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
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!
Italy is the country that, in all likelihood, boasts the largest number of mummies in the world. Apart from Egypt, in fact, no other culture has made mummification of the dead such a pervasive and long-lived practice as it has happened in our peninsula: in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo alone, there are more than 1200 mummies, and the ancient “scolatoi” (drainers), used to dehydrate the remains of the deceased, are found almost everywhere, from Lombardy to Puglia.
In addition to artificial mummification, in Italy there are some cases of spontaneous mummification, in which the corpses escaped the normal processes of putrefaction due to the particular microclimate of the burial ground.
One of the most remarkable examples of natural preservation is found in the heart of Italy, on the southern border of Umbria.
Located in the Valnerina valley, the Umbrian municipality of Ferentillo remains perched at the foot of the ruins of its ancient fortress. The inhabited area, divided by the Nera river (and today by the provincial road) into two villages called Precetto and Matterella, was originally founded by the Lombards; it was later assigned by Pope Innocent VIII to his natural son Franceschetto Cybo.
Franceschetto, who over the years accumulated excellent fiefdoms and appointments, in reality always lived on income due to the fact that he was the legitimate son of the Pope and, it is said, was a somewhat dissolute character, utterly devoted to pleasures: it is no coincidence that he died in 1519 for indigestion during an official banquet. This did not prevent him, however, from making the small town of Ferentillo, which had been his first county, flourish architecturally; under his reign, and later that of his son Lorenzo, the village became an important cultural center.
In the half of the town called Precetto, the Cybo family had a church dedicated to Santo Stefano built on the foundations of a previous temple.
Thus, under the new church, the spaces which originally constituted the medieval place of worship were filled with resulting materials and used as a burial ground: the deceased of Precetto were entombed here until the second half of the 19th century.
About a decade before the cemetery was definitively abandoned, the remains were exhumed and 25 bodies were found to have spontaneously mummified.
In 1861, the doctor and politician Carlo Maggiorani examined some of these mummies, with the help of chemist Vincenzo Latini.
In his report to the Accademia dei Lincei<fn>C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862.</fn>, published the following year, Maggiorani noted how the mummification had maintained the somatic features of the deceased in an exceptional way: “There is a centenary mummy in which the descendants are able to recognize at a glance the features of their family, and if it were necessary to declare it before the Forum it could be easily determined whether it was Mr So-and-so, or not. […] The color of these mummies, which tends to yellowish, does not differ much from the natural color of corpses, and therefore does not inspire the disgust usually excited by dead bodies preserved by means of art. The hair, beard, eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair, nails remain to decorate the regions where they are distributed.“
Over time, the mummies of Ferentillo have most likely lost much of the “freshness” that Maggiorani had found and praised so much, but hair and nails remain effectively visible and well preserved even today.
The scholar also reported, in rather colorful terms, the extreme lightness of the mummies, which in fact weigh only 6 or 7 kilos: “Once all the tissues are completely dried, the joints stiffen in such a way that by gripping the legs you can treat the corpse as if it were a pole. An operation that is all the easier to perform due to the singular lightness of these bodies […].”
Among the more curious passages, there’s one in which Maggiorani expresses a veiled hope that these mummies could be studied in order to replicate the technique for funerary purposes — a concern that in those years, given the very recent unification of Italy, was shared by many. I also mention this in my book on the petrifier Paolo Gorini: at the time, there were several experiments in alternative treatments of the remains, essentially aimed at taking away from the Church the dominion over the management of the corpses and, ultimately, over the world of the dead.
In fact, Maggiorani wrote: “Would it be utopian to wish that the conservative conditions of the corpses in Ferentillo were studied with scrupulous diligence to the point of reproducing them completely, for the purpose of preserving the dead from decay? When we read in Plutarch that the Egyptians, in their most solemn banquets, placed the embalmed corpses of the Ancestors around the table, our soft mind shuns the gloomy image of those sepulchral banquets, and we are induced to dismiss this as a barbaric custom. But that the remains of many relatives, instead of being condemned to become a pasture for worms, were, without danger to the living, so effectively preserved as to restore their effigy after a long time, and to spread over them some tears of tender remembrance in days of affliction — it is thought for which no one should be laughed at.“
The scientific conclusion reached by Maggiorani’s study was that spontaneous mummification had occurred due to the particular chemical composition of the soil, and to the good ventilation of the crypt guaranteed by the four grated windows, near which — not surprisingly — the 25 mummies had been found.
In reality, however, there is still no definitive and completely exhaustive explanation, because a concomitance of factors often comes into play.
A 1991 study stated: “there are basic conditions that favor dehydration processes (good ventilation of the room, such as in the catacombs; sandy soil; etc.) but these are not sufficient to explain the complex chemical modifications that take place in soft parts of the body. Natural mummification begins with autolytic processes similar to those of normal putrefaction but for reasons not yet fully understood at a certain point the protein substances resist further decomposition. The action of other environmental factors cannot be excluded, such as plant roots invading the body and modifying its chemical conditions, microorganisms, fungi and microelements present in the soil or in the coffin. Natural mummification is probably the result of a combination of all these factors.“<fn>E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, inRiv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.</fn>
Today the Museum of Mummies has been set up in the spaces of the medieval crypt, of which a faded remnant can be seen in some surviving frescoes. Inside glass cases (unfortunately, very poorly lit in order not to alter the delicate condition of the mummies) 24 dried bodies can still be admired: the oldest dates back to the 18th century, the most recent is from the 19th century.
Among the most particular mummies there is a Chinese woman, who died of the plague in the 18th century and whose feet show the characteristic deformation from binding called the “Golden Lotus”, which I talked about in this episode of the web series. But paleopathologists also found some cases of traumatic injuries, a macrocephalus infant, a face tumor and a suspected case of leprosy.
At the bottom of the crypt the skeletonized remains of most of the people who were buried here (about 270 skulls) are arranged in large display cases. However, some of these skulls also show signs of partial mummification. Also exhibited are an ancient, still sealed coffin, and an eagle which was mummified at the end of the 19th century during experiments on the chemical properties of the burial ground.
