A little more on Lindow Man

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…

5 thoughts on “A little more on Lindow Man

  1. Hey,

    I’m a young lad from the forest of dean – I have crohn’s disease and a buggered immune system. I am drawn to mistletoe and wonder if you’d advise it and where I can find info on the best way to prepare it and take it. Any help would be wonderful.



    1. Hi, Thanks for your comment. I’m not a medic – so am not really in a position to advise on medicinal use. Some quick thoughts though: – The mistletoe-based complementary cancer therapies utilise mistletoe to boost immune systems – though only with specific and laboratory-produced mistletoe extracts which are injected subcutaneously. Not the sort of thing you could do DIY. Taking mistletoe by mouth needs care – as it does contain some toxins – and probably pointless anyway for the immune system as the immune response in cancer therapy is a reaction to the complex proteins found in the mistletoe extracts – and those proteins will be broken down in the digestive system (which is why the cancer therapies use injections). Oral mistletoe medicines, in the form of dried leaves making herbal tea, are common on the continent, but that’s largely to reduce high blood pressure, and not to do with immune response. Hope this helps. There are some links to the cancer therapy practitioners on the website – http://www.mistletoe.org.uk/home/mtoemedicine.htm

  2. Hi to the young man from Forest of Dean, NO DO NOT take it I am training as a herbalist and it might do you more harm than good. You could try chamomile in the form of tea as its anti-inflamatory and workd well in the bowel region. Then take and immune boster like Echinacea or calendular (marigold). But go and see a fully qualified herbalist as there is far more that can be done to help you. Good luck

  3. Hi … yes, I do agree with you about the amount found. It’s very minuscule indeed indeed to place so much importance on it. BUT the fact that this minuscule amount WAS FOUND AT ALL indicates that it was administered fairly recently (you have to study the esophagus and which part of the intestine – this was at the stomach so it was fairly very recently). I am not at all a modern druid but (1)the man was deemed in good health and at the prime of his life, (2) the possibility of murder/foul play has been eliminated, (3) he was found at a bog (look at the picture of the site). (4)His hair was trimmed fairly very recently… and (5) he suffered three different kinds of death assaults … if you look at the area where his body was found … the 3 or 4 grains of mistletoe are not a mishap to be breath in. … There would have been at LEAST one more maybe found trapped at the nostril hair, these things would have STUCK when they are released from the berry.

  4. Thanks Miko, but nothing you’ve said there alters anything I said. True it seems unlikely, in a bog, that there was mistletoe immediately nearby, but there may have been some not very far away. Pollen ingested from the air by accident will still be the stomach for long enough to walk a few miles. It could easily be a mishap.

    The man’s condition (hair cut, assault style etc) has no relevance to this at all.

    Even if the mistletoe pollen was ingested deliberately there’s still no link to druids. Mistletoe has been used for millennia (and still is over a lot of continental Europe) as a calming herbal tea/tisane as well as as a medicine. Just because someone has ingested some mistletoe doesn’t make them a druid.

    And anyway, as pointed out in the blog, there is no real evidence of link between mistletoe and ancient druidry – it’s just a line by Pliny and he made loads of stuff up.

    (by the way pollen is not released from the berries – pollen is from flowers, seeds are from berries).

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