Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Bog Bodies

European archaeologists have published a comprehensive study of all the known "bog bodies," meaning all the corpses and skeletons to have been recovered from peat bogs in Europe. (NY Times, physorg) They counted more than a thousand, the first one a Mesolithic skeleton from 6,000 BC. Some of them were probably poor souls who drowned or died otherwise mundane deaths, but hundreds of them seem to be victims of sacrifice. This is especially true for the Iron Age, from 600 BC to 400 AD. This is the era of the famous bog bodies, like Tollund Man (above) and the Yde Girl.

Of the 57 bog people whose cause of death could be determined in Dr. van Beek’s study, at least 45 met violent ends, and quite a few were bludgeoned or suffered mutilation and dismemberment before they died. Tollund Man, dating to the fifth century B.C. and dredged from a Danish peat bog in 1950, was hanged. Bone arrowheads were found embedded in the skull and sternum of Porsmose Man, recovered from peat elsewhere in Denmark. Seven victims appear to have been slain by several means, a practice that scholars call overkilling. Almost all of the overkills in Dr. van Beek’s study occurred from 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.

Two features recur among Iron Age bog bodies: youth and disability. Many bodies were those of adolescents, at the cusp between childhood and adulthood. . . . The Yde girl had severe scoliosis, a twisting of the spine that meant her growth was stunted and she would have walked with a lurch.

Actually the sample is numerically dominated by the 380 skeletons found at Alken Enge in Denmark, where a whole defeated army seems to have been offered to the gods. But the bodies that look like sacrifices are indeed often young, and several were probably disabled. I have written here many times about the ancient tradition that associated shamanic or other magical powers with physical disability, which endured in folklore into the nineteenth century. So they might have been chosen because people with twisted bodies were considered better messengers to the gods; or, it might be that they were considered dangerous threats that the community was better off without.

"Overkill" is a favorite topic of people interested in ancient sacrifice. Both Irish and Welsh literature have several examples of people who managed to be killed in three ways at once, which scholars as far back as the 17th century dubbed the "threefold death." Merlin is the most famous such victim; in one medieval story he is stabbed with a spear, hanged, and drowned simultaneously, while in a different story his prophetic powers are confirmed when he foresees this end for another. The idea was mooted that this was a memory of ancient sacrificial practice. So when Lindow Man emerged from an English bog in 1984, everyone was very excited that he seemed to have been stabbed in the neck, strangled, and hit on the head with an ax in rapid succession. Sadly these synthetic studies have failed to find much evidence that threefold killing was ever common. There are, however, several fairly clear cases of double killing, usually strangling and stabbing, which makes me wonder if maybe drowning in the bog was the third form.

Why bogs? Well, for one thing, we don't know how many Iron Age sacrifices were done that way, it's just that only in bogs are their bodies preserved well enough for us to identify them as sacrificial victims. But if it was a common part of sacrifice, it must be connected to the ancient fascination with places that are in between. Executions used to be held on the borders of communities, or in the unclaimed lands between them. Peat bogs were in-between places, beyond the community's defined edges, in the vacant spaces between villages and farms. They were also in-between in an elemental sense, part land and part water – which is also what made them dangerous places where people often drowned. So if you wanted to get away from the world of clear definitions and firm boundaries, out to a place where the edges were less hard and the barriers between worlds thin, you might well decide to hold your ritual in a peat bog and let the victim sink into the watery lands between here and there.

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