Sacrifice in a Bog

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

Extract from the Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney 1972

In 1983 I was living and working in Denmark; I did go to Aarhus or rather I went to Silkeborg Museum; I saw his peat-brown head and his pointed skin cap; I also saw the serene look on his face and I felt a kinship that is still with me today. My then girlfriend, now my wife, and I were on a trip exploring Jutland and when I entered the museum I knew so little of the Tollund Man, but he has been in my thoughts many times since that day nearly 40 years ago.

When you walk into the small room and up to the cabinet housing ‘Tollund Man’, all conversation dries up as you gaze in awe upon this man with a leather skull cap and stubble on his chin, lying in gentle repose. He has a face that seems vaguely familiar and you almost expect him to suddenly open his eyes, smile at you and enquire how long he had been asleep. Then suddenly you are drawn to the rope around his neck and, with a shock, you realise that this seemingly peaceful face masks a violent and traumatic death in the desolate fens of Jutland 2,300 years ago.

The reason for his death is still open to discussion and dispute, but one theory keeps returning and refuses to go away, that this man and countless others, found in the bogs of Denmark and beyond, were willing victims, who were sacrificed to appease the ancient pagan gods and goddesses and to ensure fertility and prosperity for the year ahead.

A few months after my first meeting with Tollund man, I was chatting to a work colleague about my visit and he introduced me to the definitive book on the subject, written in 1971, which not only covered the man from Tollund but numerous other bodies that had been discovered in the Peat Bogs of Denmark and elsewhere. It was called appropriately ‘The Bog People’ and was written by P. (Peter) V. Glob, a renowned archeologist and director of the Danish National Museum. My colleague lent me the book which I devoured and when he left the firm a few months later, I am ashamed to say I forgot to return his dog-eared paperback. I have it still to this day, even more well thumbed; I hope I am forgiven.

In the book, Professor Glob tells the stories of the bog people of Northern Europe in the Iron Age, their beliefs, how they lived and speculation on how they died. Throughout the centuries there have been dozens of bodies discovered in peat bogs throughout Scandinavia, the British Isles and elsewhere, but somehow Denmark seems to have had its fair share of discoveries. The earliest finds have not survived, but from the 19th century finds were better documented until at last in the 20th century many of these bodies were preserved for posterity.

The unique conditions in peat bogs means that bog bodies often retain their skin and internal organs, as well as hairs , nails, teeth, wool and leather. A combination of the acidity of the soil and a lack of oxygen preserved the skins, whereas the bones are dissolved by the acidity in the peat. The bodies are all a red, brown colour as a result of the tannins in the soil. There is also large amounts of spagnum moss in the bogs which aids the preservation process.

Spagnum Moss in typical Peat Bog

Tollund man was discovered on a spring day in 1950 by two farmers, who were cutting peat as fuel for the following winter. When they first uncovered the face , it seemed so fresh that thought that they had found a recent murder victim. It was only later that the more astonishing truth was discovered. There is a atmospheric and poetic description of this event in ‘The Bog People’, as follows:-

“An early spring day – 8 May 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjældskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything to life. The evening stillness was only broken now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward , arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed , the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world , through the gate in the western sky.”

 © P.V.Glob 1965

Of the numerous bog bodies, Tollund man was unique in that his face was intact and in perfect condition. In fact, it is the best preserved human head, to have survived from antiquity in any part of the world. Unfortunately, a decision was made to concentrate on the preservation of the head, which was detached from the body and as a result after initial analysis the body disintegrated. It was subsequently reconstructed by experts and the replica of the body attached to the original head is what can be seen today in the museum. The photograph below shows Tollund man as he looked shortly after he was excavated.

A close up of 2000 year old stubble
The Tollund Man after excavation

But how and why did these people die? Most people during pre-Christian times in Northern Europe were cremated on pyres, so there was obviously a particular reason why the bodies in the bogs were buried in a ritualised way. They were killed in a variety of ways, either bludgeoned, strangled, hanged such as Tollund man, stabbed or a combination of all of them. They were also laid in the earth in a special manner on their side with their legs drawn up to their stomach (see photograph above). Glob argues very persuasively that these were votive offerings to the gods and he uses as evidence the many artefacts found in the peat bogs, which show a deep allegiance to the Nordic pagan gods, including the famous Gundestrup cauldron, which was found in a bog north of Silkeborg.

