A sacrifice of Kings in Ancient Ireland?

In many ancient cultures, it was customary to make sacrifices to the earth or the gods. Today, we know that the ancient Germanic peoples offered sacrifices, especially in lakes, crevices in the earth, and bogs. Broken weapons, valuable musical instruments, and even human beings have been found.

The low-oxygen environment and the presence of tannic acids in bogs, especially, led to a remarkable preservation of biological materials. A number of impressive finds were, therefore, made in the 19th and 20th centuries when peat was cut for the production of combustibles. These finds come from the peatlands of Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The best-known finds are the extremely well-preserved bog bodies, whose intact hair, organs, and skin give the impression, in some cases, that one can still see the facial expression of the person at the moment of death. The highly acidic water of the bogs, the low temperatures, and the lack of oxygen preserved the skin, even if it became considerably browned. Bones usually did not survive, or survived only in poor condition, as their calcium phosphate was dissolved by the acidity of the peat. However, the conditions in the bogs made it possible to preserve skin, hair, nails, wool, and leather because they contain the protein keratin.

But why were extremely valuable objects and young people thrown into the bog?

Research into bog bodies has proven difficult, as many have been destroyed or lost. While approximately 1,000 finds are known, the exact number is disputed. Examples of famous bog bodies include the Haraldskær woman and the Tollund man in Denmark, as well as the Lindow mummy found in England. The oldest known bog body is the skeleton of the Koelbjerg Man from Denmark, dated to 8000 BC, which is the Middle Stone Age.

Bog bodies usually share common features, such as evidence of a violent death or the absence of clothing. Archaeologists have therefore assumed that these individuals were killed as part of a human sacrifice and then deposited in the bogs or executed as criminals.

Other theories suggest that they may have been social outcasts, witches, or sacrificed as atonement for broken contractual agreements.

Historian Tacitus reported the annual killing of slaves as sacrifices to the goddess Nerthus in lakes, and the analysis of stomach contents in some mummies supports this, indicating a death in late winter. Tacitus also wrote in his “Germania” that “cowards, war-shy, and corporeally disgraced” individuals were dumped in mud and swamp. Some of the dead may have simply been buried in the bog, while others may have been people who got lost in the bog.

Ireland’s royal sacrifice

Fascinating, however, are two bog body finds made in Ireland in 2003. They bear witness to a horrific end for those who were dumped into the bog there. And they perhaps point to another reason for the burial of the dead in the bog.

The bodies of the Old Croghan man and the Clonycavan man are those of two young men who show no signs of hard physical labour and were healthy at the time of their deaths. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the Clonycavan Man lived between 392 and 201 BC and the Old Croghan Man between 362 and 175 BC, at the height of the Celtic Iron Age.

Analysis of their hair and nails proved that they ate meat regularly. Around his upper arm, the Old Croghan Man wore a braided leather armband and a bronze amulet with decorative copper alloy fittings. Otherwise he was naked (as far as one can tell from a torso).

The hair of the Clonycavan man had been twisted over his head in an unusual way and fixed with a gel made of vegetable oil and pine resin. These ingredients were imported from France or southwest Spain, suggesting that the Clonycavan man also came from a wealthy family and had access to goods from the continent.

Both bodies had horrific torture wounds and were killed near traditional Irish coronation sites. The Old Croghan man, preserved only as an upper body with no head or lower body present, had a defensive wound on the upper left arm, indicating that he may have been trying to protect himself. He had been bound with hazel branches passed through holes in his upper arms, stabbed in the chest, beaten in the neck, decapitated, and cut in half. Strikingly, he had been exceptionally tall for his time, nearly six feet.

The man from Clonycavan had his skull crushed and was literally disemboweled. Both men also had their nipples cut off.

It is uncertain whether they were victims of unfortunate pretenders to the throne, rivals, or failed kings. “Sucking on a king’s nipples was a gesture of submission in ancient Ireland,” explains Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland. “Cutting them off would have made the person in question unfit to exercise kingship.”

St Patrick mentions in his Confessio that he was offered passage on a ship by some sailors, although he refused to suck their nipples. Interestingly, Patrick considers this a barbaric custom which he rejects “for fear of God”.

Kelly surmises that “the bodies were used as offerings to the goddess of the earth, to whom the king was symbolically wed at his inauguration.”

Alternatively, it may have been an adversary being put out of the way and an example being made.

Other objects that might have been sacrificed during or after a royal coronation were also found in the bog, such as weapons, clothing, horse harnesses, luren (musical instruments), and the cauldron of Gundestrup, many of which are of great value.

See also “Luring you in the swamps.

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