Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

The Gears of Destiny

art, Cabinet of Wonders, history, metaphor, religion

I stumbled on this wonderful image while walking through a music store: it appears to be blindfolded Fate, turning the Wheel of Destiny by means of a very simple, but possibly painful, gear mechanism. The guy on top is clearly… well, on top, holding a scepter and wearing nice clothes. The guy on the left is clearly trying to get up to where the upper guy is sitting. The other guy… I worry about him. Those teeth look sharp, and it seems he might have just come out from a rather unpleasant place.

The CD is a piece by Guillame de Machaut, who lived in the 1300s, and is put out by Ensemble Project Ars Nova, who do all kinds of interesting things, finding all kinds of ancient music and playing them well.

If anyone knows where this image comes from, I’d be indebted for the information; it is unfortunately not credited on the CD. I can always hope there are more like it…

Day of the Dead

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, religion, reliquaries

Let’s face it: some cultures are better than others at shrine-making.

Luckily for me, the area where I live is a hotbed of shrine-ism and, in fact, an intensely rich deposit of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not the same as Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve. In the European tradition, All Hallows’ Eve has its roots in the Gaelic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen), which came after the harvest, at the end of the year, just before the world died for awhile. It was a liminal time, when spirits came close and magic was strong; and it had the shadow of the dark behind it.

Dia de los Muertos, on the other hand, comes from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who celebrated the deaths of their ancestors for nearly a month each summer. Perhaps because it is less associated with autumn, with the beginning of the dark and cold, it has an entirely different feel from Halloween. In Mexico, it is a time to rejoice in your loved ones and your ancestors who have passed on to another life. Offerings of food, toys, blankets (so they can rest after their long journey), flowers and so on are put out, in specially-built household shrines or on tables in the yard, for the dead to enjoy. Graves are cleaned and hung with flowers; in some places whole families spend the night at the graves of their loved ones, picnicking and singing, with candles and colored lights.

Children stay up and run around the streets, sucking on sugar skulls. Little statues of skeletons, grinning madly and doing all manner of humorous things, can be found everywhere. Death, in Mexico, does not pall. In fact, it is to be celebrated. Dia de los Muertos is a joyous occasion, full of music and food and lights in the darkness.

There are so many cultures who enshrine. European enshrinement seems to happen largely inside or around specific places of worship, which I find fascinating but ultimately somewhat limited (pictures of one’s dead mother/father/brother/etc. next to/under a household cross being a small exception). In some cultures, if there is any reason whatsoever to build a shrine, they will do so.

In Japan, for example, the Buddhists build big temples, and not so many shrines (though there are always examples out there which will prove me wrong; I’m speaking in generalities). The older and more shamanistic Shinto, however, which coexists side-by-side and simultaneously with Buddhism (in other words, sharing worshipers), is a religion that is suffused into the countryside. It is everywhere, celebrated in nature and in the shapes of the landscape, and cannot be separated out. Therefore, small signs of Shinto are everywhere: in little roadside shrines and rocks, in the paper or rice-straw ropes tied around significant trees. True, you can nd large, church-like Shinto “shrines” as well, but even they have an odd quality where the outside seems as important as the inside, and often center around an important landscape quality.

But the best are the tiny shrines, the little places that are used and loved by local people, who believe in kami, little mythical spirit beings, who live in the world with us and think and feel much as we do.

What makes a shrine really a shrine are the offerings, the attention. The loving bits left for whatever spirit dwells there. Without this care, this consciousness of its specialness, it is nothing. The mindfulness is the thing.

Bali has exquisite offerings, made with care and an asthetic eye out of flowers and leaves, and sometimes a sprinkling of rice. Bali is probably one of the most mindful places I’ve ever been; there is this daily routine to the beauty, the delicate and conscious handling of daily devotion. Everything, everything is carefully, beautifully done: the washing of the steps, the morning laying out of offerings, the care with which people dress. And the festival offerings are really works of art.

