Another year is behind us, a new one begins.
This may seem like something to do with the passage of time, but it is relative to space: the year exists because we are moving, carried by our planet-arch along its sidereal trajectory around a fiery star.
In short, the New Year reminds us that even when we seem to be standing still, we are actually always on the move.
And I have been traveling the length and breadth of Italy again for a few months now, at work on some books whose details I will reveal in the coming times. I hope the fruits of my wanderings will be enticing enough to make you want to indulge in the very surreal thrill of travel!
For now, I wish you all my warmest wishes for a 2023 full of oddities and quirks… Keep The World Weird!
A few days after Elizabeth II’s death, a bizarre piece of news went around the world: the Royal Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, reportedly alerted the bees to the Queen’s death.
The strange custom of notifying these insects of their master’s death, as explained by several folklorists questioned on the matter, is a centuries-old tradition and stems from the superstition that if the event was not communicated, the bees might die or abandon the hives.
Indeed, even in the rest of Europe this type of funeral announcement is a well-documented tradition, and several studies have shown that there are stereotypical formulas for presenting the news to the hives. Sometimes these standard formulas served to incite the bees to produce more wax for candles to be used during the funeral, as in this little poem used in Navarre:
Little bees, little bees, make some wax!
The master is dead
and there is a need for light in the church.
It should be noted that bees in particular have always enjoyed a special status, compared to other domestic animals. The human-bee relationship has always been interwoven with dense symbolism, which is reflected in the sacred importance of wax and honey, and translated into a whole series of specific rituals and customs. In almost all traditions there are, for example, prohibitions and cautions regarding how to get possession of the first hive (it is said that it must be stolen, or on the contrary absolutely not stolen, that it must be a gift or categorically cannot be, etc.). The proper way to address bees is also codified, complete with words that are to be avoided and formulas of respect that prevent insult.
Bees, however, are not unique. In peasant cultures, with a rural-pastoral structure, life is spent in close contact with animals, on which subsistence depends; they are central to the daily concerns of the household, with which they share, willingly or unwillingly, labors and vicissitudes. Farmyard and barn animals thus become a true offshoot of the family.
It is not surprising, then, that mourning can also be “extended” to the other farm animals, which to some extent are reputed to be affectively close to those who care for them; what is more interesting, however, is how mourning can be extended even to objects.
Di Nola writes:
In the Lucanian territory, in Latronico (Potenza) and Miglionico (Matera) it is customary to put a black ribbon on mules and horses belonging to the family of the deceased. In Calabria in the area of Siderno (Reggio Calabria) the red stripe that supports the bell of sheep and oxen is replaced for thirty days or a whole year with a black stripe. In Bagnara Calabra (Reggio Calabria), when the master hunter dies, a black handkerchief is placed around the dog’s neck. If the dead man was a farmer, it is placed at the cow’s horns. It was also observed that black ribbon was applied not only to animals but also to bicycles and mopeds. In some villages a black band is placed on the back of the bed where the person died. The door of the house affected by misfortune is black-lined and the black band is left there until it is worn away by time and weather. In Sicily in some villages that observe strict mourning, black ribbons and cords are attached to the pack animals, and the halters, bows and other harnesses are dyed black. In Ucriva (Messina) strips of black cloth are attached to cats and dogs and to the feet of hens, and a bow is tied to donkey halters. In our days some people put it on cars. In Gallura, in Olbia, the dog’s collar is removed, and the clapper is removed from the bell that hangs from the necks of those beasts (goats, cows, sheep) that guide the herds. In Calangianus, a black ribbon is tied to the favorite horse and oxen of the deceased. Similar information appears in most Italian demological sources.
(Alfonso Maria di Nola, The Black Lady. Anthropology of Death and Mourning, 2003)
The custom of covering mirrors in the dwelling where someone has just died, though on the one hand related to some popular beliefs (the soul of the deceased person could be “trapped” in the mirror), on the other hand appears to be in line with this extension of mourning to the objects of the home, in this particular case going to prohibit a vanity — the gazing at oneself — that would be out of place during a social moment when a state of contrition and grief is required.
Such practices are intended to express a grief, a loss that is so great and irreparable that it also affects for a time all that surrounds the bereaved family, all those things that in one way or another had to do with the deceased person. In this sense, it is also a way for relatives to express the extent and depth of their affliction.
From a broader perspective, the relationship between individual and society is made explicit not only in life but also in lack, in the vacancy left by the deceased person. There is something terrible and at the same time poetic in all these black ribbons appearing, multiplying on animals and objects… in this image of death spreading, like a dark oil stain, all around the place from which the absence “springs.”
