Warriors of the Wasteland:

Prologue: The Man in the Well

Chapter One: The Legend

Chapter Two: The Green Man


Prologue:
The Man in the Well


My hands and face are numb, but although I am wet-through, half-frozen, and
breathless from the climb, I feel an enormous sense of exhilaration, and
what's more - of homecoming. It is strange to think that the last time I
scaled the Tor at Glastonbury it was midsummer, many years ago. One among
many who had made the heady climb to witness the sunset, I had found myself
part of an eclectic congregation of fellow travellers, some of whom with
chanting and drumming were serenading the dying of the light. Today,
however, I am alone. And even the sun to which those many voices were
raised is absent, hidden behind the leaden sky of an English winter's
morning.

I have taken shelter from the freezing rain in the solitary ruined tower of
St. Michael's Church that tops the Tor. Luckily the rain that is lashing
against its walls in intermittent squalls seems unable to penetrate the
tower, the interior of which was dark and otherworldly, but mercifully dry.

The tower is all that remains of the 1360 church, itself the second on the
site - its predecessor falling in an earthquake on the inauspicious date of
September 11th 1275 5; an act, according to the occultist Dion Fortune who
once lived in a house at the foot of the Tor, signifying that here the 'old
gods' still held their own. The Tor, she wrote in her 1934 book
'Glastonbury - Avalon of the heart', had never said 'Thou hast conquered, O
Galilean.' Today, I am inclined to agree. The wind is making an unearthly
moaning as it whips through the door-less arches; and I have a sudden fear
that lightning might strike the tower, or that I might at any moment be
joined by one of Fortune's 'old gods.'

This great hill on which I am perched rises from out of the Somerset levels
like some colossal crouching beast or slumbering giant. Some have seen in
the stepped levels that wind about this hill evidence for a vast prehistoric
maze, or in its curvaceous rise the form of a recumbent goddess. Rumour has
it that the Tor, (a west country word for 'hill'), is hollow, filled with
subterranean chasms and caves, an entrance to the underworld itself. One
story tells how a dark-age hermit, the Welsh St. Collen, who had lived in a
cell on the slopes of this strange hill, had once met the king of fairyland
and leader of the Wild Hunt Gwyn ap Nudd, within the Tor. St. Collen
dismissed the infernal king and his palace with a sprinkle of holy water,
(perhaps taken from the waters of Chalice-well, the chalybeate spring that
bubbles up in the valley below the Tor), and found himself alone once more
on the hillside. I have filled a plastic bottle with the self-same
iron-rich water, and taking it now from my rucksack, unscrew the cap with
numb fingers, and take a swig of its blood-tasting contents, leaving enough
in the bottle to cast about me, should the need arise.

It is hardly surprising that such pagan presences abound here; Glastonbury,
so the legends said, was ancient 'Avalon' - the apple-isle, a Pre-Christian
Celtic Elysium, to which the wounded Arthur had been brought to be healed by
his half-sister, the bewitching Morgan Le Fay.

Set in the heart of cider-country, this strange hill, once almost an island,
no doubt had always struck man as somewhat otherworldly. Quite when it
became associated in men's minds with the apple-isle of Avalon is not so
clear, but a connection between Glastonbury and Morgan's earthly paradise,
derived from a Celtic land of the dead, must have existed earlier than 1191
when 'Arthur's tomb' - a hollowed-out oak, containing the skeleton of a man
with many wounds, and a woman at his feet - was said to have been
'discovered' by monks in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey This 'discovery',
which many take to have been a forgery cunningly crafted to pep up the
Abbey's finances after a disastrous fire, no doubt rested on an already
common connection of Arthur to this site. Upon the coffin, according to
Gerald of Wales, was an iron cross bearing the words 'Here lies buried the
renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of
Avalon.' Modern archaeological surveys have revealed that something had
definitely been unearthed where the chronicles say the tomb was discovered -
so the grave itself (if not the cross) may not have been a forgery - perhaps
containing the body of some ancient king after all (though whether of Saxon
or British stock is impossible to say). Whatever the dubious nature of the
foundations of the Glastonbury legends, they still had power. Glastonbury
had answered a need, and continued to do so, given the number of pilgrims
who continued to tread its hallowed soil.

From my place of relative shelter I wonder over to the eastern doorway, and
watch the landscape come into focus, and then dissolve again into swirling
cloud. From this vantage point, some 500 feet above the surrounding levels,
it is possible on a fine day to see for many miles. To the north one can
sometimes glimpse the mountains of Wales; and to the south, if you know the
direction, the earthen ramparts of Cadbury Castle, the Iron Age Hill fort
re-occupied by the native Britons after the departure of the Roman legions
in 410 AD that some believe was the famed Camelot of Arthur. I scan the
horizon for this landmark, but the low-lying cloud prevents any chance of a
view.

