The threefold death, which is suffered by kings, heroes, and gods, is a putatively Proto-Indo-European theme – although it is attested in medieval accounts of Celtic and Germanic mythology and archaeologically attested from ancient bodies such as Lindow Man.
Some proponents of the trifunctional hypothesis distinguish two types of threefold deaths in Indo-European myth and ritual. In the first type of threefold death, one person dies simultaneously in three ways. He dies by hanging (or strangulation or falling from a tree), by drowning (or poison), and by wounding. These three deaths are foretold, and are often punishment for an offense against the three functions of Indo-European society. The second form of the threefold death is split into three distinct parts; these distinct deaths are sacrifices to three distinct gods of the three functions.
Examples from literature and myth
In Welsh legend, Myrddin Wyllt (one of the sources for Merlin of Arthurian legend) is associated with threefold death. As a test of his skill, Merlin is asked to prophesy how a boy will die. He says the boy will fall from a rock. The same boy, with a change of clothes, is presented again, and Merlin prophesies that he will hang. Then, dressed in a girl's clothes, the boy is presented, and Merlin replies, "Woman or no, he will drown." As a young man, the victim, in a hunt, falls from a rock, is caught in a tree, and hanging head down in a lake, drowns.
Myrddin Wyllt also reportedly prophesied his own death, which would happen by falling, stabbing, and drowning. This was fulfilled when a gang of jeering shepherds drove him off a cliff, where he was impaled on a stake left by fishermen, and died with his head below water.
The Norse god Odin is also associated with the threefold death. Human sacrifices to Odin were hanged from trees. Odin is said to have hanged himself in order to learn the secrets of magic. The tarot card known as The Hanged Man is sometimes identified with Odin and with the threefold death.
One of the most prominent examples of this threefold death in three separate sacrifices comes to us from Lucan In his epic poem, Pharsalia, which relates Caesar's conquest of Gaul, he describes a set of three Celtic gods who receive human sacrifices: et quibus inmitis placatur sanguine diro/ Teutates horrensque feris altaribus Esus/ et Taranis Scythicae non mitior ara Dianae. ("To whom they appease with cruel blood, harsh Teutates, and wild, bristling Esus, and Taranis whose altar is as insatiable as that of Scythian Diana.") 
One of the marginal notes in a 10th-century manuscript of the Pharsalia, known as the Commenta Bernensia is highly important for an understanding of how these lines relate to Proto-Indo-European culture. “The later... scholiasts... elaborate on Lucan: they elicit the information that Taranis was propitiated by burning, Teutates by drowning, and Esus by means of suspending his victims from trees and ritually wounding them”  This scholium is of huge significance to understanding whether this text contains evidence of the threefold death in Celtic worship. It is a distinctive detail, and it matches closely with numerous other details that relate to ritual practice in Indo-European society.
In recent years an Indo-European pattern of threefold death has been identified and discussed in terms of this tripartite ideology by a number of followers of Dumezil... The pattern is found in myths and legends of various Indo-European peoples in two main forms. The first of these is a series or grouping of three deaths, each by a different means. The second is a single death by three different means simultaneously.
Evans goes on to cite numerous stories from various Indo-European society. All of these stories he tells contain this theme of a tripartite death. He argues, following Dumezil, that three distinct methods of sacrifice, corresponding to the three functional deities, was an important Proto-Indo-European ritual.
There are a number of stories in Celtic mythology that clearly are formed by the Tripartate functions of Proto-Indo-European. The theme of triple-death occurs in several places in medieval Celtic sources. The first story comes from the Life of St. Columba (Vita Columbae):
Aedh, surnamed the Black, descended of a royal family, and a Cruthinian by race. Aedh wore the clerical habit, and came with the purpose of residing with him in the monastery for some years. Now this Aedh the Black had been a very bloodthirsty man, and cruelly murdered many persons, amongst others Diarmuid, son of Cerbul, by divine appointment king of all. This same Aedh, then, after spending some time in his retirement, was irregularly ordained priest by a bishop invited for the purpose... The bishop, however, would not venture to lay a hand upon his head unless Findchan, who was greatly attached to Aedh in a carnal way, should first place his right hand on his head as a mark of approval. 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.
