and I’m pretty sure I would have been a witch, on account of my overwhelming fear of fire and water. Well, burning and drowning, actually. I’m fine in front of the stove, or in the shower. rachelcarrera May 19, 2016 I love all the symbolism in Irish mythology, as well as they way you interpret them. 🙂 Hugh's Views and News May 19, 2016 Thank goodness you bought this post back from the archives. Okay, it’s gruesome in places, but it’s also fascinating. Murderous shepherds? Yep, I can well believe it, especially as those sheep were their living. I like the brief connection with Wales as well. Éilis Niamh May 17, 2016 Brilliant post, Ali. I share your skepticism and love your conjectures. I love your idea of the man being dunked head first into water actually symbolizing rebirth. I actually started formulating that same thought myself and then that’s exactly where you went with it. 🙂 And it is true, but terribly sad, what you say about the public being more likely to be interested in the bog bodies if they think the people were sacrificed rather than killed in battle. We will probably never know how they died, or how they got into the bog in the first place. I do know some people were thrown into bogs after they died as a way to keep the living safe from curious predators. People were also killed while crossing bogs, pretty unfortunate way to go. Unfortunately humans have been violent as a species practically everywhere. But it is far more rare to find groups of humans who actually practiced gruesome sacrificial rituals. I’m always struck when reading the Roman accounts of our ancestors how some of the descriptions have striking resemblance to the Romans’ own practices when waging war to expand their empire. Romans had no qualms about impaling people, for instance, and it seems no problem going about discrediting anyone they wanted to conquer. There’s far less motivation or even gain in fighting people who are described in a way that shows how alike they are to your friends and family. Even now, it seems, we like to imagine cultures unknown to ours–ancient or otherwise, sadly) as alien and other, not seeing the common humanity in everyone. It’s still going on which always baffles me given how many thousands of years have passed between then and now. Jean Reinhardt May 17, 2016 Another fabulous lesson in mythology, Ali. I like what you said about a king being killed because he didn’t do his job for the people – do you think we’d have so many politicians today if the same rule applied? 😉 Éilis Niamh May 17, 2016 Donald Trump would have long been gone out of the running in that case. Jean Reinhardt May 18, 2016 Lol! macjam47 May 17, 2016 Fascinating stuff here, Ali. Robin Shepperd May 16, 2016 Once again, you have challenged the accepted “reality” with your curious mind. I just love your posts and I love the way your mind works! Human sacrifice of these men is something I had just assumed. No longer. I hope that you will publish a book on these short essays you write one day. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 Thanks Robin! I can let my mind meander on my blog, but to put it in a book is another matter. Its just my thoughts, not fact. the dune mouse May 16, 2016 fascinating! I saw a documentary on this killing of kings or chiefs in Ireland. It was very interesting and I have seen the bog bodies in the National Museum. I like the comment about the time machine- we could be wrong on so many of our speculations. However, anything is possible as in some old myths even the gods were sacrificed although of course they would be reborn etc. Al Lane May 16, 2016 Fascinating post. Thank you for (re) sharing 🙂 Ali Isaac May 26, 2016 Cheers Al, glad you enjoyed it! Rajagopal May 16, 2016 The depictions on Gundestrup Cauldron are as fascinating as stories of violence that existed in olden times. Prima facie, it would appear that primitive societies were more violent than their counterparts in the present. Probably they were both more violent and crude, and the only evolution apparently taking place is in the sophistication in violent practices as it exist today. Were the bygone cultures more intelligent? Probably they were, as an objective evaluation of the magnificence, artistry and durability of ancient structures and monuments would attest to. The more we journey backwards, Ali, the greater the realisation of humanity repeating mistakes of the past, narrowing in outlook and intensifying in greed and covetousness. Ali Isaac May 26, 2016 Absolutely, Raj, I agree with that statement. But how can that be? We have so much knowledge and experience to guide us, more than ever before. We are still violent, but maybe sophisticated and violent.Maybe its arrogance. Whatever it is, its not a good combination. Rajagopal May 16, 2016 The depictions on Gundestrup Cauldron are as fascinating as stories of violence that existed in ancient societies. Prima facie, it would appear that ancientbsociet Cathy May 16, 2016 Fascinating post, Ali. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 Thanks Cathy! 