I leave the eastern door, and walk across the tower to the western arch, and
I gaze out over the levels, the horizon still obscured by far-off sheets of
rain. From here when the clouds lift, I can just see the crumbling remains
of the Abbey. Despite the claim that Arthur's grave had been found here
the common belief had persisted that Arthur was not dead, but sleeping under
Cadbury Castle's mighty defences, to awake in Britain's hour of need - a
myth, I pondered, no doubt supported by that sense of 'personality' and
'presence' that one felt beneath one's feet at such places as the Tor.

The rain has ceased, and exiting from the western door, I glimpse up at the
carvings above the archway. Far above me I can make out an eroded carving of
St. Michael, pinning down the dragon with his left foot, that victory of
light over darkness, or as many believe, the suppression of the old religion
by the new. The powers of darkness, it seems, are winning the battle today,
for in the dim stormy half-light I can hardly make out the other carvings.
To the left of the doorway I am just able to discern a depiction of St Bride
milking her cow - commemorating, so I have read, her alleged visit to
Glastonbury in 488 AD- and to the right of the door a curious image of an
angel weighing a soul on a set of scales. Here in the half-light, on a spot
many claimed to be the entrance to the Otherworld, it is easy for such
meanings to shift and change - to suddenly see the weighing of the soul as
that found within the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and in St. Bride, as Dion
Fortune stated, the Egyptian Cow goddess Hathor. Glastonbury can play such
tricks with the unwary.

The ever-present clouds that course seemingly just yards above my head are
of that curious golden grey that often presages snow, and so I make the
decision to risk the treacherously muddy descent before I get caught in a
blizzard. I take another gulp of the icy water, and with a half-smile, pour
the remainder onto the grass beside me.

***

To avoid falling flat on my face, I have taken a good half-hour to retrace
my steps to the bottom of the Tor; but once down I am warmed and
invigorated, and only a few dozen steps from my destination - Chalice well
gardens. The promised snow has failed to materialise, and the cloud has
thinned a little, and my mood has lifted. A handful of people are milling
about the lower part of the gardens amongst the pools and waterfalls, which
are stained a rust-red from the iron content in the water; but I take the
path up the slope to the wellhead, carved into the head of a lion, from
whose mouth the waters pour forth onto a circular slab of stone on which
rests a glass. I lift the glass and take a sip of water - which maintains a
constant temperature of 52 degrees Celsius - replace the cup and walk up to
the well itself, with its elaborate cover designed by Frederick Bligh Bond,
a contemporary of Dion Fortune, who had helped excavate the ruins of the
Abbey, with the help, so he claimed, of the ghost of one of the monks.

The name 'Chalice well', I reflect, is typical of the myth-making qualities
of Glastonbury. In fact it derives from 'chalk-well' - but the name 'Chalice
well' has stuck after associations foisted on this place about the Holy
Grail - that mysterious cup whose story is embedded deep within Arthurian
legends, which was said to have been brought here by Joseph of Arimathea,
and secreted in the depths of the well by the 'Fisher King'.

Although the day is still cold, the wind has died down, and overhead I am
beginning to see patches of blue through the clouds. At my feet lies
Frederick Bligh Bond's elaborate well cover made in 1919, with the vesica
piscis, two interlocking circles rendered upon it in black iron. It's a
good choice of motif for this place for it symbolises the blending of
opposites; pagan and Christian, this world and other-world, ancient and
modern, male and female, yin and yang - it's Glastonbury in a nutshell; yet
it has a deeper meaning: early Christians used this ancient Pythagorean
symbol as a secret sign, for within its design could be discerned a fish,
which in Greek was icthys, a word whose letters were an acronym for 'Jesus
Christ the Son of God'. But the symbol of the fish, I had discovered on my
quest, had a long and ancient association with the pagan religions that
preceded Christianity, and no little part to play in the legends of the
Grail. Bending down, I lift the ironclad lid and glimpse in to the dark
waters below, the same still depths in to which I had peered 13 years
earlier half expecting to see the glimmer of a golden vessel concealed here
by the 'Fisher King'.

Within the well I can just discern the huge masonry blocks from which it is
formed, oriented, according to Dion Fortune, so that the sun shines into its
depths as it skirts the Tor on midsummer's day. Within the chamber is a
man-sized recess in which she believed human victims had been bound in
Pre-Christian times - their blood mixing with the iron-stained fungus in the
water - and their sacred deaths lending power to the visions of the
officiating Druids - and later Arthur's half-sister, Morgan le Fay.

