A brief note on animal heads, Celtic human sacrifice, and Indo-European tradition

Our illustrious ancestor Dadhyaṅc Ātharvaṇa is supposed to have possessed privileged knowledge from the great Indra that even the twin gods, the Aśvin-s, sought to get it from him. However, speaking out this secret knowledge would have cost him his head as that was the condition under which Indra had imparted it to him. Hence, they surgically fitted him with a horse’s head so that he could convey it to him. The great Ṛṣi Kakṣīvān, the son of Dīrghatamas, the founder of the Gotama clan, alluded to this act of the Aśvin-s in a mantra in the Ṛgveda thus:

tad vāṃ narā sanaye daṃsa ugram
āviṣ kṛṇomi tanyatur na vṛṣṭim |
dadhyaṅ ha yan madhv ātharvaṇo vām
aśvasya śīrṣṇā pra yad īm uvāca || RV 1.116.12

O manly twins, that awful wonder-act of yours [done] for gain,
I make widely known, as thunder [announces] rain,
indeed Dadhyaṅc Ātharvaṇa spoke to you two
that which is “honey” through the head of a horse.

In Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa it is stated that the privileged knowledge possessed by Dadhyaṅc Ātharvaṇa concerns the Pravargya ritual by which the Soma-yāga is made “whole”. The Pravargya ritual again refers to a severed head, that of Makha, Viṣṇu, or Rudra in different brāhmaṇa-s, which is represented by the central implement of the ritual, the Gharma pot. The Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa further elaborates this Madhu-vidyā and it is presented as the high teaching of the upaniṣat in 14.5.5 (i.e. the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat).

This mythic nucleus serves as a locus for further elaboration in later Hindu tradition. The Purāṇa-s incorporate the frame of the Pravargya myth into a narrative to explain how the horse-headed Viṣṇu came into being. His head is described as being severed, even as it was in one of the Pravargya legend, and was then replaced with that of horse. This horse-headed Viṣṇu is then able to slay a horse-headed asura, who had invulnerability from everyone else, except another with a horse’s head.

Interestingly, Russian archaeologists claimed that such a chimeric form, a man with a horse’s head, was found in a kurgan of the Potapovka culture [A sister of the more famous Sintashta culture] near the Samara Bend on the Volga steppes – a place close the original homeland of the Aryans. However, subsequent dating showed that the human and horse skeletons belong to different ages and the superimposition of two separate burials human and horse at the same site separated by several hundreds of years had accidentally created the impression of a chimera.

Archaeological chimeras have nevertheless re-emerged recently. An Iron Age site from Dorset, UK has provided extensive evidence for chimeric creations by Britonic Celts. These include chimeras between horses and cows as well as burial of multiple heads of sacrificed animals. It is uncertain if these were purely Celtic innovations or have earlier Indo-European precedents. The human sacrifice at the site seems to have placed the human remains on various animals remains with a correspondence of the parts.

This is reminiscent of aspects of the funerary custom of our ancient Ātharvaṇa ancestors (Kauśika-sūtra 80-89): cremation of the human along with a sacrificed animal. An animal, typically a cow, is sacrificed and its parts are cut up carefully and placed on the corresponding parts of the Ātharvaṇa’s body along with all the ritual implements he had used while alive, smeared with goat butter. His right hand is made to hold a staff. The text specifies that in the case of a kṣatriya his bow is placed instead. Thereafter, it being a cremation, the equivalence diverges. The pyre is then lit using the fires in which he had made offerings during his life and an invocation of Yama is made, followed by the mantra honoring the ancient Aṅgiras-es and Bhṛgu-s. Once he has burned his remains are collected sprinkled with milk and collected in an urn mixed with scented powders and unguents. Then the urn with the remains or just the remains are buried and a śmaśāna is piled over it. A version of a similar cremation is narrated in the Greek epic by Agamemnon’s ghost to Achilles about his own funeral:

The daughters of the “Old Man of the Sea” stood around your [Achilles] corpse lamenting bitterly. They wrapped your body in an imperishable shroud. And the nine Muses chanted your dirge, responding each to each in their sweet voices. There was not a single Argive to be seen without tears in his eyes, so moving was the clear song of the Muse. Immortal gods and mortal men, we mourned for you, seventeen days and nights, and on the eighteenth we delivered you to the flames, sacrificing herds of fattened sheep and spiral-horned cattle round you. You were burnt clothed as a god, drowned in unguents and sweet honey, and a host of Achaean heroes streamed past your pyre as you burned, warriors and charioteers, making a vast noise. And at dawn, Achilles, when Hephaestus’ fires had eaten you, we gathered up your whitened ash and bone, and steeped them in oil and unmixed wine. Your mother gave us a gold two-handled urn, saying it was the gift of Dionysus, and crafted by far-famed Hephaestus himself. There your ashes lie, my glorious Achilles, mixed with the bones of the dead Patroclus, Menoetius’ son, but separated from those of Antilochus, who next to dead Patroclus you loved most among your comrades. And on a headland thrusting into the wide Hellespont we, the great host of Argive spearmen, heaped a vast flawless mound above them, so it might be seen far out to sea by men who live now and those to come.

