Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice

Stephanie Schoppert - June 28, 2017

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
The Wicker Man Sacrifice. wikimedia.org

The Celts

There is a substantial amount of debate over whether or not the Celts practiced human sacrifice. Most of the historical sources about whether or not the Celts practiced human sacrifice came from Greek and Roman historians. These historians had every reason to misrepresent the practices of the Celts in order to turn people against them and portray them as a barbaric culture. One of the most intriguing accounts given about the Celts came from the Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo.

Strabo related that the Celts would strike a man who was picked for sacrifice in the back with a sword. The druids would then watch the death-spasms of the man and make predictions. The Druids were required to be present for any sacrifice as it was supposed to be a spiritual event. This type of account was collaborated with Roman and Irish histories.

Another more spectacular account given about the type of sacrifices performed by the Celts included a story about the Wicker Man. In the account, the Celts would create a huge figure that was made out of straw and wood. They would then throw any number of animals and men onto the structure and set it on fire. It was claimed that the men would be trapped within the structure and be unable to escape as they were burned alive. The Greek is account is the only one that accounts this use of the Wicker Man.

Historians did not put much credence to these accounts, at least not until the discovery of a male body in Lindow bog. The man was found to have been strangled, hit on the head and had his throat cut in “very quick order.” The man was then surrendered to the bog. The discovery of the body has been among the first evidence suggesting the accounts by the Greeks may have had some truth to them.

Centuries of Death: 5 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice
Cornelia an unchaste vestal virgin left to starve to death in a sealed tomb ancient-origins.net


The Romans had strict beliefs against the practice of human sacrifice. It was seen as the practice of uncivilized people and that many of their rituals derived from past rituals that may have once involved human sacrifices. This included the ritual of the Argei in which straw figures were thrown into the Tiber river, it was suggested this may have once involved living people. The Romans would then use propaganda of human sacrifice to justify barbaric practices against their enemies. This included their propaganda against the Celts which led to them brutally killing captured Celts.

Despite their feelings against human sacrifice, the Romans were guilty of human sacrifice as well. However, the Romans did not view their human sacrifices as being the same because it was only part of very specific rituals. If a Vestal Virgin was found to be unchaste she would be buried alive. A special chamber was built to seal away any unchaste Vestal Virgin until she starved. The sacrifice was seen as a necessary means to please the Gods for the infraction of the Vestal Virgin.

The chosen method of sacrifice for the Vestal Virgin was in order to preserve the body even in punishment. It was believed that the chasteness of the Vestal Virgins was necessary in order to protect the city. But it was not just the Vestal Virgins that could be subjected to human sacrifice. Hermaphroditic children were also sacrificed by drowning. The sacrifice of children largely came from the belief that they were evil or damaged.

There were also some accounts of sacrifice of enemies or captured peoples. The Celts for example were reported to have died brutally with their hands and feet severed and then left to bleed to death. Captured enemy leaders would be kept until a Roman victory at which point they would be killed. The Romans did not see this as a form of human sacrifice nor were gladiatorial fights considered to be sacrifices. By refusing to acknowledge these as human sacrifices the Romans were able to keep distancing themselves from their “uncivilized” enemies.