A sacrifice of Kings in Ancient Ireland?

In many ancient peoples 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 objects and even human beings have been found.

Especially in bogs, the low-oxygen environment and the presence of tannic acids 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. They come from the peatlands of Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Great Britain.

The best known of these are the extremely well-preserved bog bodies, whose intact hair, organs and skin give in some cases the impression 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 lack of oxygen preserved the skin, even if it browned it considerably. Bones usually did not survive, or survived only in poor condition, as their calcium phosphate was dissolved by the acidity of the peat. The conditions in the bogs, however, made it possible to preserve skin, hair, nails, wool and leather because they contain the protein keratin.

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

Research is proving difficult. Many of the bog bodies were destroyed or lost. About 1,000 such finds are known. However, the exact numbers are disputed. Examples are the Haraldskær woman and the Tollund man in Denmark, or the Lindow mummy found in England. The oldest known bog body is the skeleton of the Koelbjerg Man from Denmark, dated to 8000 BC, i.e. the Middle Stone Age.

The bog bodies usually have a number of common features, such as traces of a violent death or the absence of clothing. This led archaeologists to assume that the people were killed as part of a human sacrifice and deposited in the bogs or else executed as criminals.

Other theories suggest that the moor inhabitants were killed as social outcasts or witches, or as atonement for broken contractual agreements.

Tacitus already reports the annual killing of slaves as a sacrifice to the goddess Nerthus in lakes. The analysis of the stomach contents of some mummies supports this, as they give an indication of a death in late winter.

Tacitus also writes in his Germania that “cowards, war-shy and corporeally disgraced” were dumped in the mud and swamp.

Some of the dead could also have simply been buried in the bog or might 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 other young man, 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 that he had access to goods from the continent.

Both bodies show horrific torture wounds. And both were killed near traditional Irish coronation sites.

In the case of the so-called Old Croghan man, who is preserved only as an upper body with no head or lower body present, a defensive wound was found on the upper left arm, as 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.

For his part, the man from Clonycavan had had his skull crushed and was literally disemboweled.

Both the man from Clonycavan and the man from Old Croghan had also had their nipples cut off.

Were they victims of unfortunate pretenders to the throne or 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 also mentions in his Confessio that when he fled Ireland 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, “The bodies were used as offerings to the goddess of the earth, to whom the king was symbolically wed at his inauguration.”

However, perhaps it was just 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. Weapons, clothing and horse harnesses. Many of them are of great value, such as the luren (musical instruments) or objects like the cauldron of Gundestrup.

See also “Luring you in the swamps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: