“Duty and Sacrifice”
Urard knelt before Sárán, his eyes locked to those of his king. Irél stood to the king’s left, a step back, whispering to his lord’s tilted head. Sárán stared down into his son’s eyes as he listened. Urard felt a shiver run up his long spine. Considering he was the tallest man in his tribe and as tall as the heroes and champions of legend, that was a long way to go. He over topped his father by over a solid foot.
Sárán kept his face expressionless as he heard the counsel of the priest. The long months of famine must be brought to a close. The gods needed nourishment if they were to provide nourishment in return for the people. It was far and between that they demanded one of the people to provide that nourishment, but it was hardly unknown. Royal blood was best, followed by the god-touched, those whom the gods set their hands and showed them different from their fellows. Urard met both, being the king’s son and the tallest man for many days journey in any direction.
Urard knew what the priest was whispering, could not help but to know. Whispers among his tribe begun during the autumn, when the harvest failed yet again. The earth needed the old sacrifice to produce again. Royal blood must mingle with the blood of the earth. The old boundaries of the king’s land must again be marked so the gods would know where the people were and give them sustenance in preference over their neighbors.
The king’s son was the best choice as far as the people were concerned. He was but newly married, his wife just giving birth to a healthy baby boy. The line was secured. Sárán ruled well and had many more years to give his people yet. His wisdom could not be spared nor his battle prowess and experience lost. The midwinter was upon them and the turning point in the cycle at hand. To give their sacrifice at this time would bring the most strength to the gods and they hoped to the crops for the new year.
“You know what is said, Urard, mo mac?” the king asked softly into the silence when Irél finished.
“I do, mo Athair, mo Ri. That it is time for the old sacrifice for the land. That the old tradition should be followed. That the royal family must honor its duty and supply the sacrifice. Though I do not want to die, I know my duty,” Urard answered with the faintest tremble to his voice.
“The priests say the gods need new blood. We cannot go on if the next harvest is bad. Our neighbors will see our weakness and fall on us. They will try to take what little we have left. A good harvest will strengthen us again,” explained Sárán his eyes finally breaking contact with his son’s.
“His blood must mingle with the water of the earth. Only then will the gods give us good nourishing crops,” declared Irél.
“As you will, athair. As the gods will,” Urard said unhappily.
“You do me proud, Urard. Your son will know what you have given the people,” promised the king. “You go with Irél now. I will send your wife and son to you for your blessing. At dawn tomorrow, the sacrifice shall be made in the ancient traditions of the gods. Know that I love you and I am deeply proud of you.”
Irél motioned to Sé to escort Urard to the grove. Sé was honor guard to the king and the king’s household. He bowed to the king and to the priest before offering his hand to the kneeling princeling. Urard took the offered hand and rose unsteadily to his feet. Fear of what was to come made him unsteady on his feet. No sane man could face his coming certainty of death without some effect. Sé did Urard the courtesy of ignoring the trembling as he escorted Urard out the door and off to the priest’s grove of oaks.
Sé guided Urard from the king’s hall without speaking. He had no desire to rob Urard of his courage at a time when all of his thoughts would be centered within, coming to terms with his destiny for the tribe and family. He could tell that Urard was already lost to the outer world, so he gently nudged his charge using the light grip on Urard’s elbow to keep him moving onward without breaking the reverent silence.
Urard’s mind sought refuge in circling around what other possible responses he could have made that wouldn’t have brought dishonor on his family or put doubt to his courage. He could find nothing that would have spared him his fate. One too many famines, one too many looks of hope in his direction told him that. His destiny with the gods had been decided for him months before, while he was still busy learning to be a husband and soon father. His chance to persuade his people had passed without his noticing.
Sé took Urard into the grove by the least noticeable route he could think of. He wanted no distractions for the prince. It was better for the people to know from the king and the head priest about the dawn sacrifice rather than guessing. Their gratitude might very well unsettle their savior and make his duty more difficult than need be. Once Urard was settled into the grove with the priests, Sé would go find Urard’s wife and son, to bring them for their final farewells.
