“There’s Something Strange Here” – Tollund Man, Grethe, and Death in a Danish Bog

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

One day in late winter or early spring, sometime between 405 and 385 BC, a man in his 30s or 40s was hanged near a peat bog in what is now Denmark. Once the man was dead, someone closed his eyes and mouth, arranged his body as if he were sleeping, curled up on his side, and let the body sink into the dark, wet depths of the bog.

More than 2000 years later, in May of 1950, the police in the Danish town of Silkeborg received a message that a family had found a dead body, presumed to be a murder victim, in the local bog when they were cutting and gathering peat. 

It was the mother in the family, Grethe Højgaard, who first noticed something strange when she was working with her husband and sons in the bog. She told the others she thought there might be a body down in the peat, but they were skeptical. As her son John tells the story, “Mother rolled up her sleeves and started digging in the mud. She dug into the cliff where people were standing cutting peat and said: “You can say whatever you want but there’s something strange here.” She kept digging, and then stuck her fingers in between the forehead and the cap on Tollund Man’s head.

In newspaper clippings, there’s a photo of Grethe standing near the place where Tollund Man was found, dressed in what looks like a loose-fitting men’s suit over a white shirt and knit sweater, hands in her pockets, a hat or cap on her blond head. She’s smiling at the camera and behind her is the track and trolley used to move the harvested peat out of the bog.

While some early news reports named the body “the man from Bogville,” it was the name “Tollund Man” that eventually stuck. Tollund wasn’t the place where the body was found. Rather, it was the tiny community, no more than a few houses, where Grethe and her family lived.

Once police and forensic investigators examined the scene and the body, they soon determined that this was not a case for them, but for archeologists. With Tollund Man still resting on a thick bed of peat, a box was built around him before he was lifted out of the bog. The box with the body and the wet peat inside weighed almost half a ton, and it was brought to the train station in a horse drawn carriage and put on the train to Copenhagen and Denmark’s National Museum for further examination.

Even after 2400 years, Tollund Man’s body was eerily well preserved. His features, down to the wrinkles on his forehead, were clearly visible, his expression seemingly serene, his skin tanned a dark coppery brown by the waters of the bog. His hair was cut short, and there was stubble on his chin and upper lip, showing that he was usually clean-shaven but had not shaved on the day of his death. 

When it was found, Tollund Man’s body was naked apart from a cap, a belt, and the noose, made of two strips of leather, left around his neck. His cap was made of sheepskin and wool, secured with leather straps under his chin and fitted with a loop that made it easy to put the cap on and remove it again. 

His belt was made of thin pieces of leather. One end of the belt had a hole cut in it and the other end of the belt was threaded through this hole and secured with a loop knot. 

The rope used to hang him had left a mark on either side of his neck and under his chin, but there were no marks on the back of his neck. Certain kinds of hanging often result in fractured cervical vertebrae, essentially breaking the person’s neck, but Tollund Man’s vertebrae were intact, meaning he was hanged in such a way that he died of strangulation. A length of the leather rope had been rolled up and placed underneath his body, the rope’s end neatly cut with a knife.

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    An examination of Tollund Man’s stomach and intestines showed that his last meal was a simple porridge or gruel, made from barley, knotweed, flax, and a bit of fish. The food was charred in places, and had likely been cooked over a fire in some kind of earthenware pot.

    The exact circumstances of how and why Tollund Man was killed are unknown, but it is believed that he was hanged as a ritual sacrifice and not executed for a crime, mainly because of how carefully his body was treated after death.

    12 years before Tollund Man was discovered, another body called Elling Woman, was found nearby in the same bog. Carbon dating indicates she was killed about 100 years after Tollund Man, but like him, she had been hanged before her body was placed in the bog. Elling Woman was wrapped in a sheepskin cape, and her long hair was braided and arranged in an elaborate knot.  

    A third body was also found in the same bog not far from where Tollund Man and Elling Woman were found, which might offer proof that there was a tradition of ritual sacrifice in the area during the Iron Age. They might have been sacrificed to the gods, maybe in a ritual held in late winter when food stores were running low and people asked the gods for spring to come again, though little is known of the rituals and beliefs held by the people who lived in this part of Europe at the time. It is known that during the Iron Age, the local people mostly burned their dead and placed their ashes and bones in urns that were later buried. The fact that the bodies found in the bog were treated differently after death might be another indication that they were sacrificed or seen as special in some other way. 

    Bog bodies like Tollund Man have been found in various places in Europe and elsewhere. The high acidity and low oxygen content of the bog waters, combined with the cold climate and certain chemical interactions produced by the particular kind of sphagnum moss found in these bogs, are what help preserve the remains for so long. 

    The people who once placed Tollund Man into the bog after hanging him are long gone but the bog is still there. It drains into a nearby lake and is surrounded by a few trees, its surface covered with reeds, chickweed, and bullrush. 

    During the time when Tollund Man was killed, an era commonly called the Iron Age, the bog was likely a place for rituals, and maybe the local people even held the wetlands sacred. But peat bogs were also sources of fuel, as far back as 2400 years ago and even earlier. Sometime around 1000-800 BC, people in Northern Europe started cutting peat and burning it to heat their homes and cook their food. Scientists speculate that peat cutting became more common at that time because so much forest had been cut down for timber, firewood, and to make way for crops and fields. Peat, once it’s turned into peat coal, is also a useful fuel when you’re smelting iron which might also help explain why people were cutting and harvesting peat during the Iron Age.

    The people who took Tollund Man’s life, whoever they were, likely harvested peat from the same bog where he was placed so carefully after death. They would have cut and dug the peat from the wet depths of the bog, same as people in the area continued to do for centuries after he was strangled. Same as Grethe Højgaard’s family was doing that day in 1950 when she stuck her hands into the peat and found his skull. 

    Tollund Man is displayed at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, although the body seen there is a replica. In the 1950s, scientists were unable to preserve the body properly and the remains, except for the head (which was severed), were not put on display. In 1987, the body was reconstructed, and the original head was attached to the replica.