A rich body of geographical lore, much of it related to real or imaginary hazards, characterises perceptions of bog landscapes. Bog bursts, will-o’-the-wisps, carnivorous plants, weird creatures, and perceptions of the ‘bottomless’ bog all play a part in the folklore of the landscapes. For example, there is Lindow Man, the preserved body of a man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire, North West England on 1 August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. The find, which is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980s, caused a media sensation and helped invigorate study of ‘bog men’ in Britain. Ambiguity about the features of bog landscapes is further heightened by the descriptive terminology employed by tale tellers, who present to us a world inhabited by meanings that go beyond the physical environment and touch on the primordial inner landscape. Not long after its discovery, Lindow Man inspired Phil Rickman’s horror novel The Man in the Moss, in which a man’s body is found perfectly preserved in peat, despite the fact that it has been there for over two millennia. For the isolated Pennine community of Bridelow in the novel, his removal is a sinister sign. In the weeks approaching Samhain – the Celtic feast of the dead – tragedy strikes in Bridelow. Soon, firm believers of both the Christian and pagan persuasion are at each other’s throats, while the village prepares to face a natural disaster unknown since the time of King Henry VIII.
So what is it about bog landscapes that has inspired authors like Rickman to write horror fiction? Partly it may be that bogs are, to many, profoundly ambiguous landscapes. Lacking exactness in definition, they take on a veneer of imagination that transforms names such as “mire,”‘”muck,” “morass,” and “moor” into elements of geographical lore. Even the scientific description of a bog sounds arcane: they are termed ombrotrophic, anaerobic, acidic etc. There are raised bogs, level bogs, string bogs, blanket bogs, quaking bogs, eccentric bogs, and many others with colourful local names such as “pocosin” or “muskeg.” Moving outward and upward without clear borders and without solid substance below, bog landscapes are filled with hazards, whether real or imagined. One such hazard is the perceived bottomless nature of bogs. Bottomless bogs and the realm of the bogeys also hold a prominent place in folklore and fairy stories.
The relating of a few horrifyingly real experiences of people falling deep into bogs, coupled with the discovery of preserved bodies in bogs while someone is cutting peat for fuel, have given rise to a tradition of stern warnings. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has described his childhood, when he lived near a bog. The old people told the children to never go near the bog, because it was bottomless, the preserve of ‘mankeepers’, ‘mosscheepers’ and bogeys, who were waiting to lure unwary wanderers into the its pools. Later, Heaney developed a deep affection for and appreciation of the bog and used it as an overriding metaphor and symbol of the Irish psyche in a series of well-known poems, including Bogland. He recalls these bog creatures of his childhood as “uncatalogued by any naturalist, but none the less real for that”. Hans Christian Andersen, who lived from 1805 to 1875, wrote several tales connected to bogs, fens, or moors. Andersen’s native Denmark was once covered with extensive bogs, fens, and marshes. Most of them have been drained or mined for peat, but in earlier days they were considered to be the abodes of all sorts of creatures. Denmark is also the home of famous real-life predecessors of Lindow Man: Grauballe Man and Tollund Man.
Leaving fiction aside for a moment, the real-life Lindow Man is extraordinary enough. As he had been conserved for nearly 2,000 years by the acidic, anaerobic conditions, on removal it was possible to make out his facial features, a distinctive furrowed brow with close-cropped hair and beard. For the first time, therefore, it was possible to see the face of a person from Britain’s prehistoric past. Radiocarbon dating put his death, which was extremely violent, as being sometime in the 1st century AD. Whilst we know that he was killed by blows to the head, garrotting, swallowing mistletoe and then drowning in the waters of the peat bog, we don’t know for certain why he was killed or whether he was willing (as the ritualistic nature of his death seems to imply). It has been proposed that the death was an example of human sacrifice and that the ‘triple death’ (throat cut, strangled, and hit on the head) was an offering to several different gods. The grimly curious among you might be interested to know that the body has been preserved by freeze-drying and is on permanent display at the British Museum in London.
Lindow Man’s official name is Lindow II, as he is not the only bog body to have been found in the moss: Lindow I (Lindow Woman) refers to a human skull, Lindow III to a fragmented headless body, and Lindow IV to the upper thigh of an adult male (possibly that of Lindow Man). The discovery of Lindow Man marked the first well-preserved bog body discovered in Britain; its condition was comparable to that of the more famous Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark. The ongoing debate over whether Lindow Man’s death was due to sacrifice or murder partly inspired Rickman in writing The Man in the Moss. Set in a small community it details the complex co-existence of pagan and Christian factions thrown into conflict by the discovery and removal from a peat bog of what may be an ancient victim of the Celtic ‘triple death’. Well-researched and atmospheric, Rickman’s novel keeps you guessing to the very end as to whether the strange goings-on in Bridelow are the result of superstition… or something far older and more insidious.