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Serene Sacrifices From the Bogs

The Bewitching and Beguiling Bog Bodies and the real archaeology that inspired Seamus Heaney in compose his iconic Bog Poems

-By Carmen Zavislake

The bog bodies have always fascinated me, perhaps it is because their sacrifices are time capsules from life and death thousands of years ago, or perhaps it is because they become exhumed embodiments of Death itself. They are so hauntingly familiar, and yet so frightfully foreign, they have crossed over the stone veil of time and the threshold of death, keeping their secrets silent.


PHOTO SOURCE: "Womb of the Earth" by Zyphyrus from

Since humans first experienced death, crop failure, and warfare they had to find a symbolic way or ritual to ease their fears of their own demise. The offerings and sacrifices were in hopes of ensuring familial and agricultural fertility, or to restore balance tof justice through punishment for sins and transgressions, or as a noble volunteer to ensure the tribe's survival as we see in the kingly bog body of Lindow Man. Both Lindow Man and Lindow woman were believed to have their torsos and perhaps their hair was painted, or decorated ritually with copper dust, as the levels were much higher than normally found in the bog environment, others speculate that it is merely due to the acidity of the bog, but we shall never know for certain.


PHOTO SOURCE: Detail of the warriors thrown into cauldron, from Wikipedia

The bog is symbolic of the womb of Mother Earth, even if they did not want rebirth for the victims their blood offering and burial in the bog returns them to the magna mater, or the Great Mother. In Ireland the Great Mother was known as Eiru, in Denmark she is known as Nerthus, archaeological evidence on the Gundestrup Cauldron is thought to depict the goddess Nerthus, responsible for fertility, and the Gaulish god, Cernunnos. The cauldron also shows this idea of rebirth or warriors sacrificed, in a baptism of blood.

Just look at the detail in the photo below, it is eerie. His lips, his stubble, his pores, and the ghoulish smoothness of his tanned skin are intact despite of what we know about the ravages of time on a corpse, that normally would be dust and bone by now. Macabre, magnificant, and melancholically youthful over thousands of years.


PHOTO SOURCE: A still close up of Tollund Man, from Ron Fricke's film Samsara, 2011

Entombed in their dreamless eternal sleep, these sad victims of violence were abruptly ripped from their resting places of the womb-like bog. Once ripped out of their Mother Earth, they are figuratively reborn, in that they become divine symbols of the perishability of life, yet the perpetuity of being encased on the oxygen-deprived peat that prevents decomposition. The perhaps criminals, witches, or merely blood sacrifices to ensure the crops for the coming spring.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) , Irish poet and translator was so inspired upon reading reknowned Danish archaeologist Peter V. Glob's (1911-1985) landmark book, The Bog People, that in 1976, he travelled to Copenhagen. Brought together by Jørgen Andersen (1922-) , himself an admirer of Heaney's work is an art historian, broadcaster, and author and share a snaps, aka "aquavit", a potent Danish alcoholic elixir made with bog myrtle, they all shared a drink in Glob's office and became friends.

Heaney and Glob discussed the enchanting power of the poor hanged man dumped in the bog, Tollund man was discovered one spring day on Bjaeldskov Dale, Tollund Fen, May 8th, 1950. Peter Glob's descriptions so detailed they become poetic, reverent, and so vividly transport the reader back in time, as if slipping through the portal themselves, through the bog hole. The violence of his death, now long quieted by thousands of years, is painted seemingly like a revenant, or a dreamer awakened to the sounds of thunder-claps, warmed by momentary sun bursts, and ocasional love-calls of the snipes:

"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 this 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 if the dead man's soul had for a moment returned from another world, throught the gate in the western sky."


The book inspired the poems and Tolund, and later a whole series of bog poems as emblematic of tribal politics, sacrifice, and violence that ties into the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Seamus believes “bog as a memory bank” is universal. Years later, on his second visit to see Glob, Heaney visited Gotland, to the very site where the Tollund Man was pulled from the earth.