As anyone who follows my work knows, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which humanity has tried to preserve the likeness of their loved ones; and while I was looking with wonder at these dried bodies, the thought that went through me was exactly the same that opens the report by Maggiorani, which I quote here in closing:
The respect every cultured nation has shown for the deceased, the vanity of the Powerful wishing to free the bodies of their ancestors from the disgusting consequences of death, and the communal desire to keep the dear remains of the relatives uncorrupted, have always suggested artifices suitable to subtract this organic part of us from the empire of chemical laws that condemn it to decay. But while man by one means or another tries to achieve this goal, Nature, either alone or with a few aids from human craft, sometimes reaches it completely.
The field of death studies is fascinating for many reasons, but what excites me is how multifaceted and diverse it is — a true mirror of all the issues that also affect life.
In fact it’s obvious, when you think about it, that such a universal event should fall in one way or another into every area of academic study: among the many scholars I have known over the years, there are those who study death in relation to education, to politics, end-of-life ethics, psychology, art history, anthropology, archeology, gender, discrimination, entertainment, and so on.
Even knowing the richness of this branch of studies, I was nonetheless struck when I first met Nuri McBride in Winchester in 2017, as part of the Death & the Maiden conference, because her field of research is something I could never have even imagined.
Nuri is a perfumer by profession, and from an academic point of view she studies the history of aromas and their relevance within cyclical or transitional rites. Her Death/Scent project explores the relationship between death rituals, smells and perfumes: founded in 2016, the website is a treasure trove of surprising information that testifies to how much the olfactory dimension is often overlooked when examining the declinations of a certain culture.
Some examples of covered topics? Osmogenesis, or the supernatural aromas emanating from the bodies of the saints; rebozo de luto, the Mexican mourning shawl carrying an unmistakable scent which fades over time but never completely disappears, just like the pain of loss; the importance of essences in Egyptian embalming; the role of smell in the philosophical debate on the erotic and “bestial” nature of human beings, and its effects on women — good girl perfumes vs. prostitute perfumes.
Another ingredient of her approach is the constant focus on human and workers’ rights, on class disparities, on power equity and inclusiveness, on issues relating to colonialism. These concerns, as you will see by reading below, are related to the life experiences that Nuri has chosen; her entire path, from her career in the resettlement of refugees and torture victims to her joining a Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), is intertwined with the activity of olfactory cultural education, making her voice one of the most acute, sensitive and original in circulation.
Some time ago Nuri interviewed me for her Aromatica De Profundis newsletter; since her questions are of rare intelligence, it ended up being one of the most beautiful and intense chats of my whole career (here it is). So I thought I’d ask her to return the favor, and tell us something about her life and her very special research.
It is understood that those three or four lines in a speaker’s bio are always an approximation, a summary that cannot really contain the complexity of a person’s experiences. But I remember the first time I looked at your bio I had to go back and double check: I was astonished and in admiration, because I felt like I was reading ten lives in one – and what’s more, all of them were light years away from my experience.
For example, you spent twelve years in Kenya, Thailand, Israel and the United States working on the resettlement of refugees. What impact did that long experience have on your way of seeing the world?
Oh, thank you, that is so kind to say. Believe me, it was far less glamourous than it might sound. My time working in refugee resettlement and torture treatment shaped me in many ways. I walked into my first job a Pollyanna that believed in the power of the law to fix things. I walked out of my last one partly deaf, with a limp, and a complete distrust in the current international system to preserve human rights.
That sounds very cynical, and it is, but it’s the truth. The system around refugee aid is filled with well-meaning and hardworking people that believe in the mission, but the system isn’t designed actually to help refugees in real and tangible ways. It is intended to contain them. Keep them alive, sure, but keep them out of developed economies as much as possible. We warehouse them in middle-income countries that can’t physically stop them from crossing the frontiers but can relegate them to camps for decades.
That’s why in places like Kenya and Thailand, we see generations of refugees born and living their whole lives essentially in prison. They can’t go home, only 0.05% will be resettled in the West, and they are blocked from assimilating into the local community. They are caught endlessly in No Man’s Land.
You can have the best intentions to help people but end up part of a system of harm. I quit the day I felt I was doing more harm than good for my clients.
I still believe in people, though. People are what makes the difference. My clients were some of the most resilient people on the planet. I saw such grace and generosity from folks that had so little themselves but gave freely to others. Despite it all, I still believe that our natural inclination is towards taking care of each other.
This work also took away the veneer of stability I thought existed. No one sees a blue tent in their future. One of my early co-workers, a former refugee, told me the story of her flight from Yugoslavia when she was a kid. She was sent home early from school one day, and as she opened the door, her father picked her up and just started running. That was it. She never returned. Your life can change instantly, and most of us are not as safe as we think. Push the cards of fate a little one way or the other, and any of us could end up as one of the invisible people, whether becoming a refugee or just falling through the cracks of your own society.
So, I keep three passports even though it’s an absolute pain. I keep a jump bag in my closet. I drill my family on rally points and registering with the Red Cross. That way, should a disaster happen and we get separated, I can find them. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do any of those things without my time in aid work.
I imagine becoming a Metaheret [traditional Jewish figure charged with ritually washing and preparing the dead, as well as assisting in funeral preparation and mourning] was another crucial step for you. What prompted you to take this path?
Choosing to join the Chevra was a way of dealing with the guilt of leaving refugee services actually. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt I had let many people down.
I had family and friends that were Metaherim, and they thought I would be good at it, so they asked me to join. I took to it reasonably well. I think we all have our callings, and this one was mine. Selfishly, it has been very healing to be of service.
In the death-positive community, it’s often said that over the last century there’s been a ‘social removal of death’, and one of the causes is usually identified in the secularization of society, in the absence of specific rituals that could bring mourning back into a known and accepted dimension. In this view, the absence of rites is believed to parcel out the experience of death, by unloading the burden of mourning on the individual; grief therefore can become unbearable as it is no longer shared with the community.
All these ideas are actually quite questionable – and in fact they have been criticized by serious scholars, who consider them groundless and even, in some cases, vaguely reactionary (as they’re not very far from the narratives that call for a return to a golden tradition or a mythicized past).
Your work as Metaheret is part of a ‘rule’, within an Orthodoxy that is however alive and well; in your experience inside a Chevra, how does modernity interact with the traditional aspect?
I share many of those same critiques of death-positive programming. However, I would say that there is a hyper-focus in death-positive spaces on postmodern lifestyle fulfilment through neoliberal individualization.
