The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
Welcome back! Before we dive into our new harvest of wonders, I begin by inviting you on Sunday, April 16 at Defrag in Rome: I will be giving a talk in the truly extraordinary context of Danza Macabra Expo, an event curated by CRUSH – Collective Visual Art. In addition to a collective art exhibition, over the course of this month the event will be enriched by a packed schedule of events including performances, live music, role-playing games, workshops and lectures. You can take a look at the program here.
And now, on with the weird stuff!
In 2021 at the Nagasaki Zoo, the female gibbon Momo gave birth to a cub. In itself this would not be big news, except that Momo lives alone and has never had contact with other males. How could this virginal conception happen? After two years of research, and DNA tests, those in charge came to the conclusion that Momo became pregnant… through aglory hole.
In Shakespeare’s plays, monstrosity is made explicit in deformed bodies, nefarious instincts, and through language itself. Michela Compagnoni has explored all this in a new book reviewed in this insightful and fascinating article [in Italian]. (Thanks, Bruno!)
The first lab-grown meat burger was presented in London 10 years ago. Since then, technologies have evolved, costs are gradually coming down, and synthetic meat seems to be on its way to becoming a possible ethical and ecological alternative to traditional meat in the future. But at this point, why limit ourselves to producing beef slices when we can create recipes from extinct animals?
The one below, produced by an Australian company, is a mega-meatball made from the DNA of a mammoth.
Yet I would not recommend tasting it, because the scientists themselves have no idea of the allergic problems a 5,000-year-old protein could cause in humans. (And so goes my idea for a new fast food chain, “Jurassic Pork.”)
On L’indiscreto, a great piece by Alessio Montagner [in Italian] on Jesus’ penis, Mary’s vagina and more generally the symbolic density of genitalia in sacred art. (Thanks, Gaberricci!)
Park Van Tassel (1853-1930) was an American aerial stunt pioneer. Originally a bartender in Albuquerque, he became interested in areostatic flying beginning in 1879 and decided to become a professional daredevil; his performances consisted of parachuting from his hot air balloon. But although today he is considered an important figure for some technical innovations and for introducing women (i.e., his wife and daughters) to the sport, at the time not everyone thought him particularly skilled. Many of his shenanigans did not end exactly as planned, and Van Tassel often ended up injuring himself or crashing-landing so much so that the crowd often booed him or even sabotaged the balloon. As Jan Bondeson reports in Strange Victoriana, in one case a spectator ended up lying unconscious because of a ballast carelessly thrown by Van Tassel; in another, the reckless aeronaut risked being killed when his legs got caught in the balloon’s support ropes while his parachute had already opened; in yet another, a wedding that was to take place in the air had to be cancelled because no priest or justice of the peace agreed (understandably) to ascend in a balloon along with Van Tassel.
And they were right: flying with him was really not good business, as the 1889 incident in Honolulu tragically demonstrated. Van Tassel and his co-pilot Joe Lawrence had just taken flight in front of a cheering crowd when the hot air balloon was displaced by the wind toward the ocean; unable to control it, Van Tassel and his colleague jumped by parachute, but as they gently descended they realized that an even worse fate awaited them below… Van Tassel managed to reach the shore unharmed, but the poor assistant ended up mauled by sharks.
In the first of my Milan anatomy lectures, I mentioned a peculiar court proceeding that took place in France in 1659, in which on trial came the poor erectile capacities of a nobleman, accused by his wife of failing to fulfill his marital duties — impotence, at the time, was almost the only reason for a woman to file for divorce. This trial, in which the defendant had to prove his manhood by attempting copulation before an attentive jury of doctors and magistrates, was not an isolated case. Here is an article about the history of impotence trials.
There are those who look at a photo from when they were 16 years old, think back to that time and say, “I was a little immature, but I was still me after all.” And there are those who wonder, “but was that really me?” as if they no longer recognize themselves.
Some of us, in short, naturally see a continuity (a “narrative arc,” as a screenwriter would put it) in our life experience, while others feel subject to metamorphoses so continuous and profound that the past is crowded with many outdated and now extraneous versions of themselves. I certainly belong to the second category.
By now there is a good deal of psychological research showing precisely how perception about one’s own past identity varies greatly from person to person, so much so that scholars have even coined two terms to denote the two different types of approach. Are you continuers or dividers?
