Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: Mummy’s the Word

 

Grauballe ManThe Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

— Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney wrote a series of poems about the bog people, the Iron Age corpses of those who mostly died violent deaths. Were these punishments, ritual sacrifices, or did they reflect a mixture of circumstances? The subject of this poem, Grauballe Man, was killed quite violently between 290 B.C. and 310 AD. Burial in a peat bog resulted in better natural preservation than any humanly devised method.

Before he was buried in a bog in Denmark, Grauballe Man was gruesomely executed. After peat cutters dug up his body in 1952, X-ray and computed tomography (CT) scans showed he had received a sharp blow to the legs that brought him to his knees. Then his head was yanked back and his throat was slit from ear to ear. […]

Unlike Oldcroghan Man, Grauballe Man, who died in his 20s or early 30s, has no obvious markers of high status or royalty. On the contrary, he may have been poor. An early autopsy of his stomach and intestines indicated that his last meal was of roughly ground corn porridge, a pauper’s diet. […]

Heaney refers to the Dying Gaul, a public sculpture reflecting Roman triumph. Roman state violence was of a much larger scale than the cultures through which Roman legions marched and fought. We understand Roman action and motivation from extensive written record, where the peat bog people remain a mystery, marvelously preserved but largely cut off from our understanding by a lack of ancient written records. This lack of written records leaves scholars to try to get the bog mummies and their surroundings to tell a fuller story.

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There are 6 comments.

  1. SkipSul Moderator

    The bog mummies server as a poignant warning against romanticizing the past. Human sacrifice was far more common than many today like to comfortably admit.

    • #1
    • May 21, 2019, at 8:18 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    The bog mummies server as a poignant warning against romanticizing the past. Human sacrifice was far more common than many today like to comfortably admit.

    It is still very common, we just don’t call it that any more. 

    • #2
    • May 21, 2019, at 8:24 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    The bog mummies server as a poignant warning against romanticizing the past. Human sacrifice was far more common than many today like to comfortably admit.

    It is still very common, we just don’t call it that any more.

    Yes, you are on to something important about human nature, apart from the obvious contemporary issue to which you allude. 

    • #3
    • May 22, 2019, at 1:03 AM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Vectorman Thatcher

    Clifford A. Brown: The subject of this poem, Grauballe Man, was killed quite violently between 290 B.C. and 310 AD. Burial in a peat bog resulted in better natural preservation than any humanly devised method.

    The variation of the burial date is +/- 15%, which seemed high if Carbon-14 dating is used. Supposedly uncalibrated C-14 dating is +/- 20 %, but even tree correlated samples are not always much better.


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    • #4
    • May 22, 2019, at 10:09 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Aaron Miller Member

    Human nature is constant throughout history. We are not better people than our ancestors.

    Rather, we benefit from countless conditions that subdue violence, that provide avenues for ambitions or desires other than domination or theft, that help us to understand our dissimilar neighbors and help us to understand the world generally. We build on a mountain of history and cannot imagine life without it.

    The 20th century provides many examples of how far both societies and individuals can fall when securities like affluence or institutional justice are taken away. Even those examples fail to fully represent the barren conditions that not only discouraged modern expectations of justice but also prevented quick recovery. Modern history also demonstrates that with advances in knowledge, technology, and wealth come new opportunities for evil. That’s what freedom is: opportunity, for good or for evil.

    The advances of human civilizations are real. But they are not steps toward paradise. They change only the forms of humanity’s timeless struggles.

    On the bright side, the joys and dreams of ancient peoples can also be shared across the centuries. And there are many feats of ancient times which remain marvels today.

    • #5
    • May 22, 2019, at 10:40 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    That’s what freedom is: opportunity, for good or for evil.

    The advances of human civilizations are real. But they are not steps toward paradise. They change only the forms of humanity’s timeless struggles.

    On the bright side, the joys and dreams of ancient peoples can also be shared across the centuries. And there are many feats of ancient times which remain marvels today.

    Yes. It is terrible when we collectively forget, or ignore both the wonders and the dangers that unfolded in our common past.

    • #6
    • May 22, 2019, at 10:48 PM PST
    • Like