In fact this chamber and the 'man-sized' niche within it were not built
until some 1000 years after the last druid walked the land, for it was
constructed in the Middle Ages when Glastonbury was a spa town rivalling the
popularity of nearby Bath. No pagan sacrifice had ever taken place in the
niche in this well. Not in this chamber, not in Christian times. What
happened here before this date, however, is anyone's guess.

But while it would be easy to scoff at Fortune's 'error', and label her a
romantic, a dreamer - a self-deluded mystic, looking into these black depths
I am aware that her vision of the man in the well lies chillingly close to
the truth. For after 13 years of questing my own answer to the mystery of
the Grail is inextricably bound up with such a sacrificial tradition. For,
it turns out, there had been such sacrificed men, preserved beneath the
water and unearthed from peat bogs, wells and rivers; and in trying to
decipher the meaning of their deaths, a task that would occupy the next few
years of my life, I would eventually stumble upon my own elucidation of the
Grail
myth.

It flashes before my eyes now, my own vision of the Grail, the fruit of my
long search, in a parade of startling images that take on a life of their
own: In the dark before the dawn two pallid shapes emerge from out of the
covering of the wood - they are a pair of milk-white oxen drawing what I can
just make out to be a wagon upon which is seated a bearded young man and a
smaller figure, a white-robed woman, her plaited hair entwined with flowers.
Following them is a train of men and women, a dozen or so, robed in white
and black - and behind them a silent crowd. The wagon stops and the man and
his companion are lead to a boggy clearing beside mist-covered waters he is
stripped naked, save for a armband of fur, and he is bound; his skin seems
to writhe and move with emerald serpentine patterns - is he painted or is
this just the effect of the moonlight through the branches upon his bare
skin? In the half-light he looks as if snakes are coiling about his arms,
his chest, his neck. He is offered a dish containing bread or grains, and
white berries. Around him figures are capering and dancing to a tune that
does not reach my ears. He stumbles once, twice, as if drugged. Beside him
walks the woman, herself now naked, holding a knotted length of cord in her
delicate hands, which she slips abut his neck...

They have arrived in a rough ring of trees on the edge of the water and the
attendants of the pair form a circle within it; they begin to turn, so that
it is difficult to see what is happening within; As they turn it seems as if
the skies above are also turning, feverishly spinning around the pole star,
a place of stillness and repose, echoed by the centre of the ring where two
alone stand still. In tantalising glimpses through the encircling dancers I
can just discern the greenish-white body of the man and the whiter body of
the girl blur into one on the waterlogged ground- what happens next is swift
and shocking... At a given signal from the girl another figure, or is it
two, enter the central space; the naked man is pulled up by his hair so that
he is kneeling in the mud - I see the flash of a falling axe, and the noose
that had been slipped about his neck during his consummation tighten
sickeningly about his throat, then the crimson arc of his blood shoots from
a swiftly made cut to the jugular. Amid the whirring of limbs and flashes of
weapons I see a spear held aloft, I watch as it is stabbed down between the
victim's crumpling legs, and another gush of blood joins that already
reddening the marshy ground. The woman is lead away, bedecked in garlands;
sticky with his blood.

I cannot hear the keening and lamenting that follows the death strokes;
black robed women pull at their hair, rake their faces with their nails -
the air seems to turn colder, the sky darker. From the victim's throat dark
jets of lifeblood pulse first strongly then limply into a silver vessel that
is passed to the spear-bearer with whoops of joy, of victory. Somewhere in
the grove a fire is lit. Do the celebrants drink from the cup? I cannot
see. The world seems to stop. Time seems to stop.

How long after I do not know, maybe an hour, maybe a lifetime - time has
ceased to have meaning - a youthful figure emerges from the shadows and
kneels on the muddy shoreline amongst the reeds, looking down through the
mirrored surface of the water beneath which the naked man has been placed; I
see as through the newcomer's eyes - in the black waters clouded with blood,
the victim's hair forms a red nimbus swaying gently in the water, its colour
strikingly vivid against the pale green of his disembodied face - set in a
serene expression, as if he but sleeps. The newcomer is handed the silver
vessel from which he drinks...he shudders as he tastes it, it is bitter - it
contains more than blood - a fiery liquor masking an unpalatable recipe of
mind-altering herbs...A cauldron is brought to him, filled with boiling
fish; he takes a small morsel and chews on it...Again time passes... And he
begins to sway, to dance. He is spinning, shouting, wheeling, until his eyes
go up into his head and he collapses. He falls before the dead man,
crouching over the water, and touches the pale lips, inches below the
surface, with a wand, muttering a voiceless question, again and again. The
bloody haired green faced man beneath the water shifts and changes form;
from man to fish, to man again.