“It was about four bells in the middle watch, the “churchyard” watch, as the four hours after midnight is called, that it happened. We of the mate’s watch were on deck–the men for’ard, Burton and I under the break, and Mr. Thomas pacing the poop above our heads. Suddenly, apparently close aboard on the port hand, there came howling out of the darkness a most frightful, wailing cry, ghastly in its agony and intensity. Not of overpowering volume–a score of men shouting together could have raised as loud a hail-it was the indescribable calibre and agony of the shriek that almost froze the blood in our veins. […] Even the old man was awakened by it and came up on deck. Everyone was listening intensely, straining their eyes into the blackness that enveloped us. A moment or two passed and then as we listened, wondering, and silent, again that appalling scream rang out, rising to the point of almost unbearable torture and dying crazily away in broken whimperings. No one did anything, or even spoke. We stood like stones, simply staring into the mystery-laden gloom.”
This sounds like a passage from a William Hope Hodgson short story, but instead it is a truthful account of a nighttime scream heard at sea by the crew of a sailing ship in the early twentieth century and still left unexplained.
How did the idea of the Martians come about? The one above is one of the maps of Mars made by Schiaparelli in the late 1800s. The astronomer christened those mysterious rectilinear formations “canals”-a term mistranslated into English as canals, which by definition implies the idea that they are artificial. Soon many other scholars became convinced that those strange structures were too regular to be mere rivers, and from there to the idea that intelligent beings might inhabit the planet’s surface was a short step. When the first probes photographed and mapped Mars more closely, it was realized that the channels were just optical illusions; but without this mistake who knows if we would ever have science fiction as we know it today.
At Waterloo, one of the bloodiest battles in history, 20,000 soldiers died, plus thousands of horses. But then where did all those bones end up? A recent historical study has provided a surprising answer: they were illegally unearthed between 1834 and 1860 to refine and bleach sugar.(Thanks Vito, RIP)
Let’s keep talking about bones. In just one year, in 1657, Genoa lost two-thirds of its population to the plague. There were so many dead that numerous mass graves had to be resorted to. One of these was found in 1835, during renovation work in the city park of Acquasola; it was then decided to move the remains to the tunnels that develop underground in the area. So even today, just a few meters below the feet of dog walkers and children playing, mountains of stacked bones hide.
The tunnels cannot be visited, but here are some photos taken by speleologists.
The Essentials of Smallpox is a manuscript compiled (probably in a single copy) in the late 17th or early 18th century by Japanese physician Kanda Gensen. The sheets have been worked in such a way as to illustrate the plagues of smallpox in relief.
Growing, in the shadow of the gallows, is a monstrous fruit. It is a prodigious aphrodisiac, but it also serves as an indispensable ingredient in the witch’s recipe book-who, according to legend, mixes it with the fat of stillborn children, thus creating an ointment with which she can fly to the sabbath.
As Pliny and Dioscorides relate, this anodyne natural was applied as an analgesic before surgical operations because of the discrete soporific and sedative properties attributed to it by learned medicine prior to the 16th century, which made use of it in various forms-from the extract of the fruit, to the seeds, to the actual root.
Countless ailments were said to be cured by the mandrake: it was used both for external and internal use, as well as to heal infertility and impotence (its renowned value as an erotic stimulant is even attested by one of the epithets of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite Mandragoritis, and, by the more puritanical, by nicknames for it as the apple or even testicle of the devil), both against menstrual disorders, quartan fever, excess black bile (the dreaded melancholia, the cause of numerous ailments, including mental ones), diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more parts of the body, from the eyes to the anus, against abscesses, indurations, and even tumors.
Mandrake was used according to the many uses suggested by premodern pharmacopoeia, but also as a fetish: it was sold as an amulet by the root-diggers, a branch of merchants who specialized in extracting the plant-who, however, apparently peddled in its place roots of bryony or other common plants, tactically carved.
A vegetable at the intersection with the other kingdoms-the mineral, because of its chthonic origin, and the animal, indeed, even human… – sought after yet feared, admirable and deadly, the mandrake belongs to the family of the infamous nightshade, associated like its “sister” with witchcraft for its psychoactive properties due to its high concentration of scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid found mainly in its roots. It is a solanacea, whose intricate, vaguely anthropomorphic shaped roots have intrigued the human imagination since ancient times, so much so that it has been attributed a sex (which determines its shape and color), human-like genitalia and a rather difficult character, which causes it, for example, to hide from impure people and allow itself to be tamed only by those who show it a cross or spray it with menstrual blood or urine.
This sort of personification has resulted in the plant sometimes being treated as a small individual, made of living flesh: a homunculus, literally, endowed among other things with a power execrable. Around the figure of this prodigious plant, in fact, hovers for centuries a gloomy legend : it is said that it screams, when extracted from the earth, with such shrieks as to make the unwary “pickers” lose their senses or even kill them on the spot. This deadly capacity of the prized booty then necessitates complex contrivances by which those about to dig the mandrake out of the ground can preserve their health (and survive it).