That is to say that death-positivity creates an environment where followers feel they will obtain some kind of benefit if they, as individuals, go out of their way to arrange and buy the perfect funeral/ritual that reflects their values and personality. It is implied that if they do this, they will achieve some type of peace or salience that would be denied to them otherwise. There is a massive focus on the aesthetics of dissent from Western commercial death, but no real challenge to the system of for-profit deathcare.
Surprisingly this individualization is often given credence by dressing it as community and postmodern ritual. However, DP doesn’t really deliver on these fronts. The onus is still on the individual to educate themselves, arrange everything, hire professionals or do the work. It puts more burden on the person, not less.
Nor do I see many in these spaces promoting any fundamental modality changes that would serve the greater good of the general public. These are things like protocols to improve conditions when dying in hospitals, developing accessible community resources and aid, or universal deathcare. It’s not that these things aren’t happening. These are all things we fought for and won in Israel for instance. They are just rarely being discussed in DP spaces.
I engaged with death-positivity in the early days, hoping to help them gain access to the vast political and social activism that has allowed traditional Jewish deathcare to thrive worldwide, even under extremely hostile conditions. There are many things to be learned that can be adapted to all kinds of communities. Instead I got met with a lot of people more interested in selling stuff than in community work.
If you want to say this is a progressive community movement, then the focus needs to be on universal harm reduction, not hocking mushroom suits and wicker caskets with the middle-class fantasy that everyone will be able to have these lovely bespoke deaths at home.
I often get offended by how Jewish Death is presented in these spaces. While DeathPositivity/Green Death adopts a similar aesthetic to traditional community care, their actions are diametrically opposed to the foundations of Jewish death practices, which are inherently anti-Capitalist. It is a sin in Judaism to profit from the dead!
Jewish death practices have changed over time and need to be adaptive to the community and the environment. So even though modern Jewish burial is built on a solid historical and halakhic foundation, it still has to meet the needs of real everyday people. The idea that we just do things based on TRADITION and don’t even know why we do them is inaccurate. We aren’t stuck in the past; we don’t have that luxury.
Instead, we are always trying to align our history with our present. How do we preserve what it means to be us and deal with the problems of modern life in a world that can be very hostile to us? How do we do that without losing ourselves or having our culture become a museum?
There are areas where we can compromise and areas where we can’t, but there isn’t a sense that everything was better in ‘ye olden days’. I’ve never seen a Jew pine after the days when we kept the bones of our dead in ossuaries stored in the walls of our homes. Returning to those older traditions isn’t inherent to Judaism. They won’t make grief any more supportable or make community deathcare any more accessible, so why do it?
You were part of a Haredi community, before moving to a less strict form of Orthodoxy. Was it a traumatic transition? And what is your relationship today with Orthodoxy?
Oh wow, no one has ever asked me this before. There are several different flavours of what gets called Ultra Orthodoxy. I was Haredi (observers of religious law), but I was never Hasidic (part of the mystical Hasidic Movement). My people are Maskilim (followers of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment Movement).
I know it all looks like a bunch of dudes in funny black hats to the outside, but there are pretty significant differences between them. This is to say, things were easier for me than for others.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If you grew up Hasidic, especially in the Diaspora, you went to Hasidic schools and only spoke Yiddish; leaving the community is very hard. It also depends on your family and support network. The former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel has a secular gay grandson, and he is there in all the family photos alongside the rest of them.
For me…were people disappointed – yes. Did people stop talking to me – some did. Did I hear, “You should have married a nice rabbi, and instead you chose crush an old woman’s dreams”- oh boy, did I ever!
But I just held the line that I’m not changing; their idea of me was what was changing. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still the same person. I am a Jew now, and until the day I die, whether or not I cover my hair as a married woman.
I left, but I’m not gone, if that makes sense. I still take up space in that world whether they like it or not. It is part of my birthright too. Not everyone is happy about that, but oh well. As the kids say these days, they can die mad about it. I still love them, though.
Does the Jewish ceremonial always have a normative approach, made up of laws, of things allowed and forbidden, licit and illicit, in which there is inevitably a right and a wrong way even to die? Or is it something more elastic, which changes over time and situations? More specifically, what do you like about it and what do you think should change?
As I said before, there is always an element of negotiation that makes our path relevant in the modern age. There are areas where we can move on things, but you can’t start negating Torah, then it stops being Judaism and becomes something else. You don’t have to like a commandment, you may not follow a commandment in your own life, but you can’t just strike it off. We were given 613 commandments. That number doesn’t change; how we navigate them does.
Judaism is grounded in the fundamental belief that halakha is normative and binding to the Jewish people, but halakha isn’t just religious jurisprudence. It draws heavily from aggadic and mystic texts, exegetic commentary and the Torah to present not just a ridged legal framework of normative behaviour but a method of inquiry and discourse that defines Jewish life.
The most important learning you do in seminary is with your chavruta (a study partner/group), debating various opinions in the Talmud. Everything is subject to debate, analysis, and discourse. That’s what I love most, I think.
Jacob became Israel after he wrestled an angel. We call the entirety of the Jewish people Israel after him because we want to create an environment where we have the mental strength and acuity to wrestle with angels.
I am fascinated by how much funeral customs are a reflection of how we imagine death. For instance, in a beautiful article about your work as Metaheret, you recounted how carefully you proceed and how many precautions you take in order to respect the deceased person:
Once you are in the care of the Chevra Kadisha we will always use your name, you will always be a person, you will never be an object. […] A three-person Taharah team will work in silence (except for softly whispered prayers), with intense concentration, as they meticulous prepare your body. At the end, they pray for your forgiveness if they have offended you in their preparation.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly offended in my whole life, so I sure hope I won’t became pettish once I’m dead; but asking the deceased for forgiveness means that being dead – what you envision being dead will be like – certainly includes this possibility. As opposed, for instance, to the Buddhist idea that in the moment of death we may get to a pristine awareness and see things as they are, from a broader perspective than the human mind allows, finally free from the Self, from names, forms and cognitive biases (Chönyi bardo); as opposed to the idea of the dead not being there at all (as in the modern secular view).
So I’m curious: do you look at your work more as a way of comforting the living, or the dead themselves?
Both are equally important; it’s mostly about timing. When a person dies, it is my duty to protect them and care for them. After the dead person is buried, all of our attention goes to comforting the mourners.
