Friday, February 14, 2014

The Bog People by P. V. Glob - who in return so often gave their faces her blessing

I will ease myself back into Scandinavia by going back to the beginning, to the Iron Age tribes unearthed in The Bog People (1965) by Danish archaeologist P. V. Glob.  Glob was closely involved with the excavation and analysis of some of the most famous bog people found in Denmark, including the Tollund Man and the Grauballe Man, so he writes in some detail about those finds, including numerous photographs of the mummies and their artifacts.  Also photos of the various bogs, all of which look exactly the same.  Subsequent chapters catalogue other discoveries of bog people in Denmark and elsewhere and draw some conclusions about the society and culture in which the bog people lived and died.  His argument is that a number of the mummies were the victims of human sacrifice.

Last summer I saw some bog mummies for myself, in the Gottorf Castle in Schleswig, including the Windeby “Girl” (actually a boy).  The bog people are a fascinating subject for their own sake, uncanny in the preservation of their faces, or eyes, or fingerprints, or stubble, depending on the luck of the bog.  Black and white photographs are ideal for conveying the resigned expression of the Tollund Man, even if the expression must to some large degree be a matter of chance.

Why, though, read this book on the subject?  It is incomplete and outdated, containing errors of fact (see the parenthetical above) and interpretation.  Why not read a more recent book?  Why does NYRB Classics have it in print?

Two reasons.  One is that Seamus Heaney read it (“my Christmas present to myself back in 1969”) when Rupert Bruce-Mitford brought it into English (I am actually reading this edition, not the NYRB version).  He was deeply struck by the humanity of the mummies and wrote a number of outstanding poems about them.  Still, another book with the same photos would do.

The second reason is that Glob’s book has become literature, and who reads literature for its accuracy?  I did not really understand this until the final quarter of the book, a long chapter titled “When Death Came” which is about the meaning of the deaths of these people.  It begins:

Death is the inescapable lot of man, and it comes in many guises.  Among the Iron Age people from the peat bogs we have seen signs of death in its grimmest forms.  Young and old, men and women, met their ends by decapitation, strangulation, cutting of the throat, hanging and drowning.  Very probably they suffered torture, mutilation and dismemberment before they died.  Yet these are the ones the bogs have preserved as individuals down to our day, while all their relative and contemporaries from the eight centuries of the Iron Age have totally vanished or at the most only survive as skeletons in their graves. (144)

Glob is writing with the distance and rhetoric of a scholar, constructing a culture and religion out of the physical evidence in the museum he ran, not just the mummies and their nooses and blindfolds but a stunning silver cauldron and some gods hacked out of logs whose survival is as unlikely as that of the bog people.  Still the gaps are so large, and Glob’s sympathy for these distant people is so great.

The Tollund man and many of the other bog men, after their brief time as god and husband of the goddess – the times of the spring feasts and the wanderings through the villages – fulfilled the final demand of religion.  They were sacrificed and placed in the sacred bogs; and consummated by their death the rites which ensured for the peasant community luck and fertility in the coming year.  At the same time, through their sacrificial deaths, they were themselves consecrated for all time to Nerthus, goddess of fertility – to Mother Earth, who in return so often gave their faces her blessing and preserved them through the millennia.  (190-1).

Glob wrote a legitimate successor to Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658), another work that begins with descriptions of recently discovered archeological remains and slowly turns into a meditation on mortality, how they died leading to why they died culminating in why we die.


  1. Browne and Glob. It seems so odd but right. I enjoyed this--took me back to young-sprat me, reading Glob, long before I read either Browne or Heaney.

  2. Glob does say, in the preface that he is writing the book for English schoolgirls, which makes no sense, but that is what he said.

    I wish I had read it when I was a youngster. The bog people are great. The exhibit in Schleswig is great. That museum also has a stunning excavated Viking ship.

  3. Must say that I enjoyed it immensely as an American schoolgirl. And some time afterward saw a few bog bodies (maybe at the National Museum of Ireland?) My husband had a Scandinavian business trip a few years ago--wish I had been able to go!

  4. God of Wednesday is available for personal tours of Iceland by pony. Tempting. But a less strenuous visit to Copenhagen someday is a more likely trip. Then I can see more of the bog people.

  5. Oh, I didn't know that site. Thanks!