The most common contrivances follow a common pattern: at the center of all variants, there is in fact the sacrifice of a dog (the only exception is the one Frazer attributes to the Jewish tradition, in which a donkey), most often with black fur; to this animal before dawn on Friday-not coincidentally, the day named after the goddess of love-the plant is tied, of whose roots a single strand is left still buried. The dog, purposely hungry, is then made to run away with the call of a tasty morsel; in doing so it snatches the entire plant from the ground, which bursts into deadly squeals, which, unfortunately, cause the sudden death of the unsuspecting animal. The humans present-who up to that point have kept their ears well covered or even plugged with cotton sealed with pitch or wax-can then approach and pick up the plant, which, thus “let loose,” is now rendered harmless.
A fascinating aspect of the mandrake is its origin, according to legend, which makes it a literal fruit of hanging-the product of thecross between man and the earth(Zarcone).
Certain Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions call this plant gallows man, mad plant e dragon doll, terms that evoke the human and somewhat monstrous origin of the mandrake. Indeed, the seed from which this fabled “capestro flower” is formed would be precisely the human one, scattered on the ground at the moment of death by the criminal subjected to the infamous execution par excellence.
Already climbing the steps of the gallows, the dying man imagines himself suspended between heaven and earth, thrown into a limbo from which only divine forgiveness could pull him to safety, as well as rejected by the community gathered there to voraciously admire his agony, in all its physiological aspects.
The suspension of which the condemned man was a victim would obliterate his body(Tarlow – Battel Lowman), annihilating it as a social object, placing it in exile in a liminal zone both geographically and metaphorically (as, moreover, also occurred in the display of the corpse through gibbet); the rope, the instrument of execution, which although theoretically should have fractured or dislocated the upper cervical vertebrae of the condemned man, leading him quickly to death, most often ended up strangling him, thus disrupting his features and causing him to inevitably evacuate feces, urine and, depending on the sex of the victim, menstrual blood or seminal fluid.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that, by virtue of the magical-medical theory of the transfer of life energy from the dead person to his or her survivor, people eagerly sought contact with the body of the punished offender, still imbued with vitality (which gave him or her invaluable medical potency). These are the secrets of the corpse, passed down in a veritable consumer literature in which, as Camporesi explains, therapeutic occultism combines with necromantic pharmacopoeia and natural magic to crown a Faustian dream of long life and eternal youth.
According to a logic that considers putrefaction a black copulation capable of making the dead a “wellspring of health,” the living can keep healthy by preying on the deceased; it can even transmit its own ills to it, deriving from them the energy that the spirits, in turmoil in those last moments, still bestow on the corpse. The dead person is thus paradoxical dispenser of life (Camporesi).
That is why the stroke, or the touch of the hanged man, was believed to be curative: the hand of the corpse was shaken or put in contact with the parts of the body affected by skin diseases, blemishes, goiters and excrescences (from leek to wart to sebaceous cyst), as Davies and Matteoni masterfully explain. Imagine, then, how much power may reside in the seminal legacy left by the hanged man: the mandrake, inhuman progeny of the gallows!
The plant that ignites eros and brings death arises from the intersection of these same two principles, that is, from the climax reached in so-called “angelic lust.”
This euphemism designates the post-mortem priapism observed since antiquity in the corpse of the executed, especially if it died by strangulation. This is a phenomenon that has inspired not only various essays on sexology and the psychology of deviance but also great novelists such as Sade, Musset, Joyce and Burroughs. We are thus speaking of a “mortal erection” that was sometimes followed even on the scaffold by ejaculation, and it was to this very phenomenon that ancient herbaria traced the origin of the mandrake, which arose from the semen emitted by the condemned at the moment of death.
The ability to exhibit an erection literally terminal and culminating in ejaculation, among other things, was a decisive component in the name that qualified this mode of execution as an “infamous death.” Indeed, hanging appears as the most shameful of departures throughout Western history (but not only, according to Old Testament Deuteronomy, where it is associated in this ignominious aura with crucifixion, another example of death by suspension). Whether it was considered degrading because it was imposed on criminals of the humblest background and/or despicable crime, or conversely imposed on them precisely because it was felt to be dishonorable, hanging was in any case the most common type of execution; according to tradition, it was also the death of the last and worst, as the apocryphal last events of Judas, the victim of a grotesque and studiously humiliating agony, remind us. Such an aura of infamy is probably why, as Owens notes in Stages of Dismemberment, hanging is almost absent in hagiography, and may have arisen precisely from the “embarrassing” physiological phenomena that accompany this particularly spectacular form of death.
