“They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; Consequently some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters in their public and private transactions they use Greek script. That practice they seem to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory [by] relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory.”
– Julius Caesar
This custom also allowed the truth about the Druids’ rituals and beliefs to vanish from the historical record… although their observers write both respectfully of their philosophical traditions and harrowingly of their religious ones. Indeed, while the Celts, like the Romans, practiced the sacrifice of animals and livestock to their gods, the Druids took those ritualistic practices to a horrifying extreme, according to Caesar. And it is through our Roman general that we have the oldest surviving account of Druids’ affinity for burning men and women alive in the Wicker Man.
“All the Gauls are extremely devoted to superstitious rituals; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims or vow that they will sacrifice them and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; Because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which, formed of osiers [wicker], they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the sacrifice of peoples guilty of theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of such people is wanting, they have the right to even sacrifice the innocent.”
Hence the potent image where Ritual author David Pinner got his idea to punish poor, poor Sgt. Howie. It gets to something primal, this monstrous effigy in which the rationales of the modern world burn in the wicker flames from the old, including the innocent and damned alike. Two thousand years later, it’s still the stuff of existential dread…. even though some modern historians remain unconvinced it ever existed.
Skepticism Toward Caesar’s Claims
Traditionally, Romans were surprisingly tolerant of other religions from the lands they conquered; the Roman gods are, after all, little more than a repurposing of the ancient Greek pantheon whose devotees the Roman republic subjugated; Rome similarly showed a magnanimous ear to the elders of Palestine or, in Caesar’s own lifetime, to Egypt after he made the next Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra VII Philopator, his paramour of him.
So, generally speaking, Rome’s acceptance of other religions from cultures that accepted conquest and/or occupation might give credence to Caesar’s musings on the Druids, a religious sect who would become more persecuted by the Romans than perhaps any other in the empire. Why exaggerate and vilify with descriptions of human sacrifice, an obscenity too great for even Rome, unless it were true?
Well, for starters, when Caesar wrote his Comments, Gaul had either not quite been conquered or had just recently been fully subjugated. Otherwise, it was a centuries-old enemy with enmity on both sides. More importantly though, Caesar had political reasons to trumpet that conquest. About a decade before Comments was published, Caesar had just been newly made Consul of Rome and a member of the First Triumvirate, alongside Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus. As such, his taking the legions west and into the wilds of Gaul was seen by some as a way to contain the popular general’s ambition as much as an opportunity to greaten the glory that is Rome. At least he’s out of the city.