Channeling the Great Mother: Gender Dualism in Heaney’s “Bog Queen”

by Christine Hoff Kraemer


Seamus Heaney is fascinated with the Irish bogs. Early in his career, he encountered archaeologist P.V. Glob’s The Bog People – a study of European Iron Age culture, which has been preserved in the form of bodies (many of them ritually sacrificed). Most of Glob’s bog people were exhumed from Danish bogs, but others have been found since in Ireland. Glob’s work made a deep impression on the poet, and when Heaney combined its imagery with the national iconography of Ireland, the resulting ferment produced the poet’s rich mythology of a nurturing-and-devouring Earth Mother goddess. Though there is a significant critical literature treating Heaney’s bog poems, “Bog Queen” is amongst the lesser-known. The poem depicts the long rest of a mummified female corpse whose clothing and jewelry seem to indicate high status, her rude discovery by a turfcutter, and her potentially vengeful resurrection. Though superficially the poem might be situated within the genre of gothic horror, Heaney encodes multiple layers of meaning in the poem by associating the Bog Queen with the body of the earth itself. In the context of his other bog poems, “Bog Queen” also reflects Ireland’s exploitation by England, and warns that the revolutionary spirit of Mother Ireland will rise to avenge wrongs perpetrated upon her. What sets “Bog Queen” apart from poems such as “Bogland,” “Punishment,” and “The Tollund Man” is that Heaney chooses to write in the voice of the dead queen. Although the other bog poems display a certain dialectical structure in which Heaney brings Ireland’s past and his present into conversation, showing how the archetypes of ancient Ireland are given disturbing new life in the Troubles of the twentieth century, in “Bog Queen” there is no distance between poet and subject. The fact that Heaney – a living, male poet – strives to identify with a dead, female queen sets this poem apart, and may serve as a rebuttal to those critics who see Heaney’s embrace of dualistic, Jungian magna mater imagery as problematically gendered.

            The first line of the poem suggests that the Bog Queen will rise, both by the choice of the first-person voice, implying her continuing consciousness, and the predatory words “I lay waiting” – though waiting for what, we do not yet know. The following stanzas describe the complex, organic process of her body’s decay and preservation in the bog, a process that brings her into communion with the earth’s natural processes. “My body was braille / for the creeping influences;” she says, suggesting that her body was a kind of text read by touch, understood and partially consumed by the sun and the “seeps of winter.” To the activity of winter she applies the term “digested,” a word that invokes both the process of decay and that of summarizing a text, as in literary “digests.” The roots that push into her body, however, are “illiterate,” and “ponder and die” in its hollows – unable to read her meaning. She follows this image with one of her brain “fermenting underground / dreams of Baltic amber” – once again combining images of an organic process with those of a mental one. Her brain may literally be transforming (“fermenting”) into a fossilized material (“amber”), but this image also suggests something less tangible, the slow production of dreams from a complex and organic “ferment” of the mind.

            Heaney identifies the Bog Queen more explicitly with the earth itself in the following three stanzas, in which the gemstones of her crown are compared to “the bearings of history,” her sash to “a black glacier,” and her fine clothing to sediment dropped by glaciers on the hills of her breasts. The cold is “like the nuzzle of fjords / at my thighs—” as if her legs were the land. The turfcutter’s inadvertent violation, his spade cutting through her hair and uncovering her body, takes on an additional resonance – it is the earth, or perhaps Ireland herself that he has disturbed. Although the turfcutter then shows proper respect, “veil[ing] me again” and repacking her body in its resting place with barley stems, he betrays her when a nobleman’s wife bribes him to steal the Bog Queen’s severed hair. Cut and removed from the body, the plait serves the function of a severed umbilical cord for a hideous and terrifying rebirth: “. . . I rose from the dark, / hacked bone, skull-ware, / frayed stitches, tufts, / small gleams on the bank.”