He was relieved when they arrived among the ancient oaks without incident. The priests spoke gently with Urard, taking charge without hesitation. The prince allowed himself to be taken to the tree that marked his birth and sat on furs that covered a thick mound of yesteryears’ shed leaves. With his back to the tree for support, Urard stared at the light and shadows moving on the ground about him. His mind was calming as he surrendered his last hope that his duty would change.
Urard sat staring, his eyes unfocused until he heard his name spoken in a whisper at his ear. Sorcha knelt at his side, their infant Fial quiet in her arms. His wife, the mother of his new son, his lover and best friend looked into his eyes, fear making them bright with unshed tears. Urard cupped his hand to her cheek and smiled sadly. His other hand sought his son’s head and brushed gently at the downy golden fuzz there. Sorcha’s eyes now shed their burden of moisture as she cried without sound.
“It will be ok, cariad. This must be, for the good of us all. Know that I love you and that I loved our son well. Guard him and make sure he reaches manhood honorably,” Urard said, breaking the silence between them.
“Urard, I don’t want to lose you so soon! Who will teach Fial the things he needs to know as a noble and a warrior of the tribe?” protested Sorcha.
“The boy’s grandfather will teach him. You know that. Your son is a prince of the tribe and destined to rule after his grandfather now. Give him to me, that I might hold him and give him his father’s blessing,” requested Urard.
Sorcha passed the baby to Urard, the tears blurring her sight now. Urard leaned back against the tree again, holding the infant over his heart. The warmth of the little body gave comfort and Urard smiled down on the downy head beneath his cheek. He marveled at the weight the little one had already put on in a few short weeks. Urard could feel the baby’s breathing settling into a long rhythmic pattern as Fial fell asleep nestled against him.
“Grow big and strong, mo mac. Learn all your grandfather has to teach. Obey him. Take care of your mother and love her. Become a good king and do what is right for the tribe, not just yourself. Follow your athair’s example and do your duty as you must. Be gentle when you can, harsh when you must and always with love,” directed Urard as he intoned his blessing for his son.
Urard held his infant son in place with a careful hand and reached for Sorcha’s with his other free one. She clasped him tightly, her eyes on his face. He drew her hand to his lips and kissed the palm. She fiercely noted his breath against her skin and the heat of his lips pressed there. Sorcha knew these would be her final memories of her beloved husband. She did her best to engrave the sight into her mind; the sleeping child snuggled against him and her hand held in his. Some day she would need to explain to Fial what happened to his athair. She dreaded that day, but would bear it for Urard’s sake.
“Take our son and go rest. I need to prepare for the morning. Mo athair will look after you and the boy,” said Urard quietly over the head of his sleeping.
Sorcha tenderly kissed Urard and then took back her son. She held back her wish that some other had been chosen for the duty to the gods. Urard steadied her with a gentle hand on her hip as she struggled to her feet with the infant clutched to her bosom. Urard nodded and waved her on her way. His eyes teared up as he watched her depart. He could do no more for her now.
He watched the moonlight dance among the leaves of his birth tree for a long time before sleep eventually stole over him. His dreams were of gods and Tir Na nOg. The Land of Youth would take him in and give him peace when he woke for the last time. Urard was at peace, though he knew the ritual that would take his life was not without pain and horror.
Urard woke with the first light of day. A young priest was waiting patiently for him, kneeling at his side. Urard blinked the sleep from his eyes; he stretched, his muscles cracking tensely. The priest handed him a bowl of cooked grains, some of the last left from the miserable harvest of the autumn. A cup of milk accompanied the cereal. That at least was plentiful yet. Eating slowly to savor his last meal, he kindly kept his eyes averted from the priest to save them both embarrassment.
Once his meal was concluded, the priest took back the empty containers. Urard slowly got to his feet and lifted his arms over and behind his head to really stretch. The waiting was nearly over now. Urard turned to the brightening east and began to sing. The priest now joined him as they sang the sun awake. Their voices blended well, harmonious with each word and tone. Urard was pleased that he sang so well for the final dawning of his life. He turned and found Irél waiting at the edge of the grove.
“Come. You need to make your final preparations. We do not want you to shame yourself or your lineage this day. Evacuate your wastes as fully as you can; this way when you meet the gods, you will be unsoiled,” directed Irél.
