Mending the Past 18: Imagination and the Bog


Detail from the Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron found in a Danish peat bog in 1891. It tells a story about the old beliefs that led people to place offerings into the bogs.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
–Seamus Heaney, from his poem Digging
After writing about the spirit of landscape, it seems right to return to the part of Maja Lisa’s story that concerns her family’s move to a smaller farm near a bog in 1870.
Maja’s son Nils Magnus, now 25, partnered with his brother-in-law C.A. Quist to buy the farm called Risadråg. Our cousin in Sweden, Mikael, wrote, “Dråg is a local term for a waterlogged hollow. The farm Risadråg is relatively young and was established in the second part of the 18th century along a peat-moss [bog] and bordering to Riset from which it has its first half of the name.” The image I have is one of Maja and her extended family, marginalized, moving ever further from the center of the community. They now lived at the very edge of the bog, a place notorious for its haunting legends.
Why did the families move? The family was growing and times were hard, the future uncertain. The lease on Risatorp would expire with the death of Maja’s father and he was now 80-years old. Maja’s daughter Brita Kajsa had married C. A. Quist and they had started their family with daughter Ada born in 1866. Was it unusual for a multi-generational family to stick together so tightly? It makes me wonder if they found few opportunities for employment outside of their own farm, the situation being a matter of the poor economy or the family’s reputation, or both.

Picture of a water-logged hollow.

The new property was not as large as Risatorp and it was probably difficult to farm. This area of Västergötland is characterized by good farmland interspersed with bogs and wetlands. I picture Risadråg as a low lying, soggy land that required wooden shoes to tramp across, the boundary of it ringed by dwarf pines, skinny birches and boggy, grassy peatland with clouds of gnats hovering. To establish a farm in such an area at the time would have involved digging and maintaining ditches to drain it. Additionally, wetlands have a unique kind of soil which requires lots of fertilizer and other amendments to adapt it to growing crops. Often, such land was just too wet and was best used as pasture for cattle.
It was here, Risadråg, that my great grandmother Ada Quist and her three younger brothers grew up, Johan Alfrid (1871), Karl Axel (1874) and David Natanael (1878). The Quist family in one house and Maja Lisa, her father and son in another. (Mikael wrote that he had heard that the farmhouse at Risatorp was moved and rebuilt at the new place so that the two families each had a house.) They all lived at Risadråg from 1870 until they emigrated in the early 1880’s.

A farm near a bog could be a haunting kind of place. For thousands of years in Scandinavia, bogs have been a place for the spirits. Danish archaeologist Ulla Mannering has proposed the theory that when ancient people visited the bogs to gather peat to burn as fuel and to source an ore called bog iron they left offerings in exchange. Mannering says that among prehistoric people, “when you take things, you also offer things.” Offerings included such things as textiles, shoes, jewelry, weapons, shields, food, utensils, boats and carts or their parts. At times humans were sacrificed into the inky waters of the bog. Even now their bodies occasionally rise to the surface, turned over by a farmer’s spade, their skin tanned like leather in the acidic peat. These bog bodies have become the subject of much interest by archaeologists and artists.

Those who study the bog bodies have found that violence is the most common cause of death. There is some debate as to whether this involved execution or sacrifice. Murder is also a possibility. In the book Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination by Karin Sanders she writes about how many, of the hundreds of bog bodies that have been found, are “stripped of their clothes, some with cords around their necks that suggest hanging or garroting. Other have been decapitated, and still others have suffered multiple injuries before their death.”

Danish archaeologist Peter Glob, author of one of the definitive studies on bog bodies, believed that bog bodies are the remains of people who were sacrificed to the fertility goddess Nerhus. He explains that during the Iron Age, bogs were sacred places and sites of religious worship. Bodies and other valuables were deposited in their watery depths because they were seen as portals and channels for communication with another world.

While the real stories of these people is lost to prehistory, Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus did write about the practice of human sacrifice among the people of the North, “The mode of execution varies according to the offense. Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; cowards, shirkers and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle [a panel made up of branches] into the slimy mud of the bog. This distinction in the punishment is based on the idea that offenders against the state should be made a public example of, whereas deeds of shame should be buried out of men’s sight.”


Ada Quist on the right. This old tintype may come from Sweden. We wonder if that is Ada’s younger brother Karl Axel on the left. They are sitting, possibly, with cousins. Ada emigrated in 1882 when she was 16-years-old. (copyright L. Steinmann, 2016)

Did old beliefs about bogs haunt Maja Lisa’s family? The persistence of the old ways can be found just north of Härja Parish. In Undenäs Parish, Skaga Stave Church, originally built in the 1130s, has long been known as the ancient site of a well where pagan sacrifices were deposited. Well into the 19th century people continued to make offerings of rings, clothing, hides and coins–for luck–into the well there. The story goes that the diocese was so bothered by the superstitions around Skaga that it finally had the church demolished in 1826 (for time frame, this is when Maja Lisa was a ten-year-old.) Never forgotten by the local people, the church was rebuilt in 1960.

Death and sacrifice certainly occurred at Risadråg during the family’s tenure. Having survived the famine years of the late ’60’s, Maja Lisa and her adult children struggled to provide for a growing family on a small parcel of land. Maja’s father died in 1874 at age 84. Maja’s son, Nels Magnus Nelson, now a tall young man of 35, no doubt wished to marry. He needed land, good land. He left for America in April of 1880. Maja’s grandson, Karl Axel, died the following spring at age seven. Not long afterwards, they all made the decision to emigrate. They acted in accordance with the old gods of the bog, they sacrificed the precious material of their lives in Sweden in hopeful exchange for some good fortune. They would need it for the journey and their future in a new world.

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