The Greek account is notable in several ways: The parallels to the Atharvan version (and more generally the Vaidika version) is apparent. The use of sweet honey is interesting for the Atharvanic injunction for a kṣatriya’s corpse is: “madhūtsiktena kṣatriyasyāvasiñcati” (A stream of honey is poured over the kṣatriya’s); thus, Achilles was being given a kṣatriya’s funeral. Eating of Achilles by the fires of Hephaestus may be compared with the phrase of the corpse-eating Agni Kravyāda in the Veda. The Kurgan custom of the steppes is also retained by the Greeks who pile a Kurgan for Achilles, even as described in the Atharvan and Ṛgvedic Kurgan burial.

Irrespective of whether the chimeras and sacrificed animal heads at the Celtic site had any earlier Indo-European connection, we find references to both such animal heads and the chimeras in the Vedic ritual.

In the soma ritual at the base of the altar heads of five animals, including humans, are laid as a foundation. This is described thus in the brāhmaṇa section of the Taittirīya-saṃhitā thus:

prajāpatir agnim asṛjata |
Prajāpati emitted Agni.

so ‘smāt sṛṣṭaḥ prāṅ prādaravat tasmā aśvam praty āsyat |
He (Agni) [when] emitted ran away east from him (Prajāpati); he (Prajāpati) hurled a horse at him (Agni).

sa dakṣiṇāvartata tasmai vṛṣṇim praty āsyat |
He (Agni) turned to the south; he (Prajāpati) hurled a ram at him (Agni).

sa pratyaṅṅ āvartata tasmā ṛṣabham praty āsyat |
He (Agni) turned to the west; he (Prajāpati) hurled a bull at him (Agni).

sa udaṅṅ āvartata tasmai bastam praty āsyat |
He (Agni) turned to the north; he (Prajāpati) hurled a goat at him (Agni).

sa ūrdhvo ‘dravat tasmai puruṣam praty āsyat |
He (Agni) fled upwards; he (Prajāpati) hurled a man at him (Agni).

yat paśu-śīrṣāṇy upadadhāti sarvata evainam avarudhya cinute |
Thus, he (the ritual specialist: adhvaryu) places the animal-heads, enclosing them all around, he piles [the altar].

etā vai prāṇa-bhṛtaś cakṣuṣmatīr iṣṭakā yat paśu-śīrṣāṇi |
These, the animal-heads, truly life-supporting [and] possessed of sight are the bricks (i.e. of the ritual’s foundation).

yat paśu-śīrṣāṇy upadadhāti tābhir eva yajamāno ‘muṣmin loke prāṇity atho tābhir evāsmā ime lokāḥ pra bhānti |
Because he places the animal-heads, the ritualist lives (breathes) by means of them in that [other] world; also indeed these worlds shine forth for him by them (the heads).

mṛdābhilipyopa dadhāti medhyatvāya |
Having smeared them (the heads) with mud for ritual purity, he places them down.

paśur vā eṣa yad agnir annam paśava eṣa khalu vā agnir yat paśuśīrṣāṇi |
Agni, indeed is [embodied in] an animal; animals are food; verily the animal-heads are this Agni.

yaṃ kāmayeta kanīyo ‘syānnam syād iti saṃtarāṃ tasya paśuśīrṣāṇy upa dadhyāt kanīya evāsyānnam bhavati |
If he perhaps wishes that: ‘May his food be less’, he should lay his animals-heads more closely together; verily his food becomes less.

yaṃ kāmayeta samāvad asyānnaṁ syād iti madhyatas tasyopa dadhyāt samāvad evāsyānnam bhavati |
If he perhaps wishes that: ‘May his food remain the same’, he should lay his animals-heads medium [spacing apart]; verily his food remains the same.

yaṃ kāmayeta bhūyo ‘syānnaṁ syād ity anteṣu tasya vyudūhyopa dadhyād antata evāsmā annam ava runddhe bhūyo ‘syānnam bhavati ||
If he perhaps wishes that: ‘May his food be more’, he should lay his animal-heads widely-separated at the ends of the pit; verily by enclosing the food his food becomes more.

Thus, the different animal-heads being placed at the base of the soma ritual altar are reminiscent of the multiple heads of different animals found at the Celtic site. While in many modern performances clay or golden heads might be used, it is clear that in the earlier ritual actual heads were used. As for the human head it is apparent that it was not obtained by human sacrifice in the core śrauta tradition. Āpastamba clarifies that the corpse of a Kṣatriya or Vaiśya who has been slain in warfare by an arrow or struck dead by lightning is purchased for 7 or 21 units of cash and the head is severed at the time of the sale. The Kaṭha-s clarify that a dead man’s head is bought for 21 units of cash at a cemetery and severed from the corpse at the time of purchase.

Finally, coming to the issue of chimeric animals in the veda, we might cite the famous verse of Vāmadeva Gautama on the embodiment of Sanskrit language as chimeric animal:

catvāri śṛṅgā trayo asya pādā
dve śīrṣe sapta hastāso asya |
tridhā baddho vṛṣabho roravīti
maho devo martyāṃ ā viveśa || RV 4.58.3

Four horns, his feet are three,
his heads are two, his hands seven;
bound thrice the bull roars,
the great god has entered into the mortals.

The god Agni enters the mortals as the Sanskrit language comprised of:
4 four horns: nominals, verbs, preverbs and particles.
3 feet: the 3 accents of the old language.
2 heads: the vocalized word and the inner word associated with the first person experience of meaning.
7 hands: the 7 cases
3 bonds: The articulations in the lungs, throat and head that express the language in spoke form.

We shall be elaborating on this and its significance to the performance of ritual in a separate story.

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