(Bog Girls Gone Wild / Servilia Did It)
Bog People: (a definition). Preserved corpses dug up usually in peat bogs left over from Iron Age Europe. Given names like ‘Grauballe Man’ or ‘Windeby Girl,’ usually based on where the bodies are found. Examined through archaeological processes for causes of death. Believed to be victims of execution or human sacrifice. Even better if you try to imagine their last days, the reasons for their deaths, etc. (That was an archaeological process for me as well.)
As a child I turned chill pushing past glossy photographs in a library book of leathered, mutilated bodies with chemically induced coppery hair. I drifted in and out of imagination to get to their individual fates, but I always gravitated especially to one fate in particular. There is this girl with her head shaved. She’s blindfolded. The narrative text suspected her of committing adultery. The Internet has lots of stories about this particular bog person, which is what the Internet was invented for, right? And of course eminent Irish poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney has vaulted the fates of the bog people and their hold on our popular imagination into the literary realm with North, his 1975 collection of poetry and especially the “little adulteress” of the poem “Punishment.” Heaney’s poem focuses on the gaze of the would-be observer of the execution who admits, “I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence.”
So the bog people are nothing new. Then what’s my beef and why do I feel the need to address the treatment of this corpse here and now? Blame the September 2007 issue of National Geographic. But first you have to understand how I stood and took in that preserved scalp. Any girl or woman doesn’t have to hyperextend herself to learn about the history of violence against women. There are many sources. The Bible. American Psycho. (I would argue, however, that the novel, as well as the film, is at least in part an exploration of why that violence occurs). Or just watch a couple episodes of the HBO series Rome on DVD, especially the episode when Vorenus causes his wife’s death and curses his daughters to Hades over an adultery scandal. As for the growing author of this article, I took the body and transgressions of ‘Windeby Girl’ and buried that body and those transgressions inside my own growing body.
There would have been this guy around my age who smiled at me when I fed the chickens or whatever Windeby girls do in their spare time in Iron Age northern Germany. And I would have this older husband I had been delivered to for a price. It’s called kaufehe actually, which literally means ‘bought marriage.’ And something or nothing at all would happen between myself and this young man who grins like dripping water when I pass by and HEAD SHAVED! BLINDFOLDED! BOGGED! And that poor, beautiful youth is thrown in right after me.
As a girl growing up and as a woman who can admit to neither purity nor to depravity but simply to the strange condition of being human, all this ‘punishment’ kind of makes me think about my own time and place. How maybe I shouldn’t take for granted my ability to commit transgressions as I see fit. Maybe, what I took from staring at that glossy photograph of the half shaved head and the label of adulteress was simply the idea that there really could be certain absolute transgressions and it is only our growing laxness as a culture that is saving my skin. I think that I was learning to believe that the process of a woman making her own sexual decisions was somehow illicit, deserving of voyeurism.
But there’s one huge problem about Windeby Girl and her adulterous nature and that boy who loved her and how she was shoved to the ground and her head shaved to signify her crime and about the psychological life I led carrying this girl and her transgression within me as a cautionary tale. The problem is that Windeby Girl, as a recent issue of National Geographic (not just my grandfather’s favorite coffee table magazine!) makes perfectly clear, is Windeby Boy. Not only did ‘Windeby’ not just smile at the wrong person or spread some legs, he existed perhaps in an entirely different genre of our imagination. According to Wikipedia, someone named Heather Gill-Robinson, a professor at NDSU, can be credited with doing the DNA studies on this mummy and letting me, and countless others off the hook of imagining ourselves discovered in flagrante in a forest or a barn with someone so much cooler than who we’re supposed to be flagranting with or even just suspected of the deed and led to a peat bog as the ultimate punishment. The last breath before the icy water. Etcetera etcetera.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to make light of the real tragedy of real human beings with feelings, social connections, intelligences, and desires being deprived of the rest of their natural lives because of religious beliefs promoting human sacrifice or Iron Age mores determining what crimes deserve death as a punishment. And it’s easy to press our very human imaginations into imprints that will describe to us just a little bit of who these people were. From National Geographic:
“. . . many bog bodies were interpreted as people in disgrace, supposedly punished with torture, execution, and burial in the bog instead of cremation, the customary Iron Age practice. Windeby Girl, discovered in northern Germany in 1952, was said to be an adulteress whose head had been shaved in a manner described by Tacitus. Then, researchers speculated, she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog. A body found nearby was identified as her lover.”
