April 19, 2012
The Sexy Goddess of Heaney's Poetry
There is an Earth Goddess who dates back to the Neolithic Age but doesn't make a significant impact until the Iron Age 2,000 years later. She was worshiped by multiple Germanic tribes that scattered Europe and touched on the Celts in Ireland. They believed her to be not only responsible for the birth and death of crops and cattle, but was also responsible for men learning the act of lovemaking and producing healthy babies. Women wore amulets with her depiction to ward off alien and harmful forces. They would ask her blessing with their pregnancies and many men were sacrificed to her to ensure a successful crop. This unnamed Goddess, who can at times resemble the old Germanic Earth Goddess Nerthus, is portrayed in Seamus Heaney's poems as a fiery, graceful, vengeful, sexy deity who controls many facets of her peoples lives and is worshiped above all others.
Seamus Heaney's poem “The Tollund Man” is a love story between the dead and their goddess. Heaney describes the man having a “peat-brown head, [with] mild pods [for] his eye-lids.” The earthy syntax is a direct link to an Earth deity who is worshiped by the Tollund man. The man was also a human sacrifice because of the “gruel of winter seeds/ Caked in his stomach.” He was made to eat the seeds as an offering to the Goddess so they would germinate inside of him and also as part of his consecration to her.
Heaney also describes him in garb that fits the description of the Germanic Goddess Nerthus who would receive him with only a “cap, noose and girdle.” The noose is especially important because it is Nerthus's symbol. She is always depicted wearing a double torc of woven material and so the humans sacrificed to her would wear a noose. This would ensure them being consecrated to the Goddess.
The love story of this poem is made clear to me in the next stanza when Heaney relates the Tollund man as a “bridegroom to the goddess.” The number of male sacrifices far outweigh the number of female ones. Nerthus was more fond of having men sacrifice themselves to her though in myth she never takes on a partner. These human men are more lovers to her than anything more permanent. The next stanza is my favorite and is the most erotic in the poem:
“She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body”
There is definitely a play of love and lust going on here. The torc that Nerthus is tightening is the man's noose. She is killing him so he can be with her in the realm beyond. The word 'fen' can be construed as a sexual meaning towards her vulva and the act of sex with her human sacrifice to consecrate him to her. Her 'dark juices working him to a saint's kept body' is the climax and success of consecration that gives the Tollund man the status of saint in Heaven. That is the highest place a human can go in the afterlife.
Earth deities invoke love in many people and Christians are no different. In Heaney's poem, the Tollund man is actually a Christian:
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
A christian who is caught worshiping a Pagan God is committing blasphemy on their religion. A great place for an Earth deity to dwell is in watery groves where the Earth and Water meet. A bog or marsh is her consecrated grove and thus a holy ground to pray to her. Heaney is also referring to the praying of the seeds inside the Tollund man so that the Goddess will germinate them and provide food. The seeds are an offering to her because she controls the growth and death of crops.
Heaney's “The Grauballe Man” takes on a sober tone, however emphasis on the Earth enriches this poem. The Grauballe man is another such bog victim and, like his Tollund man, it is believed he died as a willing sacrifice to a deity. Heaney describes the mans' position, “as if he had been poured/ in tar, he lies/ on a pillow of turf.” This man was not found in a fetal position or any stance that would suggest he was forced into the bog. A deity does not consecrate someone who is forced to die for her. If he wanted his soul to be saved then he died willingly.
The syntax throughout the poem describes the man as becoming a part of the earth. Heaney sees the Grauballe man with:
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
The ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
The imagery in Heaney's words make the man seem like a part of the bog from whence he was dug up. His wrists are grain like a tree found in the bog. Grain is a staple food and one that can be offered to the Goddess like the winter seeds in the Tollund man's stomach. Basalt is a common volcanic rock that is grainy and black. The Grauballe man's heel is an egg form of this rock and may look shiny and smooth.
The next paragraph goes on in the description:
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan's foot
or a wet swamp root.
Here Heaney makes an animal relation as well as a plant one. Funny that he should reference the swan who mates for life and will die without his mate. The 'wet swamp root' is a great reference to a living earthy plant that is connected with the water. The Grauballe man can be seen as being eternally connected to earth and water as is his Goddess.
Heaney wrote a romantic and caressing poem called “Bogland” that makes ones heart warm. The fourth stanza from the beginning explains how:
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter
The affectionate tone resonates throughout this poem. The bog in question is like a lover who preserves ones beauty and youth. So if humans do go into the bog their Goddess will give them eternal life in the afterlife and retain their present state. Using butter as an example can give a persons mind a clear image of just how gentle this Goddess is to whoever enters her domain. Butter can easily warp and become spoiled but to have it retain its natural salty and white texture is a miracle. The last line sums up the Goddess as being kind because she is the ground.
