There is new evidence to suggest that the early Celts of Ireland were not beyond a human sacrifice. Rob Buchanan recreates the scene.
5,500 years ago, Rathcroghan, Roscommon. We are standing on an immense ceremonial mound, beneath a star crowded night sky. This earthen structure is an open-air temple, studded with blood-painted altars and carved wooden platforms. An avenue of torches, their flames flickering noisily in the wind, form a pathway toward the hilltop where an eerie light glows amid the sounds of chanting under the yellow full moon. We climb to reach a circle of standing stones surrounding a huge stone altar before an immense bonfire.
We join the crowd of local farmers and tradesmen, shaking with awe and fear, wide eyes focused on the menacing flames and the intimidating hooded figures taking their positions at the altar. They are Druids in fabulously embroidered cloaks, they encircle the central sanctuary. The bonfire seems to surge like a beast awakening to their presence. The night air reeks of burning flesh and the howls and blood of sacrificial animals.
The Druid’s dark hoods fringe their long-bearded faces whilst they chant hypnotically. From the darkness shaven-headed acolytes appear, armed with spears and ceremonial scythes, their faces and naked bodies painted with white chalk to mimic skeletons. They begin to chant and dance and the firelight itself dances across their ecstatic faces and illuminates the sweaty tense grimaces of our congregation. There is a very tangible sense that within this sacred circle the veil between normal life and the ethereal Otherworld is lifted.
This land and sky are charged with supernatural power, forces that were already old when the first feral stone age farmers stumbled across the landbridge. Rathcroghan is the seat of the Kingdom of Connacht. A noble dynasty of warrior-poets, pagan-priests, artisans and farmers. A magical cavern nearby called Òennagcat, (the cave of cats) is an important gateway to the Underworld. It is also the legendary birthplace of the magnificent warrior Queen Medb.
Suddenly the chanting stops. Then the tense atmosphere is pierced by the long mournful call of a ram’s horn bugle. Now the slow mesmerising drumming of animal skins penetrates the crowd like a unifying heartbeat. To the ordinary people, who may have travelled for days to witness this rite, this night would be the culmination of days of feasting, family reunions, and catching up with local news. It was also a great opportunity to trade, including match-making and sports.
Now hoping for blessings and protection the crowd put on their disguises. They mimic wild animals, monsters and the dead, to chase away danger and sickness and increase the land’s fertility. Adorned with horned animal skulls and pelts, faces and bare chests painted with protective symbols, this pantomime army of demons make for a fearsome sight beneath the milky moonlight. This night, which corresponds to the 31st of October, is the Celtic New Year festival of Samhain. Thousands of years later we call this mysterious magical day Halloween!
The dark and powerful denizens of the Otherworld will not be satisfied with the sacrifices of animals and wooden idols. They demand that most worthy and potent gift, a human life. The more handsome, beautiful or otherwise exceptional specimen the better. Another eerie note blows from the horn. The crowd mumbles and parts to make way for two burly warriors wearing bull skulls, wielding impressive iron-tipped spears. Between them, they escort two young people in white hooded cloaks. The masses bow their heads as the two pale figures are led up the wooden steps to the spiral carved stone altar.
The head Druid, raises his arms to the sky, golden scythe glinting in one hand, wooden cup in the other. A chilling hush falls upon the audience. Slow drumming seems to possess the two youths as they are led by the acolytes before the altar. With a gasp from the crowd, their hoods are lowered to show a boy and girl of approximately twelve years old. Although they shiver in the incense-impregnated night air, their blank intoxicated faces show no signs of fear. The chief druid, arms still aloft, walks out from behind the altar. The children kneel before him, their fair heads bowed as if in prayer. Two horse skull masked druids break formation from the circle as the beat of the drumming speeds up. The masked druids pull ornate daggers from their robes, the sharpened blades flash in the firelight. In the blink of an eye, the chief drops his arms to his side. The drumming stops. In a smooth fluid motion, the armed druids pull back the children’s heads by their hair and their weapons do their fatal work.
The dark sacrifice is over. The collective guts of the crowd relax and cheer. As the blood is collected and smeared on the druids’ faces and the altar, everyone is ecstatic that their farms will be fertile and their households prosperous and their dead loved ones in the Otherworld are appeased for another year. Before we sneak off in our time machine take a moment to look at the two crimson-stained bodies being flung gently into the bonfires jaws. It is chilling to think the DNA in this spilt blood which seeps from the sacrificed and drips from the ceremonial knife is that same blood which runs through our modern Irish veins.
Let’s be grateful now we only have sweets, fireworks, plastic masks and bonfires to worry about at Halloween….
Rob Buchanan was one of the winners of 2015 Poetry Ireland Introductions series. His debut poetry collection “The Cost of Living” sold out. He has won national and international awards for his writing, and has been published in a number of poetry journals and magazines including The Stinging Fly, Flare, Live Encounters and Pendemic. Rob was a winner of the Young Ireland Award in Glasgow for his lectures on the Dangers of Democracy. He has written popular current affairs columns for, and been published, in DublinLive, The Outmost, Eile, An Phoblacht , Rukkle, Headspace and The Journal. Rob lives in Dublin and is working on his first novel and a Dublin history anthology.