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.
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.”
This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.
Padova, Italy. 1863.
One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.
The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.
In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.
When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.
But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.
He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of suicide.
He called his piece The Punished Suicide.
Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
“So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.
But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.
At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.
If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.
This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.
The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Il primo piccone colpì la roccia in una calda notte di agosto. Era una sera di sabato, nel 1978. […] Cadde una stella nel cielo, grande e luminosa, che lasciò dietro di sé una striscia ben visibile di polvere dorata che ricadde sulla Terra. Tutti pensarono che fosse un buon segno, e Oberto disse che in effetti indicava il momento perfetto per iniziare a scavare un Tempio, come quelli che da migliaia di anni non esistevano più. Si sarebbe fatto tutto grazie alla volontà e al lavoro delle mani…
Questo, secondo il racconto ufficiale, è l’inizio della straordinaria impresa portata avanti in gran segreto dai damanhuriani.
Damanhur è una cittadina egizia che sorge sul Delta del Nilo, e il suo nome significa “Città di Horus“, dal tempio che vi sorgeva dedicato alla divinità falco. I damanhuriani di cui stiamo parlando però non sono affatto egiziani, bensì italiani. Quell’Oberto che interpreta la stella cadente come buon auspicio è la loro guida spirituale, e (forse proprio in onore di Horus) a partire dal 1983 si farà chiamare Falco.
Gli anni ’70 in Italia vedono fiorire l’interesse per l’occulto, l’esoterismo, il paranormale, e per le medicine alternative: si comincia a parlare per la prima volta di pranoterapia, viaggi astrali (oggi si preferisce l’acronimo OBE), chakra, pietre e cristalli curativi, riflessologia, e tutta una serie di discipline mistico-meditative volte alla crescita spirituale – o, almeno, all’eliminazione delle cosiddette “energie negative”. Immaginate quanto entusiasmo potesse portare allora tutto questo colorato esotismo in un paese come il nostro, che non aveva mai potuto o voluto pensare a qualcosa di diverso dal millenario, risaputo Cattolicesimo.
Oberto Airaudi, classe 1950, ex broker con una propria agenzia di assicurazioni, è da subito affascinato da questa nuova visione del mondo, tanto da cominciare a sviluppare le sue tecniche personali. Fonda quindi nel 1975 il Centro Horus, dove insegna e tiene seminari; nel 1977 acquista dei terreni nell’alto Canavese e fonda la prima comunità basata sulla sua concezione degli uomini come frammenti di un unico, grande specchio infranto in cui si riflette il volto di Dio. Nella città-stato di Damanhur, infatti, dovrà vigere un’assoluta uguaglianza in cui ciascuno possa contribuire alla crescita e all’evoluzione dell’intera umanità. Damanhur inoltre dovrà essere ecologica, sostenibile, avere una particolare struttura sociale, una Costituzione, perfino una propria moneta.
E un suo Tempio sotterraneo, maestoso e unico.
Così nel 1978, in piena Valchiusella, a 50 km da Torino, Falco e adepti cominciarono a scavare nel fianco della montagna – ovviamente facendo ben attenzione che la voce non si spargesse in giro, poiché non c’erano autorizzazioni né permessi urbanistici. Dopo un paio di mesi avevano completato la prima, piccola nicchia nella roccia, un luogo di ritiro e raccoglimento per meditare a contatto con la terra. Ma il programma era molto più ambizioso e complesso, e per anni i lavori continuarono mentre la comunità cresceva accogliendo nuovi membri. L’insediamento ben presto incluse boschi, aree coltivate, zone residenziali e un centinaio di abitazioni private, laboratori artistici, atelier artigianali, aziende e fattorie.
Il 3 luglio del 1992, allertati da alcune segnalazioni che parlavano di un tempio abusivo costruito nella montagna, i Carabinieri accompagnati dal Procuratore di Ivrea eseguirono l’ispezione di Damanhur. Quando infine giunsero ad esaminare la struttura ipogea, si trovarono di fronte a qualcosa di davvero incredibile.
Corridoi, vetrate, specchi, pavimenti decorati, mosaici, pareti affrescate: i “Templi dell’Umanità”, così Airaudi li aveva chiamati, si snodavano come un labirinto a più piani nelle viscere della terra. I cinque livelli sotterranei scendevano fino a 72 metri di profondità, l’equivalente di un palazzo di venti piani. Sette sale simboliche, ispirate ad altrettante presunte “stanze interiori” dello spirito, si aprivano al visitatore lungo un percorso iniziatico-sapienziale, in un tripudio di colori e dettagli ora naif, ora barocchi, nel più puro stile New Age.
I damanhuriani cominciarono quindi una lunga battaglia con le autorità, per cercare di revocare l’ordine di demolizione per abusivismo e nel 1996, grazie all’interessamento della Soprintendenza, il governo italiano sancì la legalizzazione del sito. Ormai però il segreto era stato rivelato, così i damanhuriani cominciarono a permettere visite controllate e limitate agli ambienti sacri. Nel 2001 il complesso di templi vinse il Guinness World Record per il tempio ipogeo più grande del mondo.