IMAGE: Tollund Man, from the Silkeborg Museum of Denmark website

They are endearing because subconsiously they resemble us, we identify so strongly with their plight, their delivate mortality, frail, fleeting as for us all, yet almost magically, here they remain preserved for all time, becoming immortal in their timelessness.

They also resemble a sleeping person, so their restful state somehow soothes our fear of death, although they never awake at a primal level, we wish it to be so. Bog bodies are full size Pickled Punks, preserved stillborn fetuses, they sprouted from the womb of Mother Earth herself, sadly mutilated once again by the Peat Cutters, diggers, or bulldozers during construction.

Poems like "Nerthus" and "Antaeus" were inspired by the bog bodies, and the "Bog Queen" poem is significant of Eriu, the Mother Goddess of Ireland herself. Eriu is goddess of the boundary, and of the threshold, and it was to her they were offered as sacrifices. "As it was she who nourished the crops and herds she was fertility goddess, and as she was the actual land on which the people dwelled she was the goddess of sovereignty as well. She exercised control over the annual cycle of birth, death and renewal, which made her goddess of death." -Eamonn P. Kelly.

PITY for the PAIN we see in them, and look MIRROR at our own mortality, Death is staring us in the face, we can see it before our eyes, in their glistening darkness.

Some people argue that these bog bodies represent violence against the male body

The Peat Cutters have mangled them unawares, the unearthing the last trauma to their bodies, as seen in the Grauballe Man’s face, their Pain frozen in time. In The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, P.V. Glob himself describes the pain and emotion we see frozen in time with the bog bodies:

“The peat cutters had completely exposed the serves, like the head of the Tollund man, to give an impression of how this man looked on the threshold of death many years ago.... The effect is not one of tranquility but of pain and terror."

I think they represent something thought of by the clan/tribe as disposable, expendable, cast off, and perhaps easily forgotten, noble sacrifice for crop fertility, or a criminal punished, yet have had the last laugh of the closest thing a human being can be to “immortal” in the sense that they have not been obliterated over thousands of years, but have been made more saintly by their incorruptibility, sleeping through the millenia in their dreamless repose and becoming celebrated and revered as beautiful sacrifices.

Seamus Heaney may have wrote the poem to be really about the troubles in Northern Ireland, but out of his catlyst is a lovely poem which may have been dedicated to Windeby bog body thought to be an adultress scapegoated for her crime, is fraught with words like “intimate” “nape” nipples” are erotic and sexually charged, and “I almost love you” the gaze of the admirer and viewer (poet) is filled with love, also her beauty is transmuted into a trees like “at first a barked sapling that is dug up oak-bone, brain-firkin.”

The poem by Seamus Heaney "Strange Fruit" may be short, but it is very powerful in it’s simplicity, the tanned leather-like head of the bog body has taken on a macabre resemblance to dried fruit, the fragmentation, it being a severed head, it is really about the desire to reattach a fractured whole back together. Post-Colonial Ireland, divided into Protestants and Catholic, Anti-British (Republicanism Catholics/Nationalist) against British Sympathizers (Loyalists/Unionists Protestants) , which culminated violently in 1960s and marked the era of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In a report entitled "The Cruel Goddess: Death on the Boundary" archaeologist Eamonn P. Kelly discusses in great detail the symbolic meaning of the bog bodies ias well as what the bogs themselves represented within their own landscape and beliefs in Iron Age Ireland:

"Forming a threshold between land and water, bogs are classic liminal places that, by extension, may also have been taken to represent a threshold between the material world and the otherworld. In the tree-coved landscape of ancient Ireland bogs would have presented a huge vista of sky, providing a window on the heavens."

"A ritual involving magic or supplication to a deity performed at a liminal place has an optimum prospect of proving successful, and even greater success could be assured by performing the ritual at a liminal time such as Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa or Samhain, the feasts that divided the Celtic year, or solar events such as the midsummer and midwinter solstices."

