In October, people across Ireland are lighting fires in their fireplaces and stoves to take the chill out of the air. It’s starting to get cool, but it isn’t really cold yet. Outside of the cities, people often burn sods of turf they’ve harvested from their own plots in the bog. They go out in the summer to cut the turf, turn it and let it dry. Then they bring it to their homes whether they live in a high-density development or a cottage in the countryside. And sod by sod, it is burned over the winter.
Turf cutting is normally hard but uneventful work. People will bring a picnic and thermoses of tea so they can work all day. The plots are out in the countryside. You can’t build on a bog, so it they can be lonely places. Imagine the shock of pushing your spade under a sod of turf and lifting it out only to see a long, dark shape in the ground. A branch, you might think, looking around and realizing it is just your small group of two or three people out today. What? Your friend or brother might call out to you, come on, keep going, we need to get this turf home. You touch your spade to the shape. It isn’t a branch. You kneel down, fascinated and horrified. With your shovel, you push the turf off of one end. And yes. What you fear is there. A hand.
This isn’t a Hollywood horror film. No zombies leap out of the ground to try and devour you. Nor is it a crime scene. The arm, and the torso attached to it, have been there for centuries. This is one of Ireland’s ancient bog bodies.
The Mysterious Bog Bodies
The acid balance of the bogs preserves bodies. These aren’t whole bodies, but they haven’t decomposed. The bog bodies are, according to most experts, ritual sacrifices. Headless. Legless. Some with injuries that suggest they did not volunteer to be ritually killed to appease the gods and plead for a better crop or fertility for the community.
The bodies all display evidence of having been cut far more than was necessary to kill them, indicating it was a ritual sacrifice. While many questions are unanswerable, scientists have found many clues about their lives.
Their hands are not callused, indicating they did not do hard manual labor. One had a pine resin in his hair, an early hair product suggesting he had the means, leisure and status to fuss over his appearance. Scientists have also detected that the men killed had good diets, with plenty of meat, which also suggests they were affluent. Many of them wear a leather band around one arm, which is believed to indicate their status in the community.
The bog bodies appear to be kings – dethroned kings. In Iron Age Ireland, when a new king took the throne, he ritually married the earth goddess. If crops failed or other natural disasters struck in his reign, his people held him personally responsible. He lost his job, and his severance package involved severing parts of his body. In those times, one way to express submission to the king was to suck his nipples. The nipples on the bog bodies were mutilated, which would ensure the man could never claim king status again in the afterlife.