This story of triple-death corresponds to the elements which Evans finds in a whole host of similar stories. In all of these stories, the tripartate death is foretold. Here St. Columba foretells the triple death of Aedh. At the same time Columba's prophecy is a curse or a punishment which he dispenses to Aedh because of his sins. This leads to the next element common in many 'Triple-death' stories, the sins of the warrior. According to Dumezil, the warrior often commits a sin against each one of the functions. He is punished for each sin, with a punishment fitting for his crime. In this passage from the Life of St. Columba, three specific sins are mentioned. Aedh blasphemes by being ordained a priest outside of the Church. This is a sin against the priestly function of Indo-European society. Aedh's second sin is murder; he has killed numerous people, most notably King Diarmuid. This is a sin against the warrior function. Aedh's last sin is against the productive/fertile function in Indo-European society, he has slept with another man—an act which is by its very nature unfertile.
The Tripartite death of Aedh is linked with another story of triple-death. Diarmuid, who is killed by Aedh, also dies a triple death:
When the king sent men to arrest Aedh, St. Ronan hid him and so Diarmuid had Ronan arrested and tried in his stead. He was condemned by the ecclasiastics for this act and Ronan himself uttered the famous curse, 'Desolate be Tara forever!' Soon after, Tara was abandoned, never to achieve its former splendor... [Diarmuid's wife] had an affair with Flann, so Diarmuid had Flann's fortress burnt over his head. Sorely wounded, Flann tried to escape the flames by crawling into a vat of water where he drowned... Bec Mac De [Diarmuid's druid councilor] prophesied that Diarmuid would be killed by Flann's kinsman, Aedh Dubh in the house of Banban... The manner of his death would be by slaughter, by burning, by drowning and by the ridge pole of a roof falling on his head... The Prophecy seemed so unlikely that Diarmuid scorned it, even when Banban invited him to a feast... Aedh Dubh was there and stabbed the High King with his spear. Wounded, Diarmuid fled back into the house. Aedh Dubh's men set fire to it. Seeking to escape the flame, Diarmuid scrambled into a vat of ale. A burning ridge pole fell on to his head. The prophecy was fulfilled (Ellis, 84).
Both of the elements which Evans discusses are present in this story of Diarmuid's death. In this story, there is a prophecy of the threefold death before it occurs. In fact, Diarmuid's death is foretold by three different men in the original story. Diarmuid has also clearly violated two of the three functions. He sins against the sanctity of the priestly function, by trying St. Ronan. For this crime Ronan curses the throne at Tara. Diarmuid also murders Flann, a violation of the warrior function. Diarmuid is punished for his transgressions by the triple nature of his death.
Hints of the threefold death
- In the myth of Starkad, king Vikar is hanged or strangled on the waterside, while pierced by a reed that turns into a spear.
- King Agamemnon is stabbed in his bath, while caught in a net.
- Siegfried is killed by a weapon while drinking from a spring, near a tree (so that "hanging and drowning themes remain as mere suggestions").
- Oleg of Novgorod's death, as reported in the Primary Chronicle, is a "slightly distorted" variant of the myth (see Oleg of Novgorod § Legend of the death of Oleg the Prophet).
The Lindow Man and other bog bodies
German scientist Alfred Dieck estimated that there were over 1,860 known bog bodies in Europe. Archaeologist Don Brothwell considers that many of the older bodies need re-examining with modern techniques, such as those used in the analysis of Lindow Man. The study of bog bodies, including these found in Lindow Moss, have contributed to a wider understanding of well-preserved human remains, helping to develop new methods in analysis and investigation. The use of sophisticated techniques such as computer tomography (CT) scans has marked the investigation of the Lindow bodies as particularly important. Such scans allow the reconstruction of the body and internal examination. Of the 27 bodies recovered from lowland raised mires in England and Wales, only those from Lindow Moss and the remains of Worsley Man have survived, together with a shoe from another body. The remains have a date range from the early 1st to the 4th centuries. Investigation into the other bodies relies on contemporary descriptions of the discovery.