There is some kind of magic in the water...

"There is a strange power in bog water which prevents decay. Bodies have been found which must have lain bogs for more than a thousand years, but which, though admittedly somewhat shrunken and brown, are in other respects unchanged."

-Danish Almanack 1837 (From The Bog People by P.V. Glob)

Here is a little scientific summary of the properties of oxygen-deprivation inherent within the peat bogs and blanket bogs have on arresting the decay of a body, from the Bones Don't Lie anthropology web page, her blog entry on 'why bodies don't decompose', Katy Meyers Emery explains:

"Bogs consist primarily of decayed vegetal materials which is inhibits decomposition in organic material due to constant wetness, acidic makeup and anaerobic conditions. The presence of mosses in the bogs further aid in preservation, as they act as an anti-bacterial. When a body is buried in a bog the cold water prevents putrefaction, the conditions of the bog prevent decomposition of proteins and tissue in the body, and further the lack of oxygen inhibits insect activity. Over the past century bodies have been found in a number of bogs, and are usually found with some of their clothing and their skin stained a dark brown from the bog. Bodies have been recovered in Ireland, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and Florida."

(Katy Meyers Emery, Antropologist)

Blame it on King Tutankhamun's Mummy...or, The Lack Thereof

I bit of backstory, as to when I my mummy mania, or bog body fever first hit.

As a child, I poured over or family's collection of Encyclopedia Britinnica, stacks of National Geographic, and World magazines, piles of library books about the loves of great explorers, and their great expeditions, or discoveries of ancient civilizations and artifacts...

Visits to the museum to see anything old or dead was more exhiting that a trip to the arcade. The first King Tut exhibit was "The Treasures of Tutankhamun" in the winter of 1979, at the AGO. I couldn't resist the next time Tut came to Toronto with the "King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs", and returned to the AGO in 2009. The second time it was lack-luster, it seemed so staged and with much of the exhibit being replicas or reproductions, it seemed to me more like a fun house. It also shed more light on other pharaohs with impressive massive statues.

SInce I first was monumentally disappointed at the exhibit of King Tutankhamun, so eager and exhitedly I anticipated seeing the secret tomb unearthed by Howard Carter in 1922. The star of the show, Tut's mummified body, but I was flabbergast when after standing in line after line, for what seemed like an eternity, finally closer and closer to get to see the mummy. The artifacts found in the tomb were spectacular, alabaster, scarabs, the sarchophagus and inner coffin, jewels dripping with gold and blue and red stonesI would have to make peace and stared at the gold burial mask and the chest of his canopic, and shabtis totem figures longingly, and then they herded us back into the buses and back to school.

Foiled and furious, I frowned as they quietly told us that the mummy had to be taken back to Egypt because exposure to the various climates on the exhibit's travels, it had started to dissintegrate, and was rushed back for conservation purposes. Thus, was borne my mummy obsession, then bog bodies soon followed. I would have to see the mummy vicariously through photos in the National Geographic magazine volume 151 #3 from March, 1977.


PHOTO SOURCE: Detail of King Tut's mummy, from website of National Geographic

One of my favorite television shows, aside from The Flintstones, The Twilight Zone, The Munsters, The Addams Family, was in fact Quincy, ME with Jack Klugman as the intrepid, endearing pathologist. In a Quincy state of mind, I searched for more science concerning the lack of decomposition, I consult one of the first books I bought on bog bodies in 1986, The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People by Don Brothwell. It covers all the various types of naturally ocurring phenomenon that prevent decay of a body, be it from being deposited in dry sand, or a wet bog, or ice. Presevation of the Human Body normally breaks down the body through rapid putrefaction and liquifaction, but other factors can enhance or hinder the natural tendency for the human body to dissintegrate. Don Brothwell states that:

"The rate of decomposition in a body depends on a variety of factors. For instance, deceay may be accelerated when death has resulted from certain types of infection. The presence of flies of the kind that can produce maggots can also lead quickly to the loss of flesh. Even in the absence of maggots, a body may putrefy rapidly and the soft tissue 'drip away in their own juices' if the temperature is moderately warm and there is plenty of air. This natural decay can be slowed down by embalming techniques, and even the old method of hardening the tissues in alcohol was effective in this respect. The early Egyptian embalmers used a quite different tecnique, whereby the natural deposits of natron (a carbonate and bicarbonate of sodium, with some impurities) appear to have been applied dry to the body. Such a technique must have enhanced the drying-out process. / Placing the body in an environment without air also slows down decomposition. The anaerobic conditions of bogs can therefore be ideal, depending on the amount of decay occuring before submergence or burial of the body. Bog water is also generally acid, which may deter some micro-organisms."

They remain a compelling, captivating, and sentimental reminder that we share the same fate, not matter where you come from, we are all mortal, and will also die. Almost like looking in a mirror of unbecomeing, perhaps we see a glimpse of ourselves in that frozen oblivion of Death. They are strange, unearthly macabre pickled fruit now in pieces in museums for us to view having emerged from their primordial cauldron, the womb of Mother Earth.

Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging" is not part of the bog poem series, but the analogy of the poet as archaeologist is undenyably linked to and inspired by the bog bodies. Moreover, the poem "Field Work", is also a play on words of an anthropological excavation and unearthing from the primordial earth.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

“Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.”

Such a powerful opening, Heaney talks of the violence of creation to mad scientist proportions, not Romanticizing, but grinding it down to the Everyman’s level, the toil of work is the same exertion be it physical or mental. The act of writing and creating is likened to his Father’s potato planting, and his Grandfather, a Peat Cutter’s digging, we are toiling, deeper and deeper, for the artist, delving into the subconsious, the hidden, the repressed,

The Bog Poems Themselves...

I was going to analyze each poem, but I think they are more beautiful as they are without explanation, take from them as you will, as they are mean, subjectively interpreted and endowed with your beliefs and experiences.



(dedicated to T.P. Flanagan)

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening--

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

They've taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They'll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

Tollund Man


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.


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.


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.

Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

The grain of his wrists

is like bog oak,

the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.

His instep has shrunk

cold as a swan’s foot

or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge

and purse of a mussel,

his spine an eel arrested

under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,

the chin is a visor

raised above the vent

of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.

The cured wound

opens inwards to a dark

elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’

to his vivid cast?

Who will say ‘body’

to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,

a mat unlikely

as a foetus’s.

I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,

a head and shoulder

out of the peat,

bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies

perfected in my memory,

down to the red horn

of his nails,

hung in the scales

with beauty and atrocity:

with the Dying Gaul

too strictly compassed

on his shield,

with the actual weight

of each hooded victim,

slashed and dumped.

Bog Queen

I lay waiting

between turf-face and demesne wall,

between heathery levels

and glass-toothed stone.

My body was braille

for the creeping influences:

dawn suns groped over my head

and cooled at my feet,

through my fabrics and skins

the seeps of winter

digested me,

the illiterate roots

pondered and died

in the cavings

of stomach and socket.

I lay waiting

on the gravel bottom,

my brain darkening.

a jar of spawn

fermenting underground

dreams of Baltic amber.

Bruised berries under my nails,

the vital hoard reducing

in the crock of the pelvis.

My diadem grew carious,

gemstones dropped

in the peat floe

like the bearings of history.

My sash was a black glacier

wrinkling, dyed weaves

and Phoenician stitchwork

retted on my breasts'

soft moraines.

I knew winter cold

like the nuzzle of fjords

at my thighs––

the soaked fledge, the heavy

swaddle of hides.

My skull hibernated

in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.

