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Mimetic death: symbolic double and funerary beliefs

Roberta Astori - Essayst


Pieter Bruegel: The Triumph of Death (ca. 1560), Museo del Prado, Madrid.


In the scheme of the biological reality, life and death are moments of a continuous cycle; in the human existential experience, instead, they represent the terms of a rending opposition.
Symbolic intervention has the aim to unify these two opposites in order to neutralize the trauma of death, which becomes the moment of a reversible exchange.
So, this ineluctable experience, which escapes to the human control, finds a collocation in mimetic representation. Outlining the features of what is otherwise unknowneable, death becomes an event that can be structured by recognizable experiential categories.
The face of death can't be different from our representation, and so it becomes the mirror of both our supernatural expectations and mortal fears. Anyway, death will have the same - even if opposed - features of life, which is its positive counterpart.

Anyway, although we always try to maintain continuity between these opposites, death is considered as the negative pole: if we don't take into account the interpretations of Christian eschatology or other religious doctrines, where it helps men to free from the corporeal bundle and from the earthly prison.
The imaginary of death is linked to a macabre and terrifying aesthetics: its face is never pleasant and often causes pain and disgust. Let's think about its traditional icon: a skeleton, wrapped in a black cloak, with a grinning skull, two empty eyeballs and an implacable sickle grasped in the snow-white fingers.
A terrifying image, which populates not only our nightmares but also some vulgar and effective fiction. This is an image that gives evidence of the negative connotation of this leap in the unknown, in front of which man feels all his impotence.
This is the reason why death's simbology is placed in the left hand-side, on the axis that sets soul against body, light against dark, dream against waking, growth against decomposition, flash against bones, warm against cold and, as suggested by Freud, Eros against Thanatos.

Triumphus Mortis in Trionfi della Morte by F. Petrarca in a 1490 edition




This obsessing doubleness is exorcized by folkloric or unconscious production: of imaginary and dreadful creatures characterized by the sense of horror generated by that reminds us our fatal destiny.
On the semantic side, let's think how, in common vocabulary, the term "ghost" denotes something unpleasant, that our memory refuses to recall.
The ghost, embodying the idea of death, acquires a negative value: often he is a vindictive demon, envious of our life-condition but strong for his in-finitude: he comes to punish the wrongs he suffered in life.
He becomes the symbol of evil: let's think about the spirits' army - duplicate of chivalry's troop - which infested the vast rural plains of Medieval Europe, as well as the "Hellequin family", about whom we heard from documents written by Oderico Vitale, Walter Map, Gervasio of Tilbury and Stephan of Bourbon, or to the "wild hunt" narrated in Bocaccio's Decameron.

The term "necromancy" has slided from its etymological meaning of "divination" (mantia) by the means of dead (necroV) (1) ľ as suggested by Agostino, Isidoro of Seville and Graziano in its "Decretum" - towards the meaning of "black magic" (goetia). Prefix "necro-" derives from lat. "niger" (black) (2), there is, therefore, a link between these two semantic areas ("death" and "black"), which are traditionally associated.
Therefore, this colour acquires a negative connotation, because of its association with evil. Black is the night, the favourite moment for performing demonic rites, it is theatre of dreams, visions and apparitions of ghosts.
Black as the night is also death, reign of darkness, peopled by shadows with no body or light. And so happens that the necromancer's armoury is composed by elements taken from night-birds such as bats and hoopoes. We always find these components in necromantic ceremonies, together with human or animal blood, used to write down incantations or exorcisms.
Red, is the colour of blood and fire and is also part of the symbolic repertory related to death in its hostile connotation, and it's strictly connected with magic.
Red is the colour of infernal flames, of the satanic garment in traditional iconography; red is also the colour of the damned souls that appeared to Vulfer of Montiers Saint-Jean the Holy Trinity's sacred night. Again, red re the souls appeared to a Staufer's vassal in the SÚlestat
 (3) priorate.
Both of them declared to have witnessed a procession of souls, divided into two crowds: on one side the pilgrims dressed in white (4), and destined to salvation; on the other deads dressed in red, voted to eternal damnation.


La danza Macabra in una xilografia del XV secolo.