Certain watershed moments in our lives happen by accident, at least on the surface.
While attending university in Siena, it happened at one point that some of the lectures in the course of study were held not on the premises of my faculty, but located in the classrooms of theAccademia dei Fisiocritici, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Italy.
So one day I was in class in there, and to dilute the inhuman torment (no one should be subjected, without prior informed consent, to a general linguistics class) I got up to look for a bathroom. I asked the janitor how to get there, and he pointed to a door specifying that I had to go through the whole room because the restrooms were at the back.
When I entered, the shutters at the windows were ajar, and it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to the dimness. I finally distinguished, half a meter away from me, a strange silhouette… I focused with difficulty, and what I saw was this:
My memory is usually ragged and lazy, but that shock I remember as if it were a thing of today: the rush of adrenaline left me shaky. I found myself surrounded by other teratological specimens, although I didn’t even know the term at the time: in addition to the Siamese calf taxidermy, there were skeletons of thoracopagus lambs, malformed fetuses and human preparations.
I could have looked for an escape route, pulled straight for the restrooms cursing the janitor who had not warned me what I would be facing; instead, something clicked. I stood paralyzed for I don’t know how long, then the dismay faded, giving way to the most all-encompassing wonder I had ever felt. Precipitated in a paradoxical state, at once hypnotic and euphoric, I forgot about the bathroom, about class.
I did not leave that room until, an hour later, a fellow student came looking for me. Leaving the Academy, intoxicated and inebriated, I knew that moment would define at least in part all the rest of my life.
Why was that experience such an epiphany?
There was a hallucinatory quality to those deformed bodies that made me feel like a lost child, or at least get back in touch with a childlike trait that tends to be blunted by time: the inability to distinguish sharply between dream and reality.
(I wrote “inability to distinguish,” instead it would be better to say: the ability not to distinguish. But we’ll get to that.)
Now that I have been involved for many years precisely with anatomical or natural history museums, and their relationship to the uncanny, I understand well why that moment was so foundational for me. Without that surprise, that unexpected and cruel thrill, that cutaneous horripilation, that primal trauma, I would not have arrived at the approach that I believe informs much of my work: that of valuing the “Fantastic in science,” a concept around which I have long orbited, though without defining it explicitly until now.
Scientific and fantasy fiction are contradictory only in appearance, just as specious is the opposition between the Fantastic and Realism. Whether we are talking about film, literature or art, a double misunderstanding has plagued these disciplines for quite a while: on the one hand, Realism is merely a mode of exposition, laden with conscious choices and omissions — thus a clever pretense of verisimilitude. On the other, under the allegorical veneer, any fantastic narrative is a meditation (more or less conscious) on the reality of its own time.
In other words: realism is always a fable in disguise, while a fantastic narrative is always about concrete and current concerns.
The great difference between the two expressions is similar to what in music is called timbre; different are the instruments that play it, different are the filters, effects, distortions, and vibrations that are produced, but the note may well be the same.
In the artistic-literary sphere, therefore, such a dialectic never goes beyond the epidermis of the story, but I am convinced that on serious examination it does not hold between scientific language and the fantastic dimension either. While we are accustomed to recognizing the scientific themes that sometimes populate art or fantastic literature (think of Frankenstein), at first glance the presence of fantastic elements that run through scientific narratives — which are nothing more than a realist register taken to extremes — is less obvious.
It is the study of anatomy, human and animal, that in my eyes encapsulates more than other disciplines a propensity for the Marvelous.
On the one hand it is infused with all the epic of the heroes of science, the pioneering cartography of the body as a virgin continent to be explored, the esoteric toponymy and nomenclature; but the medical rhetoric of case reports — despite having developed a predilection for aseptic language honed over the centuries — is still descended from the accounts of prodigies and monstrous births of the Sixteenth Century. It is not uncommon to encounter medical papers that resemble veritable short stories.
Pietro da Cortona, Tabulae anatomicae, 1741
On the other hand, I have always been fascinated by anatomical plates (with their unintentional surrealism) and especially by the spectacular aspect of some museum preparations — such as those that treacherously stood before me at the Accademia dei Fisiocritici.
Precisely in the monstrous preparations, but also in certain dissections that unfold the body in unexpected visual distortions, there is an element of transfiguration of matter that I think is necessary for one to be able to speak properly of the Fantastic.
Honoré Fragonard, Écorché of Horse and Rider (1771), Fragonard Museum, Paris.
12-part human skull section, preparation by Ryan Matthew Cohn.
In short: If I were asked to name a place that perfectly represents my idea of the Fantastic, I would not think of any enchanted glade inhabited by fairies and goblins, nor of a crumbling mansion haunted by some evanescent ghost. Nor would I address distant hypothetical planets populated by inconceivable life forms.
