Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Dying for Deities Volume 55 Number 4, July/August 2002
by Ronald Hicks

[image] Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls built enormous wicker figures that were filled with living men and set alight to appease the gods. (© Canal+ Image, UKLtd.: by permission of Thames & Hudson) [LARGER IMAGE]

The skeleton of a young woman is found in a grave in Ireland, her hands against her sides and her head tucked down. Forensic experts agree that the most likely explanation for her strange posture is that she was buried alive. In a peat bog at Lindow Moss in England, a body of a young man is found, his skull fractured by blows, his air cut off by garroting and slitting his throat, his face pushed down into the marsh. These and other examples of human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe are examined by prolific Celtic studies scholar Miranda Aldhouse Green in her latest book, Dying for the Gods (Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2001; $37.50).

Green points out that accomplishing the goals of sacrifice--acquiring benefits or averting harm--required making sure that the nature of the sacrifice was suitable. There is archaeological and literary evidence that those who performed the sacrifices were professional clergy with special training, clothing, and equipment. Human sacrifice appears to have been rare, carried out only at times of high societal stress, its victims often war captives, slaves, criminals, children, or even volunteers.

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Some of the best archaeological evidence for the nature of sacrifice has come from the "bog-bodies" preserved in peat. Green concludes that because some victims were subjected to excessive force, violence possessed a symbolic function apart from the need to overpower and destroy a victim. It might have proved enlightening if the author had gone on here to discuss sacrifice in terms of earth (blows with weapons), air (suffocations), and water (drowning), since there is evidence that this division of the natural world played a role in prehistoric European religion. Green has clearly done her homework, providing us with both passages from classical literature and an abundance of archaeological evidence for apparent sacrificial activity. If the book has a fault, it is perhaps in being too thorough. The same evidence is sometimes described repeatedly as different aspects of sacrifice are discussed, while virtually identical statements are made even in successive paragraphs on the same page. Nonetheless, for anyone interested in the nature of pre-Christian religion in Europe, this is a book worth reading.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America