The physical evidence allows a general reconstruction of how Lindow Man was killed, although some details are debated, but it does not explain why he was killed. In North West England, there is little evidence for religious or ritual activity in the Iron Age period. What evidence does survive is usually in the form of artefacts recovered from peat bogs. Late Iron Age burials in the region often took the form of a crouched inhumation, sometimes with personal ornaments. Although dated to the mid-1st century AD, the type of burial of Lindow Man was more common in the pre-historic period. In the later half of the 20th century, it was a common assumption that bog bodies demonstrating injuries to the neck or head area were ritualistic in nature. Bog bodies were associated with Germanic and Celtic cultures, specifically relating to head worship.
According to Brothwell, it is one of the most complex examples of "overkill" in a bog body, and possibly has ritual meaning as it was "extravagant" for a straightforward murder or perfunctory execution. Archaeologists John Hodgson and Mark Brennand suggest that bog bodies may have been related to religious practice, although there is division in the academic community over this issue and in the case of Lindow Man, whether the killing was murder or ritualistic is still debated. Anne Ross, an expert on Iron Age religion, proposed that the death was an example of human sacrifice and that the "triple death" (throat cut, strangled, and hit on the head) was an offering to several different gods. The wide date range for Lindow Man's death (2 BC to 119 AD) means he may have met his demise after the Romans conquered northern England in the 60s AD. As the Romans outlawed human sacrifice, this opens up other possibilities; this was emphasised by historian Ronald Hutton, who challenged the interpretation of sacrificial death. Connolly suggests that as Lindow Man was found naked, he could have been the victim of a violent robbery. Joy said, "The jury really is still out on these bodies, whether they were aristocrats, priests, criminals, outsiders, whether they went willingly to their deaths or whether they were executed – but Lindow was a very remote place in those days, an unlikely place for an ambush or a murder".
- Aed Dub mac Suibni
- Bec mac Dé
- Celts and human sacrifice
- High King of Ireland
- Lleu Llaw Gyffes
- Trifunctional hypothesis
- Lindow Man
- Georges Dumezil
- Proto-Indo-European culture
- Mallory, J. P., Adams, Douglass Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, p. 577
- Bragg, Melvyn, "Merlin" In Our Time 30 June 2005, BBC4, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20050630.shtml
- Lucan, "Pharsalia", I.441-446 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Luc.+1.441&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0133 Trans. James Kennedy 2008
- Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Pg. 85. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. ISBN 0-500-27975-6.
- Evans, David. "Agamemnon and the Indo-European Threefold Death Pattern." History of Religions, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Nov., 1979), pp. 153-166 http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.gvsu.edu/stable/pdfplus/1062271.pdf
- Columba, I. 29. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/lifeofsaintcolum00adamuoft/lifeofsaintcolum00adamuoft_djvu.txt on 24 December 2008
- Mallory, J. P., Adams, Douglass Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Pg. 635
- Miller, Dean (1997). "Threefold death". In Mallory, J. P.; Adams, Douglas Q. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 577–578.
- Brothwell 1995, p. 100
- Brothwell 1995, pp. 100–101
- Brothwell 1995, p. 101
- Turner 1995b, pp. 111, 114–115
- Joy 2009, p. 55
- Hodgson & Brennand 2006, pp. 55–56
- Philpott 2006, p. 79
- Briggs 1995, p. 162
- Brothwell 1986, pp. 28–29
- Joy 2009, p. 45
- Joy 2009, p. 23
- Joy 2009, p. 48
- Joy 2009, p. 44
- Kennedy, Maev (28 January 2008), First-century Lindow Man goes back to his roots, The Guardian, retrieved 2010-07-03