The recent announcement by the National Geographic Society that the Iceman, affectionately known as Ötzi, a 5300 year old mummy was infected with the Borrelia spirochete that causes Lyme disease, adds a fascinating new layer of interpretive information to his mysterious life and death story. It opens a window for the understanding of how people in the past may have dealt with this debilitating disease.
The mummy was found in 1991. It had been preserved in the ice of a glacier in the Italian Alps. Ötzi has been called a shepherd or pastoralist, and indeed he lived at a time of social and environmental change-on the edge of the Copper Age, when his society was transitioning towards the agrarian world of fields, crops, and domesticated animals that is still familiar to most modern humans. Ötzi wore, with one notable exception, clothing and shoes made from the leathered hides of domesticated goats, sheep, and cattle. He also carried some of the accouterments of a hunter: an unfinished bow made of yew, a knife and arrows with knapped tips, and a copper-headed axe. His last two meals consisted of meat from the wild ibex and red deer along with milled einkorn wheat, which had probably been consumed as some sort of bread. Ötzi’s mummified skin was found to be covered with sets of linear and cross shaped tattoos, which were concentrated near bone joints at what are recognizable as acupuncture points-which suggests a therapeutic reason for the tattooing.
Lyme disease can now be suggested as a causative agent for joint damage and as the source of associated pain that the tattoos highlight. The presence of the disease may also lead to a re-analysis of the birch fungi, identified as Piptoporus betulinus, that was threaded onto a calfskin thong bracelet found next to the mummy. This has previously been interpreted as used for fire tinder. This type of fungihas been found to contain polyporic acid C, which is an effective antibiotic and may also have some pain numbing hallucinogenic properties. It appears that Ötzi was combating Lyme disease with an combination of antibiotics, painkillers, and acupuncture. This medical treatment, however, eventually came to naught. Ötzi met with a violent death. Ötzi appears to have been repeatedly attacked during the 48 hours before his death by up to four perpetrators. He may have been holding his dagger in his hand when he was killed. His body exhibits defensive wounds including bruises, had a huge slice near one thumb [the cut was discolored along the edges indicating that the injury happened when the Iceman was still alive], a severe blow to the head, and an arrow shot that severed an artery. The latter was probably the cause of death. Modern CT scan images show that Ötzi had a large hematoma, which means he must have had catastrophic bleeding into the thorax cavity. His death would have come rather quickly under these circumstances.
Like crime scene investigators, Thomas Loy, an archaeologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia and a team studied DNA samples gathered from the Iceman’s weapons, tools, and clothing molecular biologists looking for blood traces. They found DNA from four different people other than the Iceman. They also found a small tear in Ötzi’s coat which may have been the entry point for the arrowhead that was found embedded in his shoulder. Why Ötzi was the victim of this violence will probably remain a mystery, but the Lyme diagnosis may provide some important clues.
Untreated Lyme disease can sometimes be accompanied by a long list of neurological symptoms-including altered attention span, emotional and behavioral changes, and psychiatric problems. The book Disguised as the Devil: How Lyme disease Created Witches and Changed History (Wythe Avenue Press, 2008) has a complete list of possible symptoms. Late in the progression of this disease, neurological, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms predominate. If not understood, these symptoms can be viewed as bizarre and to Neolithic and Copper Age society, the sufferer of neurological Lyme disease may have been seen as dangerous, especially if they occurred in a person associated with magic and power. This leads to the question, was Ötzi a witch? Was he a ‘shaman gone wrong’ who had come to be looked upon as a danger to his society? Did this lead to his assassination?
As quoted in the National Geographic News website, the archaeologist Johan Reinhard, has proposed that Ötzi was killed as a sacrifice to the gods. “It’s time to reexamine the evidence from a different perspective. Let’s look at these artifacts not only relative to each other but also within social, sacred, and geographic contexts.” The question that he asks is why a valuable copper ax, with its bindings and handle still intact, was left with the body? Indeed, the copper axe may be an important clue to Ötzi’s identity.
While Ötzi’s status as a shaman has been debated for the past twenty or so years, it deserves another look. At time of his death Ötzi possessed several characteristics and items that have been traditionally associated with magic. An analysis of his hair found high levels of arsenic, suggesting that he was involved in the smelting of copper. Copper was very precious and may have been considered a sacred metal and symbol of power during Ötzi’s lifetime as well as being associated with healing. Metal workers were often regarded as magicians. Axe heads were valuable goods that were often traded or exchanged as gifts. They were also used as amulets thought to be imbued with magical properties. It is significant that Ötzi’s attackers, after killing him, left behind his neatly piled belongings including the valuable copper axe. They may have considered them to be too dangerous to touch.
The other significant shamanic item possessed by Ötzi was his bear skin hat. While we know very little about the ideas and religious practices of the Copper Age, most archaeologists agree that that the Mother Bear may be humanity’s oldest identifiable deity, and that the genealogy of several ancient goddesses can be traced back through the Neolithic Age to the Bear Cults of the Paleolithic. As described in The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature ( Arkana, 1992), ancient animal worship often intertwined with hunting rites. Archaeological evidence reveals that the bear cult may have involved a type of sacrificial ceremony in which a bear was shot with arrows, finished off by a shot in the lungs, and then ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue that was covered by a bear fur. The bear, with its ability to hibernate and then reawaken in the spring, has been revered since the Paleolithic times and some modern European cities have bear-cult sites at their roots. Berne, Switzerland, was a “den of bears.” The name Brigid is derived from the Indo-European root word for ‘bear’ and many city names are derived from Brigid including Bregenz in western Austria and Nemotobriga in northern Spanish Galicia, translating as ‘Brigid’s Sacred Grove. To the Romans, Brigit was the Alpine protectress of travelers who was married to the sky god Poeninus. The Alpine Mountains still bear his name. In northwest Italy, Brigid and Ursus, the big bear of mythology and the constellation of stars, share the same feast day of February 1. The festival of Imbolc [Groundhog’s Day] was celebrated throughout Europe as an auspicious time to look to the future, including a focus on the end of hibernation. In modern times the bear has shrunken down into a hedgehog in Europe and in America-the groundhog, and bedecks almost every American childhood as a teddy Bear but in the far distant past the bear was a potent and magical entity. The magical association for bear skin continued through time into written history, and lies behind the use of bearskin shirts by some of the most vicious [and crazy] of Viking invaders, the Berserks.
It is unlikely that bear pelts were a common item of apparel for most members of Ötzi’s society, making his bear skin hat very special. It is more likely that his hat was a symbol of his status as a shaman. His death, even though strongly resisted, ended with a ritualistic arrow shot that lodged near his lung.It is possible that, as a sufferer of both the physical and the psychiatric symptoms of Lyme disease, Ötzi had begun to exhibit behavior that was in some way threatening to his social group. He was ceremonially executed in a simulated bear hunt for being a shaman gone wrong or in other words, a dangerous witch.