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One of the greatest emotional challenges in writing The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is that my heroine belongs to a religion that sacrifices humans.

At least, I think the pagan Continental Saxons did such a thing. Today, we know very little of this religion. Its followers didn’t have a written language as we know it, and the Church, with Charlemagne’s assistance, did whatever it could to obliterate what it saw as devil worship. We have clues in poems, folk tales, other religions, and the writings of their enemies.

Take Charlemagne’s 782 capitulary to the Saxons. It makes human sacrifice punishable by death, along with cannibalism, burning the dead, refusing baptism, raping the lord’s daughter, and many other offenses. This is far from an objective account of what really did happen, so it’s difficult to determine what was hysteria and what was reality.

But there is other evidence that human sacrifice was part of the Saxons’ worship. The 778 entry in the Royal Frankish Annuals complains of atrocities, and another source laments indiscriminate killing.

War between Charlemagne and the Saxons
War Between the Franks and the Saxons (13th century image public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 21st century, we find this act heinous. But early medieval pagans were not doing this because of sadism. They needed divine help to win a war or end a famine. Such crises called for a sacrifice more valuable than the typical meat of the best animal slaughtered for a community feast.

One reason was to thank the war god, Wodan, for the victory in battle by giving him the first war captives instead of subjecting them to slavery. Think of it as a macabre first fruits offering.

Another reason was atonement. A great disaster such as a drought or famine was a sign of divine anger, and the only acceptable appeasement was human blood. Instead of the enemy, the faithful turned on the family in power. Either the ruler’s children or the leader himself had to give up their lives for the good of the people.

So my heroine accepts the need for this ultimate sacrifice, believing the death of a few people could save an entire community.

Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th century interpretation of the Franks fighting the Saxons
Alphonse de Neuville’s 19th century interpretation of the Franks fighting the Saxons (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).


Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1, Jacob Grimm

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by

Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King