Human usnea — that is, the mold that grew on skulls — was believed to be an extraordinary pharmaceutical remedy for many ills.
Here is a new video of mine discussing it (turn English subtitles on!):
Human usnea — that is, the mold that grew on skulls — was believed to be an extraordinary pharmaceutical remedy for many ills.
Here is a new video of mine discussing it (turn English subtitles on!):
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.
The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.
Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.
Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).
Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).
Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.
Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).
England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.
Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.
A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.
Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).
While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.
As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.
William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.
The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.
His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.
In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.
Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.
To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.
Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.
Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.
The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…
Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.
Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.
Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.
The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.
Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.
The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.
On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.
But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.
The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.
Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.
What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.
What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).
Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.
The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.
The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.
Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.
In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.
Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.
If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.
The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.
(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)
During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.
Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:
In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.
(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)
Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).
Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.
The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.
The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.
Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.
The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.
But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.
Here we are for a new edition of LC&MW, the perfect column to dawdle and amaze yourself at the beach!
(It is also perfect for me to relax a bit while writing the new book for the BB Collection.) (Speaking of which, until Septembre 15 you can get 20% discount if you buy all 4 books in one bundle — just insert the coupon BUNDLE4 at check out. Comes with a free Bizzarro Bazar Shopper.) (Oh, I almost forgot, the above chameleon is a hand, painted by great Guido Daniele, whose job is to… well, paint hands.)
Alright, let’s begin!
That’s all for now, see you next time!
Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.
I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.
The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.
There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).