It's interesting to underline that, in Christian simbology, red colour refers to the "Corpus Domini" because it represents primary life force, as well as the emblem of salvation and resurrection. In the domain of death and magic the elements of Christian liturgy undergo a symbolic overturning: for example, in the so called "black Sabbath", when necromantic evocations took place, they use to parody the prayers belonging to Christian repertory with anagrams or inversions.
Death is intended as an antagonist: its tangible sign, the corpse, must be ritually hided, if not even eliminated. We must consider the diffusion of the interment or burial practise, which have the aim to give the corpse back to earth or fire, taking it off the sight of living men, if we don't take into account effigies or other representations.
Nevertheless, we must say that this extradition of deads is property of a Modern Age that tries to exile death to the edges of everyday experience, inside strictly defined limits (let's think, for example, about the collocation of the cemetery) (5). Though it is also true that, even if in contemporary imaginary death has become a taboo (6),
it hasn't always and everywhere been considered that way.
Infact, some medieval worships or beliefs give us a positive and joyful interpretation of The End: let's consider, for example, the ritual rackets, the Dance of Death depicted on the walls of the most beautiful cathedrals of Europ (7), or the processions of those "bonnes dames" and "bonnes choses" that roved about the fields guided by feminine gods of plenty and fertility, as described in "Polycraticus", in "Canon Episcopy" and in Graziano's "Decretum".
Together with the earthly visit of terrifying ghosts, we find also those of bountiful spirits: protective deities that preside over sowing and harvest cycles, as well as over life and death, that follow in turns the rhythms of vegetation.
The circular and repeating rhythm of nature is stressed by commemorations and funeral ceremonies: masquerades and carnival dances develop in topical places and times of the liturgical and agricultural calendar
 (8). The mimetical conjuring of shadows performed in funeral masquerades - strongly condemned by Church for their grotesque and diabolic connotation - take place during January calends, when the year changes and a new temporal cycle begins.
So the rite has a double symbolic meaning, transorming mimetically living men into deads by the means of the mask (9) , which transfigures them - representing the passing away to another state - as happens to the dead season that passes by,leaving place to the new one. This scene, besides, underlines the necessity to act at the same time departure and return, in never-ending turns represented by the circular movement that often characterize the dance which accompanies it.
So, breaking the limits between visible and invisible, the opposites are reconciled. These rites are also ludic occasions that cause laughter. In this historical period "there is still a collective theatre for death. Death hasn't already been banished to individual conscience": it becomes, instead, the cue for the Dance of Death, big "messianic and equalitarian feaö (10) where bishops, kings and popes unite with common people guided by the Great Reaper.
An image that's always terrifying in its power, but that is, at the same time, democratical and satirical, because it derides human vanity, made of dignities and titles. And so, some times funeral ceremonies go together with other rites, with a deeply positive connotation. Let's think, for example, about the collective banquets where the community often celebrates one of its members. Again, let's think about the viaticum offered to the dead's soul, in order to help him passing into the underworld.
There is, infact, a close connection between death and material matters, especially those related to nourishment, fertility and plenty, indispensable elements of life. The beneficial processions of Dame Abonde and her maid-servants, such as the swarms of wandering souls that - as reminded by C. Ginzburg - The "Benandanti" of Friuli met during a sort of oniric trip in the nights of the "quattro tempora". This was nothing but a cult of fertility.
Therefore, there is a close link between this multiform deity with various names (Satia - Abundantia - Perchta) and the nucleus of beliefs gravitating towards the "Benandanti", known as the defensors of the harvest mined by witches and sorcerers.
The theme of the deads' return and its representation becomes the mean for collective salvation, in an almost propitiatory rite. These beliefs, therefore, are strongly unitary as a whole.
The pain towards the Unknown and Death interlace, such as the rites aimed to conjure it. So, life and death, fertility and famine become the undistinguishable terms in a long-time dialectics of the repetitions, which develop on the rhythm stressed by biological, astronomical, agricultural and liturgical calendar. As a never-ending round-dance performed on the steps of a "Dance Macabre".


Death mowing houman souls in a xylographhy from Der Ackermann aus B÷hmen, Bamberg 1463





(1)  Cfr. Isidoro of Sevile's definition: "Necromanti sunt, quorum praecantationibus videntur resuscitati mortui divinare, et interrogata respondere. Nekr˛s enim graece mortuus, manteýa divinatio nuncupantur, ad quos sciscitandos cadaveris sanguis adjicitur." (Etimologiae, VIII, ).