I would direct the interlocutor to an anatomy museum.
Prepared in liquid twins, MUSA, Naples.
Tracing the fantastic in science, then, has broader and deeper repercussions. It means reconsidering the distance between mathematical-scientific and artistic-humanistic disciplines.
There is a widespread idea that the artist is predominantly irrational and emotional, but anyone who has ventured to produce any form of art knows very well that it is a work of ingenuity considered as an inseparable whole: it is necessary to guarantee space for the unknown to intervene in order to harmonize and elaborate it thanks to the control that technique guarantees.
On the other hand, the researcher or scientist proceeds in a kindred way — in spite of the different timbre, semiotic register, and tools — that is, in perennial balance between the describable and the indescribable, putting their faculties to good use indiscriminately, tuning the scruple of reasoning with those vast unfathomable areas from which intuition and unexpected illuminations spring.
“Eureka!” Archimedes in the bath, 16th-century woodcut.
No human quest, in other words, is wholly rational or irrational: for we only move in an attempt to untangle the thicket of symbols we have inherited or created ourselves, and to overcome them. The poet and the scientist who intend to reach some truth must strain in a constant effort against the traps of language, of categories, of preconceptions.
In this, as I said, the child’s ability not to make big distinctions between dream and reality would be a discipline to cultivate since, when needed, it allows us to place ourselves beyond traditional separations.
It is useful to access that privileged vantage point from time to time, because from there the heterogeneous stimuli that animate our thinking are no longer judged a priori: and the multiple currents, coming from all directions, that churn and eddy under our keel, are still the same ocean.
(This post is dedicated to that janitor who at the time did not warn me of what I was getting into. I don’t know his name, but he was infinitely more important to my education than the linguistics professor.)
The time has come to reveal the results of the fifth edition of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest!
This year, the entries were once again numerous and full of imagination, and I sincerely thank all the participants: our family of bizarre creatives gets bigger and bigger every year, and this can only fill me with pride.
Let’s get started!
Sambuco envisioned, for his vintage composition, “an old-time newsie intent on shouting, in these words, the praises of Bizzarro Bazar’s hypothetical store of wonders.” No better way to start!
For all the world’s Satiated souls Fascinated By the unexplored Seeking the wonder To which our brains Are unaccustomed!
Run hungry Run fast For every taste And personality There are stories Of life and death Of strange and macabre Amenities!
Run curious Run fast For every taste And sensibility Bizzarro Bazar’s store Opens its doors Of wonder!
Any fortune teller can read the future regarding classic questions about health, love or work.
But the fortune teller envisioned by Andrea Kendall Berg answers only strange and unusual questions — thanks to the intercession of her wacky otherworldly friends.
The only downside: the tarots end up giving the same answer every time…
Elena Baila, in those idle, torrid days of summer, created this little animation that, in addition to paying homage to Bizzarro Bazar, seems to me to be an excellent advertisement about the risks of prolonged exposure to the sun.
Perhaps works of art should never be analyzed in search of literal metaphors, but in Debora Campagnoli’s self-portrait, it almost seems as if her eyes have decided to look at the world through the lens of the Macabre… resulting in the brilliant colors of life in bloom breaking through the monochrome.
ElaGhi has composed a lyric with a romantic, crepuscular tenor: lending her voice to a statue, her verses transport us to the mournful, decadent atmosphere of a Victorian cemetery.
Who among us would not want to walk among those bumpy tombstones under a leaden sky?
Here’s a question that everyone asks themselves at one time or another: can a flayed woman still be beautiful and sensual? What’s that you say? You never wondered? Dude, you really are strange.
In any case, Pamela Annunziata shows us that the answer is unequivocally positive. (Pamela Annunziata: Instagram, Facebook)
“I am vast, I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman.
Eleonora’s surrealist collage seems to suggest a similar inner immensity — with that anatomical Venus from whose entrails, as in a fantastic eruption, phrenological heads, Phoenix Arabs, circuses and hot air balloons emerge…
Astrid, who sends me her work from Germany, created this fairy-tale chamber of wonders; the truly original solution is that she used an AI image generator to fill it with arcane and mysterious objects, then integrated the results into her digital painting.
The result is a Hermetical and indecipherable wunderkammer!
Regarding his stunning new creation, André ElRagno Santapaola writes, “I was inspired by two themes that are very dear to me, which I discovered and delved into precisely thanks to Ivan: anatomical preparations and Witkin’s magnificent photographs.
