Saturday, 20 August 2011

More on the Laois bog body

Following on from my previous post about the bog body from Laois...Good news everyone, it's not a woman, it's a sacrificed king! OK, it could be. Let's be clear on that.

What was originally thought to have been a pair of well-preserved female legs, with the rest of the body being in poor condition (having been placed in a leather bag), turns out to have been a mistake. Further analysis has shown that the body was simply in a very contorted position, and the 'leather bag' was actually the man's torso.

Naturally, it's now being speculated that this is a sacrificed king, as per The Golden Bough era of interpretation:

“Irish kings in the ancient period were replaced after a number of years. The old king would be sacrificed and a new king chosen. It ties in with their religious beliefs surrounding the solar deity (male) and the deity of the land (female). The king ties in with the solar cycle – the waxing and waning of the sun.

The idea was that the king was married to the sovereignty, or the land. The goddess would become old and withered and she would need a new young consort to return her to youth and vigor and beauty. So the old king would be killed and a new one take his place. They wouldn’t have been that old, either.”

But that's not all! Remember the article about Old Croghan Man, with the nipples "representing the life-giving sun" being cut off? Yup. The article about the Laois bog body has the same expert commenting:

They will be pay [sic] particular attention to the bog body’s nipples. Whether or not his nipples have been cut could indicate whether he was a king. 
Kelly explained “The kissing or suckling of a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission,” Kelly said. “So by cutting the nipples, the king was being decommissioned.”

Other researchers have apparently claimed that the state of Old Croghan Man's nipples could be nothing more than the result of damage to delicate tissue from the waterlogged conditions, and aren't necessarily purposeful or the result of ritual, so it's not really clear that the nipples are a marker of ritual activity at all.

Either way, once again there's nothing particularly substantial offered in the Laois bog body article to concretely link the body with a human sacrifice or kingship. It's assumed that this is (or is likely to be) a king; it's assumed that this is (or is likely to be) a sacrifice, but very little is offered to support or even counter those points in order to provide a little balance. Yes, bogs are liminal places, and it's well-known that such liminal places - neither one thing another (land or water, in this case) - are often a focus of ritual activity or mythological symbolism. But it's equally the case that bogs by their very nature provide conditions where bodies are more likely to be preserved, and so the very idea of 'bog bodies' being a ritual thing could really simply be the result of accidents of preservation skewing our view.

All in all, it's not a very balanced article. The issue of human sacrifice is by no means universally accepted because it's notoriously difficult to prove conclusively. We can compare the Irish or the Celts as a whole to other cultures at the time who were also said to have practiced human sacrifice at some point or other, and say that on the balance of evidence it's likely that the Celts did too. But we can't really prove that what we find in the bogs is indicative of sacrificial intent. We can see that many of these bodies were dispatched in very specific ways. We can see there might even be a lot of similarities in the method (the so-called 'triple-fold death' method).

All too often these things get wrapped up in assumption, without considering the other side of the coin - the skeptics, those who are a little more cautious to leap to such conclusions (that doesn't make for such an exciting article, though, does it?). Sometimes people get a little too caught up in the imagination and then you end up with claims like Lindow Man being sacrificed by druids at Bealltainn simply because some mistletoe pollen was discovered in the contents of his stomach.

I was trying to find an article on this called 'Did they fall or were they pushed? Some unresolved questions about bog bodies?' by C. S. Briggs - well worth a read if you want a good, balanced view of the for and against, in ands outs of human sacrifice. I couldn't find that available online but I did find these ones that cite him, and look like they have some interesting things to say:

'Humans as ritual victims in the later prehistory of Western Europe,' by Miranda Green
Bodies from the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-human Agency, and the Making of 'Collective Memory,' by Stuart McLean
Lindow Man


Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Tapadh leat for the healthy skepticism. I usually cringe when bog body finds are announced, due to the bizarre fantasies that tend to crop up around them.

I am relieved this one was not a woman, because I wasn't looking forward to the "Virgin Sacrifice!" delusions.

Who on Earth came up with this nipples fixation? That's just weird.

Seren said...

The nipples thing is really weird, isn't it? As far as I can tell it seems to be a pet theory of just one guy. I've only seen references to it from the same expert, and only in the news, anyway.

I hadn't even considered the Virgin Sacrifice bit. (Coming soon, to a cinema near you...) *shudders*