Urard nodded his understanding. He had seen enough battles to know what happens at the moment of death. Irél waited patiently to see if Urard had anything to ask. When it became clear by his silence, Irél continued.
“You will be naked for the rite, so that the gods may see your unblemished form and know you as fit for the duty. There will be pain. This is part of the sacrifice you are making. Your blood will bring fertility back to the land. To honor your spirit, the Ri has gathered fine jewels, your sword and food for your journey in the land beyond this one. The tribe will honor your name and lineage in the years to come. You will not be forgotten.”
“My thanks, Irél. I do this for the tribe. I do this for my wife and son, that they may live long. I do this for my father, that his duty and mine are done for the people of our tribe, with honor. I am at peace now,” said Urard.
“This is well. Go prepare and come back to me. Lonán will help you,” said Irél.
Lonán dipped his head shyly, clutching the bowl and cup. He was young and new to the priesthood. He was honored to help Urard on this sacred day. He was in awe of the quiet strength Urard was displaying so calmly. Lonán was unsure he could be so in the face of what was to come. He followed after Urard as the tall man went out the grove on the side furthest from the dwellings.
Once there, he found a stand of bushes and disrobed. He squatted and relieved himself, doing his best to get everything out. He did not want filth at his death to tarnish the ceremony or cause anyone grief for the stench. Once he felt he had done all he could, he rose picking up his clothes. Lonán held out his arms and took them.
“Would you like to bathe?” asked Lonán
“Yes,” Urard said simply.
They walked further to a small stream. Urard walked right into the water, shuddering at its winter chill. He immersed himself quickly to get over the cold water as fast as possible. He dunked his head and rose up again. Taking handfuls of sand from the streambed, he scrubbed down his body, removing the accumulation of winter grime and sweat then sank back into the water. Urard floated there for a time, savoring the clean feeling.
Once he was finished, he came back to the bank. Lonán handed him his tunic which Urard used to dry off. His skin was rosy pink beneath a faded tan. Urard ran his fingers through his hair trying to get out the tangles. When he was done, he looked like a stunning giant, his form perfect without moles, acne, warts or any other skin blemish. His nails were already finely trimmed, even rubbed smooth with linen to make them shine. Nodding back toward the grove, he indicated his readiness to go back. The young priest followed.
Once they arrived again, Lonán put away the bowl and cup to be cleaned later. He carefully folded the tunic, almost reverently. He piled the belt and jewelry on it and set them at Urard’s birth tree. Urard watched in silence as he waited for Irél to come back.
The sun was now nearly completely above the horizon. Urard was becoming impatient to have the ordeal over with. Stretching it out would make things more difficult and possibly make him dishonor himself from sheer nerves when the time finally came. He was relieved once Irél finally appeared, walking swiftly to the waiting pair.
“You are ready? Good. Come. The elders wait with the king,” said Irél.
Urard followed in the priest’s wake, keeping his stride short so not to pass the priest. They left the grove and headed for the earth water of the peat bog. Urard could see the small group gathered on its edge. The implements of sacrifice were laid out on a bench carried to the site for the occasion. Saffron cloth covered them, keeping them from sight until needed for the ceremony.
“Do your best to hold still and speak no word once we begin. You may cry out in pain, that is no dishonor. May the gods find favor with you and guide your steps beyond,” whispered Irél as his last instructions and blessing.
Urard said nothing as they arrived at their destination. His father’s expression was blank though Urard could see hints of pain in his eyes as he stood waiting. It would not be easy for the aging king to lose his only son. Urard was glad his own son was too young to remember or understand this day’s business. He knew his father would carefully nurture his grandson into a fit king and warrior for the tribe. It gave him a small measure of comfort to know this.
“Urard do you accept this duty freely, for the good of the people of our tribe?” asked Sárán formally.
“I do. For the good of the tribe and the blessing of the gods on them and our land,” answered Urard.
“Know that your name will be added to the song of the lineage for all time with honor and pride. Do you elders acknowledge the fitness of Urard to stand as sacrifice for the people and the land?” challenged Sárán, his eyes gleaming at the small group.
