The Mysterious Bog People

Interview with Yvonne Aburrow for Pagans for ArchaeologyWhen it simply must come true, how do you make your wish?

The following article was first published in Pagan Dawn, the journal of the Pagan Federation , Lammas 2005 edition.

This was the opening question of the ‘Mysterious Bog People’ exhibition, which ran from 5 February to 8 May at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

The exhibition sought to inform people about rituals and sacrifices occurring in the ancient bogs of Europe from the Mesolithic period (c 10 000 BCE) until the end of the Middle Ages (c 1500 CE).

I know that some people have criticised such resurrection of bodies and facial reconstructions as disrespectful and I agree that in some instances, such as exhumations on popular televised archaeology programmes, this may be true.

However, in this instance, I felt that the ‘bog-people’ were treated as individuals with their own story to tell and that they were given the respect due to all of us. Similarly, rather than portraying the pagan religions involved anachronistically, as barbaric for considering human sacrifice, the exhibition sought to put all the forms of sacrifice in context. It was a sympathetic and enlightening portrayal of the ancestors with whom some of the modern pagan paths share common ground.

The ‘bog-people’ may have been the central focus of the exhibition but there was a more philosophical approach, which is rare in the handling of such sensitive subject matter. The creativity and lifestyles of these colourful people, who worked so hard and had so little, was carefully explored through artefacts and facsimiles. I was impressed that there were no drawn out references to the violent deaths and no background ‘screaming’ or videos of gratuitous carnage as is so popular in some TV depictions. Instead of the focus being on the manner of death or a nagging insistence that these sacrifices were involuntary, the exhibition sought to impose no opinion on its viewers. It actively challenged our preconceptions by asking, “What do you give when you have nothing?”

The exhibition sought to express that the Germanic pagan paths had true respect for nature and the gods. One example given was that, after hunting for food and skins essential for survival, the people respectfully tied together the animal bones and symbolically returned them to the gods by placing them ceremonially in the bog. What was taken from nature was returned to nature.

Many followers of paths which employ cauldrons in their worship would have appreciated the selection of ‘marmites’, a gift of great wealth, which had been surrendered to the bogs of Europe. The aesthetic beauty and expense of such a personal votive was a powerful symbol of the depth of belief in the 12 000 years in which sacrifices were placed in these bogs.

Similarly, some of the protective talismans which had been offered in Vimosa (a European bog whose name means Sacred Marsh) depicted runes which are still in use centuries later. The whole theme of protective symbols is still strong in all modern religions, and is was fascinating to see how the Germanic pagans seemed aware of offering back symbols of this protection which they believed the gods had given them. The strong sense of a spiritual as well as physical circle of life was in evidence.

The beauty and craftsmanship of items that had been offered in rituals were breathtaking. Not only was there artistic creativity, but the number of lurs (valveless horns which play haunting calls) also suggests that the music involved in sacrifice was important to our forebears. More astounding than the age and preservation of the ‘gifts’ was the notion that people who had few possessions and little food freely gave such imposing sacrifices to appease their gods and ask for their prayers to be answered.

One comment, which I found particularly astute, was with regard to flint daggers, which had been found carefully wrapped and placed ceremonially in certain areas.

The commentary suggested that a man who wielded such daggers obviously did so as a symbol of power; to give such a dagger to a god as a sacrifice is, therefore, to give his power and social status to that god.

I know that the majority of world religions use candles or incense as forms of sacrifice and many people give financially. When you compare the scale of what we give in contrast to the offerings of our ancestors, our gifts generally seem poor in comparison. The exhibition highlighted the centrality of religion in the lives of our ancestors and that, whilst they lived in abject poverty, by today’s standards, they were prepared to offer more than they had to spare.

I came away humbled at the small amount I sacrifice for my beliefs, and still can’t quite rid myself of the feeling that rather than learning from our spiritual past, many of us have lost previous knowledge in the mist of time. My solution is going to be to do more to put my beliefs into action by giving more in terms of time, money and care for those around me. As well as doing no harm, I want to do good, and I hope that the voices of our ancestors, calling out through the centuries, can encourage all of us to do the same.

So in answer to the question, “When it simply must come true, how do you make your wish?”, my response is now: “By following my own path to the best of my ability and with the best intentions to everyone around me.”

Rosemary Burney
Spring 2005

Editorial Note : It is interesting to note that we have heard criticism about this specific exhibition from those who felt it was over-commercial and theatrical. The element of expressing the stories of the dead is clearly important to many Pagans, and the museum succeeded in doing this, but the balance is hard to strike perfectly.