5 Bloodthirsty Deities, Their Folklore, and the Practices of Their Followers

"Saturn Devouring His Son", by Spanish artist Francisco Goya
"Saturn Devouring His Son", by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. (Image source: Public Domain )

Many of the deities worshipped by mankind have been awful. Not only are their mythologies filled with conflict and aggression, but also the practices of their followers. Offerings of animals, and even people, have always been a constant feature of a willing worship. As such, here are five of the most bloodthirsty deities to have been worshipped in history.

5 – Odin

In wider Germanic mythology and paganism, Odin was known in Old English as Wōden, in Old Saxon as Wōdan, and in Old High German as Wuotan or Wōtan. (Image source: Public Domain)

In Norse tradition, the deity Odin has many titles. He is the greatest of all the gods, but is also known as a god of wisdom, the god of the spear and the father of magical songs. Of his many titles, it is the name Valdr galga, “Ruler of Gallows”, or god of the hanged, which has earned Odin a bloodthirsty reputation amongst his followers.

According to Norse mythology, Odin hanged himself on the great tree of Yggdrasil. He intended to end his life in pursuit of wisdom, so that he may travel to the underworld to learn the secrets of the dead. However, death did not greet the great ruler of gods immediately. Rather, Odin hung from the “windswept tree […] for nine long nights”. He suffered with no water or food to nourish him, and was pierced with a spear. This was Odin’s sacrifice – an offering to himself. Eventually, he died – in pain and alone. In the underworld, Odin discovered the occult wisdom of the dead. Resurrected soon afterwards, he was able to continue his relentless search for knowledge, armed with the underworld’s secrets.

Amongst Odin’s followers, this death scene was replicated by men in the sacrificial grove of Uppsala (in modern-day Sweden). Writing of this holy grove, the eleventh-century historian Adam of Bremen described how he witnessed many human bodies hanging dead in the grove. All of the sacrificial victims had been pierced with a spear – a symbol of dedication to the greatest of gods, Odin. 1

It is believed that such crimson, sacrificial festivals were held in honour of Norse gods four times a year: in line with the changing of the seasons. Additional sacrifices may have been made in times of crisis, in the hope that the one-eyed god of battle, Odin, would have mercy on mankind. 2.

4 – Kronos / Saturn

The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn
The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn, a fresco by by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi, depicts Kronos (Saturn) castrating his father, the sky god. (Image source: Public Domain )

According to the Ancient Greeks, in the beginning of the universe there was only the void, and that void was known as chaos. Soon after came the primordial deity Gaia. The personification of nature and the Earth, Gaia birthed the sky, known as Ouranos. Ouranos soon took Gaia as his mate. From this incestual union came the Titans: the second generation of divine beings who were destined to have a great effect on the universe.

But, Ouranos was hateful, and feared that the Titans would one day overthrow him. So, he stuffed his children back into the womb of Gaia, to ensure that they would never see the light. Gaia begged her children for help, but all were afraid of their almighty father. All except for the youngest, Kronos. Kronos was ambitious and refused to allow his father to reign as tyrant for much longer. One night, this young Titan took hold of a great sickle, and used it to unman his father and release his siblings from their imprisonment. With this savage act, the Titans became rulers of the universe, with Kronos as their king.

As king, Kronos took his sister Rheia as his wife, and began to father children of his own. Yet, Kronos worried that he would meet the same fate as his own father at the hands of his offspring. Devious and paranoid, he thought of a better plan to imprison his children. As all divine beings were immortal and could not be killed, he decided that he would eat them whole as soon as they born, to imprison them forever in his stomach.

Five children were born and devoured by their father in sight their mother. Sickened with immense grief, when Rheia was pregnant for the sixth time she decided that she would hide her child away when he was born, before Kronos could eat him. Thus, when she gave birth on the island of Crete to a boy named Zeus, Rheia gave her son over to the nymphs, to be raised in secret. Afterwards, she wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes, and gave it to Kronos. None the wiser, he swallowed it, believing he had disposed of yet another of his children. 3

When he was full grown, Zeus returned to force his brothers and sisters forth from his father’s stomach. The cycle of bloodshed, first started when Kronos had freed the Titans, had come full circle. Zeus slashed open Kronos’ belly, releasing his siblings. Kronos’ children, who were called the Gods, then entered into ten years of civil war against their father, who was a feared and respected ruler. Eventually, the child-devouring Kronos was overthrown, and Zeus made king of the universe. His first act was to bound his father in the underworld, with hundred-handed giants serving as his prison guards. 4

Under the Romans, Kronos was appropriated as their god Saturn. Stepping out of the pages of mythology, Saturn was believed to be the bringer of a golden age, who inaugurated peace and stability while he reigned in Rome. As such, the Romans honoured Saturn with as much – if not more – blood than he had shed.

Saturnalia, a Roman festival held around Christmas-time, was celebrated with wanton debauchery and sacrifices. It is thought that humans were amongst those given to Saturn for his blessing. 5 In the time of the Roman empire, this bloody festival incorporated a ten-day gladiatorial tournament. Those warriors defeated in the contest were offered unto Saturn.6

In Africa, Kronos continued to be worshipped under another, even more menacing, face. During the time of Roman occupation, a north African cult rose which fused Saturn with other malevolent deities. This new deity demanded that children should be given to him for his blessing. These grisly rituals were practised for hundreds of years until the 4th century AD. 7

3 – The Celtic Trinity

Gundestrup cauldron Taranis
Gundestrup cauldron, created between 200 BC and 300 CE, is thought to have a depiction of the Celtic god, Taranis. (Image source: Public Domain )

Many Ancient Roman sources described the Celts as having routinely practiced human sacrifice.