Among these bodily events, the celestial orgasm we have already discussed-which in the female corpse has its counterpoint in the possibility of a loss of blood from the vagina, accompanied by a sprinkling of the labia and clitoris, in a spontaneous menstruation caused by the action of gravity on the uterus resulting in prolapse of the sexual organs-is simply the most “scandalous” because it involves the genitals. As Hurren vividly recounts in Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, many condemned men urinated and/or defecated, at the fatal moment; others, victims of suggestion, stained their robes with ejaculated semen; there were gaseous exchanges caused by the deceased’s digestion, and decaying blood leaked from the mouth and nostrils, in a purgation made all the more disconcerting by the rigor mortisduring which the gases, unable to escape entirely through the anus or nose, passed through the trachea, giving the impression that the corpse groaned and croaked as if it had still been alive and aching.
Although life, as commonly understood, no longer resided in the limbs of the hanged man, something remained that seemed to defy the justice that had been done. From the invicible erection, that is, from the last “tears”-as this ejaculation was poetically called in articulo mortis – shed by the criminal on the ground, would then form, under his corpse left hanging, the mandrake.
This therapeutic and dangerous plant-a veritable pharmakon, remedy and poison, in the dual Greek sense – constitutes in short, on a par with the rope used to execute the criminal or the healing touch of the hanged man’s hand, another example of the posthumous ways by which the condemned man, once dead, goes from nefarious to salvific for the community that expelled him. In fact, once he repents, it is as if the criminal is reintegrated into the community through his own execution, moving from the status of a tainted and defiling individual to that of a “salutary” element.
The corpse of the executed criminal, through the medicinal virtues of his mortal remains or through the generation of the mandrake, thus acquires a “posthumous” social life through the distribution of his energies, and becomes the site where, in a tangible way, the salvation that resides in repentance occurs.
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
Today is the anniversary of the film Bambi, which was released in theaters 80 years ago.
For this reason today we will talk about… child pornography.
Disney’s masterpiece is in fact an adaptation of the children’s book of the same name by Felix Salten; of this prolific (though all in all mediocre) Austrian author, it seems to me that it is my duty on these pages to recall instead another novel, that JosefineMutzenbacher which today could probably never see the light of day.
Published anonymously in 1906, the book recounts in autobiographical form the vicissitudes of a Viennese prostitute. Nothing original about this; memoirs of courtesans, etères and harlots were already a classic strand of erotic literature; but Salten’s novel focuses exclusively on the protagonist’s childhood and adolescent experiences, concluding at the very moment when Josefine, having become 14 years old, decides to make her body a source of income.
Let us start by saying that the book is certainly not a masterpiece, but it has several interesting aspects from a literary point of view. Compared to other coeval texts, which are often steeped in sophisticated classical references, Salten places his book on a deliberately “low” level. Not only because he writes an openly pornographic book, but also because he decides to set it not in some suspended Hellenistic nostalgia, but in those working-class neighborhoods of Vienna, normally forgotten by courtly literature, coloring his dialogues with dialectal or vulgar expressions, and choosing the register of comedy.(1)Cf. Luigi Reitani, Pedagogia sexualis: The Apprenticeship Years of Josephine Mutzenbacher between Popular Comedy and the Aesthetics of Transgression, in F. salten, Josephine Mutzenbacher, CDE Edition, 1991.
But what may still shock the reader today is the joyful lightness with which this little girl’s sexual explorations are recounted, as erotic scenes take place both in the company of her peers and adults, in the working-class suburbs of the fin de siècle Austrian capital.
Before crying pedophilia, however, it is important to keep in mind the context of the publication of such a work.
Those were the years of Freud’s revolutionary studies on child sexuality, which until then had not been considered at all. But it was also the time of the ephebic sensuality of Klimt’s erotic paintings and sketches, and of a whole series of literary productions(Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Altenberg) in which first adolescence was extolled as the pinnacle of sexual fascination. (2)Cf. Scott Messing, Schubert in the European Imagination, vol. 2, University of Rochester Press 2007. On the mythologizing of the age of fourteen: pp.160-163..
In this late nineteenth-century temperament, the aesthetic paradigm of the Kindweib, i.e., the woman-child, was born: a myth that quickly became ubiquitous, so much so that it even influenced women’s fashion, and symptomatic precisely of the weight that the debate on sexuality assumed at that time. (3)I recall en passant that the woman-child is found in countless novels, even in the most unsuspected: for example, the character of Weena in the The Time Machine (1985) by H.G. Wells.