I made this silicone sculpture using a live cast, which I then tried to paint it in a hyperrealistic way. Being my first attempt with these techniques and materials, I am satisfied with the result.
I later set up the photograph by adding elements taken from my wunderkammer (the book is last year’s special prize!); the result is an anatomical preparation of a bizarre, yet beneficial, disease: curiosity.”
If you need a special effects artist for your next movie, now you know who to call! (André ElRagno Santapaola: Instagram, Facebook)
Illustrator Dimitri Fogolin places me in a singular tech-noir setting, where shady individuals with additional limbs implanted on their backs roam, where distinguished ladies wear gas masks, trains are sentient biomechanical hybrids, and mysterious dark ladies plot in the shadows.
Which is actually is a pretty accurate description of my everyday life. (Dimitri Fogolin: Instagram, Facebook, website)
It is no mystery that I have a soft spot for Elena Simoni a.k.a. Psychonoir’s tiny, delightful drawings, so much so that above my desk hangs the post-mortem portrait she gave me for last year’s contest .
This time Elena imagined a procession of freaks, saints, mummies and monsters (all inspired by topics I have covered over the years), marching to support the right to be proudly weird.
The only rally I would gladly attend in my life. (Elena Simoni Psychonoir: Instagram, Facebook)
“There is treasure everywhere.”
With this phrase (borrowed from a volume of Calvin & Hobbes) Elisa Caviola presents her work, which won third place not only for its very elegant graphic rendering, but especially because it mixes digital techniques with an ancient and fascinating nineteenth-century printing method: cyanotype.
Elisa writes, “Lucky are those who look at the world with awe and wonder, because so much magic and beauty surrounds them. Especially in places where no one looks.” And even just watching the chemical process take place, and the cyan-blue emerge ever brighter, is something enchanting:
Chiara Toniolo, who won second place, decided to portray herself as an anatomical Venus intent on reading my book Mors pretiosa; what struck me, besides her beautiful pencil stroke, was the unusual atmosphere, languid and homely, and that almost casual caress of the skeletal cat…
Chiara says, “I could have depicted one of the many wax Venuses in anatomical museums, but it’s my professional deformation as an artistic nude model that’s to blame: I always have to put my face in it, and this time my guts too!” (Chiara Toniolo: Instagram, Facebook)
Gaberricci had also participated in our contest a couple of years ago, winning the third prize; this year, however, he really outdid himself, creating a very tasty and amazing whimsical crossword puzzle.
Virtually ALL of the definitions in these crossword puzzles refer to some article or video I posted here on the blog!
A true masterpiece of humor and puzzles, which will require a lot of effort to solve but, possibly, will make you discover (or remember) a myriad of unexpected and curious stories. What better to ask for?
We have come to the end, and I am, as always, touched and moved. Once again, thank you to all the participants for gifting me with these wonderful works; I hope you enjoyed making them as well.
If you enjoyed any particular work, please remember to show your appreciation to the authors in the comments section.
A five-week course on the representation of death through the ages, a meeting at a curious film festival, a conference about a major archaeological find… here are September’s events!
Starting September 3, and continuing with a date every Saturday, I will teach a 5-week online course for Morbid Anatomy on the iconology of death from antiquity to social networks. It will be a richly illustrated journey spanning three thousand years, tracing the historical variations and semantic richness of allegories of death: from the depictions of the ancient world (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans) to the medieval danse macabre, from the “Triumphs of Death” to Flemish vanitas, from dissected corpses in early modern anatomical illustrations to the morbid infatuations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from surrealist experiments to contemporary artists who include authentic corpses in their works. Find more information and the opportunity to register on the Morbid Anatomy page; the course will be held via Zoom in English.
On Sept. 6, I will be a guest at Garofano Rosso, Italy’s “smallest and coldest” film festival to be held in Forme di Massa d’Albe (AQ). It’s been many years since this tiny hamlet in the heart of the Abruzzo Apennines served as the location for John Houston’s The Bible (1966) and Valerio Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars (1976); but, thanks to the good spirits of a group of passionate young folks, once a year Forme gets to “breathe cinema” again, with a surprisingly rich program of free screenings and events. When they invited me, I accepted enthusiastically, because on the one hand such an initiative cannot leave my cinephile soul cold (cinema has been my first love, and was my main job for almost twenty years), and on the other hand this is a moving example of cultural commitment and resistance.
Finally, on September 9, I will take part in a major conference, where the details of an exceptional historical find will be released. Nothing was known about the whereabouts of the remains of the Marquises Pallavicino, one of Italy’s most important feudal families, until a wooden box containing human bones and bearing the names of Gian Lodovico I, Anastasia Torelli, Rolando II and Laura Caterina Landi was discovered in 2020, walled inside the Basilica of Cortemaggiore (PC).