            The mummified queen is both the sleeping earth and the spirit of Ireland, and the poem serves as a warning to those who would violate her – thus the poem carries both an environmental and a political message. Heaney’s description leaves the reader in no doubt of this vengeful feminine spirit’s ancient power. Though laid to rest in the earth, she lies waiting and is not consumed; the processes of nature, rather than destroying her, preserve and augment her with the power of history.

            Heaney’s Bog Queen is an example of the magna mater, or Great Mother archetype discussed in Jung’s psychoanalysis – the giver of life and death, closely associated with the body of the earth, the turning of the seasons, the unconscious, intuition, and the emotions. Heaney betrays his Jungian leanings when he says of his writing process, “I think the process is a kind of somnambulist encounter between masculine will and intelligence and feminine clusters of image and emotion” (Green, 151). Heaney is a product of the Western tradition that divides the world into strict dichotomies: male/female, light/dark, intellect/emotion. This leads critic Patricia Coughlan to attack Heaney in an essay comparing his work with that of John Montague. Accusing Heaney of portraying the feminine not as an autonomous and independent Other, but merely as the ground against which the male self is defined, she writes:

So must we not conclude that the poetry of Montague and Heaney as a whole is insistently and damagingly gendered? Its masculine personae, whether in the narrative of personal identity, or that of nationality, must, it seems, possess or be possessed by a counter-force personified as feminine: an encounter of the genders as of aliens – dog eat dog, possess or be swallowed up – is forever occurring, even within and beneath politics. (200)


Yet “Bog Queen” – which Coughlan mentions only in passing as an “erotic disrobing narrative” (190), though she takes the title of her essay from it – belies this dismissive evaluation of Heaney’s representations of the feminine. “Bog Queen” is explicitly not a poem where the feminine is imagined only in contrast to a speaker’s masculine persona; instead, Heaney attempts to identify with this earthy, female, intuitive Other, in the process giving her the voice of an independent self. Carlanda Green, who is far more sympathetic to Heaney’s efforts to portray the feminine, suggests an explanation for Heaney’s feminine choice of persona in “Bog Queen” when she writes of the feminine principle, “[The female’s] actions are often intuitive; she senses, feels things to a greater degree than man so that the felt experience is commonplace with her. Because he often cannot understand how she knows what she knows, man, chiefly rational, finds her mysterious and often mistrusts her” (152). Although both Heaney and Green are in danger of essentializing the sexes through their rigid gendering of personality characteristics, it is clear that Heaney is not guilty of the sin of which Coughlan accuses him. Instead, by taking on a female persona in “Bog Queen” the poet experiments with an alternative way of knowing and perceiving, one that – perhaps because of his tendency to compartmentalize the genders – may only be accessible to him through that method.

            This technique is similar to that used in W.B. Yeats’ “Crazy Jane” poems, in which the poet employs an earthy, older woman to articulate risqué sentiments (sentiments with which the poet clearly agrees). As in “Bog Queen,” a dualistic portrayal of gender is used in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” – passionate Jane is contrasted with the stiff and prudish male bishop, who rejects sensuality because he associates it with dirt and filth. Crazy Jane, however, understands that “fair needs foul”; she acknowledges duality but insists that both sides of a pair are necessary for wholeness. Yeats is able to make this point about the necessary interdependence of opposites much more strongly by taking on and legitimizing the voice of the often-rejected Other, that of a sensual, earthy, older woman. In a culture that had constructed the genders so rigidly, it is surprising and liberating for a male poet to demonstrate a “feminine” way of knowing through his art, one that allows him to celebrate the goodness and necessity of sensuality and to articulate its equal importance with the spiritual.