The group of women and men now came up to Urard and inspected his body carefully. Without being prompted, Urard lifted his arms and spread his legs further apart so that all parts of his skin were visible to their sight. They circled around him fully once before stepping back to their places.
“He is fit,” declared the eldest after glancing at the others. Their nods confirmed.
The eldest stepped up to Urard. He placed an armband of braided leather and metal on his left arm above his elbow. This symbolized the tribe’s acceptance of Urard as suitable for the duty asked. Urard felt his stomach muscles tighten with tension as the armband slipped into place. One more step completed toward his end, certification of his suitability to die for the honor of the tribe. He let his arms fall back at his sides and stood straighter.
Glancing at his father from the corner of his eye, he saw naked pride there. It eased his heart somewhat. Making the king proud of him was one the hardest duties a son of a king had. He only regretted he would not have other opportunities to do so again after this day. Irél stepped forward now with a small bowl in his hand.
“Danu, Great Mother, we hope you find this man acceptable. We pray that his blood will awaken the land when spring comes again. We pray the crops will grow well and bountiful. We pray that the herds will grow fat and increase their numbers. We pray that the tribe may prosper and find favor with all the gods. Danu, bless this man and accept his sacrifice,” intoned Irél as he daubed cool thin paste at Urard’s temples, throat, nipples and groin.
The herbal mixture was cooling where it touched the skin. After a few moments, Urard notice the areas covered seemed to be going numb. Whatever it was, it would probably help with the ordeal. The observers were all reverently silent, watching. They felt deeply that this was the only way. This or be lost as a tribe when a stronger, better fed enemy took advantage of their misfortunes. None liked to see a strong warrior and future king lost to them, but this was the way, the tradition passed down through the ages.
Urard drew a deep calming breath. He let his mind detach and wander, not thinking about anything now except the moment. His heart rate slowed as did his breath. He sought the deep still place at the center of his being that would anchor him. His eyes closed as he put himself into a light trance state. They opened again when he found what he was looking for within.
“Danu, Great Mother, you give the people your milk that they might live. You grow weak from that giving. Let us give you strength,” cried Irél to the air.
Irél stepped to the bench, twitched aside the cloth and lifted a bronze knife. The sickle shaped inner edge was as sharp as possible, patiently honed. The priest turned to Urard, moving closer until he was in arm’s reach of the tall man. Looking into Urard’s eyes without expression, Irél lifted the knife. He brought the point under Urard’s left nipple, hooking the skin on the point. Pushing in and pulling across, he felt the tip grate on the ribs below the pectoral muscles. The razor sharpness of the blade made the incision almost effortless. Lifting the blade, he repeated the move on the right side.
Urard’s teeth clenched and ground at the intense pain. The paste that numbed was all that kept the man from fainting. As the knife cut, the paste was pushed into the wound in its wake. He felt blood flowing freely from both wounds, down his torso and legs to the ground. Two more priests gently took his hands and led him to the very edge of the bog. They pushed on his shoulder blades making him lean out over the watery ground as they held him by the arms. His blood fell directly into the water now with tiny splashes.
They held him over the water until the wounds began to clot and the flow nearly stopped. Just as the Great Mother gave of her breasts to feed the people, so did Urard’s living blood from his go to nourish her. Urard gritted his teeth against the pain in his chest as he endured the bloodletting. This was a major part of the ritual, the symbolic returning of life fluid back to the earth and the gods. It was part of the cycle and honored.
Urard felt his knees weakening as his strength faded with the blood loss. The pain was intense but bearable. He knew his end was now approaching. Now that the blood gift was given, next came the life gift. What would come after no longer concerned him. He just wanted to die with dignity and honor.
The two priests holding him over the still water carefully helped him back upright. They released him to allow him the dignity of his end under his own power. They were also awed by his strength, will and silence. Not many could endure even the beginnings of the rite without sound of some kind. The grinding of his jaw and teeth did not count at all. Urard swayed on his feet now, the blood loss making itself known.
“Danu, Great Mother, we send you this warrior, this noble of royal blood, to whisper our prayers and needs directly in your ear. We pray that you listen to him and grant our prayers. Let life return to the land. Let the herds grow strong and fat. Let the rain fall in the proper time, in the proper amount. Let the sun shine when it is needed and grant shade when it is best.