The term Kindweib was popularized in 1907 by Fritz Wittels in a famous article of the same name that circulated widely in Viennese intellectual circles, which stated:
It seems as though female beauty is more attractive to man today if it renounces motherhood and decides to play the eternal child […]. Women appear just as children, with uncovered knees, bobbed hair, soft complexion, the round inviting mouth of a baby, and big astonished eyes, which are artificially made to look larger and more astonished as though one were still interested in looking at the world like a schoolgirl. They imitate a type which is rare in nature, the childwoman, who for constitutional reasons has to remain a child for life […]. The more or less pathological basis for the childwoman is the precocious appearance of sex appeal. When a child is attractive at an age when other children are still jumping rope, she ceases to be a child. From within, a precociously awakened sexuality arises, and from without, admiring eyes inflame her. To be desired is so absolutely the idea of this woman, that she does not continue her development. So we must add to our remark that she ceases to be a child, also the fact that she remains a child forever. This contrast within one and the same person produces her charm.(4)Quoted in Messing, op. cit., p.159.
The ideal of the woman-child is thus two-faced right from her name: childlike and adult, innocent and sensual, narcissistic and innocent.
In some ways, it is a figure that exalts as desirable virtues in a female candor, sweetness, and lightheartedness, thus contrasting with the women who, in those years, claim to be intellectuals, even to graduate, have a career, or… to vote.
On the other hand, however, the woman-child also possesses a powerful subversive charge. Her radical sensuality, uninhibited polyandry, and pansexuality are characteristics that make her a “force of nature” capable of sweeping away all social institutions at once: she rejects motherhood, family, fidelity, and dependence on the male. She is interested only in herself and in the game of seduction, a symbol of the instinct that emerges unstoppable, collapsing the levees built over centuries by society.
In the novel, too, Josefine lives her experiences without the shadow of real trauma, and she destroys conventions with the ease of a child who is “only” playing. For Salten, therefore, this unrestrained sexuality would not represent a threat but a liberation.
Yes, but liberation of whom? Is the woman-child a liberating ideal for women, or for men?
According to Scott Messing, the fact that in many cases (as in the novel in question) this figure is a prostitute would prove how much the myth of the Kindweib was essentially an excuse to justify the asymmetric relationships with young adolescent girls that several artists entertained at the time:
Constructing this type of female helped to produce a seductive theory for writers like Kraus and Altenberg, both of whom argued that prostitution was a liberating experience for its practitioners, even as they ignored its social consequences, and who themselves enjoyed indiscriminate liaisons with little regard for the fate of their partners. […] Wittels’ theory accommodated the lure of the female adolescent and the freedom from moral guilt in any subsequent social transaction […] (5)In Messing, id., p.160.
In my free ebook The Anatomical Woman I talked about how, at least since the Middle Ages, the destructive and threatening power of female eros had been recognized (i.e.: fabricated) and opposed; but the ideal of a “free” femininity, when shaped by male fantasy, can be equally devious.
Josefine Mutzenbacher remained, if one excludes a few novellas, Salten’s only foray into eroticism.
Just a few years later the author became a major journalistic signature,“with a permanent place in the columns of the ‘Neue Freie Presse,’ Austria’s leading daily newspaper. Salten’s conservative turn was now accomplished, parallel to his entry into cultural institutions. In the postwar period he is among the most influential men of culture in the Austrian Republic. […] By 1923 the coveted literary success had also come, with the publication of Bambi. A Tale of the Woods, which would be followed by other titles in the field of children’s literature. Forced to emigrate because of his Jewish background after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany (1938), Salten would find asylum in Switzerland, where he died in 1945 in Zurich. Three years earlier Walt Disney had made the subject of Bambi famous with a spectacular film reduction. “(6)Luigi Reitani, op. cit..
Cf. Luigi Reitani, Pedagogia sexualis: The Apprenticeship Years of Josephine Mutzenbacher between Popular Comedy and the Aesthetics of Transgression, in F. salten, Josephine Mutzenbacher, CDE Edition, 1991.
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.
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.
Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!
During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.
The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only) about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.
Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples. Info and tickets here.
Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.
In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!
Dākinī and Varṇinī, hungry handmaids, beg the Goddess, their lady, to grant them nourishment: pitiful, she brandishes a scimitar and cuts off her own head, thus releasing a triple gush of blood which falls into the mouth of her assistants… and into her own. After this watering ritual, she puts her head back on, bearing a slight pallor as the only sign of self-mutilation: she has become Chinnamastā, the Decapitated.
