From the intricate, beautiful ironwork that emerged during the Iron Age to the myths that shaped the origin of many geological features, Ireland is a country seeped in legend. Yet, it is the bogarch, or bogs, that remain a riddle for those immersed in the macabre, spots of worship where there was no greater homage to a goddess than through human sacrifice.
When one of the kings of ancient Ireland failed to appease the goddess, his people took him to the bog. A knife sliced his nipples, ensuring no one would sip from them to show fealty. His arms were punctured and hazel rope threaded through the wounds to either restrain him or hold him down. When they prepared to kill him, he raised an arm to protect himself, but his blood spilled across the bog either way. Stabbed in the heart, his torso cleaved, and his head decapitated, the fallen king completed the ritual sacrifice to the ancient goddess of fertility, a deity of both death and prosperity. Either the king had failed to please her and bring about a good crop season or he had attempted a revolt against the current sovereign–one kingdom out of one hundred and fifty–and was killed at one of the tribal boundaries. Whatever his deed, he was sacrificed to the ancient Celtic goddess, ensuring he would never rise again.
The bog accepted him and the fallen king sank beneath the layers of peat. Under the oxygen-free acidic environment, his bones dissolved and his skin turned to leather, transforming an ancient Iron Age sacrifice into a well-preserved mummy. In June 2003, peat harvesters cutting through the bog discovered the body, recovering only his upper torso. By his preserved hands, the fallen king hadn’t worked much, but had been much, if the decorative intertwined leather and bronze bracelet on his arm was anything to go by. A king, a sacrifice, and now one of the coveted archaeological dead, this six foot six Celt was a man with answers about the past.
The Old Croghan Man was not the only sacrificial king found in the bogs of Ireland. Months earlier, a similar body was found with his red hair spiked up in a mohawk with pine resin. By the blows on his head, the Clonycavan Man had ultimately been killed with an axe before being cut in half. Like the Old Croghan Man, he had a diet rich in meat, but had feasted on milk and cereals before his death. This revelation shed light on an Iron Age culture that revolved around rituals where fallen kings stood at a līmen, a Latin term for threshold, to bring prosperity from death.
Liminality, a concept encompassing the transitional period between one state and another, dominates the sacrificial fall and the modern resurrection of these kings. Liminality describes various transitions, or periods where both constructs exist to create a middle ground. Twilight and midnight are the thresholds between night and day. Ghosts are liminal beings between life and death. Worship is a renewal describing religious regeneration and spreading that subsequent faith to others.
A transition which can be accessed as an individual, a small group, or a huge cultural movement, liminality exists at the boundary where ideas shift and transform, leaving the evolved group on the edge of what was and what can be. Teenagers exist in a liminal state, shedding their cloak of childhood, and discovering their individual identity and desires. A transitional rite fully moves them into the realm of adulthood–where other adults who have gone through the same ritual await at the end. This transition can be a first kiss, a sexual awakening, or graduation from high school. While these are constructive and small-group liminal rituals, liminality can encompass anything stuck between states, from global revolutions or environmental geography.
Bogs reside as a transient state, being murky, dark, and soft, while at the same time embodying dryness, varied vegetation, and sources of fuel for human progression. Structurally, bogs consist of a top layer of vegetation which covers a compacted layer of partially decayed centuries-old flora. Sphagnum, a primary moss on the top layer, releases by-products that binds with calcium, which dissolves bone, yet prohibits the growth of other decaying compounds. Items that would’ve been destroyed naturally, such as skin, leather, and organs, are preserved, making bogs a mecca of archeological finds. Oscillating between solid and wetness, bogs are a combination of both biomes. Cold and suffocating, bogs engulf and swallow, pulling sacrificed victims into its belly where they remain suspended in stasis. Within that oxygen-deprived weight and wetness, sacrificed kings enter a liminal space where they cannot fully decay and are immortalized down to the hairs on their chin.
Not only are bogs transient spaces, they are also thresholds of the uncanny and soaked with the energy of the dead. As landscapes where will-o’-the-wisps hunt and expelled methane gas creates blue flickering flames superstitiously assumed to be ghosts, bogs remain haunted places both then and now. Caught between reality and mythology, these liminal creatures exist within a liminal space–a perfect place to worship a goddess and pray for a good crop.
While balanced between the liminal space of bogs and liminal time of life to death, the sacrificed kings also participated in liminal rituals. Folklorist Arnold van Gennep crafted the structure of liminal rituals in three parts: pre-liminal rites (a metaphorical death from one state as they enter the transition into a new state), liminal rites (transition rites), and post-liminal rites (reincorporation into society with elders).
Based on the isotope and stomach content analysis, both kings had protein-rich diets, yet their last meal showed a pre-liminal rite that stripped them of their previous food staple to one meant specifically for sacrifices. With their known world taken away, the kings were suspended between preparation for their transition and knowing they had been marked for death, a time filled with uncertainty, fear, and bravery.
They had journeyed to the spot where they were stripped naked and killed overzealously. Dehumanized and subject to incredible violence, this transition rite removed the kings from their human status and into a state of sacrificial purpose.
The sacrifices waiting at the bottom of the bog–the parents in our teenager analogy–are the completed result of the post-liminal rite. Now, the king has completed his transition and joins the new society of sacrifices.
Now in the modern era, the kings have been removed from their liminal graves. Instead of transitioning into a permanent state, they remain suspended between death and life again. Revered and pondered over by academics, the modern age is determined to uncover the ritualistic meaning behind their deaths. While these kings are mined for answers, the bodies once more straddle the line as vessels that once held a spark of human life and as vessels that contain the life of a lost culture. The bones have decayed, but the flesh remains, a strange reversal and backwards result of being contained in liminal space that defies the norm for archaeological finds.
Now, instead of a corpse, we see the rare chance of flesh, faces that we would’ve run into thousands of years ago on the pathway to sacrifice. These kings can be seen as alive, but are logically known as deceased. They are the ones that are remembered, when the other kings and warriors are not. Their names defy the standard nomenclature: these are particularly named men, not labeled human remains. Once more, these bog bodies stand at the threshold of how we define the dead, especially how we relate our respect for the living with our fascination to pick apart the ancient dead. Can we take samples and run tests on these sacrifices that appear asleep? Do we sacrifice knowledge of ancient cultures by showing reverence to those we so long to study?
And suddenly, we stand on the boundary between past and present, touched by humans thousands of years old who have unknowingly influenced our culture and changed the future.
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