On the leafy edges of Aarhus is the last resting place of the Grauballe Man, dug out of a peat bog in a district of that name. Nowadays he is found within a darkened glass case in the modern structure of the Moesgaard Museum. Within its walls, there is a wide and shimmering stairway illustrating the evolution of mankind. Guarding the visitor as they step upon it are seven “hominims,” designed to show the beginnings of mankind. A naked female leans upon a stick. Another individual—dark-skinned and with a shock of black hair—rests his spear upon his shoulder. A naked man juts his stomach in the direction of new arrivals. None of these figures, however, are as impressive as the Grauballe Man in the darkness of the building’s lower floors. Discovered in the part of Jutland that now provides him with his identity, he was once thought by some to be a relatively recent resident of the district, specifically “Red Christian,” a peat cutter in the parish who had gone missing several years before, shortly after a visit to a local inn. In the spirit of villagers everywhere, several even came forward as reliable witnesses to this fact.
However, carbon-dating later revealed this was not the individual locals thought it was. Instead, he was found to date from the third century BC, last walking over the turf in the early Germanic Iron Age. Nevertheless there is much about him that might make people suspect he was around at a later date. These include the mat of hair on his head, the whorl of his fingerprints, even the fact that the condition of his hands allowed those who examined him to decide that he had never done any harsh, physical work, unlike the vast majority of those who would have surrounded him at one time. Adding to the story, there was the damage inflicted upon his head that, according to Heaney in the poem he wrote about the figure, “left him bruised as a forceps baby,” and the slash on his throat. Together, there was enough evidence to create a background story for this man who now lies stretched out and propped up for people to peer at in his case in Moesgaard Museum, one with lighting almost as shadowy and subdued as the peat bog from which he had emerged.
And then there is the Tollund Man. Naked apart from a skin cap and a leather belt around his waistline, this timeless, ageless body lies these days in a museum in Silkeborg, some 44 kilometres out of Aarhus. It took a short time to reach him, my morning train rolling through the Danish landscape as I took note of the anonymous railway stations, red-roofed housing estates and green farmland en route. Somewhere on that journey, I was surprised by the sight of a short stretch of moorland, a round, purple-crested hill glimpsed through the train window. Its shade and contours came as a small and pleasant shock to me, reminding me of the bloom of heather in the Scottish moors during August. Upon my arrival in Silkeborg, and after the inevitable loop and curl around its streets when I took the wrong direction, I finally, behind the doors of a large yellow building, found where Tollund Man lay.
He had odd bedfellows in his new residence. In the room beside him were the odds and ends churned up when a new motorway had been opened up to Silkeborg. They included Mesolithic axes and pointed weapons found in the mud and sludge of Lake Silkeborg Langsø; a Bronze Age vessel with a crust of brown food; a neck ring with a Thor’s hammer pendant found in women’s graves in Harup from the Viking Age; even—and herein hangs a tale—a hoard of empty condom boxes from the sixties, dug out from the Nordskoven forest. Nearby, too, was the figure they called the Elling Woman, who in June 1938 was discovered less than 100 metres from where the Tollund Man would be found some 12 years later. Wrapped in capes fashioned from calf and sheepskin, she is believed to have lain there since between 320 and 210 bc, the abrasions around her neck suggesting that she had been hanged before being placed in the bog.
I passed over much of this with probably less curiosity than I should have. Largely covered by a blanket of turf, Elling Woman looked much less human than the pictures I had seen of other bog bodies. I was not surprised to discover that the farmer who had first come across her suspected she was an animal. I thought her head looked like a rust-coloured stone. I was also conscious that I had made this journey for one reason only—to see the old gentleman stretched out in these parts. Eventually, after I had spent a little time examining the material on display outside, I stepped into his lair. Walled off by both a short partition and darkness, he lay sleeping there.