Perseus, in order to defeat Medusa with her petrifying gaze, approaches her, peering in the reflection of his shield, and decapitates her. Pegasus, a winged horse, and the giant Chrysaore emerge from the neck of the Gorgon; the monstrous severed head, with its hair composed of snakes, falls to the ground, still able to turn those who return her gaze to stone. The hero then takes possession of the terrible weapon, which he will then use to render his enemies inert statues.
The first story, which tells the origin of one of the most disconcerting, terrifying deities in which the divine feminine principle is incarnated in the East, comes from the Hindu religion — where, among the many examples of divine beheadings, it stands out as the main example of salvific meaning, of violence according to Tantric thought.
The second, on the other hand, was born in Greek mythology, but in 1922 it was invested with a new, epochal value: with the essay The Head of Medusa by S. Freud, in fact, it also became the metaphor of the origin of human sexual development, based on the puzzling equation decapitating = castrating.
The beheading of the Gorgon by Perseus might be a symbolic substitute for the primitive emasculation from which castration anxiety arises in the male: this demonic severed head, condensing in itself the absence of the penis and the multiplicity of penises (symbolized by snakes), would in fact be an icon of the “mutilated” maternal vagina. This traumatic discovery would convince the child that the women around him have been deprived of the virile member (as a punishment for indulging in masturbation), as it might happen to him one day; the little girl, on the other hand, would develop the idea of having been made deficient due to this mutilation. The only comforting side effect of the petrifying vision would be an erection, which confirms a male person the persistence of his own member.
We therefore have two cases of beheading, both of which occurred in ancient times, in the suspended time of the myth, one drawn from Indian culture, the other from Greek culture. The first tells of a self-inflicted amputation, while the second refers to a lethal wound inflicted on another being; in the first, it is a creative act, because it is a means of survival, a gift granted by a deity to her mortal followers, while the bloody gesture of the second is destructive, not only to those who are deprived of their heads, but also against those who will have the misfortune of subsequently encountering such a severed head.
In comparing them, a disparity of views emerges regarding the cutting of the head, at the basis of the analogy between head and penis, which seems to be widespread; from this cornerstone of archaic physiology, therefore, derives the equivalence of the separation of the head from the rest of the body with emasculation, which in psychoanalysis takes the name of the Freudian equation.
In fact, ancient anatomy established an explicit connection between the brain, the creative organ that gives rise to the idea and holds, in the highest part of the body, the vital fluid, and the penis, seat of the sexual and generative power of the male. Thus follows the automatic equation of the removal of the (male) genitals with the cutting of the head; however, if the amputation of one, or the other, part of the body in the West figures above all as a humiliating punishment, in India instead it constitutes an indispensable impairment that the voluntary victim must undergo in order to be reborn to a new condition, finally achieving a full identity .
Castration and beheading are both punitive measures and drastic forms of social exclusion which — at least until the beginning of the modern age — allow the community to be purged of those who somehow threaten it, but also have a paradoxical positive value that ennobles those who suffer it. Like beheading, castration can also be seen as a process of transformation that removes what, within the body, symbolizes the great human faults (pride, lust), which prevent the individual from accessing spiritual purity.
In both cultures, then, the loss of the head and virility are irreversible rites of passage, which, marking the end of the identity, allow access to a different stage. In the West, the vision of the separation of the head from the torso felt like a catastrophe, which deprived the victim of their humanity, transforming them into a disassembled object made of two residual pieces. The East, on the other hand, proposed a paradoxically positive view of beheading, which stemmed from the meaning of sublimated and sublimating self-destruction: in Hindu mythology, cutting off a faithful’s head marked their transition to a higher status, to which he or she would open up, deprived of the symbols of one’s own ego, towards a state of total impersonality, free from the fictitious dualisms forged by human reason. The materiality of the body, with all the violence imposed on it, in the West makes the cutting of the head the utmost abjection, while in India, it is crucial for the ascent to a higher state.
The tragic vision of beheading in the West has its roots in the common war ritual that required taking over the head of the defeated opponent, to be exhibited as tangible proof of one’s triumph for pedagogical, intimidating purposes, and to assimilate its power, acquiring the best qualities or even and the vital energy of the slain enemy. Once deprived of the head (which was often nailed in nodal points of inhabited centers, for apotropaic purposes, or inserted into real collections of skulls), the dead were rendered harmless, helpless for eternity and unable to return to persecute the living.