Gundestrup Silver Cauldren c 150BC with representations of Gods and Goddesses (By Rosemania – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312)

Since Glob’s time other theories have arisen that bog people were social outcasts, witches or enemy hostages killed over broken treaty arrangements, although many archeologists still believe that the most likely explanation is still that of human sacrifice .

That day in Silkeborg has been etched in my memory, as in addition to the Tollund man, we also visited the nearby Silkeborg Art Museum (now renamed Museum Jorn), where I was introduced to the art of that great Danish modern artist Asger Jorn, founding member of the CoBrA group, whose wildly expressionist and primitive art, echoed ancient cultures and seemed somehow apposite after visiting Tollund Man.

In the Beginning was the Image 1965 – Asger Jorn (Copyright – Fair use)

However, it was only in the course of researching this article that I discovered, much to my surprise that Peter Glob and Asger Jorn were associates and had collaborated on a number of projects, the most important being the delightfully named ‘Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism’ , whose stated purpose was to throw new light upon the Scandinavian culture in the age of migrations and Vikings. My initial instincts on a connection between the ancient and modern were perhaps not that wide of the mark.

Of course, I am not the only person to be drawn into the web of the Bog people and the Tollund man. The greatest Irish poet of his generation and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, became obsessed after reading Peter Glob’s book and in his 1972 collection ‘Wintering Out’ he wrote one of his most famous poems ‘The Tollund Man’

THE TOLLUND MAN
I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home. 

© 1972, Estate of Seamus Heaney
From: Wintering Out 
Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 1972

In his 1975 collection ‘North’, Heaney’s meditation on the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, he wrote many more bog poems including ‘Bog Queen’, ‘Grauballe man’ and ‘Punishment’ amongst others, where he uses the Bog bodies as a metaphor for the violence, punishment and terrible sacrifices being made in his home country.

Of course, when Heaney wrote ‘The Tollund Man’, he was well aware that he was housed in Silkeborg and not Aarhus, but he used poetic licence to fit in with the rhythm of the poem. Also, at the time of it’s composition, Heaney had not been to Denmark and his poem was solely inspired by Glob’s book. He remedied this several years later by visiting the Museum and meeting Glob in person and he made number of subsequent trips to Denmark.

Poetry is at its best when read aloud and even more moving and affecting when spoken by the Author himself in his soft, lilting Irish accent, as can be heard in the following link to the Poetry International Archives. The Tollund Man read by Seamus Heaney

After all this time, Tollund Man still fires my imagination; was he a willing sacrifice, an enemy combatant put to death or just a common criminal paying for his sins? We shall never know, but this I do know; very soon when the world is back to normal, we will go on a pilgrimage, retracing our Jutland trip and we will once again greet Tollund Man, lying there in his eternal slumber, just as he was nearly 40 years ago.

Notes:-

  1. Header Photograph – A small part of the remaining bog, where Tollund Man was found on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. Photograph courtesy of Robert Clark , National Geographic.
  2. The Bog People by P. V. Glob – For anyone wishing to discover more about the lives and deaths of our Iron Age ancestors, this is essential reading.
  3. Visiting the Tollund Man – Silkeborg Museum
  4. The Art of Asger Jorn – Museum Jorn, Silkeborg
  5. Peter Glob’s daughter Lotte Glob is a celebrated ceramicist living and working in a remote area up in the North-West of Scotland. I can see a clear influence in her work in the wild landscape in Scotland, but also the spirit of her father and Asger Jorn are present in her ceramics. Lotte Glob, Ceramic Artist

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

One thought on “Sacrifice in a Bog

  1. Thank you John for a very interesting article. I had not realised the connection with Asger Jorn but can now more appreciate Jorn’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

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