And then I see that below the filmy surface of the pool the lips of the dead
man are moving - but is this what is really happening or am I just seeing
what the man who has drunk the bitter drink is seeing, befuddled by the
secret ingredients of the cup beguiled by the ever-changing surface of the
lake? The dead mouth, it appears, is moving, forming words; and as he speaks
the dead branches about the grove are moving too, twisting, budding,
blossoming... and as the rising sun sends a path of shimmering gold across
the lake the eyes of the dead man open...and he begins to sing...

I rouse myself from this daydream and gently close the lid of the well. My
bloody vision still strikes me as make-believe, as pure invention, but I
know that it is not something I have just dreamed up. 13 years of research
have lead me to it, to my belief that behind the myth Holy Grail lies a lost
rite of human sacrifice, part of an ancient mystery religion that offered to
its participants a glimpse of immortality already thousands of years old
when Caesar came to these shores. The journey has been a long one, its road
strewn with frustration and elation, but one that I believe to be worth
telling.

And it begins with the wounding of the King.




Part One: The Wounded King

Chapter One:
The Legend


The legend of the Holy Grail captured the imagination of Medieval Europe
like no other tale. Despite its many variations, the tales were based on a
broadly similar theme; they told of a wonder-working vessel that provided
food and drink in abundance that was processed through a strange castle that
was difficult to find. Within the castle was a king, known as the Wounded
or Fisher King, grievously injured with a spear or sword, usually through
the thighs - and as long as his wound remained unhealed, the land was laid
waste. It was the purpose of the Grail knight, a spiritual warrior in this
wasteland, to find the castle and ask a specific question, (sometimes 'whom
does the Grail serve', 'what ails thee, uncle?' or even 'what is the secret
of the grail?') failure to do so which would result in him waking the next
day with the land still blighted, and the castle gone. If, however, the
right question was asked, the land and the king would be healed, or he would
at last be allowed to die and the hero become the Grail King.

Although I had briefly encountered the myth of the Grail in Malory and other
sources, it was not until I saw John Boorman's film 'Excalibur' when I was
17 that the legend truly captured my attention. Before this point my view
of the quest had been somewhat narrow and dismissive; still coloured by an
image I remembered seeing as a child from MGM's 'Knights of the Round Table'
in which the Grail was a floating chalice caught in a brilliant shaft of
heavenly light accompanied by the sound of sopranos wailing - the Grail
Knight himself was the chaste and pious Galahad, the most boring, it had to
be said, of all Arthur's Knights. It was an image of saccharine holiness
that seemed out of place with the rest of the legend.

But in Boorman's film the hero was not Galahad but Perceval, a country
bumpkin, a simpleton; and the wasteland explicitly linked with the health of
the King in some kind of mysterious symbiotic relationship. His quest was
far darker and more pagan than what I had seen before, and it intrigued me
enough to inspire my own quest to uncover the secrets of this puzzling
legend.

The Grail's first appearance in European literature, I soon learned, was in
the work of the Frenchman Chretien de Troyes, written in 1182. The hero of
this tale, the unfinished Conte Du Graal, was Boorman's Perceval, a Welsh
country lad, who witnesses, while dining with the crippled Fisher King, a
youth bearing a bleeding spear, and 'a damsel...fair and attractive and
beautifully adorned [who] held in both hands a grail...of pure refined gold' 
As in Boorman's film there was surprisingly no mention that this cup had
any connection with the cup of Christ. Perceval's failure to ask the Grail
question means the land remains waste, and the King unhealed.

The wounding of the king was a strange theme - in Boorman's film it was
Arthur himself who lay wounded, a psychological wound inflicted by the
betrayal of his wife and best friend. But in the original Grail stories the
Wounded King was the guardian of the Grail, and his wound was all-too
physical. In Malory the King was called Pellean and his wound inflicted by a
sword-blow from a Knight named Balin le Sauvage, an act that was termed the
'dolorous stroke'. In the 'Parzival' of Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1230)
this wounded king was known as Anfortas a name meaning 'infirmity'; he had
received his wound in a joust with a Saracen Knight.The Saracen's poisoned
spear had passed through the king's testicles, and the wound, which could
not be healed, would cause him most grief at the time of the change of the
moon. On such occasions he would be taken to a lake to fish - hence his
name, the Fisher King.  The wound of the King was clearly a castration.

The fish connection was re-iterated In the work of Englishman Robert de
Boron's Grail romance (penned around 1210 AD) whose 'Rich Fisher' was named
Bron or Hebron, and whose task it was to catch the fish that were served at
the feast of the Grail. However, it is not until Robert de Boron's work
that this mysterious grail, once a commonplace word meaning a deep flat
bottomed dish (from the Old French gradale meaning 'by degree' or 'in
stages' for it was used to serve a number of courses - most commonly fish)
is associated with the chalice of the Last Supper. Robert describes it as a
chalice containing blood taken from Christ's side after the crucifixion by
Joseph of Arimathea, whom legend says brought the cup to Glastonbury, and
handed its keeping to his brother-in-law, Bron.