Following that stanza in reference to the Goddess being “kind, black butter” is this continuing declaration:
Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They'll never dig coal here,
The Earth Goddess envelopes the people who tread in her buttery bog like a lovers hug. However, not many people worship her today and if they do the tradition of human sacrifice is probably not being performed any more. Millions of years is obviously an exaggeration but even though man won't dig up the bogs for coal the changing Earth and climate could effect the boglands and deteriorate them. The feeling of sadness bleeds into the last stanzas where Heaney talks about how archeologists are digging up Her boglands and stripping away layers of used bog. The Earth Goddess has no limitations and her “wet centre is bottomless” as Heaney says in the last line.
To look at the darker side of these human sacrifices Heaney wrote “Bog Queen”. Not everyone gets consecrated to their deity and the woman portrayed in this poem is left to rot while still being conscious of her situation. At first glance this poem is talking about a woman who was killed and left in the bog only to be hauled out by the hair by some man and his wife. However, there is more to it than that. The title denotes a royal barring to the bog and the woman could be viewed as the Goddess herself rising up from the dead. The cutting of the “slimy birth-cord of bog” can mean the Goddess is reborn and lives again. She “rose from the dark” of the bog thanks to the man who frees her.
Heaney eludes to this interpretation at the beginning of the poem:
I lay waiting
between turf-face and demesne wall,
between heathery levels
and glass-toothed stone
The Goddess is laying in wait for someone to rescue her from the dense bog layers. She knows the bog and can describe and see all the elements of it because it was once hers. The statement, “I lay waiting” is repeated at the end of the fourth stanza and the Goddess starts describing her slow death in her bog by “illiterate roots” in her stomach and sockets, and the notion that the sun rose and set in the same places of her body. She could not move and she was getting taken over by the very plants and elements that she once ruled. So when she finally rises up at the end it is a victorious time for her. The rebirth of an Earth Goddess can change the cosmos.
Heaney's poem titled “Strange Fruit” describes a dead girl. Her head is found by a man who has become used to these odd findings in the bog:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
She has been in the bog for a long time if no one can identify her and the beheaded state does signify a murder. However, she could still be a human sacrifice for who knows what rituals the ancients performed for their deities? It is possible that being beheaded was another way to become consecrated to the Goddess. The man in the poem describes the girl in Earth terms like she has become part of the bog just like the sacrificed Tollund man.
Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd...
...They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair...
Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,
Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings
The descriptive imagery makes one imagine her becoming the bog. Her head looks like a buried gourd with a long piece of fern covering the top. These are not native to bogs but the Goddess does not just rule marshy areas. She governs the entire Earth and all of nature is hers. The fact that these uncharacteristic features are found in this girl can be observed as the Earth Goddess's far-reaching influence. Her nose is dark like a clod of turf which is rich soil and then you get the contrast in elements with the water pools of her eyeholes. Earth and water meet in bogs and that is why the Goddess lives there.
The last two lines are beautiful in their meaning when Heaney describes how the girl is:
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence
The girl is beyond weaponry and beauty. Those things do not matter to her nor does respect for anyone else besides the Goddess. She has been consecrated by her deity and nothing else on Earth matters to her anymore. All her respect and awe is for the Goddess now.
The last poem is called “Punishment” and it describes a man watching the slowly sinking body of an adultress cast out into the bog. Some goddesses were said to punish women committing adultery by having their heads shaved and being cast out of their towns to wonder and eventually fall prey to Her bog. The girl in this poem is said to be one of those wandering souls. She is made a spectacle in front of her sisters and the man who almost loved her and is then blindfolded and is thrown into the bog with weights on her body.
Though the girl is seen as an adultress Heaney still describes her in earthy terms that identify her with the deity whom she has been sacrificed to:
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn
The girl was young if she is being compared to a sapling that was uprooted too early in life. She had a small frame but it was sturdy like oak so she was probably a hard worker for someone so young. Comparing her head to black corn is a grotesque image but does imply she had black hair or is black skinned and that could be why she is singled out.
Seamus Heaney wrote all these Bog Body poems because he was fascinated with the Goddess. He gives many different viewpoints on her ranging from a savior, to a lover, to her own resurrection, back to a savior, and finally to a vengeful spirit. He describes her personality in many ways that make her a multifaceted deity that should not be taken lightly.
Heaney, Seamus. “The Grauballe Man”, “Punishment.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. 8 Vol. F. Greenblatt, Stephen: Norton and Company, 2006. 2825-2828. Print.