The Tollund Man

I did ‘The Tollund Man’ in Ballydavid in Kerry at Easter in 1970. Marie and I had gone there for holidays regularly …’ (DOD124);


Heaney makes the pledge he will fulfil in 1973 a year after Wintering Out is published: Some day I will go to Aarhus.

His pilgrimage will aim to bring him face to face with Tollund Man his body recalled now (from photographs taken by PV Glob): his stained peat-brown head; the gentle swellings (mild pods) of his eye-lid; the leathery crown (His pointed skin cap).

The body had been miraculously preserved by the Jutland peat bog (the flat country nearby/ Where they dug him out), leaving, too, remains of the thin food he consumed prior to execution: His last gruel of winter seeds/ Caked in his stomach. The poet’s eye moves slowly down the body Naked except for/ The cap, noose and girdle; Heaney will want to digest every detail of the body he sees displayed: stand a long time.

The man was a human sacrifice to Nerthus, the pagan deity (of the next poem): Bridegroom to the goddess. Heaney hints strongly at the sexual dimension of her mythology: both she and the peat-bog have embraced Tollund man’s body: She tightened her torc on him/ And opened her fen.

Two thousand years of exposure to the peat’s protective dark juices delivered a miraculous relic (a saint’s kept body) retrieved by men digging peat (as evidenced by the visible spade patterns in the peat-bog landscape): Trove of the turfcutters’/ Honeycombed workings.

Tollund man now lies peacefully on public display: his stained face/ Reposes at Aarhus.

  • Arrhus: Danish town on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula close to which the bog bodies were disinterred by PV Glob;
  • mild: not exaggerated;
  • pod: elongated, swelling seed vessel of plant or vegetable;
  • gruel: thin oatmeal soup;
  • noose: loop of knotted rope use to hang/strangulate;
  • girdle: belt worn around the body;
  • goddess: female deity;
  • torc: neck ornament of twisted metal worn in ancient times;
  • fen: low, marshy ground;
  • saint’s kept body: the miracle of his preservation in the peat somehow makes him a ‘religious’ relic;
  • trove: found treasure, treasure hoard;
  • honeycombed workings: patterns made by peat diggers’ spades resembling a bee’s honey store
  • stained: discoloured by peat water;
  • 5 quatrains in 4 sentences; line length between 5 and 8 syllables; unrhymed;

  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;

  • verb tenses: future of promise made/ intention; past tense of body retrieval by PV Glob; present tense of things current;

  • pseudo-scientific references based on the biology: preservation, limited non-meat diet;

  • opposites: ‘mild’, ‘pointed’;

  • nature of the Nerthus cult suggested as sexual: ‘torc’, ; ‘fen’, ‘juices’; relationship appears to offer status ‘saint’s kept body’;

  • omission: (treasure-)’trove’ stresses the precious nature of anthropological discovery

  • compound adjective and compound noun for economy of words;

  • metaphor comparison: turf-spade markings and bees’ food store;

  • time: ‘Some day … Now’;

  • for alliteration and assonance see below;


Heaney’s empathy for these ancient victims of tribal superstition and ignorance quickly acquired a religious intensity’(MP91).

Heaney establishes a parallel of suffering and sacrifice between Tollund man and victims of atrocity in Ireland.

His reverence for the pagan bog body is dangerous ground for a poet with a Catholic background: he could risk blasphemy were he to declare the excavation a sacred site (Consecrate the cauldron bog /Our holy ground) or petition God (Him) to make whole (make germinate) the victims of brutal acts in 1920s Ireland: ambush (The scattered, ambushed/ FIesh of labourers); retribution Stockinged corpses/ Laid out in the farmyards (see note below).