 (2) "Mantia, graece divinatio dicitur, et nigro, quasi nigra, unde nigromantia, nigra divinatio, quia ad atra daemoniorum vincula utentes se adducit (quae sciri licet potest, sed operari sine daemonum familiaritate nullatenus valet." We find this statement in a Text coming from Vienna, analized by Reiffenberg and related by P. COMPARETTI in Virgilio nel medio evo, La nuova Italia, Firenze, 1955, II, p. 63, cit. in M. ADRIANI, Italia magica, la magia nella tradizione italica, Biblioteca di Storia Patria, Roma, 1970, p. 131. John of Salisbury, in his Polictraticus gives the same interpretation to the term "necromancy".

 (3) - JEAN CLAUDE SCHMITT, Medioevo superstizioso, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1992, pp. 150-151

 (4) We must consider, nevertheless, that in other cultures the colour associated to death is white.

(5) The collocation of the cemetery outside the city walls has remote origins but different reasons. In the Twelve Tables it was prescribed not to bury deads inside the city. We find the same prohibition in the Theodosius' Code: corpses' extradition meant the will to prevent them from attend living men's life. The cult of the dead was, instead, very sincere and respectful. These places begin to have been margined in the France of the XVII century, when the connection between Church and cemetery, established from the Middle Age, began to break. In the following Century they decide to put cemeteries outside the city walls, in order to preserve people from dangerous epidemic infections. The use of reason prevailed over cult and the prophylaxis over religion. In the Middle Ages, instead, the whole of deads lived together with the living community in the same urban nucleus, even if on different levels. The churchyard was not only the theatre of mourning, but also the place for feasts, performances and games.

(6) Nowadays death is denied in such a way that it has become the object of a new pornography. Deads' "class" has been isolated from "normals'" society, becoming something obscene. Death is no more represented and lived by the whole community trough mimetic rites and ceremonies, but it has become a mediatic phenomenon, exhibited in an obsessive way by press and television, new medium between this and "the other" world.

(7) Let's think, for example, about the famous "Dance of Death" represented in the "Cemetery of the innocents" in Paris.

(8)  As stated by C. GINZBURG in Storia notturna, una decifrazione del sabba, Einaudi, Torino, 1989, pp. 161-184, there's a "mythic isomorphism" which connect rites similar in meaning and form but performed in different geographical and chronological areas.
The funeral masquerades are connected to Anglo-Saxon Halloween raids or to the Celtic custom to dress up as Animals and leave food as an offering for invisible feminine spirits" (p. 164). We find this custom, as witnessed by Bucard of Worms, in relation with the offerings to the "Bonnes Dames". We find this propitiatory rites also in the balcanic region, from Ukraine to Serbia: the protagonists of these ceremonies (called "ceata" in the Carpathians, "eskari" or "surovaskari" in Bulgaria, "coledari" in Serbia, "kolijadanti" in Ukraine, ... ) can be defined as deads' personification" (p. 167). The "rusalii" from Macedonia came from the same family of the Benandanti: both are sorcerers that, "after having reached trough an ecstatic state a temporary condition of death" (p. 168), are able to give oracular responses. Let' think, besides, about the sciamanic ecstasies (reached also by ritual disguise), which is the fixed moment to keep in touch with the underworld. The masquerades representing the deads, in traditional society marked the beginning of the new solar or lunar year and are rites "modelled on meta-historical archetypes", that symbolize by order inversion, the periodical irruption of primordial Chaos, followed by a temporal regeneration or a cosmic re-foundation.

(9) E. CANETTI, Massa e potere, Adelphi, Milano, pp. 452-455: "Just behind the mask begins the enigma (...) the mask can reveal a lot of things, but it can hide a lot more. (...) it mines with the secret lying behind it. Because it's not possible to read emotions on it as on a human face, we suspect and fear the unknown behind it. (...) The mask is what will never change: immutable and durable, it's what remains still in the ever changing game of metamorphose". This ambiguous character makes it terrifying but at the same time makes it the symbol of the "comlpexio oppositorum", representing the overcoming of the limit between what can be seen and what lies behind it.

(10) Cfr. JEAN BAUDRILLARD, Lo scambio simbolico e la morte, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1980, p.160.





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