Jewish culture has a low tolerance for liminal spaces. So every second a dead person is not buried, they are, in a sense, in danger. Until they’re safe in the ground, they are the priority above everything else. And we do treat them as if they were alive. We call them by their names; we tell them what we are doing or what is happening. Someone is always with them until burial. We comfort them, of course. It never even occurred to me not to.
When I said we ask for forgiveness for offending them, I don’t mean petty personal offence. I had an examination table break once, and the body fell on the floor. This is a desecration of the dead. The whole team cried our eyes out. We intellectually knew the body felt no pain, but emotionally we hurt them, we dishonoured them. Our job was to keep them safe in this liminal time, and we failed to protect them.
In atonement, we fasted for 40 days (ate one meal in the evening). It’s the same restitution for dropping a Torah scroll. There is this harrowing moment in the Shabbat service called Hagbah where the open scroll is lifted over the reader’s head. If he drops it, everyone present does the fast. There doesn’t need to be a conscious entity that is offended; a sacred thing has been harmed, and harm requires action to put it right.
I don’t know if any part of us survives after death, but even on the off chance it does, I’d like to know someone is there looking out for me that way.
Let’s move on to your perfume work. How did this passion start?
When I was a girl, I loved to watch my grandmother sit at her vanity table and get ready for the day. It was magical with all her little pots and jars. I nagged my parents for weeks, and for my birthday, they got me a vanity table of my own along with a silver-plated comb and a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Baby Soft is a bright pink perfume that smells like baby powder. It had a creepy “sexy baby” ad campaign when it launched in the 70s, but my parents didn’t know that, it just seemed kid-appropriate. There was no way they would give me makeup, even play makeup, but perfume seemed okay.
I was also secretly obsessed with Miss Piggy. I had a sticker of her looking glamourous with a feathered boa that I hid on the inside of my toy chest. Now armed with my own womanly tools, I would sit there for hours combing my hair into a frizzy mess and spraying myself with this pink concoction, thinking, “I’m like my grandmother AND Miss Piggy now. I’m a WOMAN!”
It’s a silly story, but that’s when I learned the power that scent has to transform the way we feel about ourselves. It’s the only cosmetic you wear for your enjoyment as much as for others. It can be armour when you need it.
I was obsessed from that point out. I started saving my pocket money to buy cheap perfumes from the pharmacy. It became a hobby, but I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would be doing what I’m doing today. I never saw anyone like me involved in perfume, so it seemed impossible as a career.
When I was a boy, it seemed to me that the sense of the sacred could be found anywhere except in church. I think my main problem was having to be part of a community, an idea I still recoil from; anyway, up to the age of 13 I was induced to go to Mass – not in a very regular way, but with a regular reluctance on my part.
Yet there was one exception (which I am sure you’ve already heard many times): I loved the rare moments when incense was used. Although incensing is, as far as I know, optional during any celebration of Mass, it was used very sporadically, and for this reason to my eyes – and my nose – it was a precious event. There was something deeply mysterious in the gesture of the priest who swung the thurible projecting the smoke towards the altar and the faithful, in those white spirals wreathing for a very brief instant the pages of the Book in a pale puff, in the air of the church saturated with the sweet scent, in the rising mist giving out unreal reflections.
How relevant is the liturgical use of incense or perfumes in the Jewish tradition? Is there any memory for you that binds perfume to the sense of the sacred, and that may have been a stimulus for your research?
There is something lovely about a thurible making its way through a church, isn’t it? I like it too.
Incense offerings used to play a considerable role liturgically during the time of the Temple. However, since the Temple was destroyed, it is forbidden to use any aromatics in a synagogue. A synagogue can never take the place of the Temple, and offerings can only happen at the Temple. You don’t even want to create an allusion to offerings in a shul. However, there is still a yeshiva in Jerusalem that teaches Cohanim to conduct the sacrifices. I guess just in case another temple falls from the Heavens, they will be ready with the showbread.
So for me, sacred smells are very domestic. They are the smells of getting ready for the Shabbat. It is baking bread, roasting chicken, and chraime, a spicy fish stew. It is soap and scenting our clothes over an incense braiser (domestic incense use is fine). It’s the particular waxy smell of Shabbat candles and the way new Borsalino hats smell. I guess it’s the smell of home. That feels sacred to me.
Perhaps due to the fact that we are daily assaulted by pollution and smog, we have sanitized the interior of our homes, purifying them of bad smells. I have a feeling that the latter have become more and more like a real taboo. But is this something that has always existed? Were there forbidden smells in past ages?
There have certainly been smells people didn’t like in the past, but the reality of life, particularly urban life, for most of human history meant you couldn’t avoid them. Then as now, however, you could always tell where the affluent lived in a city by how the air flows. The wealthiest people had and have the sweetest air and best ventilation. The people living next to the garbage dump don’t have the power to keep those olfactory nuisances out of their neighbourhood.
The onset of the Black Death brought the prominence of Miasma Theory and the fear that rotting matter creates smelly gas that could infect your body and rot you from the inside out. This didn’t make malodours taboo like today, but it sure made people paranoid about them.
There were sweet plague preservatives like rose water that were supposed to protect you from miasmata. However, the most popular plague preservatives were acrid like vinegar, turpentine, gun powder, even stale urine. So clearly, folks were still okay with stink as long as it was the right kind of stink.
As far as forbidden, though, those tended to be pleasurable scents. Sumptuary laws often prohibited certain people from wearing or even buying certain aromatics or fragrances. Access to good smells was the only thing ever truly forbidden.
To me, the funniest proof that in modern times there’s a taboo regarding certain smells comes from a master of politically incorrect satire, an artist who throughout his career has systematically broken social prohibitions with sardonic irony and ‘good bad taste’. Of course I’m talking about John Waters, who invented the Odorama technique in 1981 to advertise his film Polyester. At the entrance to the cinema, the spectators were given a postcard with ten plates to scratch in specific points of the film, indicated by a flashing number, in order to smell the scene represented on the screen. The first scent was the harmless and pleasant scent of roses, but then came more annoying odors such as the smell of flatulence, gasoline, skunk, unwashed feet. John Waters declared years later: “I actually got the audience to pay to smell shit!”
If there had been no taboo, Waters could not have broken it with his ‘delicious’ prank. But this experiment also makes me reflect on how neglected the sense of smell is, in favor of other senses, in the artistic field. Not just in cinema, which of course is an eminently visual art, but also in literary descriptions, in contemporary art galleries, in virtual/augmented reality technologies that strive to be more and more ‘immersive’ but often forget the olfactory dimension. Are there artistic or creative examples that go against the trend?