So I’m not crazy. It’s part of what we do as humans to imagine circumstances for other humans we know nothing about in order to? Satisfy our voyeurism? Honor their humanity? Honor ours? All three and then some?
I work in a major chain bookstore. National Geographic sells a fair number of copies, and customers regularly ask me where the magazine is located. I take them to the ‘Current Events’ section and there we have that familiar yellow border and all those glossy photographs. The story in the magazine about the bog people and its discussion of Windeby ‘Girl’ is just further proof that the phenomena of these mummies dug up from peat bogs and our need to find an explanation for the causes still captivates our imagination. (The National Geographic article, for example, cites the National Museum of Ireland’s Eamonn Kelly’s theory that at least some of the bog sacrifices belong to would-be pretenders to thrones or failed kings.) But although I have no real proof I daresay that the hoopla over Windeby ‘Girl,’ and my childhood fascination over her demise shows how we as a culture are encouraged to re-imagine ourselves into the sexual pasts of women as explanation for their behavior.
Season two of the HBO smash hit Rome on DVD is also a recent release at the bookstore where I work. But plenty of people still come in for season one. (The assassination of Julius Caesar occurs at the end of season one. Season two brings us the aftermath and the rise of Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian.) The show focuses on two “garden variety” Roman soldiers (as the Netflix slipcase calls them), the aforementioned Lucius Vorenus and his good friend and brother-in-arms, Titus Pullo, and follows their stories both preceding and following the assassination. What do Verenus and Pullo have to do with re-imagining sex as a motive for the actions of women? Not that much, actually. But the series’ treatment of the character of Servilia, mother to the more famous Brutus, does offer a glimpse into how many of us still believe that old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
In a nutshell: Servilia is Caesar’s lover. Somehow or other she gets spurned. Her anger and hatred know no boundary. She curses the clan of the Julii. This involves some rolled up scrap of paper being stuffed into a crack of Servilia’s nemesis’ house late at night. Her own home offers an open door for the conspirators. And perhaps most importantly, the series portrays her as a key player in the ongoing struggle to bring the conflicted Brutus once and for all over to the side of the conspirators. For the republic, of course. Never mind that Servilia never once says or does anything in the series that manages to convince this viewer that she has a ‘republican’ nature. No, she’s just pissed at Caesar. Because he spurned her. Hell hath no fury, you know. Never mind that spurn and that curse. Never mind that Servilia is played as a woman who manages to be both chilly and seething at the same time. No. Brutus, my son. She says, her voice trembling with emotion. I am soooo proud of you. The Republic is saved.
Some people I know don’t agree with my interpretation of Servilia’s role. Maybe I’m missing something. I certainly do not intend to suggest that a woman cannot have powerful political motives, whenever or wherever. Or even that it’s entirely possible to sort out the various avenues and sources from which our motives generate and gain ground. And I’m no fool. I’m not going to tell you that sex, or the pursuit of sex, or the desire to maintain a sexual relationship (or romance! or friendship!) hasn’t played a sizable role in my life. I’m not going to tell you that sex (or romance! or friendship!) hasn’t gotten me into trouble or led me into bad decisions. But I think what I’m trying to point out is how our popular media and popular imagination seem to get transfixed on what I would call the transgressive nature of Windeby’s imagined adultery or Servilia’s spurned love. (And not to give anything away, but just look at how Servilia ends up!)
As humans—as women humans—we can make the right decisions for ourselves and others without sacrificing the sexual (and romantic) aspects of who we are. It’s like the borderline, impetuous Fatal Attraction vs. the moral and passionate Jane Eyre. The silly, flirtatious Eva Braun who kowtows to Hitler in Downfall vs. the independent, sexy Jessica who helps bring Logan around to the other side in Logan’s Run. I could go on. It’s fun to go on. I’ll just close by saying, although I probably shouldn’t because I certainly don’t want to plant any ideas, that at least now that Windeby Girl is Windeby Boy, no one can make a movie about her tragic and adulterous demise.