Severed Heads & Sacred Castrations

Medusa, Freud and the Decapitated Goddess

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

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.

The Terrible Tucandeira

The initiation ritual of tucandeira is typical of the Sateré-Mawé people stationed along the Amazon River on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará of Brazil.
The ritual is named after a giant ant (the Paraponera clavata, also known as “bullet ant”) whose painful sting, 30 times more poisonous than that of a bee, causes swelling, redness, fever and violent chills.

This test of courage and endurance sanctions a tennager’s entry into adulthood: every young man who wants to become a true warrior must submit to it.

The tucandeira takes place during the Amazonian summer months (October to December).
First the ants must be captured and taken from their anthills, usually located at the base of hollow trees, and they are enclosed in an empty bamboo called tum-tum. A mixture of water and cajú leaves is then prepared, and the ants are immersed and left in this anesthetic “soup”.

Once they are asleep, the ants are inserted one by one within the knitting of a straw glove, their fearsome stingers stuck on the inside of the mitten. They are then left to awaken from their numbness: realizing that they are trapped, the ants begin to get more and more angry.

When the time for the actual ritual finally arrives, the whole village meets to observe and encourage the adolescents who undergo initiation. It is the much feared moment of the test. Will they resist pain?

He who leads the dance intones a song, adapting the words to the circumstance. The women sit in front of the group of men and accompany the melody. Some candidates paint their hands black with Genipa berries and then drink a very strong liquor called taruhà, based on fermented cassava, useful for reducing pain and giving the necessary strength to face the ritual. Those who undergo the tucandeira for the first five times must apply to certain diets. When the ants awaken, the actual ritual begins. The dance director slips the gloves on the candidates’ hands and blows tobacco smoke into the gloves to further irritate the ants. Then the musicians begin to play rudimentary wooden tubes while the boys dance.

(A. Moscè , I Sateré Mawé e il rito della tucandeira, in “Etnie”, 23/01/2014)

The angry ants begin to prick the hands of the young, who are made to dance to distract themselves from the pain. In a short time their hands and arms get paralyzed; in order to pass the test, the candidate must wear the gloves for at least ten minutes.


After this time, the gloves are removed and the pain begins to manifest itself again. It will take twenty-four hours for the effect of inoculated neurotoxins to subside; the young man will be the victim of excruciating pain and sometimes prey to uncontrollable tremors even in the following days.
And this is just the beginning for him: to be fully completed, the ritual will have to be repeated 19 more times.

Through this ritual, a Sateré Mawé recognizes his origins, laws and customs; and from adolescence on, he will have to repeat it at least twenty times to be able to draw its beneficial effects. The whole population participates in the ritual and observes how the candidates face it. It is an important time to get to know each other, gather, and contract future marriages.
The tucandeira is also a propitiatory rite, through which a boy can become a good fisherman and hunter, have luck in life and work, turn into a strong and courageous man. People come together very willingly for this ritual, which in addition to its festive and playful aspect is also an opportunity to recall the cosmogonic myths of the origin of the stars, the sun, the moon, water, air and all living things.

(A. Moscè, Ibid.)

In this National Geographic video on tucandeira, the chief summarizes in an admirable way the ultimate meaning of these practices:

“If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you.”

(Thanks, Giulio!)

 

Lanterns of the Dead

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In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.

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Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).

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A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.

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But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.

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One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.

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Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

Capsula Mundi

I have sometimes talked about the false dichotomy between Nature and Culture, that weird, mostly Western aberration that sees mankind separated and opposed to the rest of the environment. This feeling of estrangement is what’s behind the melancholy for the original union, now presumed lost: we look at birds in a tree, and regret we are not that carefree and unrestrained; we look at our cities and struggle to find them “natural”, because we insisted in building them with rigid geometries rarely found elsewhere, as if to mark the difference with all other habitats in which straight lines seldom exist.
This vision of man as a creature completely different from other living beings has found an obvious declination in Western burials. It’s one of the very few traditions in which the grave is designed to keep the body from returning to earth (of course in the past centuries this also had to do with the idea of preserving the body for the ultimate Resurrection).
But there is someone who is trying to change this perspective.

Picture your death as a voyage through three different states of matter. Imagine crossing the boundaries between animal, mineral and plant kingdom.
This is the concept behind Capsula Mundi, an italian startup devised by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, which over the past decade has been trying to achieve a new, eco-friendly and poetic kind of burial. An egg made of biodegradable material will wrap the body arranged in fetal position, or the ashes; once planted underground, it will grow a specific tree, chosen by the deceased when still alive. One after the other, these “graves” will form a real sacred forest where relatives and friends can wander around, taking care of the very plants grown, fed and left as inheritance by their dear departed. A more joyful alternative to the heavy, squared marble gravestone, and a way of accepting death as a transition, a transformation rather than the end of life.