“Danu, grant Urard the honor of guarding his people forever more. He will know the boundaries of his people’s land, for we shall show him. Let his spirit pass between the worlds to come to our aid when he is needed. Let him be a messenger of your will and our need. Great Mother, in token of these prayers, Urard gifts you his life, his essence and his devotion to his people,” intoned Irél.
Sárán lifted Urard’s own sword from the bench and approached Irél. Handing it over, Sárán bowed his head to his son before returning to his original position. The muscles in the king’s neck were tight and clenched. He was holding up by sheer force of will and showing no other sign of his distress. He too would make his son proud.
Irél held the sword carefully, looking into Urard’s eyes. Raising the sword to the side, point to Urard’s chest, the priest took a deep breath and prayed he succeeded in one stroke and without needless drawing out of the sacrifice. As he set his arm in motion to plunge the sword in Urard’s heart, an eagle’s scream came as if right above them. Urard, startled, half turned to look behind. As he did this, the sword blade slashed his arm before entering his chest. The point found his heart quickly and Urard fell to his knees and then onto his side. The light left his eyes and all knew he was now gone on his errand to the gods.
As he had fallen, Irél let the weight pull itself off of the sword. He finally released his breath, now aware that he was holding it. The king swayed and then straightened. It was now all in the hands of the priests to prepare the body of his son for the next stage of his duty. He was thankful that it was not required that he attend the actual quartering of the body. That was more than any father should have to bear. He turned and walked back toward the village, the elders following at his heels. No more witnesses were needed now. The priests would complete the ritual as was their duty.
Irél motioned to the two younger priests to step forward and help. Sweat gleamed on his brow. It was no easy thing to dismember a body with dignity for the living or the dead. The two helpers gently rolled Urard’s body onto its stomach. Then they arranged his limbs so they were not bent or splayed. Irél knelt and felt for Urard’s vertebrae near the base of his spine. Feeling up its length, he found the place above the hips that he sought.
Taking a deep breath, Irél placed the point of the sword between the vertebrae and then lunged. His arms bulged and he threw his weight into it as well. The sword parted the spine with a loud crack. Irél then worked the blade back and forth until the flesh was severed completely. When he finally stopped, the legs and hips were separated from the torso. Irél’s arms and hands were covered in bright blood now.
The two helpers carefully pulled the two halves away from each other. Nodding, the head priest now focused on the next cut. The helpers now turned the body face up. The task was somewhat easier now that part of the heavy weight was missing. Again they arranged the limbs with dignity. One of the helpers went to the bench and brought back a block of polished wood. This was placed behind Urard’s neck so his head tilted and his chin pointed at the sky. The helper then closed Urard’s eyelids so that the sightless eyes would not stare.
Irél shifted on his knees so that he now knelt facing the exposed neck of Urard. With another deep draw of breath, Irél raised the sword so that its point was over his shoulder, angled toward the ground. With a grunt, the priest swung with all his might. The blade cleaved through and parted bone and flesh in that one stroke.
One final sectioning remained before this part of their task was done. Irél was getting tired and almost weeping with his efforts. It all had to be done correctly; any flaw and the ritual was ruined and another sacrifice chosen. If this happened, Irél would offer himself, so he could beg forgiveness of Urard’s spirit and go with him to complete their pleas to the gods.
Taking the sharp edge opposite the one he just used, Irél began to carefully cut the left leg from the hip. He cut until he reached the hip socket and then used the point to pry it free. Now Urard’s body was in four separate parts. A helper handed Irél a cloth so he could wipe the gore from the blade. He handed up the sword and struggled to his feet. The task was well done and without incident.
“Take the sword to his father and ask that it be resharpened. It will go with Urard,” ordered Irél.
Nodding, the younger priest set off to the village in a hurry. All must be done before the sun centered the sky at noon. It would take at least a few hours to reach the four boundaries of the land in that time. Much depended on making sure the offerings for Urard were ready at the same time as the priests set out.