Honestly, I think we are on the cusp of a golden age where scent and the history of the senses are finally being taken seriously in academia. For a good 500-years, the academy has treated scent as this animalistic vestigial sense with little value to modern people. Darwin thought it would eventually be bred out of us altogether. I could write a whole book on Freud’s weird obsession with olfaction and sex.
Yet, the development of sensory history as a field of study has really changed things. I think that it will only develop with time and it is sprouting up all over the world. It is really diffused and exciting.
The artist and perfumer Bharti Lalwani has the project Bagh-e Hind where she is scent-translating Mughal garden-paintings. Dr Caro Verbeek is researching heritage odours and means of cultural preservation for odours. Dr Ishita Dey is studying smell and intimate space in domestic work in India. The new research institute Odeuropa examines how scent plays a role in European cultural heritage. OVR Technology is working on scenting virtual reality. Just last year, the Mauritshuis Museum put on the exhibition Smell the Art: Fleeting — Scents in Colour, which paired 50 17th-century paintings with corresponding fragrances; some of them were beautiful, and some were gross [autopsies included—Ed.]. It was all dictated by the composition of the work.
So it’s coming. It just hasn’t broken through to the mainstream yet.
What would be the advantages of a more widespread olfactory education?
Firstly, every community has a scent culture and heritage; it’s not just the south of France, as lovely as it is. Many aromatic modes were lost in the commercialization of cultural aromatics into the modern perfume trade because they couldn’t be commodified. These elements of culture and heritage deserve examination and exploration by academics and the people who inherited these cultures.
Humans are also not bad smellers. We have incredibly sophisticated and nuanced odour perception. Still, our ability to understand and communicate scent has been stunted by how we’ve trained people to use their olfactory senses. The work being done around smell, memory, and Alzheimer’s is really incredible for instance. These skills are valuable by themselves, but they also improve cognition and overall brain health.
You recently published a series of extraordinary essays on the relationship between perfumes and the plague (The Scented History of the Plague). The comparison with the reality of the last two years is inevitable, including masks, paranoia, fear of breathing close to other people. How has the pandemic changed, or how could it change, our relationship with scent?
You know I had that series planned since the start of Death/Scent. I just didn’t expect it to launch right in the middle of a real-life pandemic.
I think the most significant change will be around anosmia (the loss/inability to smell). We all have experienced impaired smelling when suffering from a head cold. Still, I don’t think the average person understood what the total loss of their olfactory ability meant until this pandemic. I can’t think of another condition that has assaulted the olfactory bulb the way Covid-19 has. Millions of people have experienced temporary anosmia, and hundreds of thousands will have long term impairment.
Some people are born anosmic, and they seem to do fine, but when a scented person loses their ability to smell, it can be devastating. You lose contact with the world. Information and pleasures you didn’t even understand you were experiencing are gone. Food becomes flavourless, desire for sex decreases, even the ability to perceive danger decreases. Many people suffer a depressive episode after losing their ability to smell.
I think we will see a lot more research focusing on anosmia and smell training for those suffering from olfactory impairment. I think the fear of losing our sense of smell and what that could imply will be with us for a long 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.
In the February 27, 1967 edition of the Associated Press this curious news appeared:
A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113 – basic persuasion… Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changes from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.
Ph.: Robert W. Kelly/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
The masked student never spoke. The fact that only Goetzinger knew who was hiding under the sack, and that he had sworn to keep the secret, made many suspect that the professor himself was the author of the gimmick: was it perhaps a kind of psychological experiment? Was it just a prank, or some kind of political statement?
No one ever knew, and this could ultimately remain a quaint local story. And yet, in a short time, this event changed the world. The mysterious student nicknamed “Black Bag” is the reason why you see the huge arched M of McDonald’s soar in any city; it is the reason why all the beaches are plagued with the notes of summer hits; it is the reason why you will continue to see banner ads on every web page (except this one!) even if no one ever clicks on it.
Robert Zajonc, one of the greatest pioneers of social psychology, learned of the news about Black Bag and saw in watermark the proof of the hypothesis he was working on, and which would occupy a good part of his career.
The following year, 1968, he published his landmark study entitled “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In it, Zajonc took his cue from the case of Black Bag to explain the mere-expsoure effect, or the familiarity principle: when a new and unknown stimulus is presented to us, our first reaction is one of fear or distrust; but the more we are exposed to the same stimulus, the more we develop a positive attitude towards it.
This was exactly what had happened with Black Bag’s classmates: their attitude had changed due to the simple exposure to the presence of the mysterious student, and after the initial aggressive behavior shown towards him, they had gradually come to accept him, becoming friendly and even protective towards him.
Zajonc, for his part, had conducted various kinds of experiments in this regard. In some cases he had shown the participants different faces, words, ideograms; subsequently the subjects were asked to rate their liking of a series of images. And he found that participants were more likely to feel positive about the images they had already seen during the exposure phase.
The fact that mere exposure can create familiarity should obviously not be taken as an absolute rule, because several factors can come into play; Zajonc himself noticed that the effect tended to lessen if the exposure was too prolonged, and subsequent studies have confirmed his results but also shown that things are more complex.
The fact is that marketing, which until then had always focused on the “reasoned” account of product qualities, strengthened by Zajonc’s results, focused more on so-called brand awareness, that is, on making the brand as familiar and recognizable as possible. Less explanation, more repetition: a 2007 study showed that some students exposed to a banner ad while reading an article rated that brand more favorably than its competitors, even if they didn’t remember seeing the ad at all.
The idea that the human being privileges what is familiar was certainly not new even in 1968, but Zajonc had the merit of bringing together an impressive amount of experimental data, collected in multiple contexts and conditions, to support this thesis. In his experiments he showed that often human evaluations are not based so much on reasoning, but rather on emotional reactions — such as the positive response to familiarity. In other words: most of the time we choose what we like, and only in retrospect do we rationalize our choice, looking for logical reasons for a decision that we actually made on an emotional basis. And what we like is what we already know.
This peculiarity of our behavior, which in all probability has an evolutionary basis (choosing something well-known means limiting the unexpected), can easily become a cognitive fallacy, on which big brands make millions. We always choose the same type of pasta, or the path we have traveled a thousand times, and in doing so we lose opportunities and new discoveries.
