Belief and cosmology

Although it is hard to understand past people’s worldviews and religious beliefs from archaeological remains alone, Grauballe Man and other bog bodies, as well as other finds made in bogs provide us with a glimpse into Iron Age people’s beliefs.

Iron Age beliefs

In the Iron Age there was not one religion that applied to everyone. However, despite local and individual variations, there are many common trends. People in Grauballe Man’s time seem to have believed in a number of gods and spirits, both male and female. They worshipped nature and the powers that reigned over agriculture, animal life and human life. Gods, spirits, ancestors, or a combination of these immortal beings, could control aspects of people’s life that were beyond their own control. Thus, when things did not go well, or when people wanted to ensure a good outcome for an activity, they would call upon the gods for help.

Offering and sacrifice

Offerings or sacrifices were made to gain the gods’ favour. Many of the finds made in bogs across Denmark and other parts of north-western Europe are the remains of this ritual exchange between the human world and that of the gods or spirits, who were asked to cause or prevent good or bad events. They include everyday items like pottery with food, tools and items of clothing. More valuable objects include jewellery, weaponry and the famous silver Gundestrup cauldron. Larger items, like carriages, wagons and even ships might also be offered.

Blood sacrifices - The ultimate offer

Animal or human sacrifice is different from the offering of objects, as it entails the death of a living being. The transformation of a living thing into a corpse by shedding its blood releases a mystical power. The blood may be seen to nourish the earth and the underworld. The sacrifice of domestic animals, which are close to people, constitute a valuable gift to the gods. Yet human life is the ultimate offer people can make to the gods. 

Several Roman authors, writing centuries after Grauballe Man’s time, describe the practice of human sacrifice amongst the people in north-western Europe. They clearly felt an aversion of this ‘barbaric’ practice and provide dramatic descriptions of these rituals. We too, tend to consider such practices as cruel murder. Yet for the past people involved in these practices, such sacrifices were celebrations which brought gods and people together. The whole process of offering, the drama surrounding it, played an important role in the communication between people and gods. Processions, prayers, offerings, music and dancing may have happened before the sacrificial victim, the sacred gifts for the gods, was physically and metaphorically removed from the human world and transferred to another by being killed and placed in the bog.