Much of him is an artificial creation; his body, caught in a foetal position, was deemed too disturbing for public view and allowed to decay soon after its discovery in May 1950. The face is, however, real and authentic, for all that it had shrunk by about 12 per cent due to being preserved for a year in a concoction including formaldehyde, heated wax and paraffin. His expression was remarkably unaffected by this treatment. In the dim light, it is apparent that even after all these centuries lying in the peat bog, every wrinkle and crease is in place; so too were a few follicles of hair, especially the light growth of stubble on his chin. His eyes were almost shut, his smile quiet and benign. He surveyed its madness calmly, protected—or so it seemed—by the peace of his 2,000-year- old dreams. It is this expression that has allowed the poetic imagination to spark into life. The American poet William Carlos Williams in “The Smiling Dane” allows us to think of his executioners, faced with that smile upon his face, aware that they would “grimace” when dealing with the reality of his death. In “Punishment,” Heaney transforms him into a Christ-like figure, the dignity of his passing a way of understanding those dead through the political violence of the Irish’s poet’s lifetime in Northern Ireland as well as those sacrificed in his own era. It is a way of looking at him that was at least partly inspired by P. V. Glob’s words in The Bog People, written back in 1965:
It is the dead man’s lightly-closed eyes and half-closed lips, however, that give this unique face its distinctive expression, and call compellingly to mind the words of the world’s oldest heroic epic, Gilgamesh, ‘the dead and the sleeping, how they resemble one another’.
This smile is all the more startling because of the violent way he is said to have died. Half drowned, half throttled, he is alleged to have been thrown into the bog weighed down by a bough of rotting wood. The reasons for this act are, of course, open to conjecture. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus in Germanicus round about AD 96 described the “bog bodies” as corpores infames (infamous bodies), claiming the manner of their deaths told much about the offense they were said to have committed:
Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; cowards, shirkers and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of the bog. The distinction in the punishment is based on the idea that offenders against the state should be made a public example of, whereas deeds of shame should be buried out of men’s sight.
While some of the writings of Tacitus have been dismissed as second-hand accounts of what was happening at the time, there is also evidence to suggest that there is truth in this particular claim. This includes the fact that those who were under suspicion of homosexual offenses were occasionally treated in this way until relatively recent times. A purge of the gay population took place in the Netherlands in or around 1730, a trial of terror that began during June of that year when seven young persons were charged with “the detestable Sin of Sodomy,” a form of sexual activity formerly unknown in these parts “and confined to the South Side of the Alps.” We are told that during this period:
At least 60 men were sentenced to death. For example: In Amsterdam, Pieter Marteyn Janes Sohn and Johannes Keep, decorator, were strangled and burnt, 24 June 1730; Maurits van Eeden, house servant, and Cornelis Boes, age 18, Keep’s servant, were each immersed alive in a barrel of water and drowned, 24 June; Laurens Hospuijn, Chief of Detectives in the Navy, was strangled and thrown into the water with a 100-pound weight, 16 September. At The Hague, Frans Verheyden, Cornelis Wassenaar, milkman, Pieter Styn, embroiderer of coats, Dirk van Royen, and Herman Mouilliont, servant, were hanged and afterwards thrown into the sea at Scheveningen with 50-pound weights, 12 June; Pieter van der Hal, grain carrier, Adriaen Kuyleman, glove launderer, David Muntslager, agent, and Willem la Feber, tavern keeper, were hanged and thrown into the sea with 100-pound weights, 21 July. In Kampen: Jan Westhoff and Steven Klok, soldiers, were strangled on the scaffold and buried under the gallows, 29 June. In Rotterdam, Leendert de Haas, age 60, candlemaker, Casper Schroder, distiller, Huibert v. Borselen, gentleman’s servant, were strangled, burnt, and their ashes carried in an ash cart out of the city and then by ship to the sea and thrown overboard, 17 July. And at Zuidhorn, at least 22 men were executed on 24 September 1731, including Gerrit Loer, age 48, farmer; Hendrik Berents, age 32; Jan Berents, age 19—all scorched while alive and then strangled and burnt to ashes; 12 others aged 20-45 were strangled and burnt; and eight youths aged 16–19 were strangled and burnt, including Jan Ides, age 18, who said upon hearing his sentence: ‘I forgive you for the sin which you have committed against me.’
Clearly this chimes with some of the words of Tacitus, with the corpses of these individuals being either burnt into ashes or plunged in water. It may be that the drowning of individuals for homosexuality has a long connection to the past.