And yet … Going back to the mysterious Black Bag, are we sure that “mere exposure” can exhaust the topic? Was that all there was at stake?
One element, it seems to me, has never been taken into serious consideration in all the investigations on the episode, namely its intrinsic surrealism.
Think about it: you’re in class, and a guy dressed in a black sack walks in. This is the irruption of the fantastic into everyday life. It is the unpredictable, the weird that enters the austere and bare classroom of a university.
At first you feel staggered, perhaps a little scared but above all annoyed because that silent presence prevents you from concentrating on the words of your teacher. But then the simple fact that this “disturbing” element is breaking the monotonous routine begins to please you. Suddenly, the lesson becomes memorable.
Black Bag shows up again, and again. Will he come again on Friday? You can’t wait to know, you have to be there, who cares about the class, you need to check! And slowly you realize that there is nothing to fear in that black figure: indeed, it is making you think about many things that you had not considered before. In a formative place, where students are formed as in molds, Black Bag flaunts an irreducible individuality. A paradoxical individuality, given that his dress makes him anonymous and invisible. Invisible, yes, but heavy as a boulder: everyone knows that he’s right there, behind them. What does he think? Is he judging us? Is he snickering? And what would happen if we all went around in a bag? Maybe we would start judging people for who they really are?
In short, the essence of Black Bag’s appearance is intrinsically poetic. The fact that the students learned to love him means only one thing for me: that the bizarre opens the door to enchantment, and it is impossible, after a first, understandable reticence, not to be fascinated by it.
The University of Pisa was historically one of the first to have an anatomical school; consequently the Museum of Human Anatomy, established at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is very rich in both dry and wet preparations.
It also houses some archaeological collections, including Egyptian and pre-Columbian mummies, and a whole series of artifacts coming in particular from South America.
When I visited it last year, among the many amazing preparations, a cabinet display in particular caught my eye.
It contains eight perfectly mummified heads, which immediately seemed different to me from the rest of the collection. And in fact I was not wrong: even today a mystery surrounds them.
To understand a little bit of the history of these heads we must start from the date of their arrival in Pisa, that is 1869, a period of particular ferment.
Five years earlier, Darwin’s Origin of Species had been translated into Italian, causing quite a stir. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the theory of the evolution fueled the curiosity of researchers and laymen.
In an academic speech delivered in 1874, prof. Pietro Duranti said:
Everyone discusses it, people of all ages, of all sexes, of all conditions; and the desire to descend from the Orangutan or the Gorilla has become a fever. Aside from the exaggeration and the ridicule, the matter is serious; scholarly and distinguished men support it here and there; and Ethnology hopes to solve it.<fn>P. Duranti, Discorso pronunziato dal Cav. Prof. Pietro Duranti nel giorno 17 novembre 1874. Tipografia Nistri, Pisa (1875)</fn>
To “solve” the question, that is, to understand how evolution works, it was necessary, however, to “gather the appropriate materials“.
Carlo Regnoli, a young Pisan physician and paleontologist, decided to make his contribution, traveling twice to South America (in 1869 and 1872) in search of mummies and pre-Columbian finds. As Duranti said in that same speech:
[Regnoli] crosses the ocean twice; he directs and extends his research to a large part of South America, from the tombs of Argentina to those of the beaches of the Strait of Magellan and of the anthropophagous Patagonia; from the burial grounds of Araucania, of Chile, to those of the very high mountains of Bolivia, to the hypogea of the great Titicaca lake, to the caves of Peru. And everywhere, rummaging and searching, he collects both the remains of the Spaniards, who brought Columbus there, and the remains of the very ancient and unknown aborigines; and he sends everything back to Europe, to his beloved Pisa.
Regnoli sent several crates to Pisa with the antiquities “which he earned at the price of money, inconvenience and dangers“, although not all of them reached their destination because some were lost during shipwrecks: “as soon as they were unearthed from the ground, they were buried again in the deep whirlpools of the ocean“.
However, the amount of material that survived, and which today is part of the Museum of Anatomy in Pisa, was truly remarkable. Among other things, there are various examples of pottery, funeral and votive objects, skulls, fardos — “cocoons” of cloth containing the remains of the deceased — as well as two natural Peruvian mummies, curled up in the classic fetal positioning.<fn>G. Natale, A. Paparelli, F. Garbari, Una lettera di Giovanni Arcangeli su alcuni reperti botanici precolombiani della Collezione Regnoli (Museo di anatomia umana dell’Università di Pisa), in Atti della Società toscana di scienze naturali, Mem., Serie B, vol. 113 (2006)</fn>
Unfortunately, Carlo Regnoli died shortly after his return to Italy, at the age of 35 in 1873; consequently very little information accompanies the pre-Columbian finds, regarding the dates and places of their discovery.
In the inventory, the eight mummified heads are vaguely cataloged as “Chilean heads”. But who were these individuals, when and how did they die?
The first analyzes, conducted by a multidisciplinary study group<fn>P. Barile, M. Longhena, R. Melli, S. Zampetti, P. Lenzi, G. Natale, D. Caramella, El estraño caso de las cabezas decapitadas, Revista DM MD – Ciencia y Cultura Médica, N. 26 (Giugno 2015)</fn>, have already begun to shed some light on this enigma, even if many questions remain unsolved.
Five heads are male, one female, and two belong to children. The study of the teeth and sutures on the skulls of the two babies indicates that they were less than 16 months old.
The truly macabre detail, however, comes from the examination of the neck: all the heads show clean cuts at the level of the second and third cervical vertebrae; these eight individuals were executed by beheading.
Before being killed, the woman received a blow to the face so violent as to break her nose and swell one eye: there are in fact signs of a ptosis (lowering of the eyelid) of traumatic origin, and the nasal septum is deviated in the same direction where the right eyelid is folded.
Radiocarbon dating made it possible to establish with a high probability that these finds date back to an era between 1440 and 1690.
Right in the middle of this period of time, around 1546, began the longest conflict in history, the Arauco war, fought in Chile between the Mapuche of the Araucania region and the Spanish colonists. The bloody execution of these eight individuals could therefore be linked in some way to the war massacres, but in the absence of further information this remains speculation.