Ma perché tenere nascosta questa opera titanica? Perché costruirla per quasi quindici anni nel più completo riserbo?
In parte propaggine del sogno hippie, l’idilliaca società di Damanhur proietta un’immagine di sé ecologica, umanistica, spirituale ma, nella realtà, potrebbe nascondere una faccia ben più cupa. Secondo l’Osservatorio Nazionale Abusi Psicologici, infatti, quella damanhuriana non sarebbe altro che una vera e propria setta; opinione condivisa da molti ex aderenti alla comunità, che hanno raccontato la loro esperienza di vita all’interno del gruppo in toni tutt’altro che utopistici.
La storia delle sette ci insegna che i metodi utilizzati per controllare e plagiare gli adepti sono in verità pochi – sempre gli stessi, ricorrenti indipendentemente dalla latitudine o dalle epoche. La manipolazione avviene innanzitutto tagliando ogni ponte con l’esterno (familiari, amici, colleghi, ecc.): la setta deve bastare a se stessa, chiudersi attorno agli adepti. In questo senso vanno interpretati tutti quegli elementi che concorrono a far sentire speciali gli appartenenti al gruppo, a far loro condividere qualcosa che “gli altri, là fuori, non potranno mai capire”.
Almeno a un occhio esterno, Damanhur certamente mostra diversi tratti di questo tipo. Orgogliosamente autosufficiente, la comunità ha istituito addirittura una valuta complementare, cioè una moneta valida esclusivamente al suo interno (e che pone non pochi problemi a chi, dopo anni di lavoro retribuito in “crediti damanhuriani”, desidera fare ritorno al mondo esterno).
Inoltre, a sottolineare la nuova identità che si assume entrando a far parte della collettività di Damanhur, ogni proselito sceglie il proprio nome, ispirandosi alla natura: un primo appellativo è mutuato da un animale o da uno spirito dei boschi, il secondo da una pianta. Così, sbirciando sul sito ufficiale, vi potete imbattere in personaggi come ad esempio Cormorano Sicomoro, avvocato, oppure Stambecco Pesco, scrittore con vari libri all’attivo e felicemente sposato con Furetto Pesca.
Oberto Airaudi, oltre ad aver operato le classiche guarigioni miracolose, ha soprattutto insegnato ai suoi accoliti delle tecniche di meditazione particolari, forgiato nuove mitologie ed elaborato una propria cosmogonia. Poco importa se a un occhio meno incline a mistici entusiasmi il tutto sembri un’accozzaglia di elementi risaputi ed eterogenei, un sincretico potpourri che senza scrupoli mescola reincarnazione, alchimia, cromoterapia, tarocchi, oracoli, Atlantide, gli Inca, i riti pagani, le correnti energetiche, i pentacoli, gli alieni… e chi più ne ha più ne metta.
In questo senso è evidente come il Tempio dell’Umanità possa aver rappresentato un tassello fondamentale, un aggregatore eccezionale. Non soltanto i damanhuriani condividevano tra loro la stessa visione del mondo, ma erano anche esclusivi depositari del segreto di un’impresa esaltante – un lavoro non unicamente spirituale o di valore simbolico, ma concreto e tangibile.
Inoltre la costruzione degli spazi sacri sotterranei potrebbe aver contribuito ad alimentare la cosiddetta “sindrome dell’assedio”, vale a dire l’odio e la paura per i “nemici” che minacciano continuamente la setta dall’esterno. Ecco che le autorità, anche quando stavano semplicemente applicando la legge nei confronti di un’opera edilizia abusiva, potevano assumere agli occhi degli adepti il ruolo di osteggiatori ciechi alla bellezza spirituale, gretti e malvagi antagonisti degli “eletti” che invece facevano parte della comunità.
È nostra consuetudine, in queste pagine, cercare il più possibile di lasciare le conclusioni a chi legge. Risulta però difficile, con tutta la buona volontà, ignorare i segnali che arrivano dalla cronaca. Se non fosse per l’eccezionale costruzione dei Templi dell’Umanità, infatti, il copione che riguarda Damanhur sarebbe lo stesso che si ripete per quasi ogni setta: ex-membri che denunciano presunte pressioni psicologiche, manipolazioni o abusi; famigliari che lamentano la “perdita” dei propri cari nelle spire dell’organizzazione; e, in tutto questo, il guru che si sposta in elicottero, finisce indagato per evasione ed è costretto a versare un milione e centomila euro abbondanti al Fisco.
Il controverso Oberto Airaudi, alias Falco, è morto dopo una breve malattia nel 2013. Tutto si può dire di lui, ma non che gli mancasse il dono dell’immaginazione.
