In the ancient world, a Pagan was anyone who worshiped gods that were different to those worshiped by the Romans and the Greeks before them. In particular, the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and the Celts were classified as Pagans and their religious rituals were seen as weird, often because they were!
1. The Druid Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe
To the early Druid priests of Gaul and Britain, the oak tree held great significance in their rituals and was considered sacred. Likewise mistletoe, which can grow on the oak, also had an important role in their religion. According to a Roman chronicler ‘Pliny the Elder’ writing in the 1st century AD, it was believed that when mistletoe fell from an oak, it was a sign that the tree had been selected by their god.
Pliny states that on the 6th day of the moon, Druid priests dressed in white robes would prepare a banquet beneath the tree and bring up to it two white bulls. A priest would then climb the tree and cut down a branch of mistletoe with a golden sickle. The white bulls would be sacrificed while the attendants prayed to a god; the mistletoe was then given to livestock in a drink which, it was believed, was an antidote to all poisons and would make any barren animal fertile.
2. Anglo-Saxons and the Wild Boar
The boar was a very important symbol in many pagan societies and was associated with both warrior and fertility gods and goddesses. In the Anglo-Saxon midwinter feast, a wild boar would be sacrificed and vows made for the following year, giving us the tradition of New Years Resolutions. According to the Roman commentator Tacitus, they would wear boar skin into combat instead of armor, believing it would give them the protection of ‘the Mother of the gods’ and guaranteeing the warrior would be fearless in the heat of the battle.
3. The Pagan Origins of Easter
The word ‘Easter’ was first proposed as the name for the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus by the 8th century monk St Bede. He derived the word from an Anglo-Saxon mother goddess of the spring, dawn and new life and beginnings, called Eastre.
On the day of the spring equinox, 21 March, the Anglo-Saxons held a festival in honor of Eastre, during which a rabbit was used as a symbol of fertility and eggs were painted with bright colors to represent the sunlight brought by the coming of spring. The eggs were then given to friends and families as gifts, or used in egg rolling contents.
4. Viking Blood Sacrifice (Blot)
The Viking blood sacrifice or Blot was practiced at various times of year to give thanks to the gods or to try and please them. While the blot was usually performed with animal blood, one saga mentions the King of the Swedes being sacrificed to Odin.
The ritual would be performed out in the open and no violence was allowed at the meeting place. The animal would be sacrificed over an alter made of pilled stones and the blood collected in a bowl. The priest would recite songs in honour of the god being worshiped then pass the bowl around a flame three times while reciting magic words. The same was done with the meat of the animal before finally, the priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animal on himself and all attending and poured what was left on the altar.
5. The Wicker Man
Perhaps the weirdest and most notorious ritual of the ancient Pagans was human sacrifices. Historians debate whether Pagan cultures actually practiced human sacrifice as most writing on the subject comes from their enemies. Tales of human sacrifice may be real or just Greek and Roman propaganda designed to encourage support for war against Pagan cultures from the citizens back home.
In his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’, Julius Caesar talks about the unusual ritual practiced, according to him, by the Gauls in the 1st century BC. Although admitting that he hadn’t seen the ritual with his own eyes, Caesar claimed that large man-shaped effigy called a Wicker Man would be built out of sticks and set alight, with those to be sacrificed to the gods trapped inside. Usually criminals would be used but if none could be found then innocent men would be burned alive instead.