Jonathan's Mistletoe Diary

May 26, 2011

A little more on Lindow Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 1:40 pm

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…

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December 9, 2009

The Mistletoe Myth of Lindow Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jonathan Briggs @ 9:01 am

Druidic links to mistletoe (see recent posts) are often, these days, considered established as fact, despite very little evidence.  The Druids left no written records – and the only accounts we have are written by Romans (Pliny and Caesar) who may not have had direct knowledge, and who may also have had an interest in sensationalist propaganda about the natives of their conquered territories.  Or maybe they wrote with absolute accuracy.  We just don't know.

So we don't really know that the Druids of northern Europe (France and Britain) worshipped mistletoe. And if they did we don't really know why, or what form that worship took.

But it's a good story, and it makes an interesting tradition for Druidry.    

LindowmanSo that's all right then.  But should the druid 'myth' trip over into science?  If you've ever read accounts of Lindow Man, a 2000 year-old preserved bog body found in a Cheshire peat bog in 1984 you may recall that these state that he had mistletoe in his gut, and that this may indicate a ritual sacrifice by druids.  

The newspapers loved this story – and it's even mentioned on his interpretation panel at the British Museum.  This states that there is evidence for a ritual death (which there is) and that "it may be no coincidence that shortly before his death he had a drink including mistletoe" and "Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, and it is recorded that Druids carried out human sacrifices".  Some reports (not at the BM),even suggest the mistletoe was the poison that killed him.  The story tends to resurface every time Lindow Man goes 'on tour' in regional museums too.

Now, I've always regarded all this as absolute nonsense.  There is nothing to say this man was a druid, or even associated with druids.  The presence of mistletoe means absolutely nothing.  Yes, he may well have ingested some mistletoe – but it is not a poison, and was and still is, widely used in herbal medicine.  So it's as likely, if not more likely, that any deliberate taking of mistletoe was to help cure something, not to kill.  This conclusion is clearly more feasible than the usual one.  I despair of the scientific community sometimes.   Especially Archaeologists, who marry loose conjecture to their findings all too readily.  (and yes I am an Archaeologist of sorts by training, but my primary training is in botanical science)

AND (this is the best bit, which you'll only find if you read it up in detail) guess how much mistletoe was found?  4 pollen grains.  FOUR POLLEN GRAINS!  And the BM turn that into a 'drink including mistletoe'.  All it really indicates is that he died in February/March when mistletoe is flowering, and that he was relatively near to some mistletoe when he ate his last meal.  There's no evidence there for deliberate ingestion at all.  It's all spin, and not very good spin either.  

So, I was most relieved to find, earlier this year that in the British Museum's new (2009) book on Lindow Man (written by Jody Joy – details below) they now admit that whilst 'much has been made' of the misletoe in his gut it is 'possible…that… it could have been ingested inadvertently'.  More probable than possible I'd say.  When I'm next at the BM I'll go and see whether they've changed the interpretation panel.

 

Mistletoe Promotion of the Day – Lindow Man book:

LindowmanbookHere's that recent book on Lindow Man – a short booklet really, very readable, and available from Amazon at just £5.00 incl UK delivery.

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