Strabo, a Greek historian of the Roman empire, recalled how, when the Romans assaulted the Celtic stronghold of Anglesey in the British Isles, the altars were “soaked with human blood”.8

“… [The Celts] would strike a man who had been consecrated for sacrifice in the back with a sword, and make prophecies based on his death-spasms; and they would not sacrifice without the presence of the Druids. Other kinds of human sacrifices have been reported as well […] they would construct a huge figure of straw and wood, and having thrown cattle and all manner of wild animals and humans into it, they would make a burnt offering of the whole thing (trans. by Benjamin Fortson, in Koch and Carey 1995, 18).” 9

According to such contemporary sources, it was the Celtic gods who demanded humans as offerings. It was believed that unless a man’s life is given, “the will of the immortal gods cannot be placated”. 10

Lucan, a first-century Roman poet, described three gods in the Celtic tradition which are believed to have formed a trinity of sorts. The three deities – each bloodthirsty and vengeful – are believed to have existed separately, yet also united in the form of one, ultimate divine being, one of the Celts’ principal deities, Lugus (or Lugh).11

Described in Roman sources was the god Teutates. One part of the Celtic trinity, he was a protector of tribes, and often identified as a god of war in Classical sources. The Celts would drown prisoners and captives in his name, in the hope of invoking his protection.

Another of the trinity was Taranis, a warlord of the sky. For this deity, the Celts would burn their captives and prisoners upon altars.12

Finally, there was Esus. Scholars have identified him as being akin to Odin. Just as Norse tradition inspired the hanging of sacrificial victims, so did Esus. It has been said that, after hanging a man for Esus, the Celts would hit him on the head and cut his throat.

A skeleton found in the north-west of England in the 1980s, known as the Lindow man bog body, displays signs of this threefold act having been done to him. Other remains, thought to have been the result of similar rituals, have been found across the British Isles. 13 Such physical evidence suggests that, far from simply being the slander of biased Roman sources, the Celts did indeed perform sacrificial rituals to appease bloodthirsty deities. 14

In the words of Julius Caesar:

“It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent.” 15

2 – Moloch

A late 19th century Bible illustration shows a child being offered to Moloch. (Image source: Public Domain)

“Moloch, horrid King, besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears;
Though, for the noise of drums and timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire” 16

When John Milton wrote of the “horrid” deity, Moloch, it was not his fiction, but was in fact a deity worshiped in ancient times. Moloch was a god of the Canaanite people, who lived in the Levant region of the Middle-East. For this divine being, they built a giant bronze idol. At its base, a large fire was lit. Children were then “passed through the fire”, as it was then known euphemistically. 17

The cult of Moloch was so prolific that reverence of him expanded, and even became associated with the Semitic God of the Old Testament. The offering of children to Moloch was so widespread that the the Old Testament of the Bible warns and admonishes people many times, to stop them from revelling in this most vile of sins.

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 18:21

“Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.” – Leviticus 20:2

“And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.” – Leviticus 20:3

Despite the many prohibitions scattered throughout Leviticus, people continued to make offerings to the cult of Moloch. Even Solomon was said to have built a temple to him in Jerusalem.

“Then did Solomon build an high place for Che-mosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children.” – 1 Kings 11:7

The act of offering children to Moloch survived for hundreds of years, even into the Roman era. It has been reported by contemporaries from the time of the Punic wars that the Carthaginians worshiped a Moloch-like figure in the form of Baal-Hammon, who received children upon fires, set at his idols’ feet. 18

For whatever reason, for ancient peoples there was something inexplicably attractive about worshipping this abomination.

1 – Huitzilopochtli

A depiction of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, from the 16th century folio, Codex Telleriano-Remensis. (Image source: Public Domain )

When looking at the pantheon of Mesoamerican gods, one can easily gather a long list of bloodthirsty deities. There is Tlaloc, the rain god, who in great ceremonies had children come to him in legion, magnificently dressed and paraded in litters. These children would weep, for they knew that they were about to become an offering of “bloodied flowers of maize” to this god. 19

In the minds’ of the Aztecs, human blood was sacred. In fact, in their language it was called the “most precious water”. This “water” drenched the earth around their temples, and clotted in their priests’ hair and nails. If human blood was divine sustenance, then the gods of the Aztecs were morbidly obese. 20

There was one god in particular, that was especially demanding demanding of people’s precious water. Huitzilopochtli was the principal god of war, the sun, human sacrifice and the chief deity of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. To be Aztec was to be blessed by this deity, and to be a devout follower was of the utmost necessity. As the Aztecs were a war-like civilisation, receiving the blessing of the god of war meant that they could be fierce and fanatical warriors, able to win most confrontations. This also meant, that with each new victory, they had to nurture the great Huitzilopochtli with yet more “precious water”. During a war with one of their northern subjects, the Aztecs captured thousands of slaves – men, women and children – who were bound and forcefully marched to the capital. Upon arriving, the captives were greeted by a priest with a smile, who told them they had be chosen for a special honour. They were to be sacrificed in a ceremony to inaugurate a new temple to Huitzilopochtli. 20,000 died in the opening ceremony alone.

Burial pits were uncommon in the Aztec capital, as the population tended to follow any mass sacrifice with a great feast. Men were, after all, the food of both gods and victors. 21

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