Tradition called for the head to go to the earth water with food. The torso and arms would receive the sword. The leg with the hips and genitals would have a saddle and reins. The other leg would be interred with a gift of the king’s personal choosing. All of the things chosen were ready, save the sword. They could not send a dull sword with Urard. Once the sword returned with its edge renewed, each of the sections of the sacrifice would travel with a priest and two helpers to the boundary of the tribes land. Then they would give each of the pieces to the bog.
When Lonán returned with the sword, Irél began wrapping the parts with their gifts into bundles. Withies braided into cord tied the bundles and would be used again at their respective destinations. Horses were brought and the bundles tied behind the saddles. Four priests headed in four directions. Urard’s head went to the east. His free leg went to the south. His other leg with hips went to the west. His torso and arms was taken north. Each direction had a purpose which was why the division of the body was so important.
Irél mounted the horse with the torso. Once he was sure all twelve men were ready and seated, he waved them to set out. Kicking his heels into the flanks of his mare, she bounded forward. His two helpers followed swiftly. He urged the mare to gallop, guiding her expertly over and around obstacles. He wasn’t concerned about her tiring, since she would have a long rest when they arrived.
They arrived at the northern border with maybe an hour before noon. The hill was looming. Irél was relieved that they had made the journey with enough time to complete the rite without undo haste. He dismounted and began looking for the earth water bog he knew was there. It was the most easily found on this side of the realm. Glancing around carefully, he placed his landmarks and let his mare to the interment site.
His helpers removed the sacred remains from the mare and carried it to the edge of the bog. The three priests then stripped down to their underclothes. Irél busied himself with unwrapping the body and then set aside the tools needed. Taking a dagger up, he pierced the flesh of both arms just above the elbows. He then threaded the withy rope through each incision. Once that was done, he tied stakes to each end of the ropes.
Irél lifted the torso while each helper took a stake in each hand. The three solemnly walked into the bog until the water was above their knees and they could feel their feet sinking into the ooze covered mud. The head priest bent and lowered the torso carefully into the water. The helpers bent also as they used the stakes to keep the body from floating again to the surface of the brownish water. Pushing with all their strength, they drove the stake as deep as they could. Letting go, they used their feet to see if any more give happened with the stakes. Nodding to Irél, they declared the staking completed.
They left the water and stood watching from the bank. Irél spoke the final prayers and held out his hand for the sword. Once placed there, he knelt and put it beneath Urard’s torso so that it would not shift or be visible. Now the guardian of the land was in place. If all went as well at the other three sites, perhaps the gods would favor them with a sign. Then again, sometimes silence was all the answer needed.
Gathering up their clothes and dressing, the trio packed up the horses for the return journey. The head priest was glad the ordeal was over. He had liked Urard and regretted it had to be his hand that ended the promising life. Sometimes duty became a sacrifice in itself. The three priests began the ride home as the noon sun streamed done on the winter landscape. They would know at the turning of the seasons the gods answer to their sacrifice.
Urard’s spirit watched over his people down through the ages. Many changes to the people and the land came. There came a time when his lineage was lost, driven elsewhere perhaps or maybe simply died out. New comers came and went and the centuries rolled on without pause. Urard was startled when the light of day woke him from slumber, his spirit drawn to the northern boundary he kept. A man was there with some metal monster that had uncovered the sacred body. Urard was stunned as he was later lifted up and taken far from the place of his binding. With the boundary broken, Urard felt the taste of freedom. Light beckoned and he ran toward Tir Na nOg, grateful his time of service was at an end.
Old Croghan Man, found at Croghan Hill, Co Offaly, Ireland
These are the sources I used for the creation of this piece. Any inaccuracies are mine and due to fictitious need. I attempted to account for the findings of the forensics report and kept to what little is known of Iron Age Irish Celts where there is information to be found. I used modern Irish Gaelige because that is what is what I have access to. The names are traditional Irish taken from legends, myths and stories. They very well could be Iron Age in origin.
Urard (UR urd) Very tall
Sé (Shay) Hawk-like, noble
Sárán (SAWR awn) Chief, noble; best
Irél (EER eyal)
Sorcha (SUR a ka) Bright, radiant
Fial (FEE ul) modest; honorable; generous
Lonán (LUH nawn) blackbird
mo mac – my son
mo Athair, mo Ri – my father, my king.
Cariad – beloved