            Heaney’s choice to write “Bog Queen” from a first-person perspective similarly gives the reader direct access to the powerful, organic, feminine consciousness that Heaney has previously approached as a beloved and feared Other. Rather than merely being in relationship with Mother Earth, we are asked to fully participate in the turning of the seasons and the process of decay and rebirth; rather than speaking of wounded Ireland’s wrath, we are instead invited to experience it. In “Feeling  into Words,” Heaney describes the Troubles as “a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess,” with the male cult being the imperial English power and the female cult the “indigenous territorial numen” of Ireland whose power has been “temporarily usurped” (Anderson, 148). In “Bog Queen,” is it not enough for the poet to be a mere devotee of this goddess; instead, he seeks to put on her power, to channel into his poetry the experience and desires of the primal force he sees as animating Ireland’s national spirit.

            On the surface, “Bog Queen” may seem to reinforce Heaney’s Jungian tendency to essentialize the sexes as, like his other bog poems, it clusters intuition, sensuality, and an earthy kind of regenerative power with femininity. Both “Bog Queen” and “Crazy Jane,” however, simultaneously problematize this dualism even as they use it. Heaney and Yeats have chosen female speakers to manifest qualities of sensuality, emotion, intuition, and physicality that Western tradition categorizes as strictly feminine, but the fact that they were able to create these compelling female speakers suggests that the poets were not cut off from these qualities after all – and indeed, that these qualities are neither masculine nor feminine but instead essentially human. Though Heaney may see physicality, intuition, and emotion as feminine, he remains a male poet even as he creates these earthy, organic works of art. “Bog Queen” may embrace traditional Western gender dualism, but it also demonstrates its falseness by allowing the Great Mother to speak with Heaney’s mouth. In this aspect, “Bog Queen” is an almost quintessential example of a modern work – it is tense with seeming opposites that, when examined more closely, resolve themselves into a whole.


Anderson, Nathalie F. “Queasy Proximity: Seamus Heaney’s Mythical Method.” Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. Ed. Robert F. Garratt. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995. Anderson compares Heaney’s attempt to root his work in mythology with Joyce’s. She examines Heaney’s use of sexual tension to describe political conflicts, and talks about “Bog Queen” in terms of sexualized molestation and national rape. Finally, she also relates “Bog Queen” briefly to the image of the vampire and casts Irish national devotion as filtered through the iconic bog bodies in terms of an ambivalent necrophilia.


Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. Approaches Heaney in terms of Irish racial/rural history, and the centrality of the Irish landscape to Heaney’s poetry. Sees “Bog Queen” as the voice of a particular locality.


Coughlin, Patricia. “‘Bog Queens’: The Representation of Women in the poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney.”  Seamus Heaney. Ed. Michael Allen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Sees Heaney’s poetry as dangerously gendered, portraying the feminine as nothing more than the ground against which the masculine is defined.


Green, Carlanda. “The Feminine Principle in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry.” Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. Ed. Robert F. Garratt. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995. A heavily Jungian analysis examining the bog poems in terms of an Earth Mother-focused mythology that is also linked with the nationalist personifications of Ireland (Kathleen Ni Houlihan or the poor old woman).


Johnston, Dillon. “Irish Poetry After Joyce (Heaney and Kavanagh).” Critical Essays on Seamus Heaney. Ed. Robert F. Garratt. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995. Comparison of the two poets’ work. Johnston sees Heaney’s portrayal of the feminine as primarily a life-denying force, and examines the poet’s attempt to associate the bog-burials explicitly with twentieth-century atrocities.


Longley, Edna. “‘Inner Emigré or ‘Artful Voyeur’? Seamus Heaney’s North.” Seamus Heaney. Ed. Michael Allen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Examines Heaney as a pilgrim, acolyte, or “bridegroom” of the goddess he portrays in his poetry, while dealing with the problematic quality of being devoted to a national spirit that seems to condone murder. Considers Heaney’s impact on Irish politics.


Tobin, Daniel. Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. The University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Chapter Four examines Heaney’s poetry in relation to the Troubles and the way he suggests that the ancient myths of Ireland and the modern conflict are modeled on the same archetypal pattern.



Copyright (c) 2003 by Christine Hoff Kraemer