Il suo progetto dei Templi dell’Umanità, infatti, non è ancora finito. La struttura esistente non rappresenta che il 10% dell’opera completa. Ma i damanhuriani stanno già pensando al futuro, e a una nuova formidabile impresa:
È importante che i rappresentanti di popoli e culture si incontrino in luoghi speciali, capaci di creare un effetto di risonanza sul pianeta. I cittadini di Damanhur, che stanno creando un nuovo popolo, si sono impegnati a costruire uno di questi “centri nervosi spirituali”, che hanno chiamato “il Tempio dei Popoli”. In questo luogo sacro, tutti i piccoli popoli potranno incontrarsi per dare vita a un parlamento spirituale […] Come i Templi dell’Umanità, il Tempio dei Popoli sarà all’interno della terra, in un luogo di incontro di Linee Sincroniche, perché non è un edificio per impressionare gli esseri umani – come i palazzi del potere delle nazioni – ma deve essere una dimostrazione del cambiamento, della volontà e delle capacità umane alle Forze della Terra.
Le donazioni sono ovviamente ben accette e, riguardo alla possibilità di detrazione fiscale, è possibile chiedere informazioni alla responsabile. Che, lo confessiamo, porta (assieme all’avv. Cormorano Sicomoro) il nostro nome damanhuriano preferito: Otaria Palma.
Potete fare un tour virtuale all’interno dei Templi dell’Umanità a questo indirizzo.
Il sito del CESAP (Centro Studi Abusi Psicologici) ospita una esauriente serie di articoli su Damanhur, e in rete è facile trovare informazioni riguardo alle caratteristiche settarie della comunità; se invece volete sentire la campana dei damanhuriani, potete dare un’occhiata al sito personale di Stambecco Pesco oppure dirigervi direttamente al sito ufficiale di Damanhur.
Anche le religioni muoiono. Un tempo il mazdeismo o zoroastrismo, fondato sugli insegnamenti di Zarathustra, il profeta che nacque ridendo, era la religione più diffusa al mondo, la principale nell’area mediorientale prima che vi si affermasse l’Islam. Oggi invece i seguaci sono meno di 200.000, e il numero continua a diminuire anche a causa della chiusura dell’ortodossia verso i non-credenti, tanto che nei prossimi decenni questa fede potrebbe addirittura scomparire. Attualmente sono i Parsi, emigrati secoli fa dall’Iran verso l’India, a mantenerne vivi i precetti.
Religione eminentemente monoteistica, il mazdeismo fa del dualismo fra bene e male la sua principale caratteristica: all’uomo è chiesto di scegliere fra la via della Verità e quella della Menzogna, tra la giustizia e l’ingiustizia, tra la luce e le tenebre, tra l’ordine e il disordine. Il puro, dunque, dovrà essere attento a non essere contaminato in nulla da azioni, oggetti o pensieri malvagi. Proprio per questo gli zoroastriani hanno elaborato un particolare rito funebre, volto a limitare e tenere distanti gli effetti nefasti della morte sui viventi.
Il cadavere è, infatti, impuro, perché appena dopo la morte viene invaso da demoni e spiriti che rischiano di contaminare non soltanto gli uomini retti, ma anche gli elementi. Non è possibile dunque cremare il corpo di un defunto, perché il fuoco – che è elemento sacro – ne sarebbe infettato; sotterrarlo, d’altra parte, porterebbe a un inquinamento della terra.
Così gli zoroastriani costruiscono da secoli un tipo speciale di struttura, chiamata dakhma, o “torre del silenzio”. Si tratta di una impalcatura di legno e argilla, talvolta simile a una vera e propria torretta, alta fino a 10 metri circa. La piattaforma superiore, dalla circonferenza rialzata e inclinata verso l’interno, è suddivisa in tre cerchi concentrici, talvolta suddivisi in celle, e ha al suo centro un’apertura o un pozzo.
Qui i cadaveri vengono disposti da speciali addetti, i Nâsâsâlar (letteralmente, “coloro che si prendono cura di ciò che è impuro”), gli unici che hanno la facoltà di toccare i morti: gli uomini vengono sistemati nel cerchio esterno, le donne in quello mediano e i bambini in quello più interno.
Lì vengono lasciati in pasto agli avvoltoi e ai corvi (che normalmente li divorano nel giro di tre o quattro ore) e rimangono sulla dakhma anche per un anno, finché le loro ossa non siano state completamente ripulite e sbiancate dagli uccelli, dal sole e dalla pioggia. Le ossa vengono infine gettate nel pozzo centrale, dove la pioggia e il fango le disintegreranno a poco a poco, facendo filtrare attraverso strati di carbone e sabbia quello che resta del corpo, prima di restituirlo alla terra e, ove possibile, al mare, tramite un acquedotto sotterraneo.
Il rituale delle torri del silenzio è oggi sempre più a rischio a causa di due enormi problemi: la sovrappopolazione e la scarsità di avvoltoi. Il numero sempre maggiore di cadaveri costringe a gettare nel pozzo centrale anche i corpi non ancora interamente decomposti, causando un intasamento che comporta evidenti problemi igienici, soprattutto se si pensa che a Mumbai il parco funebre sta sulla collina residenziale di Malabar Hill, a meno di trecento metri dai primi caseggiati. Nonostante la comunità Parsi abbia stanziato 200.000 euro l’anno per l’acquisto e l’allevamento di avvoltoi specificamente addestrati, sono sempre più numerosi i fedeli che optano per il cimitero o la cremazione.