😚 janmalique May 16, 2016 Loved the post, a topic which still raises questions and controversies. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 Thanks Janmalique. I think you’re right. A lot of people weren’t happy when these bodies went on display. It does seem disrespectful until you go there. Why do we pay so much attention to the mortal remains left behind? Those men don’t need them anymore. Here they are, immortalised in a way and remembered thousands of years later. I doubt they’d care too much. As for human sacrifice, to me there’s not enough evidence to back that claim. Archaeology raises far more questions than it answers. Its human beings were dealing with here, not artifacts. janmalique May 16, 2016 If time travel was available to us we might end up getting a shock. Where the distance past is concerned we are viewing the people and culture through the lens of modern sensibilities. This is especially apparent where spiritual practices are concerned. Of course material evidence can help shed light on many areas, but it can raise more questions as you say. Regarding mortal remains, deep in my heart I think the dead should not be disinterred. If they are, their remains should be treated with respect. Many people place great importance on the physical body as being a true reflection of who the person is. Others consider it as a vessel for the consciousness to indwell. Which ever viewpoint one subscribes to, it can be an emotive issue. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 You are right of course. And my first instinct was, ‘just leave them alone’. But the ancient Irish believed in reincarnation. The body was given back to the earth whether cremated, or buried, whatever means. In these cases the bodies were not absorbed by the earth, but preserved. We can, and have learned so much from them. No doubt many people just go to gawk at a sacrificial victim, and that’s all they see. But I looked into the face of a man. I made a connection with a real person from the far distant past, the era that I study and read the legends about. It was incredible. I wanted to touch his hand, me who can’t go near the casket at a funeral! The whole display is sensitive and respectfully done. I am grateful I had the chance to ‘meet’ these men. And I hope they knew I paid my respects for whatever it was they endured. It was remarkable, and I’ll never forget it. So yes, definitely emotive, but not in the way one might expect. Of course we are assuming that these were good and honourable men. But what if they weren’t? Their harsh deaths may have been punishment for serious crimes. The Brehon Laws tell us that most punishments involved compensation, but the family of someone wrongfully killed were entitled to go after the murderer. Honour was often appeased by revenge, as the old stories tell us. The possible reasons for these deaths are endless, the more one thinks about it! Sorry for the essays!!! 😁 janmalique May 16, 2016 No need to apologise Ali, your passion certainly shows through for a fascinating subject. The stories hold within themselves a power and magic. The storyteller held and still holds an important place within society, the keeper of the tribe’s records. coldhandboyack May 16, 2016 I like the way you think. Politics and agendas play too large a role in actual studies. They want us to believe that global warming killed off Neanderthal. That smacks of an agenda. Then all hunting was bad, and ancient humans killed off all the mammoths. Try poking an African elephant with a pointy stick and see what happens. I don’t doubt that they hunted mammoths, but hunted into extinction? No. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 Absolutely right! We are told what to think because it suits the authorities at the time. Any deviation and people are branded weirdos. Mammoths were hunted for sure, but one would have fed a tribe for yonks. It must have been a huge ordeal, not undertaken lightly, and probably resulted in a few deaths each time. Numbers of people were not prolific… hunted to extinction Hehe! Politics and agendas have always played a huge part in storytelling and keeping history… genealogies rewritten to connect a leader to an illustrious king from the past, thus proving his right to rule, a poet inventing sagas showing his benefactor in a heroic light in order to please him and ensure his own survival. Whole histories erwritten by the victor. Its certainly no different now. We think we are enlightened but we only know what we are allowed to know. We personally have no way of proving the world is round, eg, we just have to accept it’s true. But its always good to question things and think for ourselves. 😁 Colin Noel-Johnson May 16, 2016 Wow, what an eye opening post, thank you, I learned a lot from it. Ali Isaac May 16, 2016 Thank you so much! That comment has made my day! I think sometimes we all get a feeling about something which doesn’t ring true. This was one for me. Just throwing the questions out there. 😁 Always good to question what we are told, the obvious answers aren’t always the right ones.