As for the identity of the eight individuals, there is a further element of interest. The anthropological characteristics of the heads of adult males (scalp, hair and beard, shape of the incisors, etc.) seem to suggest that they were Europeans of Caucasian ethnicity; the female, on the other hand, wears two long braids which have similarities with some pre-Columbian cultures and the shape of her teeth would also confirm her indigenous origin. For this reason, a plausible hypothesis is that this was a mixed family, made up of male settlers married to native women.
Was this family massacred in the course of some reprisal or pillage?
DNA analysis will be able to confirm or deny any degree of kinship, but anyways it seems difficult that we can ever trace the true, complete story of these tragically killed people; nor the exact circumstances in which Regnoli came into possession of the heads.
On this subject, it is worth making a final, brief clarification.
To modern eyes, the attitude of a European academic buying human remains or funeral objects belonging to different cultures may seem utterly colonial. And, let’s face it, it is.
Certainly at the time the scruples on the methods of archaeological “collection” were almost non-existent, especially for a discipline such as ethnology which was taking its first steps; but if today these methods seem questionable, it is interesting to remember that the intentions and implications of these studies were often, paradoxically, anti-colonial and anti-racist.
We have already mentioned, at the beginning of this article, the fuss raised by Darwin. From that debate two currents emerged, in many ways opposite to each other: on the one hand, social Spencerism, which was eager to use the evolution of the species and the survival of the fittest to motivate racism and class differences (an idea strongly opposed by Darwin himself); and on the other hand the ethno-anthropological evolutionism, which instead denied the existence of races, claiming that all societies proceeded on the same line of progress. For evolutionists, studying “savage” populations — who were not seen as inferior to the white man but merely situated at a more immature stage of progress — could provide clues as to how the ancestors of Europeans also lived.
Today even this kind of nineteenth-century anthropological evolutionism is outdated (following the decline of the positivist idea of a linear “progress” which, coincidentally, always saw Western societies as the most advanced ones); but it had the merit of countering the scientific claim of racist and colonial theories.
It seems a contradiction, but it’s one of those apparent incongruities history is full of: with the anthropological study of “primitive societies”, carried out by looting tombs and acquiring ethically questionable finds, the historical foundations were laid for the confutation of the existence of races, now proven also at the genetic level.
The eight heads remain silent on the shelf of the Museum, united by a tragic destiny: they are a complex symbol of the violence, oppression and cruelty of which the human being is capable. Their identity, the life they spent, the carnage in which they found their end and even their post-mortem history remain hidden secrets in the folds of time.
If the body of the enemy, whether captured or killed, has always been the object of universal interest on the part of the human consortium, there was an era in which it was literally valid as a body of evidence: the period of witch hunts, in Europe, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, as we will see, the suspect’s belonging to the abominable convent of the Devil was ascertained with a thorough personal search, during which the body of the alleged witch, chained and shaved, was searched in detail for tangible evidence of her nefarious sin.
This investigative methodology derives from the dictates of demonology, which arose in the wake of the papal bull of Innocent VIII Summis Desiderantes affectibus (1484): an anatomy of witchcraft elaborated by cultured literature, which – in numerous manuals, among which the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) is probably the most famous – taught how to conduct investigations to verify the guilt of the prisoner.
As early as the 12th century, with the spread of medical treatises, the diagnosis of the divine or evil nature of invading spirits became a distinction between holy bodies and deviant bodies, which demons, spiritual creatures endowed with semi-corporeality, could enter through the various openings. The human mouth, in particular, granted access to two distinct physiological systems: the spiritual one, having as its center the heart, which was usually possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the digestive system, the bowels, in which all contaminating impurities reside, thus the preferred residence of evil spirits.
Since demons loved to settle in the “cavities” of the human body, it was natural for them to prefer the female body – the ideal habitat whose anatomy, considered weak and full of openings, seemed to facilitate the entry of impure entities.
This only aggravated the already fragile theological and existential condition of the woman, seen as a deceiving and treacherous being who originated from Adam’s bent rib, and was therefore imperfect (designated as fe-mina, “she who has less faith”, a deficiency that she was thought to compensate with her insatiable lust).
This negative vision of women might be the reason for the imbalance between the number of witches and sorcerers, which is intercultural and present in all historical periods: psychology and ethnopsychiatry explain this asymmetry by indicating how the witch was perceived as the inverted image of the fertile woman; a phallic and devouring mother/stepmother, who arouses envy and libido to the point of making her a scapegoat. In a society that worshiped fertility, the female body, especially the elderly body, arose strong fears, due to an ambiguity that made it similar to that of an animal, a polluting and disturbing presence. Thus the witch was associated with threatening, harmful magical powers, which made her the opposite of a good housewife and mother, and affected the spheres related to childbirth, death and love; on the other hand, male sorcerers were usually accused of spells aimed at controlling the climate and the crops, therefore closer to daily working life.
But, as we said, it was in the 15th century that the conceptual transition from sorcery to witchcraft took place, that is, from the definition of witchcraft as an exercise of maleficia (malignant magic against others, in particular against the foundations of peasant community life: the harvest, health of young people, human and animal sexuality for reproductive purposes) to its qualification as a heresy based on the veneration of Satan.
The witch was no longer seen as a “bad neighbor” devoted to antisocial behavior, who resorted to supernatural means in order to satisfy her evil desires; she became guilty of crimina excepta, exceptional crimes by virtue of their gravity, aimed at the destruction of Christian society and committed because of her own voluntary enslavement, both spiritual and physical, to the Infernal Spouse.
These crimes were deemed so atrocious as to make devil worshipers worthy of the death penalty, as traitors to God and to the human assembly: incest, infanticide, anthropophagy, desecration of the holy bread and- of sacred vestments, mainly committed on the occasion of the Sabbath. In this periodic collective gathering – which the initiates reached by means of the nocturnal “journey through the air” attracting great attention during interrogations – the witches perpetuated their perdition with banquets, acts of blasphemy, dances and ritual orgies (dominated by the carnal relationship with the devil and inaugurated by the osculum oscenum, the kiss “under the tail” of the Goat, president of the assembly).
Of course these deeds were unforgivable, as they were based on the perversion of the Creed and the inversion of the sacraments of the Christian religion.
Given these premises, witchcraft became to be seen as an impious cult, a false religion – of which spells and charms are but a by-product, meant to harm the good members of the community – the profession of which was considered a crime, an act of treason and political sedition.