What interested me about the Grail legends was the fact that the earliest
recorded versions of them had totally failed to make the connection between
this mysterious vessel and Christ. What, I wondered, had the Grail been
prior to its identification with Christ's cup by de Boron? This question
inevitably led to more: Who was this mysterious Wounded King and how could
his health be connected to the land? How, moreover, could the land be healed
by a question? What was the role of the mysterious bleeding spear? De Borron
claimed it was the spear of Longinus, the blind Centurion who had wounded
Christ in the side on the cross. But to me the whole scene smacked of
ritual - of half-forgotten rites. It intrigued me. Might the Holy Grail, I
pondered, have had its roots in the pagan past, just as many of the
characters in the 'Matter of Britain' did?

A major clue was to come in my study of ancient Welsh literature, where I
stumbled upon the tale of 'Peredur son of Efrawg' - the Celtic Perceval. In
this version of the Grail myth, which seemed to be either a replica of
Chretien's early tale - or based on the same source - the grail houses more
than blood:

'Thereupon he could see two youths coming into the hall, and from the hall
proceeding to the chamber, and with them a spear of exceeding great size,
and three streams of blood along it, running from the socket to the
floor...After silence for a short while, thereupon, lo, two maidens coming
in, and a great salver between them, and a man's head on the salver, and
blood in profusion around the head. And then all shrieked and cried out, so
that it was hard for any to be in the same house as they.'

The appearance of a severed head immediately brought to mind the legendary
head of Sir Gawain that I had searched for, in vain, at Dover Castle. Faced
with this horrific item Peredur says not a word, and thus the enchantment on
the land stays in place. Later on a loathly hag, who appears in many Grail
legends as the messenger of the Grail, berates him:

'Peredur, I greet thee not, for thou dost not merit it. Blind was fate when
she bestowed favour and fame on thee. When thou camest to the court of the
Lame King, and when thou sawest there the squire bearing the sharpened
spear, and from the tip of the spear a drop of blood, and that running in a
torrent as far as the squire's grip - and other marvels besides thou sawest
there, but thou didst not ask after their meaning nor the cause of them.
And hadst thou asked, the king would have had health and his kingdom in
peace.'

Clearly Boorman's film, which had linked the health of the land to that of
the King, had touched on an important element in the Grail myths. This
idea, that land and king were one, was obviously not derived from Christian
thought, but was to be found in Pagan Celtic myth, such as the tale of the
Irish god-King Nuada, who is forced to abdicate after his arm is severed in
battle. There could be only one reason why a king had to be 'whole', and
that was if any infirmity was seen to bring ill luck to his kingdom.
Nuada's British counterpart, some argued, was a god named Nodens, a name
that can be translated as 'fisher' - he was, therefore, a maimed fisher
king. Only when the King was young and healthy, it seemed, would the
crops grow.

But Boorman was not the only one to have made this pagan connection. The
whole Grail genre had been flooded with such vegetal interpretations ever
since Jessie Weston's 'From Ritual to Romance' had been published in 1920 -
a book that argued that the origin of the grail myth lay in a forgotten, or
deliberately hidden, Classical fertility rite.

Weston's thesis had, in the main, been derived from the work of the
anthropologist J.G.Frazer who in his 12-volume study of ancient myth and
ritual, 'The Golden Bough', had argued that all ancient religions (including
Christianity) were based on rites of fertility. In Frazer's schema the
figure of the god represented the crops - he was the corn spirit who would
die at the end of the growing year so he could be reborn in the spring - and
the Egyptian god Osiris, who was green, the colour of vegetation, typified
such a god. From this primary idea Frazer had argued that when the god's
representative on earth, the sacred king, grew old, so that the crops would
not wither he would be killed at the end of a fixed term and replaced by a
younger man, called the tanist. Where his thesis fell down was that he could
only provide one firm example of such rites of tanistry in the ancient
world. But nevertheless his ideas had a profound effect on modern ideas
about the ancient world. Although he had failed to provide concrete
evidence for a literal killing of kings by their successors, he had
uncovered a host of vegetal symbols that lay at the heart of many old
religions. And it was in such symbolism that Jessie Weston had found her
explanation of the Grail legends - the cup, she said, and the spear, were
ritual objects in a classical fertility cult, and the wounded king the dying
and reviving vegetation spirit. The trouble was that scholars had rightly
slated her thesis, as they had Frazer's, by demonstrating that there was no
evidence to show that the cult she described had ever existed in the
Classical world.

