Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking one for the Team - of the ultimate sacrifice

by Anna Belfrage

Hands up those who have ever had nightmares about being buried alive. No? Well, I guess this makes me sound very ghoulish, but I do. Through the slow march of history, many people have been subjected to the rather horrible fate of being put six feet under while still very much alive.

In Sweden, women condemned to die were almost always buried alive – as an alternative to being burned at the stake. The woman would have her feet and hands tied and then she’d be lowered sitting into a hole in the ground, incapable of doing anything but watch as the hole was filled in – with her inside. In some cases, the woman’s head was covered by a bucket. Why is somewhat unclear: was it so that the men filling in the hole did not have to look her in the face, or was there some belief that the bucket would make her passing easier?

Anyway, it was not my intention to talk about live burials. But my intended subject – bog bodies – sparked off that old fear of being buried alive (even worse in a bog, one imagines) which is the reason for the above digression. In actual fact, the bog bodies were mostly well and truly dead before the squelchy soil embraced their bodily remains – or so it seems when we study them.

The Tollund Man (Denmark) 2 500 yrs old, give or take
Bog bodies crop up all over Northern Europe, most of them dated to the Iron Age. In some cases, they seem to have died by misadventure, but mostly they seem to have been the victims of a ritual death. Were they willing sacrificial victims? Were they randomly selected or spoils of war? It is difficult to tell from the distance of several thousands of years, but there is evidence indicating that in some cases, the sacrificial lamb was indeed a volunteer, giving his or her life so that the clan might survive. Very noble, I am sure. From our perspective also very futile, but people have always done irrational things in the name of faith.

Allow me to sweep you back almost two thousand years in time. We are on a marsh, it is the feast of Beltane, a time when normally bonfires lick the sky in celebration of the return of life and warmth to the northern hemisphere. But this year, there are no overt celebrations. The people of Britain skulk through the shadows, more than aware that everywhere the Roman invaders are looking to interrupt their traditional celebrations.

A small party of people are walking briskly towards one of the hallowed places, a small grove on a hillock. They talk quietly among each other, eyes scanning every shrub, every stand of trees for a potential enemy. Only when they reach the flattened clearing at the top of the hill do they relax. Someone mutters something about how this is not right, how on this night fires should be lit, with people rejoicing that the winter is over. He is hushed by the most senior member of the group.  A small fire is kindled, a piece of dough is produced and shaped into a flatbread. It is cooked over the little fire, and right at the end, a burning twig is held to one section, leaving a black burn mark on the bread.

In silence, the bread is broken into pieces. It is offered first to the man that so far has been sitting on the edge of things, eyes locked on the night sky above. He smiles crookedly and chooses the burnt piece. A tremor runs through him as he carefully chews the bread, watched by all the others. He swallows and stands, shedding the cloak he’s been wearing. Below, he is naked. He does a slow half-turn, eyes resting with hunger on the shadowy surroundings. Every tree, every stone – he registers it in detail, and there is a stiffness to his shoulders, as if it takes conscious effort to remain so erect, so calm. No wonder, given what is to come…

Someone says something to the naked man, and he nods, almost brusquely. His beard has been recently trimmed back from its ordinary length, and when he turns towards the speaker, the fire brings out the reddish notes in his facial hair. He tugs at the single adornment on his body: a narrow strip of fox-pelt tied around his arm. Despite the chilly air, his body is covered in a sheen of sweat, and he keeps on licking his lips.

The oldest of the men clasps his hand and says something. Another man steps forward, and he and the naked man embrace. They cling to each other, and when they at last separate, the naked man inhales, throws his arms wide and falls to his knees, facing the west. Another man takes a step forward. He’s holding an axe, and when he lifts it, the oldest man raises his hands to the heavens and invokes the Gods: Taranis, Esus and Teutates.
Thunk. The naked man sags.
Thunk.  He crumples to the ground.
Thunk. He looks quite, quite dead – but he isn’t.

Two men approach the unconscious man. He is hauled up into a sitting position, and the eldest man barks an order. A younger man rushes forward. There’s a knotted string of sorts in his hand. Swiftly, he wraps the string around the naked man’s neck, sets a knee in the naked man’s back, and tightens the garrotte. There’s a gurgling sound from the dying man. A boy in his teens rushes forward, holding a ceremonial bowl. The oldest man produces a knife and severs the naked man’s jugular. Blood pours into the bowl. The naked man thrashes despite his unconscious state. No more blood. The garrotte is tightened, there is a snapping sound as the neck breaks.

By now, the man is very, very dead. His companions mutter and pray, the effigies of gods are held aloft, and then two of them take hold of him and carry him over to a horse. Carefully, they place him atop the nervous beast, its hide a silvery white in the moonlight. In silence, they proceed down the hill, along a narrow path. The alders that line it rustle in greeting as the procession passes by, making for a dark pool in the centre of the marsh. More prayers, more effigies held aloft, and then the naked man is thrown into the still pool. It takes a long time, but at some point the waters close over the body. Over the coming centuries, his body will remain where it is, while the water dries into mud, and the marsh converts the vegetation that presently stands green and bright into peat.