Against this diabolical plot, comparable to an infection with which some sick sheep try to spread heresy within the flock of the faithful, a police operation was launched, whose severity reminds us of more modern concepts like zero-tolerance policies.
Despite the lack of proof of an actual, ritual form of devil worship (supporting the hypothesis that the Sabbath has always been just a myth), in this hunt two categories of tangible evidence were identified and considered conclusive, as they were directly observable: a public confession, which usually followed the denunciation by other witches, and the empirical verification of supernatural attributes.
The latter were carefully searched on the body of the accused, in a judicial torture session that anticipated the suffering of public execution: a degenerate medical examination, in which professional “witch-prickers” stuck special needles into the flesh of the alleged witch, looking for a bloodless and numb area of skin. This was the sign of the “devil’s paw”,shaped like a footprint, a spot, a red or blue dot: the witch’s mark, also known as signum diabolii or punctum/stygma diabolicum, present since birth on the skin of those who were “born witches” and doomed to be evil already in the womb of their mother. More frequently, it was a sign imprinted in the flesh by the Devil himself, at the end of the affiliation ceremony.
Parody of the stigmata of the saints, seal of servitude that sanctions the possession of the witch by Lucifer – simia Dei, the “monkey” who mocks and imitates God – the mark is imprinted with a bite or a scratch, on the forehead or in a hidden point of the body: on the shoulder or on the left side, inside the eyelid, on the abdomen or in locis secretissimis non nominandis (in the intimate parts or in the rectum).
Besides being reminiscent of the sign affixed by the Antichrist in Rev 13.16 (“the name of the beast or the number of his name”), this was considered, in line with the satanic ceremonial, the “reverse” of the circumcision in the Old Testament and of the sign of the cross in the New Testament; it attested to the witch’s perfidy, being its physical, visible and above all tangible manifestation. The mark was therefore an incriminating sign, which proved the woman took part in the Sabbath and belonged to the societas diabolii.
Subsequently, the commandments in Exod 22.18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“) and Lev 20.27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death” ) became imperative for earthly justice.
The search for the mark, however, appears to be an invention of cultured demonology, not very widespread in folklore and never applied with the same frequency as other demonstrations of witchcraft – with the exceptions of Civil War England, Scotland and, on the continent, Sweden, France and Switzerland.
The pricking of every part of the suspect’s body, therefore, seems to have found less diffusion than, for example, the swimming test (descendant of the “trial by water” present in European popular mythology since the Middle Ages), in which the bound witch was thrown into a pond or a well: her drowning was proof of innocence, while survival demonstrated the refusal by the pure element associated with baptism to touch her body, thus ascertaining her guilt.
Other known stratagems for detecting witches were drawing the suspects’ blood, boiling their urine and hair in a bottle, inserting a hot poker in their feces, burning straw from their home, pricking their portrait, and weighing them in comparison with a Bible; finally, there were more risky methods, vaguely superstitious, such as scratching the witch’s body (to neutralize the effects of her evil practices), or relying on the divinatory abilities of cunning men, healers practicing forms of “white”, beneficial magic.
Witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins (a well-known witch hunter, active in South East England between 1645 and 1647, with the assistance of the witch-pricker John Stearne) also suggested, in the treatise On the Discovery of Witches, to isolate the witch, subject her to a prolonged vigil for days and force her to walk incessantly, waiting for her imps or familiars to come to her rescue in front of the witnesses.
These vampire servant sprites, with the appearance of small pets, are purchased by the witch, inherited from her colleagues or donated to her by the Devil; in exchange for their help, she feeds them through a teat (supernumerary breast which honest women do not have) from which they suck yellowish milk, water and finally blood: if the sucking is suspended for more than twenty-four hours, this diabolical breast swells up to the point of bursting – a probatory indication, sufficient to impose the death sentence of the defendant. However, since the surplus breast was not often found, it was believed that many witches cut it off before being searched.
There were those who distinguished between the witch’s mark and the supernumerary nipple, and those who instead gathered both under the same category of probative evidence; but there was nonetheless absolute consensus on the value of these dermatological anomalies, as they brought a certainty that other forms of torture could not provide. In fact Satan, showing that his power was superior to any natural law and every counter-magic, conferred on his proteges the “gift of silence”, or the ability to resist pain, thus preventing any confession.
Although the presence of a mark was considered a definitive proof, this did not dispel the suspicion that most of the witch-pricking business was actually a scam, conducted by itinerant impostors (even women disguised as men, such as James Paterson and John Dickson) who were attracted by good pay and the possibility to freely torture their “patients” – so much so that some of them were legally prosecuted, for the cruelty shown and the rapes they committed.
As we have seen, witches were condemned because of a symptom that in the following centuries will be seen as a simple scar, a tattoo drawn in contempt at the command of Lev 19.28 (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you”) or, in the case of supernumerary nipples, as congenital hyperthelia/hypermastia.
Regarding the “supernatural” resistance to pain shown by witches, these peculiar phenomena of local analgesia are explained by the raising of the pain threshold due to fear or exhaustion; skin numbness could also be the consequence of diseases and malnutrition suffered by the humblest fringes of the early modern European population. Doctors and alienists have also speculated about the possible role of hysteria and epilepsy (“suffocation of the uterus”: an umbrella term used for various gynecological problems), as well as nervous or ecstatic syndromes, in diabolical possessions.
Regardless of subsequent medical explanations, at the time of the witchcraft trials the discovering of a mark left no hope for the defendant: found guilty of the worst of crimes, these women would be burned at the stake on the Continent, so the cathartic and disinfectant fire could purify their body and soul and scatter their earthly remains like ashes in the wind; they would instead end up hanged in England and North America (where, it must be remembered, witchcraft was never perceived as a heresy, but remained an illegal act against society): suspended between heaven and earth, unworthy of both, they would suffer a shameful death on the “one-armed cross”, the gallows. Their execution, accompanied by an infamous burial, usually at the foot of the gallows itself, was halfway between a moralistic theatrical show and a sporting competition where human bodies were subjected to fatal labors.
A mise-en-scène that, with its pedagogical-terrorist connotations, was meant to arouse a healthy fear in the spectators, agitated by a visceral sense of moral and emotional ambivalence. A spectacle in which the victims were hated, and at the same time pitied in their misfortune.
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.