In my subsequent quest, however, I would discover that despite flaws in
their thesis both Weston and Frazer had been on the right track - that at
heart the Grail legend was connected to both sacrifice and a lost mystery
rite, but a rite that had not originated in the Classical world, but in the
Celtic. And the first glimmerings of a clue to all of this came,
ironically, from a sacrificed green man...



Chapter Two:
The Green Man


When I try to cast my mind back to when I first heard about the existence of
the man from the Cheshire bog, I realise that there had been something
familiar about him from the start; it could not have been that I saw in him
echoes of Fortune's man in the well, for I was still to visit Glastonbury at
that time, so perhaps it was that he possessed a certain fairy-tale quality,
for fairytales about him and his kind did exist such as the Brother's Grimm
tale in which a hunter drains a dark pool in a haunted wood and finds,
crouching in the slimy mud, a man - a wild man - covered in rust-red hair; a
feature that lends him his name: Iron John.

It can be quite disconcerting coming face to face with a figure out of a
fairytale; especially if one chances upon him suddenly as I did, in his
glass coffin in the British Museum where this red-headed ancient man now
sleeps. In a similar manner to the Iron John of the fairytale who was taken
to the castle and locked in a cage where all could marvel at him; modern day
archaeologists had placed him in a humidity controlled display case, where
visitors could regard him with either the sick fascination of a freak-show,
or with something deeper and more befitting this wizened visitor from the
past. My reaction was more of awe. Nothing could have prepared me for coming
face to face with a pagan sacrifice.

I recall my first view of him as I stooped over this flattened corpse,
resembling a dry and twisted piece of earth-brown hide; examining the hair
of his head and beard I could see that it had been stained a fiery red by
the tannin-like chemicals present in the peat bog in which he had slumbered
for centuries. It is these chemicals from the soil-acids in the water that
had preserved the body; reacting with the proteins in his skin converting it
into a leathery hide, whilst dissolving most of the innards and bones.
These remarkable remains had lain deep below the marshes of Lindow Moss near
Wilmslow, Cheshire, where, local legend states, travellers would be lead to
watery death by strange lights, 'boggarts' or other 'spirits' until on
1st August 1984, an auspicious date, as I was later to discover, being the
ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, a pair of peat-extraction workers
named Andy Mould and Stephen Dooley uncovered this 'Iron John'.

Their first glimpse of the body - now named 'Lindow II' by archaeologists
was of a leg, severed from the rest of the torso by the metal jaws of a
peat-digger. Digging was halted and the police and archaeologists called,
as had been the case a year and a half earlier when the selfsame workers had
discovered a severed head in the same locality. The discovery of this
skull, initially thought to be that of a woman (now classified as 'Lindow
I') had prompted a local man to confess to the murder of his wife, rather
prematurely, it turned out, for the skull was soon to be dated as many
hundreds of years old.

When first contacted that August morning the police initially thought that
the leg at Lindow might belong to the decapitated head - but further
excavation proved this was not the case. The body was that of a male aged in
his late twenties, naked save for a fox-fur armband on his upper right arm.
The majority of the lower half of the corpse, however, except for the
fortuitously discovered leg, was missing, having been severed it was
supposed by earlier peat-cutting operations (and this indeed was the case
for it would later be found during the summer of 1988 some 15 metres from
the original find spot). Interestingly his genitals were never found; had
they simply been lost when the body had been cut in half - or was this
evidence of something more sinister? But save for the left hand, the upper
body was intact - head and all.

Gazing down at Lindow man over a decade ago, I had examined him closely for
the signs of his murder, for he had met with a strange and violent death.
Three axe blows had rained down onto his skull, two to the crown, and the
other to the base. His neck had been broken and the cause was clear; a
thrice-knotted garrotte clung tightly about his throat, still biting into
the flesh. A neat and deep incision had been made to the jugular, following
which he had been dumped into the black enveloping waters of the lake, not
just thrown into a pool, but forcibly pushed down into its slimy depths. The
question that rose in my mind was one that has puzzled archaeologists for
nearly two decades. Was this man the victim of a vicious crime or something
more bizarre - a player in a long-forgotten druidic ritual?

It was not until I looked into the subject that I realised Lindow II was not
alone. I remember reading with astonishment that in the last three hundred
years peat deposits in Great Britain and Ireland alone had yielded the
remains of over 220 such bodies. In the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside
around Lindow alone remains had been recorded from Birkdale, Southport ('a
human skull'); Red Moss, Bolton, (the skull of a female 'with a plait of
thick, reddish hair.'); Kentucky, Pilling: (a human skull with an 'abundance
of auburn hair') as well as two bodies and two male skulls from an
unidentified peat moss in nearby Lancashire recorded in the 19th century.
The red-haired bog folk from Lindow were not to be seen in isolation, but
fitting into a wider sacrificial schema. Indeed, it seemed probable that
the number of remains so far uncovered in peat cuttings were a fraction of
the total once deposited in sacred waters. How many victims, I thought, had
been lost to us - carried away by tides or floods, or down stream? How many
were still waiting to be found?