Actually the very idea of a “capsule” incorporates two separate connotations. On one hand there’s the scientific idea of a membrane, of a cell, of a seed for new life. And the shell enveloping the body — not by chance arranged in fetal position — is a sort of replica of the original embryo, a new amniotic sac which symbolically affirms the specularity (or even the identity) of birth and death. On the other, there is the concept of a “capsule” as a vehicle, a sci-fi pod, a vessel leading the corpse from the animal kingdom to the mineral kingdom, allowing all the body components to decompose and to be absorbed by the plant roots.
Death may look like a black monolith, but it gives rise to the cosmic fetus, the ever-changing mutation.

The planting of a tree on burial grounds also refers to the Roman tradition:

For the ancients, being buried under the trees enabled the deceased body to be absorbed by the roots, and matter to be brought back to life within the plant. Such an interpenetration between the corpse and the arboreal organism therefore suggested a highly symbolic meaning: plunging his roots inside mother earth and pushing his top towards the sky, it was like the deceased was stretching out his arms, to protect and save his descendants, in a continuing dialogue with posterity’s affection and memory. 

(N. Giordano, Roma, potenza e simbologia: dai boschi sacri al “Miglio d’oro”, in SILVÆ – Anno VI n. 14)

I asked some questions to Anna Citelli, creator of Capsula Mundi along with Raoul Bretzel.

It is clear today that the attitude towards death and dying is changing, after a century of medicalization and removal: more and more people feel the need to discuss these topics, to confront them and above all to find new (secular) narratives addressing them. In this sense, Capsula Mundi is both a practical and symbolic project. From what did you draw inspiration for this idea? The “capsule” was shaped like an egg from the beginning, or were you initially thinking of something else?

We unveiled the Capsula Mundi project in 2003, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It was not the first time we exhibited at the Salon, albeit independently from one another. Our works at the time were already a reflection on sustainability, and when we had the occasion to work together we asked ourselves some questions about the role of designers in a society which appears removed from nature, well-satisfied and overwhelmed by objects for every necessity.
We decided to devote our work to a moment in life of extreme importance, charged with symbolic references, just like birth and wedding. Death is a delicate passage, mysterious and inevitable. It is the moment in which the person stops consuming or producing, therefore in theory it’s something distant from the glossy environment of design. But if we look at it as a natural phenomenon, a transformation of substances, death is the moment in which the being is reconnected with nature, with its perpetual changing. The coffin, an object neglected by
designers, becomes a way of reflecting on the presumption that we are not part of the biological cycle of life, a reflection on a taboo. Adopting the perfect shape of the egg was an immediate and instinctive choice, the only one that could indicate our thought: that death is not an end or an interruption, but the beginning of a new path.

How does Capsula Mundi relate to the death-positive movement? Is your project, while not aspiring to replace traditional burials but rather to offer an alternative choice, also intended to promote a cultural debate?

We have been presenting the concept of Capsula Mundi for more than a decade now, and in the last few years in the public we have finally seen a rising need to talk about death, free from any negative cultural conditioning. It is a collective and transversal need which leads to an enrichment we’ve all been waiting for. We receive a lot of letters from all over the world, from architecture students to palliative treatments operators, from botany students to documentary filmmakers. A whole variety of human beings sharing different experiences, trying to achieve a social change through debate and confrontation, to gain a new perspective on the end of life.

What point is the project at, and what difficulties are you encountering?

Green burials are prohibited in Italy, but seeing the huge demand we receive every day we decided to start the production of the small version of Capsula Mundi, for cremated remains. In the meantime we are carrying on the studies to build capsules for the whole body, but we still need some time for research.

Green burials are already a reality in other countries, as are humanist funerals. Do you think the Italian legislation in funeral matters will change any time soon?

We think that laws are always a step behind social changes. In Italy cemetery regulations date back to Napoleonic times, and legislative change will not happen quickly. But the debate is now open, and sooner or later we too will have memorial parks. Regarding cremated remains, for instance, many things have already changed, almost all regions adjusted to the citizens requests and chose some areas in which the ashes can be spread. Up until some years ago, the urn had to be left within the cemetery, under lock and key and in the keeper’s custody.

How is the audience responding to your project?

Very well. Since the beginning, in 2003, our project never caused any uproar or complaint. It was always understood beyond our expectations. Now, with the help of social medias, its popularity has grown and we just reached 34.000 likes on Facebook. In november 2015 we presented Capsula Mundi to an English-speaking audience at TEDx Torino and it’s been a huge success. For us it is a wonderful experience.

Official site: Capsula Mundi.

Tea with the Muses

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On November 22, at 4pm inside the beautiful Civic Museum in Reggio Emilia, I will talk about macabre wonders together with historian Carlo Baja Guarienti.