During the meeting (to be held at 9 p.m. at the Eleonora Duse Theater in Cortemaggiore) the results of the archaeological investigations carried out on the remains will be announced, and I will be in prestigious company: speakers include paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, bioarchaeologist Alessandra Morrone and historian Marco Pellegrini.
Here we are at the 13th birthday of Bizzarro Bazar, and the 5th Bizzarro Bazar Contest!
As in previous years, I like to celebrate this recurrence by awarding prizes for the most macabre, creepy and wacky fantasy; to participate just stick to the rules, which are always the same:
Create an original contribution that makes explicit reference to Bizarro Bazar;
Remember, the idea is to give free rein to your weirdest creativity in a safe space where a morbid mind is valued and cherished — you’re among friends here!
“Explicit reference” means that Bizzarro Bazar (the site, the logo, one of the books, even my goatee) must be depicted/mentioned/included within the contribution. Keep in mind that, while promoting your creations, I also want to promote this blog. Win-win.
For a better understanding you can take a look at the first, second, third and fourth edition entries.
And now to the prizes:
1st prize: T-shirt of your choice + mug of your choice from the official store + surprise gift 2nd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store + surprise gift 3rd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store
The best unclassified entries will still be published on Bizarro Bazar with links to the authors’ websites/profiles, and shared on social media.
The only time I’ve ever seen a person possessed by a “demon” was during a stint in Tanzania. I was in Dar es Salaam together with a shambling crew, composed mostly of friends, to shoot television footage in the finest residences as well as in the slums of the city; a project devoid of sense and future, which would have lost us quite a lot of money (also on the account of our ignorance of the local culture and mentality, at the time of accepting the assignment), but which had catapulted us into a dreamlike dimension.
One evening we were filming a concert in a nightclub — which I certainly could not locate now, since many streets in that city have no name. When the work was done, we had stayed for a drink.
At a given moment, something happened. The young girls on the dance floor took to courting the males with unrestrained mapouka. It had all happened in the space of a minute: an ordinary dance hall had suddenly turned into a menagerie of quivering buttocks, fiercely swaying hips and explicit simulations of copulation between women, during which one of the girls theatrically took on the male role and pretended to take the other from behind. All the athletic and handsome males had moved to the sides, and leaned on the handrails surrounding the dance floor, while the maidens tried to get their attention with pressing and gradually more obscene dances. On the sidelines of this orgiastic and flamboyant, exquisitely feminine enactment, which was almost innocent by virtue of a serene erotic nonchalance, we stood astonished, a group of white Westerners completely ignored by those present. That sensual spectacle ended as it had begun, without warning or perhaps following a signal we could not pick up on, and the girls went back to dancing in a more traditional way.
A few hours later, returning late at night in the minivan to the hotel, we stopped at an intersection because we heard screaming. Nearby was a woman writhing on the ground, arching her pelvis inhumanly, while a huddle of people had gathered all around. There were those who were trying to hold her down, comforting her and caressing her, but her writhing and screaming did not seem to abate. That frenzied wiggling, with her legs spreading and her chest flexing and curving, had a kind of impudent quality: a loss of inhibitory restraints that made the spectacle not certainly exciting, but rather unseemly.
One of our escorts, an impassive and indecipherable dark-skinned sixty-something man, whom everyone called “Uncle”, rolled down the car window and asked what was going on. He received back a few words in Swahili from one of the onlookers, rolled his window back up, and we set off again in silence as if nothing had happened. Later I asked our interpreter what Uncle and that man had said to each other on the street, and what had happened to the woman we had all seen in convulsive spasms. She was the victim of a spell, he told me, she was possessed by spirits; those people were waiting for the neighborhood shaman who would soon come to “take away” the demons.
That night, back in my room, catching sleep was impossible: the feeling that I had attended not one but two mysteries did not leave me. Somehow, in my mind, I sensed that there was, perfectly clear and undeniable, a connection between the girls seducing the males by feigning intercourse with each other, and the possessed woman uncontrollably screaming in the dust. I could not have said exactly what invisible thread connected the two experiences I had just had, but I knew it was there.
In the years that followed, I reflected on it often. Although the situation of women’s rights in Tanzania has improved over time, the society is still highly patriarchal, and gender discrimination, violence, abuse, and harassment of women is still widespread. What I had witnessed were two episodes in which transgression — namely that of the liberated female body — was instead permitted, as it was well regulated.