Nor, I discovered, was this phenomenon restricted to the British Isles.
Similar finds filled the archaeological record throughout much of North-West
Europe. The seminal work on these relics was Danish Archaeologist Professor
Peter Vilhelm Glob's 'Mosefolket' - 'The Bog People' first published in
1965, which I had picked up in a local bookshop not long after my visit to
the British Museum. In this study Glob concluded that many of the bog
bodies, which date back to the European Iron Age and early Roman periods,
preserved evidence for ritual sacrifice. Could it be that the Lindow finds
were of similar provenance? Professor Glob was present at the excavations of
two discoveries in the Danish bogs in the early 1950's. The remains, named
Tollund and Grauballe Man after the locality in which they were found, were
the best-preserved human remains from world prehistory - even better
conserved than Lindow II; their facial expressions were as clear today as at
the moment of death. As Glob says of Tollund Man, who was found naked save
for a belt and a leather cap:

'It is the dead man's lightly-closed eyes and half-closed lips, however,
that give this unique face its distinctive expression, and call compellingly
to mind the words of the world's oldest heroic epic, Gilgamesh, 'the dead
and the sleeping, how they resemble one another'.

The words of Glob were evocative, but what fascinated me were the pictures.
Tollund man indeed looked as if he might at any moment open his eyes; the
face of Grauballe man, however, displayed a look of terror and pain. Both
men had met with violent ends: Around the neck of Tollund man lay a noose of
animal sinew, 5 feet in length; he had been hung before being deposited in
the bog. Graubelle man had received a blow to the temple, another to the
leg, fracturing the shin, and had his throat viciously cut. The resulting
gash, which extended from ear to ear, had completely ripped open the gullet.

Obviously both men had been executed, and there was evidence that these had
been sacred acts rather than some form of prehistoric capital punishment.
Analysis of the stomach contents of both men revealed that they had eaten a
'last meal' consisting of a variety of cereal and wild plant grains mixed
into an unappetizing gruel; both meals were riddled with a toxic fungus
named ergot that prospers on cereal grains in cold, damp climates; a fact
that would later prove to be of much interest in my research.  Glob
concluded that it probably represented the diet of a people suffering from a
failed harvest, and as there was no trace of summer fruits or greenstuffs,
that
they had died in the winter or early spring - perhaps as sacrifices to
the gods of fertility.

There was more linking these men than just a shared diet. Both men seemed to
have been in fine physical condition and in their twenties. The hands of
Grauballe man (so well preserved that his fingerprints could be taken)
showed no sign of calluses or wear that might be associated with manual
labour or use of weapons; perhaps, Glob argued, he had been a nobleman or a
priest. This was also the case with the Lindow II find, whose
well-manicured hands and lack of muscular bulk revealed that he had never
been a farmer or warrior. Like the Tollund and Grauballe bodies his last
meal had been wholly vegetarian - possibly a griddlecake or unleavened loaf,
containing traces of mistletoe pollen; and to add to the list of comparisons
with the Danish Iron Age finds further analysis had narrowed down the date
of his death - he was Iron Age too, having died some time around the last
century BC and the first two centuries AD

Archaeologists, if not the media, were at first unwilling to jump on Glob's
'ritual' bandwagon, preferring to speak with caution, suggesting that the
man might have been the victim of a robbery. The garrotte, it was argued,
could just have been a necklace; the cut to the throat a post-mortem injury;
others even proposed that the blows to the head might have been caused
post-mortem by a fence post or wood scavenger's pole and that the ancient
peat in which the body had lain had possibly corrupted the radiocarbon date
of the body, in which case the body might be much younger than previously
thought.

Of course all these were valid points, but none of the scholars who made
them, it seemed, were aware that nearly 20 years earlier, on 18 August 1958
a discovery had been made at a peat bog in Worsley Moss, Lancashire, just 20
miles away from Lindow whose similarity to the Cheshire find was astounding.
It was the head of a male aged between 20 and 30 years of age severed at
the second-vertebrae by a blow from a sharp weapon, the top of whose skull
had collapsed under a volley of hard blows; had the skull of 'Gawain' once
looked so, I wondered? But there were more wounds to be seen: a sharp jagged
instrument had lacerated the jugular below the ear, and a garrotte of animal
sinew had been tightened around his neck. The victim had then been
decapitated. Radiocarbon dating suggested the skull was 1800 years old -
belonging to the Romano-British/Late Iron Age period. It might be possible
to attribute the injuries on one body to a series of unlikely post-mortem
events, but to find identical marks on another surely argued against
accidental damage.