Our chat is part of a series of lectures called Il Tè delle Muse (Tea with the Muses): I find this title quite gorgeous, because the ironic reference to the etymology of “museum” highlights its original function of being a place of enchantment and inspiration. There is therefore no better place to talk about what I have often called dark wonder; on these webpages I have been suggesting for years that we should overcome the prejudice attached to the word “macabre”, and understand that many of the so-called “morbid” curiosities can turn out to be noble and sometimes necessary passions. We will be discussing exoticism, new trends, wunderkammern and intersections between art, science and the sacred.

Here is the official page for the event.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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Dolore sacro

Come è noto, nella maggior parte delle tradizioni religiose il sacrificio corporale è parte integrante di specifici rituali o pratiche di ascesi o espiazione. Nelle culture più marcatamente sciamaniche o tribali il dolore sacro va spesso di pari passo con l’estasi e la trance mistica, come accade durante alcune festività in cui le ferite vengono praticate o autoinflitte dai devoti come segno di una raggiunta “immunità” alle sofferenze, garantita dalla comunione con la divinità.

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In Oriente, l’intera esistenza era vista come una serie ininterrotta di sofferenze. Questo tipo di visione pessimistica era comune nell’area indocinese, e le due soluzioni a cui si era pensato prima dell’avvento del Buddha erano le più logiche. Per sconfiggere il dolore si doveva: 1) massimizzare il piacere – da cui la tradizione tantrista, che peraltro ha diversi elementi di derivazione sciamanica ed è radicalmente differente dalla versione edulcorata che ne hanno dato in Occidente le varie trasposizioni New-Age; oppure 2) abituare l’anima alla sofferenza, in modo talmente estremo da non poterla più percepire – da cui tutte le tecniche di meditazione ascetiche induiste. La rivoluzione operata dal Buddha fu proprio quella di proporre una via di mezzo, che non indulgesse nell’attaccamento alle cose ma che non mortificasse il corpo.

Eppure, anche la visione buddhista deve fare i conti con la sofferenza: quando il Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama annunciò le Quattro Nobili Verità, che ruotano tutte attorno al concetto di dolore (Dukkha), la prima di queste recitava: “[…] la nascita è dolore, la vecchiaia è dolore, la malattia è dolore, la morte è dolore; il dispiacere, le lamentazioni, la sofferenza, il tormento e la disperazione sono dolore; l’unirsi con ciò che è spiacevole è dolore; il separarsi da ciò che è piacevole è dolore”.

Chiaro quindi come, all’interno di una concezione simile dell’esistenza, il sottoporsi a stress fisici notevoli assuma un significato di accettazione e di “allenamento” alla vita, fino all’auspicato distacco da questa realtà fatta di illusione e dolore.

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Per quanto riguarda il cattolicesimo, il sacrificio più comune è quello di derivazione ebraica, vale a dire la vera e propria rinuncia a un beneficio o a una ricchezza come forma di contraccambio per una grazia o un favore richiesto alla divinità.

Nella tradizione cattolica, però, il corpo umano ha storicamente avuto un posto subordinato rispetto al concetto di anima. Nonostante la nuova catechesi abbia cercato di rettificare l’attitudine religiosa verso il corpo, ancora oggi per molti fedeli esiste una marcata dicotomia fra fisicità e spirito, come se la purezza dell’anima fosse minacciata costantemente dalle pulsioni animali e peccaminose del suo involucro materiale.

In questo senso nel mondo cattolico il sacrificio (da sacer+facere, rendere sacro) tenta spesso di ridare dignità al corpo disonorato; l’accanimento per il controllo degli istinti, considerati impuri, fa in questi casi sfumare i contorni dell’atto sacrificale, rendendo difficile capire se si tratti effettivamente di un atto di rinunzia al benessere fisico in nome del sacro, oppure di una vera e propria punizione.

A San Pedro Cutud, nelle Filippine, durante le celebrazioni della Settimana Santa, i credenti inscenano la Passione del Cristo in maniera fedele e realistica: il devoto che “interpreta” Gesù, in questa sorta di rappresentazione sacra, viene flagellato, coronato di spine e infine crocifisso realmente (anche se con accorgimenti che rendono il martirio non letale). Pare che Ruben Enaje, un fedele locale, sia stato crocifisso ben 21 volte fino al 2007. Rolando Del Campo, un altro devoto, ha fatto voto di essere crocifisso per 15 volte se Dio avesse voluto far superare a sua moglie una gravidanza difficoltosa.

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Chiaramente, come in tutto ciò che riguarda l’ambìto religioso, ognuno è libero di credere ciò che vuole; e di leggere, in queste manifestazioni di fede assoluta, una miopia intellettuale oppure uno strapotere della casta sacerdotale, una ricerca della spettacolarità che sconfina nel divismo, oppure al contrario una commovente espressione di modestia e di umanità. Quello che resta come dato di fatto è che il dolore trova sempre posto nella contemplazione del sacro, in quanto è, assieme alla morte, uno dei misteri essenziali a cui l’uomo ha da sempre cercato una risposta.