It is not, however, the ritualistic deaths of the Bog Bodies that Seamus Heaney chooses to highlight in
“Punishment,” his poem about the Windeby Girl, found across the Danish border in the north of Germany. He portrays her head as having been shaved. She has also been stripped naked before being thrown into the bog. Making an imaginative leap, he links her to other women who have been treated that way in the past—those punished by the French Resistance for collaborating with the Germans, the teenage women from his own Catholic Irish background who, during theTroubles, had been humiliated for going out with British soldiers. This notion of women being treated in this way for an adulterous relationship outside their marriage or their “tribe” is found again in Tacitus, who, recording the habits of the northern tribes outside Rome, claims:
A guilty wife is summarily punished by her husband. He cuts off her hair, strips her naked, and in the presence of kinsmen turns her out of his house.
There is, however, one problem with this. Despite the way in which Seamus Heaney takes time to write about her “naked front” with her nipples being likened to “amber beads,” her “shaved head” being that of an “adulteress,” it has been established recently that the Windeby Girl—which I saw a number of years ago in Schleswig on the Baltic coast of modern Germany—was, in fact, male. A similar issue arose with the Weerdringe Couple found in a peat bog in Assen in the Netherlands. Again these two individuals, once believed to be a male and female, have now been discovered to be a pair of men.
These would seem to give credence to an unlikely authority on bog bodies—the notorious and reprehensible figure of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. He expressed his belief that many ritually sacrificed in peat bogs were homosexual in a meeting in which he addressed the Waffen-SS in 1937. In this, he announced:
[Our ancestors] only had few abnormal degenerates. Homosexuals, called Urnings, were drowned in swamps… That was not a punishment, but simply the termination of such an abnormal life.They had to be removed just like when we pull out nettles, stack them and burn them. It was not a question of revenge but simply that they had to be done away with.
This perception of the bog bodies found throughout much of northern Europe created its own dark strain in Nazi ideology, in which human beings were compared to unwanted plant life, rooted out and destroyed for the good of the whole. Himmler’s notions were extended and added to by others, most notably the German bog body specialist Alfred Dieck, whose findings were of great importance to the regime. (Much of his work is now believed to be fraudulent, based on false and fabricated evidence.) According to him, the victims were often those who had “betrayed the nation,” whether in terms of self-mutilation to avoid service to their tribe or having a relationship with someone outside of their community. In this, Dieck’s work was seen to be justifying the role of both Himmler and the SS in terms of the history of their country, offering evidence that this was the way the tribes observed by Tacitus had acted before. On one level, it allowed the idealization of the race to take place. The portrayal of the German Professor Keil, who appears in Michel Tournier’s novel The Erl-King, may be fictional, but in a scene when a bog body is discovered in “the peaty eternity” of the moor it illustrates many Nazi attitudes to the German past. He compares the final meal of the individual, a gruel made largely from knotweed, bindweed and daisies, to the last supper taken by Jesus and his disciples, making a connection between this pagan death and that of Christ, which occurred at roughly the same historical period. Examining the head of another figure that is buried nearby, he leaps to the conclusion that this was his wife, “the ancient Germans being strictly monogamous, as you know.”This perception of the bog bodies found throughout much of northern Europe created its own dark strain in Nazi ideology, in which human beings were compared to unwanted plant life, rooted out and destroyed for the good of the whole.
Peculiarly, it is this attraction to the purity of the natural world of the German past that both underpinned and allowed their perversion of it, offering those who were believers in Nazism permission to destroy the lives of others, be they gypsies, Jews, homosexuals or those whose political or religious ideas were different to those of the majority of the tribe. This even extended in the Nurnberg Laws in 1935 to proscribing Germans marrying those who did not belong to their “race.” It justified, too, the shaving of women’s heads when they stepped across this imaginary line, a punishment for “fraternising” with the enemy not just within German borders but elsewhere.
Yet even then there were exceptions, occasions when paradoxically the bog might reveal all that is ideal about the German nation, showing the muddle and confusion at the centre of Nazi “thought.” The mummified bog body of a 14-year-old found in Drobnitz—now part of Poland—was hailed as “eine germanische Schönheit” (a German beauty) when she was discovered in 1939.
Sometimes people see what they wish to see…
Adapted from The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands by Donald S. Murray. Copyright © Donald S. Murray 2018. Published by Bloomsbury Wildlife, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. Reprinted with permission.