Heaney has seen harrowing evidence of the extraordinary brutality exercised on the victims: Tell-tale skin and teeth/ Flecking the sleepers/ Of four young brothers, trailed / For miles along the line .

the ‘Stockinged corpses / Laid out in the farmyards’ that appear in ‘The Tollund Man’ I saw first in a photograph in’ Tom Barry’s book Guerilla Days in Ireland. ‘It was of a farmer’s family who had been shot in reprisals by the Black and Tans, left lying on their backs beside their open door’ (DOD135);

  • blasphemy: profane, unchristian talk:
  • consecrate: formally declared sacred;
  • cauldron: large receptacle, large metal cooking pot; site of strong feelings;
  • stockinged corpses:an incident from the 1920s provided illustration of the barbarity to which the some of the ‘Christian’ inhabitants of the island have sunk …”Part of the folk-lore of where I grew up”, concerns four Catholic brothers “massacred by Protestant paramilitaries”. Their bodies “had been trailed along the railway lines, over the sleepers as a kind of mutilation.” (from a Faber Poetry cassette of 1982) An entire generation from one family – or at best a major part of it – had been wiped out. Whereas the Tollund Man was forewarned of his death, perhaps accepted its justification, and was left physically intact by his ‘executors’, the young brothers were ‘ambushed’, slaughtered for no conceivable ‘common good’ (MP107);
  • tell-tale: giveaway;
  • fleck: speck, small patch;
  • sleepers: durable rectangles of wood that support railway tracks;
  • 3 quatrains in a single sentence; line-length 4-7 syllables; unrhymed;

  • balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;

  • risk blasphemy’: suggestion that use of foul language in response to an outrage act is beyond the speaker’s principles;

  • make germinate (like French construction ‘faire faire’); someone else does the job; here God perform a miracle;

  • parallel: ‘cauldron’ is a deep, dark receptacle; it and the bog are presented as agents of regeneration;

  • vocabulary of violent, sadistic paramilitary execution; forensic detail;

  • the music of the piece builds to an angry fortissimo;


Poet and Tollund Man have sad freedom in common. At the wheel of his car (driving) Heaney reflects on the irony of Tollund man’s sad freedom en route to the place of his execution (As he rode the tumbril).

Lack of Danish enhances the poet’s sense of dislocation as he seeks directions to the Danish sites that figure in the story (Tollund, Grabaulle, Nebelgard); whilst appreciating gesticulations of support (the pointing hands) he cannot understand their replies Not knowing their tongue.

Heaney is struck by a tragic irony: when one day he arrives Out there in Jutland, areas where men were once slaughtered in the name of some pagan belief or other (In the old man-killing parishes) will mirror what is happening routinely on the so-called ‘christian’ streets of Ulster: I will feel lost,/ Unhappy and at home.

use of the word ‘home’ (…) goes beyond irony and sadness into tragedy (… ) is utterly comfort­less and desolating (NC33-7).

  • tumbril: open cart (iconic pre-guillotine vehicle ofthe French Revolution;
  • Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard: sites (fens/ villages) associated with the recovery of bodies from the peat;
  • man-killing parishes: small administrative districts usually centred around a church;
  • at home: in one’s home; by extension in a familiar spot, a place one is used to, in one’s comfort zone;
  • 3 quatrains in 2 sentences; unrhymed lines of 4-9 syllables;

  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;

  • paradox bordering on oxymoron: ‘sad freedom’;

  • use of present participle ‘… ing’;

  • modal ‘should’ expresses hope rather than moral dimension;

  • transportation in keeping with moment: victim’s ‘tumbril’, poet’s car;

  • Danish place names include sites of similar anthropological interest;

  • tongue’ for ‘language’;

  • common Irish /Danish land divisions ‘parishes’ will suit the poet’s intention;

  • adjectival compound ‘man-killing’ economical in the sense of places where men are killed ;

  • main clause set at the end for deliberate effect: main verb has 3 complements the first 2 emotional, the third in emphatic position; most powerful and a strong indictment of Ulster sectarianism: ‘at home’;

  • at home: both back in Ulster and feeling accepted in an area of Denmark where bodies are recovered;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines of (i), for example, bring together bilabial [w] and a cluster of plosives: alveolar[t][d], bilabial [p] [b] and velar [k] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.
  • Face from Prehistoric Denmark/ offers some background detail: Tollund Man is probably the best preserved body from pre-historic times in the world. The head was exceedingly well-preserved. The eyes were closed and so was the mouth – the look on his face was calm and solemn as if he was just sleeping….
  • on Monday May 8th, 1950 the police in Silkeborg received an alarming message. On the previous Saturday a body had been discovered in a bog close to Bjældskovdal, an area located approximately 10 kilometres west of Silkeborg. Accordingly, the body was discovered on May 6th, 1950.