The above is a fictionalised version of the Lindow Man’s last moments on earth, somewhere in the first century AD. Three axe-blows to his head, three ritualised deaths – the garrotte, the slicing of his throat, the drowning. From what can be gleaned from his body, his last meal was a scrap of sooty bread – maybe he was unfortunate enough to pick the piece of bread that had been purposely burnt, or maybe he was, as suggested above, a volunteer. Whatever the case, the rest of his physiognomy reveals a man in the prime of his life, a strong, well-fed man with remarkably well-tended nails.  If the idea was to placate the gods by offering a perfect sacrifice, the Lindow man definitely fit the bill – but what events could possibly be so dire as to require the ultimate of sacrifices, and what threats hung over the Lindow Man’s people for him to – apparently – go willingly to his death?

The answer lies in when he died and who he was. Studies of the body (discovered in 1984) have led scientists to conclude he was a Celt, and his un-scarred skin, his soft, un-callused hands indicate he was neither a warrior nor a labourer. That fox-skin tied around his arm is believed to denote someone of high birth, and the way his beard had been sawed off would indicate that until recently, his beard had been longer. Adding all this up, the general conclusion is that the young man (he was somewhere around thirty when he died) was a druid – or rather a druid in training, as this profession required a long and extensive education.

It is believed he died in AD 60. A black year for the Celtic people of Britain. A year so filled with misery and death that the farmers dared not plant their fields. It all began with the Roman’s destruction of the Isle of Mona (Anglesey).

A Druid as per 19th c painter
The Romans were in general tolerant to other people’s beliefs. As their empire expanded, they assimilated rather than converted the subjugated people – assuming everyone paid lip-service to the cult of the emperor, of course. But there was something about the druids that raised the Roman hackles, and they systematically persecuted the druids in the Gallic provinces, forcing the Celtic priests to flee to Britannia.

When the Romans launched their third attempt to invade Britain in 43 AD, one of the reasons may very well have been to do away with the druids once and for all. On the other hand, it seems a tad far-fetched: a bunch of bearded priests (and a bunch of female priests – beardless, one would hope) – what threat could they possibly pose to the Roman Empire? The answer is one of cultural identity, of political power. The druids were not only priests: they were the bearers of Celtic culture, they were renowned advisors to the Celtic kings and queens. They urged continued opposition to Rome, they scoffed at the idea that a mortal man should be considered a deity, be he emperor or not.

The Romans landed in Britain with no major opposition – at first. Once the British tribes gathered that the Romans were here to stay, leaders such as Caratacus tried to drive them off. Didn’t work. Through years of guerrilla warfare, the Romans persisted, building one base after the other, starting with Colchester. Caratacus was defeated in open battle a couple of times, fled to the Brigantes whose treacherous queen had him put in chains and delivered to the Romans as a gift-wrapped little parcel.

In the south, the British tribes grumbled under the Roman tribe – but there were benefits as well, such as more trade, more comforts. In the north and the west, the resistance continued, much of it led by the druids from their power base on the Isle of Mona – which also acted as a huge granary for the Celtic people.

In early spring of the year 60 AD, Suetonious, the Roman commander, had had enough: he went after Mona, and two Roman legions carried the day against the fierce and brave but very undisciplined Celtic army that faced off against them. The druids were killed, the hallowed groves were chopped down, the hallowed wells desecrated, and the Celtic resistance was well and truly quenched. Or was it? Suetonious did not get much time to savour his victory, because news reached him from the south, telling him the Iceni under their queen Boudica had risen in revolt. Colchester had been sacked and torched, and now the Iceni horde was making for London. Suetonious had no choice but to hasten east to defend what little remained of Roman Britain.

As many of you know, Boudica’s revolt was triggered by Roman avarice and their horrible treatment of her daughters – and, perhaps, a conclusion that the Roman yoke would not be quite as easy to bear as the British had originally thought. As the Iceni rose in anger, the Silurians further to the west kept the second legion (based in Gloucester) fully occupied – mere coincidence? Or was this the result of a larger Celtic agenda, driven by the druids?

The Dying Gaul By Copy after Epigonosantmoose ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, Suetonious won over the Iceni – despite being severely outnumbered. Yet another catastrophe for the Celts, with over 80 000 Celtic warriors killed in the aftermath of the decisive battle. The druids were gone – well, almost – brave Boudica and her army was dead, and the fields that should have been planted lay fallow, auguring a winter of starvation for the British people.  The Gods had turned their faces from the Celtic people. Something had to be done – and it had to be done fast. Ergo, the complicated human sacrifice described  above.

We will never know for sure if the above events triggered the human sacrifice resulting in the Lindow Man. But as a hypothesis, it seems plausible – and there is no doubt whatsoever that the Lindow Man died as described above. A ritualised death, carefully staged so as to honour the Gods. If the intention was to have the Gods smite the Romans and drive them from Britain, the sacrifice was a failure. If, however, it was intended as a plea to safeguard the Celtic people, it was somewhat more successful. After all, when the Roman Empire succumbed to the Germanic invaders in the fifth century AD, there were still plenty of Celts in Britain – more than enough to take up arms against the flood-wave of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. But that, as they say, is a different story!


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of seven published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Anna's books are available on Amazon US,  Amazon UK, or wherever else good books are sold.
For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

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