I was barbered

and stripped

by a turfcutter's spade

who veiled me again

and packed coomb softly

between the stone jambs

at my head and my feet.

Till a peer's wife bribed him.

The plait of my hair

a slimy birth-cord

of bog, had been cut

and I rose from the dark,

hacked bone, skull-ware,

frayed stitches, tufts,

small gleams on the bank.


I can feel the tug

of the halter at the nape

of her neck, the wind

on her naked front.

It blows her nipples

to amber beads,

it shakes the frail rigging

of her ribs.

I can see her drowned

body in the bog,

the weighing stone,

the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first

she was a barked sapling

that is dug up

oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,

her blindfold a soiled bandage,

her noose a ring

to store

the memories of love.

Little adulteress,

before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,

undernourished, and your

tar-black face was beautiful.

My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you

but would have cast, I know,

the stones of silence.

I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed

and darkened combs,

your muscles’ webbing

and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb

when your betraying sisters,

cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive

in civilized outrage

yet understand the exact

and tribal, intimate revenge.

Strange Fruit

Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd.

Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.

They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair

And made an exhibition of its coil,

Let the air at her leathery beauty.

Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:

Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,

Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings.

Diodorus Siculus confessed

His gradual ease with the likes of this:

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.



He would drink by himself

And raise a weathered thumb

Towards the high shelf,

Calling another rum

And blackcurrant, without

Having to raise his voice,

Or order a quick stout

By a lifting of the eyes

And a discreet dumb-show

Of pulling off the top;

At closing time would go

In waders and peaked cap

Into the showery dark,

A dole-kept breadwinner

But a natural for work.

I loved his whole manner,

Sure-footed but too sly,

His deadpan sidling tact,

His fisherman's quick eye

And turned observant back.


To him, my other life.

Sometimes on the high stool,

Too busy with his knife

At a tobacco plug

And not meeting my eye,

In the pause after a slug

He mentioned poetry.

We would be on our own

And, always politic

And shy of condescension,

I would manage by some trick

To switch the talk to eels

Or lore of the horse and cart

Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art

His turned back watches too:

He was blown to bits

Out drinking in a curfew

Others obeyed, three nights

After they shot dead

The thirteen men in Derry.

PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,

BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday

Everyone held

His breath and trembled.


It was a day of cold

Raw silence, wind-blown

Surplice and soutane:

Rained-on, flower-laden

Coffin after coffin

Seemed to float from the door

Of the packed cathedral

Like blossoms on slow water.

The common funeral

Unrolled its swaddling band,

Lapping, tightening

Till we were braced and bound

Like brothers in a ring.

But he would not be held

At home by his own crowd

Whatever threats were phoned,

Whatever black flags waved.

I see him as he turned

In that bombed offending place,

Remorse fused with terror

In his still knowable face,

His cornered outfaced stare

Blinding in the flash.

He had gone miles away

For he drank like a fish

Nightly, naturally

Swimming towards the lure

Of warm lit-up places,

The blurred mesh and murmur

Drifting among glasses

In the gregarious smoke.

How culpable was he

That last night when he broke

Our tribe's complicity?

'Now, you're supposed to be

An educated man,'

I hear him say. 'Puzzle me

The right answer to that one.'


I missed his funeral,

Those quiet walkers

And sideways talkers

Shoaling out of his lane

To the respectable

Purring of the hearse...

They move in equal pace

With the habitual

Slow consolation

Of a dawdling engine,

The line lifted, hand

Over fist, cold sunshine

On the water, the land

Banked under fog: that morning

I was taken in his boat,

The screw purling, turning

Indolent fathoms white,

I tasted freedom with him.

To get out early, haul

Steadily off the bottom,

Dispraise the catch, and smile

As you find a rhythm

Working you, slow mile by mile,

Into your proper haunt

Somewhere, well out, beyond...

Dawn-sniffing revenant,

Plodder through midnight rain,

Question me again.

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