  • Tollund Man was alive during the first part of the iron age, 300-400 years B.C. at a time when almost everybody was involved in farm work. (ibid)

  • The Tollund Man was discovered with a rope around his neck. Questions followed: had the rope been used for hanging him or strangling him; was this a sacrificial offering? Was he guilty of a crime for which he had to be punished? Was he a low-life in society that people wanted to get rid of? Or was he a slave or perhaps a well-respected man who was sacrificed in order to appease the gods of the bog? (ibid)

  • The famous Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney wrote an extract of his famous poem “The Tollund Man” in the guest book for Silkeborg Museum in 1973. (ibid)

  • Seamus Heaney gave a talk at Silkeborg Museum in 1996, where he described his childhood memories of the bog: “When I was a child and an adolescent I lived among peat-diggers and I also worked in the peat bog myself. I loved the structure the peat bank revealed after the spade had worked its way through the surface of the peat. I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear…”

  • Heaney was influenced by Danish anthropologist PV Glob’s book, ‘The Bog People’ (1967)’ which showed photographs of gradual removal of bodies from the bog; the poet views it as ‘rebirth’ and the body becomes an icon; (ibid)

  • The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems in Part One, by particular imagined or recalled human figures (‘the Tollund man’) … In both parts of the book, many of the evoked figures suffer some kind of human diminishment: isolation, repression, disenchant­ment, exploitation or betrayal’ (NC30);
  • That the Tollund man has a significance for Heaney comparable to that of the other figures of the book is made plain in an interview in which he says that when he first saw the man’s photograph in PV Glob’s book, The Bog People, he ‘seemed like an ancestor almost, one of my oId uncles, one of those moustached archaic faces you used to meet all over the Irish countryside’.’ … (Heaney) is beginning, here, to discover that suggestive analogy between Glob’s bog-bodies and the victims of Irish political violence which culminates in the extended mythologiz­ing of the ‘bog poems’ of North ‘ ’ (NC33);
  • Where Heaney did discover ‘common ground’ in 1969 was in an archaeological study of Iron Age Jutland, P. V. Glob’s The Bog People. ‘The minute I saw the photograph (of the Tollund Man) and the reviews I sent for it’, he writes. The book embraced the majority of his deepest concerns – landscape, religion, sexuality, violence, history, myth – a ‘knot of obsessions’ which would preoccupy him in his next two volumes. It provided an historical perspec­tive enabling him to ‘cope with’ and confront the contemporary Troubles’, and created a sense of continuity, kinship, affirmation at a time of social and political disintegration’ (MP91);
  • The most accomplished poem resulting from Heaney’s search during the early 1970s “for images and symbols adequate to our predicament” is without doubt ‘The Tollund Man’. A potent combination of historical analogy and myth and intense emotion, it exhibits the depth of Heaney’s religious nature. He speaks of it as ‘an offering’. In it he articulates a “perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”, “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together “. Composing from a sense of reverence for a victim from the distant past came more easily to him than responding to the
    all-too-immediate horror of the present’

8 thoughts on “The Tollund Man

  1. Do you have a bibliography available? I’m trying to cite some of the quotations you’ve used but can’t find the full reference. e.g. ‘(DOD135)’.

    1. Sorry Megan, The nearest I have is the O’Driscoll page numbers and sources with names and publications in bold where I searched successfully on line.

      Bear in mind that much of the rest amounts to my own words; they clearly carry the blog site references and are available for you to use quite freely.

      I didn’t set out to earn a higher academicdegree just to help Heaneyphiles to get into the poems readily without the time-consuming research that a full understanding requires

      Do come back to me if I can help you further.

      All the best Megan,

      PS where are you and what are you preparing? I have had some interesting dialogues around the world

  2. Fascinating commentaries David – I’m reading steadily through ‘Wintering Out’ and am finding your thoughts of the greatest interest.

  3. Hi David,

    I just wanted to say thank you for putting together all this context and research. I’ve loved Heaney since I was in high school (27 now) but always struggled to get into him because of the amount of context necessary to read his works. Reading your analysis of each poem makes it a much deeper and enjoyable experience, so thank you very much 🙂

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