Outside of military practice, beheading is also known, in European history, above all as a death penalty. Reputed since ancient Rome the most painless capital punishment (by virtue of the swiftness with which, in theory, it led to death), it was seen as the most honorable of the types of execution; it was reserved for the condemned of higher lineage who, raised as tableaux vivants, underwent a sort of “reversed” sacred investiture which has been even compared to a mass, where the dying man appears in the guise of a penitent kneeling in prayer, and whose crown (icon of abused power) is lifted and returned to the Lord.
Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, severing the head became an atrocious annihilation of the identity of the person: initiated by the Italian “mannaia”, together with the Maiden of Edinburgh and the Halifax Gibbet, mechanical automation reached its apex with the guillotine of post-revolutionary French Terror. With this highly efficient machinery, death was imparted by a bureaucrat in the pay of the state (the executioner) to a citizen like any other, condemned as an opponent of the people, to preserve the health of the social body. Every sacral aspect disappeared: death became the sequential removal of the opponents of the secular Trinity of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Since then, beheading has been perceived as a cruel barbarism that arouses horror, and no longer pious thoughts; precisely for this reason its spectacular, degrading power thrives in contexts of asymmetrical warfare, where it is still used as a means to shut the mouth of the adversaries. .
In the Hindu religion, the severed head is instead one of those human remains that serve as an amulet and a focus for meditation. As evidence of the disintegration and dissolution of what once lived, these “leftovers” are in fact essential tools in the process of detachment from the world, especially according to Tantric thought, according to which the faithful, in order to prove themselves a hero worthy of the divinity they worship, must isolate themselves in the middle of the night where demons and ashes triumph, that is, the cremation ground.
Here, surrounded by the revolting phenomena that accompany the decomposition of organic matter, the practitioner strips the taboos of their value, and overcomes, while alive in the midst of the dead, the fictitious dichotomies of pure/impure and sacred/profane, which previously deluded him into thinking that the world was fragmented into dualisms. The cremation ground then becomes the arena where, struggling against his own limits — which are revealed in the disgust felt towards the revolting and ungovernable aspects that Hindu culture considers most contaminating, that is, blood and death — he achieves liberation, emulating Śiva, the god who is the creator, protector and destroyer of the universe.
This ambivalent figure is one of the many characters of Hindu mythology to participate, as author and/or victim, in beheadings and exchanges of heads; often these gods also show off skulls and necklaces made of severed heads as ornaments, macabre jewels whose meaning, for the adept, derives from the reflection on sacrifice. At the basis of the violence required by the bloody form of this ceremony, there is the belief that life cyclically arises from death, chaos and destruction, the symbol of which is the surplus of the offering that remains after all oblations are perfomerd: burning seed that contains the germ of the new existence. The shedding of blood and the lethal amputation that causes it are therefore necessary for the sacrifice to be successful, and the offering of the devotee to be reciprocated by the divinity. Thus the severed head, being a remnant of the decapitation, indicates the symbolic effect of this severing: the surrender of the seat of the mind as an expression of limited personal existence, in exchange for which one can open oneself to universal transcendent consciousness.
Śiva — itiphallic god, venerated by mortals in the form of lingam, a pillar that represents a stylized erect member — best illustrates, among all the gods and heroes, the symbolic relationship established by Hinduism between the removal of the penis and that of the head. Śiva, both when he beheads someone and when he castrates him, carries out an act of violence that is punishment against excess; it may be a sexual transgression, such as that of the incestuous god Brahmā, but also a manifestation of excessive ascetic rigor, contrary to procreation. In the depictions of this erotic ascetic, the severed head and the severed penis reveal themselves as “bodies of crime”, indeed residues discarded from the physical body, whose limits they have violated, threatening the social body with the sins they symbolize.
Chinnamastā even allows to “solve” the Freudian equation, reinterpreting the beheading as a horror inflicted and at the same time suffered by the very offerer who is also a sacrificial victim: if for Śiva beheading is a sacrifice, an obligatory penance for those who want to be regenerated from the gods, for this goddess the punishment is no longer suffered but acted upon. It is no longer the divinity that destroys the unity of the body of the faithful, but it is the faithful himself who willingly renounces his own individual integrity, returning to the Goddess that blood, vehicle of life, which she has infused in him, in order to join back the indiscriminate Whole.
Śiva represents the divine male principle, deus otiosus and quiescent who substantiates reality by giving it Essence; he is accompanied by the Goddess, the Maha Devī, who constitutes the dynamic power (Śakti), the matrix and driving force that instead confers Existence on reality.
