Emerald Isle

The Threefold Death

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

When once just isn't enough

Three was a sacred number to the people of ancient Ireland, bearing with it a hint of magic and the sacred, and this belief carried through to their spiritual practices, which occasionally included human sacrifice!

Most cultures throughout history have at one point or another practised some form of human sacrifice, and lurid tales passed down from the Romans and Greeks paint a ghastly picture of the continental Celts, cousins to Ireland's Gaels, and their bloodthirsty ways.

Whether or not there is much truth to these stories – and there is considerable doubt as to whether they were true or simply titillation for readers back in the imperial capitals – it is possible that the Gaels of Ireland did conduct human sacrifices, of which the strangest was perhaps the threefold death.

The threefold death involved using three simultaneous means of killing, such as stabbing, drowning and falling, and in every legend, it is foretold by another as punishment for some great evil. Signs and marks that seem to support the use of this ritual have be found on the old bog mummies which have been perfectly preserved in Ireland's acidic peat bogs.

Reputed to have once been kings of Ireland, powerful chieftains, heroes or druids, these otherwise healthy, well fed and well dressed men might also have been slain when the crops failed or misfortune befell the people.

Cashel man, as he is called, perished in the middle of the bronze age, around 2000 BC, and is the oldest bog body ever found more or less intact. Old Croghan man comes from about two thousand years later, and he stood near seven feet tall, a giant among men, which didn't do him much good in the end!

Although they are separated by some distance and thousands of years, all of the bog bodies reveal several different kinds of violence involved in their doom.

One had holes put in his arms, through which ropes were threaded, before he was stabbed and had his nipples cut off. This was a ritually significant act, as it was the custom in parts of Ireland to suck the nipples of a king to indicate subservience, so their removal dethroned him in this world and every other.

Another had been disembowelled and hit three times across the head with an axe, once along the body and also had his nipples cut off. The list of grisly injuries is extensive, but they typically follow the same pattern, with more than one means of killing employed.

Whether these injuries were meant to punish, serve as an example, appease three different gods of old, or were a form of torture isn't known, but belief in prophecised threefold deaths persisted even into Christian times, where it signified a particularly accursed death.

The Life of Saint Columba recounts the doom of King Diarmuid mac Cerbaill, who punished Saint Ronan for hiding Aedh the Black, which led to Tara being accursed and abandoned, but Diarmuid's druid Bec Mac De foretold that Diarmuid would die the triple death, by fire, ale and having the roof beam of Tara crush him in the house of Banbán.

Since Tara had been destroyed this seemed so unlikely to Diarmuid that he laughed scornfully, even when he had been invited to Banbán's house for a feast. Little did he know that he roof beam of Tara had been recovered from the sea by Banbán and set in his hall, and what should happen only he was ambushed by Aedh as he left the feast, chased back into the hall which was set aflame, and when he climbed into a vat of ale to escape the flames the whole place came down on his head!

But the story of the threefold deaths wasn't done there – Aedh the Black turned out to be a bit of a strange fellow, and a murderous one too. He had been irregularly ordained after a life of avarice and killing so that he could enjoy the comforts of the monastery, and he lay with his fellow men as with women.

When Saint Columba heard about this, and heard that Aedh had gone back to his wicked old ways, he pronounced the prophecy of the threefold death upon him:

“When such an ordination afterwards became known to the saint, he was deeply grieved, and in consequence forthwith pronounced this fearful sentence on the ill-fated Findchan and Aedh... And Aedh, thus irregularly ordained, shall return as a dog to his vomit, and be again a bloody murderer, until at length, pierced in the neck with a spear, he shall fall from a tree into the water and be drowned... But Aedh the Black, a priest only in name, betaking himself again to his former evil doings, and being treacherously wounded with a spear, fell from the prow of a boat into a lake and was drowned.”

The seat of Bánban was near Ráith Bec, marked on the map below!


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