Last Human Sacrifice in Europe? August 2, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing has often set a Guinness-Book-of-Records-style competition for the last cavalry charge, the last head hunters or the last execution by blade in the west. And recently an email from the Sword and the Beast got him thinking about the last human sacrifice. SandB who has travelled extensively in eastern parts writes:
‘I take the liberty of suggesting another topic, that may interest you as well: human sacrifice. I know at least on case in the XX century in East Timor (a child was killed to mark the transfer of power in a village), and I was told such a practice still it goes on in remote areas of Bolivia, for instance. Since your blog is, first and foremost, of historical knowledge, I think that a most interesting post would be of the last human sacrifice in Europe (or maybe the UK). I am quite curious about such practices.’
Certainly human sacrifice continues in the east to this very day: an excellent book relating to India, the Raj and the persistence of human sacrifice is The Sacrifice of Human Being by Felix Padel. Sorry for the Indiana Jones picture above, Felix…
In Europe there is a staggered period where traditional human sacrifice was slowly overawed by less sacrificial cultures. The Romans were repulsed by human sacrifice – don’t mention gladiators – and yet there is good evidence that hs continued underground up until the end of the Empire in Gaul and Britain, as indeed it was carried on underground in the Mediterranean world till perhaps the second or third centuries of our era. Beach has previously looked at interesting case from civilized Athens and will soon turn to some curious Roman exceptions.
The last traditional human sacrifice from Europe surely dates back to the Viking Middle Ages when the Norse still killed humans at their boat burials: examples can be given from the Isle of Man in the west to the Volga in the east. They also killed in their sacrificial groves, most famously at Upsalla.
We might suspect that illicitly HS went on even after conversion as it may have gone after the coming of Christianity elsewhere in northern Europe.
However, unless one is going to get artsy and suggest that the Holocaust or the Inquisition involved human sacrifice is it really likely that any human sacrifices took place between say 1100 and 2000?
When the blade did come out it came out, Beach guesses, in one of two specific circumstances.
First, non-European communities bringing sacrificial customs to the west: there is, for example, a particularly unpleasant example of a young African boy being cut up and hurled into the Thames
Then, second, the use of sacrifice in what might be loosely called ‘witchcraft’ practised either by degraded aristocrats in Hell Fire Clubs or by rather more rosy-cheeked Wiccan sorts in more recent times.
Here Beach quotes, with thanks, an email from Ostrich:
There’s a persistent story that the New Forest coven of witches employed a human sacrifice in May of 1940 as part of an effort to prevent Hitler from invading England. Gerald Gardner, the mid-20th century popularizer of Wicca, is quoted by JL Bracelin as saying ‘We were taken at night to a place in the Forest, where the Great Circle was erected; and that was done which may not be done except in great emergency.’The phrase “that was done which may not be done except in great emergency” is generally held to refer to human sacrifice, of course. The usual story attached to this is that the sacrifice was a willing one – the oldest member of the coven celebrated the rite nude, on an exceptionally cold May night, and took an extra portion of the fly agaric mushroom which formed part of the ritual. Within a few days, whether from exposure or poison or both, he was dead. If true, then the man’s as great a war hero as any, in that he willingly gave his life to help stop Hitler, whether it had any effect or not. I’m sorry to say that I’ve got my doubts as to whether it actually happened. Gardner’s rather coy remark seems to be the only primary source for this – lots of writers relate the details of exposure and poison (mainly over-excitable fundamentalist Christian writers expounding on the dangers of Wicca – most seem to skip over *why* the alleged sacrifice took place, as well as the exceptional nature of it), but none seem to cite a source. Wiccan Roots by Philip Heselton seems to be where the fleshed-out version originated, as best I can tell, but I make no claim to authority on this. The problem there is that Heselton admits that he’s speculating on the details. It seems rational and informed speculation, but it’s speculation nonetheless.’*
Any other human sacrifices in Europe 1100-2000? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
*Ostrich’s References: ‘Gerald Gardner: Witch by JL Bracelin (JL Bracelin was a real author, but the book is commonly believed to have been written by Idries Shah) and Wiccan Roots by Philip Heselton’.
3 August 2011: First up is PCB who writes ‘Voltaire tells us that the Portuguese burned heretics to stave off another earthquake like the one in 1755 – he may have been exaggerating, but the mental link between capital punishment and appeasement of the gods is a very durable one. Certainly, here in Massachusetts, it was felt that softness on the witchcraft issue would cause God to withdraw his favor from the colony in a very real and palpable way. Our commonwealth no longer practices such autos-da-fé, but in Texas and other states, judicial murder has become nearly a state religion – you cannot get elected unless you vow to kill more criminals than your predecessor.’ Then CCBC filling in details from Iceland: ‘The last human sacrifice in Iceland occurred when Christianity was adopted in 1000 AD (or 999, the pedants say). I know this is a century before your asking date but: As the Lawspeaker Thorgeir lay under his cloak seeking to determine whether or not Christianity would be Iceland’s religion, various pagans held a great sacrifice. ‘The heathens then held a well-attended meeting and made a decision to sacrifice two people from each Quarter, and called on the heathen gods not to let Christianity spread throughout the country.’ The pro-Christian party’s riposte: ‘…they said that they also wished to hold a sacrifice of as many people as the heathens. They said this: ‘Heathens sacrifice the worst people, and push them over cliffs and crags, but we shall make our selection on the basis of people’s virtues and call it a victory offering to our Lord Jesus Christ. We must therefore live better lives and be more careful to avoid sin than before…’ (from Kristni Saga, on-line PDF) This concept of a ‘living sacrifice’ is apparently derived from Romans 12 and/or Hebrews 13. Anyway, the pagans shoved eight slaves off of cliffs (or maybe ten, since there were possibly five quarters in Iceland…don’t ask.) So far as I know, this was the last human sacrifice in Iceland.’ Thanks PCB and CCBC!
4 August 2011: Simon G writes in with this extraordinary tale of Bella in the wych elm (1941) that was completely new to Beach. Note Margaret Murray’s theory, the slightly mad but always fascinating academic who also suggested that William Rufus’s death in the New Forest was a sacrifice. Thanks Simon!
24 Sept 2014: Bruce writes, ‘When I was in college many years ago, I had to endure a semester on High Gothic architecture and culture. While doing some reading on builders guilds, I found references to child sacrifice when it came to building bridges in late Medieval Europe. London Bridge was one mentioned, as was one in Prague, and another in Germany on the Rhine. Infants were said to be the victims. The child’s head would be smashed on the foundation stone in the ceremony, it’s blood smeared on the base of the stone in prescribed manner, the sacrificed infant placed in the hole for the stone, and the stone placed upon the sacrificial victim. The practice was said to have lasted into the early 19th century in a modified form. No one was killed, but a child would be bled a bit, and the blood smeared on the stone, which was then set in place. As that class was more than thirty years ago, my memory of some of the details on the latter subject may be foggy.’ Thanks!