Even the Goddess, like her male counterpart (to whom she is linked by a symbiotic interaction which, in a continuous creative tension, gives rise to everything that exists), is a triumph of contrasts. The ambivalence towards the feminine present in Hindu culture is also reflected in her, where the woman is both wife and mother, and cruel stepmother: source of life, benevolent mother and prodigal wife, but also a terrible and fearful force whose anger only the offerings of meat, blood and alcohol can appease. She seems to be a projection of those male fears that the practitioner tries to overcome by applying the teaching of the Tantras; thus these teachings re-evaluate the role of woman by proposing her as a ritual partner or at least as an image of the divine principle present inside the practitioner (in the form of Kuṇḍalīni, energy that flows up the spine to join in an ecstatic embrace with Śiva, at the top of the head).
She manifests herself in countless personal forms, divided between the faction of the placid and benign “breast goddesses” (sometimes identified as “cold”, and tamed with vegetable offerings) or in the warlike and subversive faction of the “tooth goddesses” (often perceived as “hot”, because they are associated with the most vehement passions, accidental deaths and pustular diseases). In the latter category of incarnations — which are usually village deities worshiped by the lower social strata, outside of regular temples — the Goddess gives shape to an enthralling energy, at the same time liberating and enslaving, which destroys the cosmos but forges everything that exists. She therefore appears to the faithful as a tremendous and benevolent source of everything, whose generosity is substantiated in the blood of the offerings she receives. There are therefore only two ways to demonstrate one’s enslavement to her: becoming a child or castrating oneself, in a self-mutilation which constitutes the maximum identification with her and which is equivalent to self-decapitation, as we discover with Chinnamastā.
She is one of the ten incarnations of the Goddess as the source of all knowledge; these incarnations are called Mahāvidyā, and among them there is also the most ferocious Kālī, grim image of death and of the triumph over death, who tears away life in order to feed on it and generate it again. If from Kālī the practitioner learns not to fear the inevitable end, with Chinnamastā instead he discovers that the death he can give to himself (metaphorically or not) is the means to transform himself into a sacrificial offering pleasing to the Goddess, who self-decapitates to provide him with an example to follow.
The female figure, especially from a Tantric point of view, is therefore fundamental for a constructive reading of the Freudian equation, with which the individual can welcome the gaze of Medusa without being petrified.
In the common imagination of male and patriarchal societies, such as the fin-de-siècle European one in which the Freudian equation was outlined, a woman who violates the ideal of female submission is feared and represented as a mantis, a black widow or a succubus demon; this cliché, which we still suffer from, sees her as a treacherous femme fatale who can only be rendered harmless by separating her mind from her body, in order to bring her back under the paternal control of the “stronger sex”. As scholars of the caliber of E. Showalter, W. Doniger and R. Janes explain, this beheading of the woman surprisingly recalls castration: precisely because the female face bears on it an inverted vagina dentata, the mouth, a symbol of hypersexuality that makes the human female so dangerous. Like a vampire, the woman can only be annihilated by removing the head, assimilated to the sexual organ but even more formidable because it is the source of words.
A woman’s self-beheading is then a salvific detachment of Reason from her most visceral sexuality: the only way she can save her soul, abandoning her gloomy existence as a she-devil. The man, on the other hand, being an unaware prisoner of libido and feminine charms, always in danger of falling into the trap of the female body — whose anatomy, between lust and death drive, evokes the geometric shapes of the guillotine —, runs the risk of losing his head for a woman, remaining trapped/castrated while penetrating her.
Overcoming the stereotype of the woman who humiliates a man with castration, depriving him of virile strength, we come to the ideal of the Goddess who elevates the mortal to true existence through beheading, freeing him from petty individuality in exchange for giving up his own body.
This is why losing the penis, like losing one’s head, in Hindu mythology and in the Tantric ritual is a supreme humiliation, just like in the West, but also a sacred moment that definitively untangles the Self from the meshes of māyā, in communion with the Universal which every soul yearns for — perpetual orgasm of ascent to full reality, which confers final salvation on the practitioner.
Medusa’s head can remain in its place, because whoever she meets does not need to kill her in order to become a hero, but only himself.
Costanza De Cillia is a Doctor of Philosophy and Sciences of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of execution.
I am publishing here, as a free ebook, a research that has engaged me for several years: it’s an essay on the iconographic and conceptual motif of the “dissected woman” — a rhetorical device which, starting at least from the Middle Ages up to these days, was intended to sabotage the female seductive power by breaking down / opening up the woman’s body.
I made a short video presentation in which I talk about the project (please turn on English subtitles):
And here are the links to dowload the PDF file for free: