This is a story like no other. A story of a slain King, brutally murdered and dumped in the damp, dark marsh of the midlands. This is the story of Old Croghan Man, who was found in a bog beneath Croghan Hill in Co. Offaly and based on radiocarbon dating he died sometime between 362 BC and 175 BC.
It He was extremely tall measuring 6ft 6 in height and had well manicured hands suggesting that he was not used to manual labour. His last meal (analysed from the contents in his stomach) consisted of cereals and milk . However, he was shown to have had a meat rich diet for at least the 4 months prior to this (based on analysis of his nails).
Like many other bog bodies, Old Croghan Man had suffered a violent death before being deposited in the peaty depths. Rather horrifically, holes had been cut into his upper arms through which a rope of hazel withies was threaded in order to restrain the body. He was then stabbed and his nipples sliced, before finally being cut in half across the torso. Such extreme violence may indicate that his death involved some form of ritualistic murder or sacrifice.
Old Croghan Man has a leather amulet, decorated in the fashionable continental style, on his arm. It represents the sun, with which Irish kingship is closely associated. He also had his nipples sliced before he died. Together, these features suggest that he was a king. The king’s nipples represented the life-giving sun. Their cutting suggests that their power was being ritually decommissioned.
It appeared he had been “killed” three times: by strangulation, by stabbing and by drowning. However ritualised, Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent: he was bound with hazel rods threaded through holes in his upper arms, stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated and cut in half. (All that has been found are his torso and arms.) But the violence was not mere sadism. “This,” says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, “isn’t done for torture or to inflict pain. It’s a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She’s goddess of sovereignty, of fertility and of war and death. So they’re making sacrifice to her in all her forms, and the king has to die three deaths.”
Poignantly, Old Croghan Man has a wound on his arm, which he lifted instinctively to try to shield himself from the weapon with which he was stabbed in the chest. Before his death, he was fed a ritual meal of milk and grain: not the high-status meat-based diet that is revealed by analysis of his nails but one meant, rather, to symbolise the earth’s fertility.
He had been a huge man, almost six and a half feet tall. It is easy to imagine him as a champion or hero. He was young and healthy, and there is little sign that he did physical labour. The bog where his body is found is close to the foot of the hill where the kings of the Uí Failge (Offaly) were inaugurated. He was killed near the site where he had become king.
This culture of brutal sacrifice may tell us something about the mood of the times. In the last centuries BC, Ireland became colder and wetter. Food may have been more scarce. The great prestige of kings had always been linked to their claim to reflect the views of the other world. When times were bad, this very claim became fatal.