BURNING MEN – The Myth of the “Wicker Man” in Celtic Europe

UD: May 2019




“…having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing”.

(Strabo IV, 4:5)


The most horrific ritual associated with the ancient Celts is undoubtedly the Wicker Man, and the mass burning of human and animal sacrifices inside this sinister structure. Our knowledge of this phenomenon comes largely from two main sources – Caesar, and the Greek geographer Strabo, although it appears that both harvested their information from a single source  – Posidonius, whose account has not survived (Tierney J.J. (1959-60) The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 60. P. 189-275; Green M. Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 17/2. 1998. P. 169-189).

Most information on the Wicker Man comes from Julius Caesar, who states the Druids burned criminals and prisoners of war in the wicker structures, and that when such were unavailable, they “even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent”:

“Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent”.

(Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.16)


Caesar’s use of emotive language (“they even go so low”) hints that he was intending to show the enemies of Rome in a particularly barbaric light. In any case, Caesar himself did not witness such rituals, instead citing the Greek traveller Posidonius, who had visited Gaul about 50 years earlier, and written of the human sacrifice there. Why Posidonius, a Roman sympathizer, wrote, and why he wrote it, is unclear. He may have had first-hand experience of sacrificial rites, or he may have been transmitting rumors or outright lies, subsequently copied by other classical authors. Besides Caesar and Strabo, another source, Florus, also mentions the practice of human sacrifice by burning, this time among the Balkan Celts, stating that during the campaigns by the Scordisci at the beginning of the 1st c. BC Roman prisoners were also burnt alive:

Throughout their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to their gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mother’s wombs by torture”.

(Florus, Epitome of Roman History XXXVIIII, iii, 4)


So did the Wicker Man really exist, or is it simply another ‘urban legend’ – a product of the classical imagination designed to reinforce the image of the savages in the popular psyche, and illustrate the necessity that they be ‘civilized’?

All classical accounts of the ‘Wicker Man’ and human sacrifice by burning, are hearsay, and no eyewitness account has survived. Furthermore, no archaeological evidence of such a phenomenon has ever been discovered, which logically raises further doubts about the veracity of such claims.

And yet, there is one further source of information, produced by the Celts themselves, which may support the horrific accounts of ancient authors. During the 1st c. BC the Celtic tribes in Thrace produced a large number of silver tetradrachms of the Thasos type, on many of which a mysterious figure appears on the reverse. Various versions of these Celtic coins depict a colossus with a burning head (fig. A/B) or the head portrayed as a wheel (fig. C/D/F) – both apparently references to the Thunder God Taranis, to whom sacrifice was made by fire, and who is associated with the Solar Wheel.

W. fire 1

Fig A

W. firehead g

Fig. B

W. wheel head

Fig. C

w whhead 3

Fig. D

Other issues depict the figure within a rectangular structure (fig. E), and/or standing on a platform (fig. A/B/C/E/F), with what appears to be a ladder in the bottom right corner (Fig F):

W. stru 1

Fig. E


Fig. F

On Celtic “Thasos type” coinage:




Reverse of a Balkan Celtic tetradrachm from Central Bulgaria, with solar/Taranis wheel in the top left corner

(1st c. BC)



While the schematic nature of these images makes certainty impossible, this coinage corresponds geographically and chronologically with accounts of human sacrifice by burning among the Balkan Celts, and it appears likely that these images may be the only direct archaeological evidence of the gruesome phenomenon which has become known as the ‘Wicker Man’.

























Mac Congail










10 thoughts on “BURNING MEN – The Myth of the “Wicker Man” in Celtic Europe

  1. There was a Manx tradition of burnt sacrifices known as ‘Oural Losht’ which survived into the 19thC. It was employed against bad luck… A slaughtered animal was burned on a fire, often near to a road or trackway.

      1. The Beltain Midsummer bonfire customs may well be linked to this, of course! I believe that the construction of ‘May crowns’ and ‘May Bushes’ and their eventual burning on these fires was a key part of these celebrations in the Gaelic world until the 19thC…

    1. Actually amongst Magyarian(Hungarian) tradition still today, a hay doll is burnt towards the end of the winter, amidst a a very loud carnival with bells and jingles, and children’s games, to scare the winter, and it’s winter spirits away. Women’s hair is also pulled, to encourage their hair to grow longer. Amongst many green-growth-encouraging rhymes, there is also a rhyme “szita, szita péntek, vége van a télnek” meaning “sift, sift, friday, the winter is ended”. Another variant of the rhyme is “szita, szita péntek, szerelem csütörtök, dob szerda”: “sift, sift friday, love thursday, drum wednesday”. Péntek:friday, Csütörtök:thursday, Szerda:wednesday. Pannonia is what Karpatia (Carpathian Basin) was known in the earlier days (And Panhonja actually means “Home of Pan”, Panna being a common girls name in Magyaria (Anya meaning mother – Mary’s mother was Anna, many non-indo-european-classified peoples call mother a variant of Ana, even the Dakota(:Ina). Pan backwards » Nap means sun, and in the Magyar tongue, consonants are what really matter. Nép, a variant means People(falka is wolf pack, translators usually translate Nép as folk, but for the previous reason I beg to differ). The Basin is a very uniquely protected and pro-life Marshy place, filled with thermal water, seeing as the MagMa is only some 6kms away from the surface. Hence even throughout the Ice Ages, the Ice sometimes even came around the Basin, but never into it. Karpatia is actually very rich in archeological findings, and the people even today preserve the richest collection of tradition, with a language even officially acknowledged to have not changed in the past 1000 years.
      Actually, about Taranis: Dörrenés means Thundering, and the sacred bird of the Magyar is the Turul, a great heavenly hawk, the all-father, whose drop is like lightning, when he impregnates the deer-mother Emese in her dream (also interesting link to E.Macha, but also South American (can’t remember exactly which tribe: Emse) (Mese means story) (S is SH, whilst SZ is S. otherwise Irish and Magyar vowels are remarkably similar, and there are 1800 equivalent in what is called Celtic today and Magyar words according to the count of Timaru-Kast Sándor).

  2. Pingback: Wicker Men | streetsofsalem
  3. I think the coin imagery gives the most compelling support for the idea of the Celtic custom of the Wicker Man, in addition to the skillful workmanship we know they had with wood and thatch already. Even though the Romans were not below negative propaganda on their enemies, and the Celts especially so, this maybe true. Obviously any other archaeological traces of the ceremonies would be logically eradicated since it would be incinerated. Another logical reason we would be lacking these traces would be due to the Celtic predilection for using the remnants of what burned in such sacred rituals for fortune-telling/divination. Whatever remained of these gruesome ceremonies would be gathered by the druids, read, and then disposed of, likely in a field for fertilization. To me, this ceremony fits in the Celtic idiom and religiosity perfectly. Good article! Ober da!

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