I’ve commented on the mistletoe issues relating to Lindow Man, the Cheshire Bog Body, several times before (e.g see here), particularly the over-imaginative interpretation of the mistletoe pollen (just 4 grains) found in his stomach. So it was interesting, this week, to read two other critical accounts, covering similar ground.
The first account was in Ronald Hutton’s book Blood & Mistletoe – the history of the druids in Britain. This definitive account of druidry in Britain, published in 2009, has just been issued in paperback, and so I finally got round to buying a copy.
Hutton is a professor of history at Bristol University and a recognised authority on druids. His take on Lindow Man is typically robust, challenging the extraordinary extrapolation of the evidence that followed the discovery of the body in the 1980s. The archaeological account of that time seized on Lindow Man’s apparently ritual death (clubbed, garotted and with a cut throat), assumed from his apparent pre-Roman dating that he was of the ‘druidic’ period, and also assumed from the mistletoe traces in his stomach that he’d drunk a ritual drink of mistletoe, sacred to the druids.
But, as I’ve pointed out before, the mistletoe link is extremely tenuous – there’s only Pliny to say mistletoe was sacred to the druids, and he was, to say the least, unreliable (more on that below), and anyway, the body had just 4 grains of pollen, which might just indicate eating /inhaling near a mistletoe plant in flower, without any deliberate ingestion at all.
Hutton makes similar points re the mistletoe, but also points out that there were two pathology reports, and one of those didn’t support that ritual killing idea at all. In the alternative scenario our man was ‘just’ clubbed on the head – the garotte is his shrunken leather necklace, and the cut throat is damage after death. So, perhaps not that ritual after all. Plus there is doubt over dating – he may not be pre-Roman at all, which makes the case for a pre-Roman-style ritualistic killing less likely (though not impossible of course).
These latter points were already known to me as they are covered in the BM’s 2009 booklet about Lindow Man, but I’d not seen them argued so clearly before – and I have to conclude that the popular understanding of Lindow man’s death definitely seems to be based on extremely dodgy reasoning, and reflects a little badly on the original write-ups, as all the alternative reasoning was readily available then too.
The other account I’ve become aware of this week is a new blog entry in The Smart Set by Jessa Crispin. Under the heading I Have My Reasons – Arguments against magical beliefs always forget a very important point… she argues the case for having beliefs, which is an interesting read in itself. But it was the druid section that caught my attention most – in which she stresses the unreliability of Pliny as a source, pointing out that he also wrote of;
…the Blemmyis, a race of people with “no heads and whose eyes and mouths were in the center of their chests.” Or the Cynamolgi, “who had dogs’ heads.” In India, there were men called the Astomi, “who lived only on perfume, inhaling nourishment through their nasal membranes.”
And we don’t believe any of that, do we?
Crispin also picks up on the various points made in Hutton’s book (as well as another fascinating new book Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic by Nevill Drury) but she also specifically covers that mistletoe story again. She re-makes the key point like this:
The body was also instantly linked to the Druids because of mistletoe pollen found in the stomach… …despite the fact that the minuscule amount could have appeared from just breathing in on a high allergy alert day.
But she concludes that…
…simply because much of this has been refuted and disproved and argued convincingly, that doesn’t mean it’s changed the minds of anyone who doesn’t want their mind changed..
A point well-made as – despite the evidence – I very much doubt that many will be swayed from the romantic idea that Lindow Man is a druidic sacrifice, possible even a “Druidic Prince“, who drank a “death-draught” of mistletoe…