The obscene and unbecoming dance called mapouka (which also involved gender reversal, in the assumption of the male role to mimic intercourse) was possible insofar as it was sanctioned by the context: the confines of the discotheque, and the agreed-upon time limits. One thus danced only in that place, and for a specific time frame.
Similarly, the phenomenon of possession — which might at first glance appear to be an event of disruption of the social order — actually has precise cultural norms and functions. As Moreno Paulon writes,
no society seems to be unprepared for possession. If the spiritic onset can disrupt and mark the existence of an individual or a class of individuals, no cultural order is disrupted or comes into crisis when possession manifests itself in one of its members. Human cultures have developed a wide variety of conventions, such as well-established rituals and symbolic interpretations, that accompany and guide the episode. Often an elected group is instructed to categorize and manage the phenomenon: it cures a sick person where possession is considered the symptom of a pathology; it interprets the oracle when the possessed person is a bridge and his word a message from beyond; it exorcises the possessed person if a malevolent spirit is believed to have seized her body. But the idea that possession is necessarily related to “evil” and that it must be responded to by exorcism is only one among many cultural constructions in the world. Within the order of a society, a cult of possession can serve the most varied functions: it can confirm or rediscuss the balance of power between the sexes, consecrate a national identity, legitimize a ruling family, or even express class suffering, consolidate a moral system, direct political decisions, indicate marital alliances.
(M. Paulon, Sulla possessione spiritica, in AA.VV., Il diavolo in corpo, 2019, Meltemi)
Here then, in the span of one evening, I had witnessed two moments in which the female body expressed itself at once irregularly and regulatedly. The mapouka and the spirit possession, when considered in relation to a generally oppressed female condition, appear as “authorized rebellions”: escape valves, on the surface, but deep down devices of self-discipline, micro-techniques of control of the system, a bit like Carnival was the inversion of hierarchies approved by the hierarchies themselves.
Unleashed sexuality, free from the constraints of culture, is not permissible. It is the nightmare of any authority. On that torrid African night I attended not one, but two mysteries — which were perhaps the same: a millennial battle between repressive and expressive impulses, a conflict that exploits the language of myth and ecstasy, but takes place always and only on the female body.
I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.
I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.
In medieval literature we find a disgusting kiss, with which the fearless knight brings back to human shape the beautiful princess turned into a dragon or a snake: it is the fier basier, which in folklore is linked, with reversed roles and genders, to the fairy tale of the Frog Prince collected and made famous by the brothers Grimm. In these stories, the kiss is a heroic act, which overcomes the disgust aroused by the contact with a slimy creature linked to the underworld, water, with a strong atavistic and dark ambivalence.
In the horror it arouses, such an ordeal recalls another unclean effusion narrated in medieval texts — the manuals of demonology: the osculum infame. This is the infamous kiss under the tail of the Devil, or of one of his animal manifestations (the donkey, the goat, the black cat): the supreme expression of the obscene adoration paid on the occasion of the Sabbath to the Dark Lord in his corporeal form, in the most humiliating way possible, by his followers.
The osculum infame, even if it has first of all a “juridical”, contractual and ritual value, as we will see, is also among the sexual practices without reproductive purpose attributed to Satan’s followers, next to sodomy and demonic coitus, which, as M. Barbezat explains about heretical sexuality, constitute a mockery of Christian charity. It is considered an unnatural act, linked to the world of promiscuous relationships with animals, so much so that it recalls the fier basier we mentioned at the beginning. Barbezat notes how in the sabbath the novices associate themselves with the sect with a ritual intended to make them spiritually dead and poisonous for the rest of the human community: that is why first of all they kiss the toad, emblem of sensuality and physical decay, whose drool erases in them any memory of Catholic faith, and then they join in a group intercourse considered a sacred act of veneration. The empty pleasure they derive from their relations with demons and other heretics produces no lasting fruit, only death: the children thus conceived are reduced to ashes during cruel offerings to the Devil and/or consumed in a cannibalistic meal.
The demonic copulation
Witch sex is the way by which heretics, reduced to mere bodies, form a damned, biologically unproductive, spiritually inert unit. Just as believers become one with and in Christ, becoming members of the body of the Risen One on earth (that is, of the Church), so the damned associate in its inverted mirror image: a diabolical body, a prisoner of decayed matter in life and of Hell after death, of which Satan is the head. It is quite a literal union, reflecting the reduction in the cognitive abilities of the participants, due to their departure from the Holy Spirit. This is the brute materiality of the medieval heretics, who, though endowed with a soul, lost it the moment they denied Christ, condemning themselves to being mere bodies.
