Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests.I’ll dig with it.–Seamus Heaney, from his poem Digging
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.”
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.