Three years on from the finding of Lindow II, as the debate continued to
rage over his true provenance, a second torso was recovered from Lindow
Moss. Discovered in some 70 fragments in a swathe of peat already extracted
from the bog - this macabre jigsaw formed remnants of a male headless body.
The body showed evidence of polydactylism - he had two thumbs on each
hand (in reality the 'second' being a stubby outgrowth on the primary thumb)
but nevertheless something that may have marked him out as 'special'. A
large portion of the gut remained, enough to clarify that his last meal had
consisted of hazelnuts.

This body (Lindow III) soon joined that of Lindow II in the laboratory of
the British Museum, where a variety of tests were to be carried out on them.
Analysis of the skin yielded particularly interesting information. The top
layer of skin, the epidermis, had been removed by the acids in the bog
water, but the chemical make-up of the secondary layers had revealed higher
than normal proportions of copper ions. Given the high-copper content of
the landscape around Alderley Edge, which would have contaminated the waters
around Lindow, these results were first taken to indicate that both men were
local in origin. But the high numbers of other mineral ions could not be so
easily explained - the presence of aluminium and silicon, for instance.
Neither element was present in the locality to such a degree, nor had the
elements leached into the skin following their immersion in the peat. The
only reasonable explanation was that these elements had soaked through the
pores following a deliberate application to the skin. The Lindow bodies had
been painted.

Scientists believed that hydrated aluminium silicate (found in certain
clays) had been used as a base to apply a copper-based pigment. The colours
that could be produced by such methods were dramatic: either a fierce red
(in the case of an oxide) or a bright green or blue (if a carbonate). As
differing amounts of the minerals were obtained from each of the Lindow
bodies it meant that they had been painted differently. A fluorescent stain
that had been observed on part of the fox-fur armband worn by Lindow II
indicated that he, at least, might have gone to his grave a vivid shade of
green.

There could now be no doubt that this man had been the victim of a
prehistoric ritual killing. Body painting has never been noted as a habit of
the populace of Cheshire in historical times, whereas it was, if Classical
sources are to be believed, a common feature among the pre-Roman population
of these Islands, a people known as the Britons, a word thought to derive
from the Celtic 'Pretani' that meant the 'tattooed' or 'painted ones'.
Caesar, who came face to face with the Britons during his putative
'invasions of 55 and 54 BC, says of them:

'All the Britons stain themselves with vitrum which gives a blue colour and
a wilder appearance in battle.'

Contrary to popular belief, I was surprised to discover, the word vitrum did
not refer to the woad plant, whose leaves yield minute quantities of the
deep blue dye 'ingotin'. Only in one classical account is this vitrum
referred to as a vegetable product. The same word, however, is used by Pliny
to refer to a sky-blue copper-based pigment, and this must have originally
been Caesar's meaning before it was mistranslated (as it had been since the
16th century). The poet Ovid supports this theory by talking of 'viridis
Britannos' - the 'Green Britons'; woad does not produce a green colour but
copper pigments do.

But who were these painted Britons, and why did they consign certain
individuals to a violent death within these marshes? It was such questions
that the bog victims posed.

Standing over Lindow man, I knew that at some point I would have to break my
reverie and return to everyday concerns. How did I feel looking into the
face of a long-dead man? Part of me, of course, felt the visceral horror of
a creature confronted with the evidence of its own mortality, but also I
felt pity, and a measure of guilt; I was horrified that this man had been
brutally murdered in a long forgotten savage rite, and equally horrified
that he had been disturbed from his rest - and for what? So people could
stare at him for a second or two like a shrunken head in a travelling show?
We had, I knew, learned much from the analysis of his body. We knew when he
had died, how he had died - but were we any closer to knowing why? If only
he could speak, I thought, what could he tell us?

But even as I stared at him the faint glimmer of a pattern was forming in my
mind - the filmiest of webs seeming to connect the Wounded King of the Grail
legend and this ancient victim; a hint that they were one. I recalled the
words of the hag berating the silent Peredur:

'When thou camest to the court of the Lame King, and when thou sawest there
the squire bearing the sharpened spear, and from the tip of the spear a drop
of blood, and that running in a torrent as far as the squire's grip - and
other marvels besides thou sawest there, but thou didst not ask after their
meaning nor the cause of them. And hadst thou asked, the king would have
had health and his kingdom in peace.'

And I suppose it was at this moment, standing before this shrivelled
lamed-king, that I knew that if this Iron Age relic was not to remain mute
in his glass tomb, I would have to attempt to unlock his mystery and seek to
answer the 'why' of his puzzling murder.