The attention to the witches’ heretical sexuality derives from the conviction of demonologists and inquisitors according to which the human body would be extremely vulnerable to diabolic predation and to the aberrant sexual phenomena related to it. In fact, as the Malleus Maleficarum explains, the Devil’s power resides in the intimate parts of human beings, especially women, whose unbridled lust leads to witchcraft and carnal knowledge of demons. This is a salient point of the sabbath stereotype: the reality of the coupling between the gathering participants and the evil spirits — if not even Satan himself — is taken for granted, so much so that diabolical copulation constitutes a fundamental attribute without which one is not considered a witch. The carnal knowledge is also seen as irrefutable proof of the existence of demons — and consequently of angels, as W. Stephens writes in Demon Lovers: while angels do not interact with mortals, demons mate with human beings, like gods and mythological creatures of ancient Greece, of which they are the diabolic form. Female demons, in particular, are reminiscent of certain shape-shifting infernal creatures with vampire-like characteristics, such as empusas and sirens. Greedy of sperm, milk and blood, these figures were already present in Greek mythology as the entourage of Hecate tricephalous; they were believed to suck the vital force of men — with whom they were able to unite sexually, even if they were spirits or ghosts of dead people, therefore without a physical body. Demonology, in dealing with them, draws on Genesis (Gen 6,1-4), on the apocryphal tradition (1 Enoch) and on Augustine’s De civitate Dei (XV, 23), which defines as possible the demonic intercourse but not diabolic paternity, since such an intercourse is destined to remain infertile.
Like spirits, demons are incorporeal, but by condensing the air they can create a temporary body, of which they can even vary the gender: they first take the female form of succubus (“who lies below”) to get the seed of a man, with which they then impregnate a woman by assuming the form of incubus (“who lies above”). This stratagem is sometimes replaced by the use of a momentarily reanimated corpse as a male vehicle, or by the collaboration between an incubus and a succubus, according to those demonologists for whom even evil spirits are gendered (in such a view, the number of male demons clearly exceeds that of female demons, precisely because of the bottomless concupiscence of women). This is a practice that in the first phase of demonology is motivated by the horror against sodomy attributed to the demons. Evil spirits would refuse to mate with a male human being — a theory which will be later abandoned in favor of a devilish sexuality without limits. In any case, this activity is carried out with a superhuman speed, which explains why the demonic phallus is felt to be cold by human partners. Moreover, according to some, such coitus is extremely painful, because of the disproportionate size of the diabolic member, of its icy temperature and/or of its bifurcation, aimed at simultaneous double penetration; according to others, on the contrary, copulation with a demon would be much more pleasant than that with a man, so much so that the devil is feared by mortals even as a sexual rival. In the wake of Augustine, as we have said, it is a kind of mating that is considered unhealthy because it does not lead to the birth of “children of the devil” in the literal sense: these children, conceived by women impregnated with human sperm that the demons have “stolen”, are in fact human too.
The infamous kiss
The accusation of kissing the buttocks of the devil, of a demon or of a fellow witch appears very frequently among the sacrilegious acts performed by groups considered heretical, between the 12th and the 17th century. After being passed down as part of the scandalous behavior of the early Christians, and before being attributed to the participants of the “synagogue” (as the legend was initially called), the infamous rumor first struck the Cathars, then the Waldensians, the Fraticelli, and the French Publicans or “Paterini”. These were the congregations of fervent Christians who, precisely because they were deeply involved in the Christian creed, were suspected of profaning it, that is, of heresy. After the heretics, the osculum infame will be used as an accusation in the trial of the chivalrous order of the Templars (1307-1312), but also against Gilles de Rais: infamous cases in which the suspicions of magic are coupled with rumors of sexual disorder, in order to damage eminent personalities by making them victims of defamation and political repression. Satanic veneration by means of obscene kisses were therefore routinely included in the stereotype of the sabbath ceremonial, but only once the figure of the witch passed from being a victim of diabolic deception (as claimed by the Canon Episcopi) to guilty accomplice of the Evil One.
The official break was sanctioned by the bull Super illius specula of Pope John XXII (1326-1327), in which, forging the theological and legal image of witchcraft that will become dominant, it was stated the existence of a new devil-worshipping sect devoted to a vile slavery and allied with death. In this conspiratorial viewpoint, which sees Christianity besieged from all sides by the Anti-church of Satan, the idea of a real society of witches is outlined, intent on a systematic destruction of human society. The description of the ungodly and harmful activities of this malignant collectivity had already been sketched, but only at a local German level, by the bull Vox in Rama of Pope Gregory IX (1233); after the spread of collective panic and the crisis following the Plague of 1348, the demonological doctrine is consolidated, officially outlined by the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus of Innocent VIII (1484) and then by the manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487), real summa contra maleficas (as Cardini defines it) that of the papal bull is the commentary as well as the implementation that starts the repression of the crime of witchcraft.
