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
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.
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.
The term "necromancy" has slided
from its etymological meaning of "divination" (mantia) by the means of dead
(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
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
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.
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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