This is how demonology arose, a “science of evil” elaborated in opposition to magic as an “evil science”: it became the main vehicle for the transmission of knowledge regarding this crime, while juridical processes assumed the secondary function of validating what was written in the manuals. In these writings, great attention is paid to the rituals of the coven, among which stands out precisely the kiss in “ignoble” parts of the body, human or not. In the sabbath, therefore, the faithful, having got down on their knees and having abjured the Christian faith, first kiss a toad (on the anus or on the mouth, licking its slime and tongue), then, if they have obtained the right to do so by committing crimes and excesses instigated by the Enemy of mankind, they kiss the black cat under the tail, profane the consecrated host and abandon themselves to an indiscriminate alimentary and sexual orgy.
However, as P. Mazzantini explains in the opening of his excellent monograph on the subject, even if “a form of eroticism is present in the osculum infame and is linked to the image of the union between the devil and the witch, or the heretics, which took place during the course of the sabbath”, the erotic element is not the fundamental aspect of the obscene kiss. In fact, with this gesture the witches first of all materialize the bond that binds them to their Dark Lord, sealing a relationship that is not equal but of subjection: it is therefore an emblem of diabolic affiliation, not a sexual act.
The kiss in the Middle Ages derives its value from the fact of being both a gesture and a symbol, affixed as a confirmation of the effectiveness of an act (social, religious, legal), with which a free man spontaneously became “man of another”, binding to him in a position of personal dependence with an oath of fidelity. However, the kiss also possesses a certain ambivalence connected to the mouth, which means that it can also be a physical expression of degradation or derisive punishment (undermining the moral integrity of the giver but not the receiver); depending on which part is kissed, it indicates the degree of equality between the kisser and the kissed. In this sense, when used by a heretic in homage to a creature rather than the Creator, in supreme perversion of the Law (Ex 20:3), the kiss then constitutes the ultimate offense to God. A blasphemous and grotesque reversal, it mocks both the cult of the Lamb and the liturgical osculum pacis, both the ritual vassalistic kiss and the pax christiana announced by the Eucharistic peace. In short, it is an inversion of the “normal” kiss, which was the emblem of a whole series of public rites, of chivalrous or clerical ordination, as well as a spiritual sign of Christian unity. The kiss on the back is a joke with which the devil tyrant mocks his subjects, demanding a degrading submission just as the Lord does with his vassals.
The Sabbath: a fictitious reversal?
On the other hand, the entire ceremonial of the sabbath is dominated by a downward tension — in an eschatological but also scatological sense. This attention to the lower part of the body (belly, genitals) and to its functions (digestive, excretory, generative) is linked to the concept of the “lower body” that, according to scholars, played a dominant role in the grotesque realism typical of medieval carnival and parodies (M. Bachtin).
The anal sphincter is but the equivalent of a mouth opening on the “upside-down face”; thus the kiss on the anus is the opposite of a chaste kiss. This idea is consistent with the vision of witchcraft as a negative image of the Catholic faith: even the sabbath, in its various moments, is described as a “Mass in reverse” built on a precise inversion of the liturgy.
To open the satanic dances is the adoration of the Devil by the witches, who on their knees renew their fidelity and renouncement to the Christian faith, confessing their sins (which are, specularly, what Christians would define as “good deeds”) and the maleficia they committed for the glory of their infernal sovereign. The anti-sacrament that seals their vow, confirming their apostasy to the Christian faith, is precisely the kiss that each witch gives in turn (not always on the back: sometimes also on the left foot/eye or on the genitals of the one who presides over the assembly). This “crescendo of profanation” is followed by a Eucharist made of black shoe soles and nauseating liquid, by a revolting banquet (Mazzantini), and finally by a promiscuous orgy.
However, the sabbath cancels social order only in appearance. Of course, the celestial hierarchy is overthrown by putting the devil in the place of God and demons in the place of angels, but the position of men with respect to the Dark Lord remains unchanged: as Mazzantini explains, “the followers of witchcraft change religion, becoming the believers of a creed that is an overturned mirror of the previous one, but they maintain the constant role of believers and above all of servants”.
In spite of all these reversals, in short, men are always subjects. For this reason, the ceremony of the unclean kiss, even if susceptible to some sexual nuances, remains above all the representation of a power dynamic: the expression of a society that, even in describing the most obscene, scandalous and iconoclastic rebellion, is unable to imagine itself as anything other than submissive to a greater will.
Costanza De Cillia has a PhD in Philosophy and Science of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of capital execution