One of the reasons, as I said, that I love California is the intense Central American influence. There are many Day of the Dead celebrations to be had – more and more as time goes on and it becomes more ingrained into the culture. I remember the first American Day of the Dead thing I went to, a parade in the Mission District of San Francisco, years ago. I was annoyed with the way that it was politicized, probably for good reason – mourning the U.S.’s transgressions in Central America, perhaps; I was young and didn’t pay enough attention. There were a lot of European Americans involved, all wearing sort of Grim Reaper attire. It was heavy and dark, and not very celebratory, and it made me unhappy that such a marvelous holiday – no, festival – could be reduced to such a grim and feeble remnant.

It seems especially reprehensible when you consider the traditional U.S.-based Central American mode of expressing political dissent: the murals. They have colors, they are intense and bright and full of life. They are not heavy, grim, or dark. They are all about empowerment and celebration. They are shrines to what should be. If you like these ideas, and if you are ever visiting San Francisco, take a walk down Balmy Alley, in the Mission district. It’s a continuing tradition which is worth a visit.

Now, however, people are catching the idea of Dia de los Muertos. Not only has the cheerful nature of the holiday taken hold, but the color, the joy, and hopefully the thinking of death in a new way, has begun to infiltrate the California culture.

In Oakland, for example, there is a whole weekend devoted to the Dia de los Muertos festival, with a section of 14th street closed and stalls, bouncy castles, sugar-skull decorating for the children, crafts, candles and flowers. People who live there set up shrines. It’s a Thing. It’s still looking through an American end of a cultural telescope, but it’s real, and, well, they’re getting the hang of it. And folks love it. Children make little shoebox shrines to their ancestors in school, regardless of race. Chrysanthemums are sold on street corners.

And if you’re ever driving down the road and see a small, flower-covered place – a little box full of flowers and/or toys, or a bouquet tied to a phone pole – stop for a moment and look. Because that is the place where a person died. And someone who loved that person made a special place, just for them – not only to comemmorate them, but to give their spirit some place to come, and know that it is loved.

Apotropaism and the Evil Eye

Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, magic, religion

and traps of all kinds

Looking through the exhibition checklist for the show (see previous post) at the Corning Museum of Glass, I came across the term “apotropaic”, referring to “objects such as amulets and talismans or other symbols intended to ‘ward off evil’ or ‘avert or combat evil.'” [wiki] The term apotrope comes from the Greek meaning “to turn away”, and seems to express itself a great deal in eye symbology.

Take, for example, Mediterranean eye beads, worn or hung in the home to avert the evil eye, which is an incredibly widespread belief, traditionally found all the way from Britain through Europe and Russia and on down into the Middle East and India. The evil eye is invited, either inadvertently or purposefully, by complimenting someone or looking enviously on something of theirs – or similarly, by the staring of strangers. The root of this evil is set in envy, and as a result vocal or obvious admiration of something is taboo in many cultures. Thus the tradition of indirect appreciation, and sayings such as Masha’Allah (“God has willed it”), or Keyn aynhoreh (“no evil eye”), to misdirect the effects of the admiration. Some people believe that the expression of admiration or envy will catch the attention of God(s), and inspire the deity to redress the balance by evening out the fortunes of the admirer and admiree, so to speak.

Eye beads are common throughout Greece, Turkey, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and I have even seen them for sale in Venice. Traditionally they are blue, which is a color said to reflect the blueness of the evil eye; people with green eyes are suspiciously evil eye-like, and there is even some speculation that the blueness traditional to the eye-beads comes from foreigners with blue eyes, who bumble in and compliment everyone in a terribly inauspicious way. The symbol can be seen everywhere – on bracelets, pendants, doorways, keychains and even on airplanes and boats. Wikipedia even mentions eyes being painted on drinking vessels in ancient Greece to protect the drinkers (I wonder what from?).

The tradition of painting eyes on boats, which in the Mediterranean is directly correlated with the evil eye, as well as with the Eye of Horus – which is a symbol of protection and indestructibility – seems to be common all over the world. In most places, such as in Asia and the Norse traditions, the eye on the boat has more to do with seeing, with finding one’s way safely. But it’s still an eye, and it’s still protection.

This idea of bad intentions or evil energy being thrown at or drawn to one is pretty much common throughout humanity. In parts of Africa and Indonesia, black magic and curses are very real and present. I sat next to a man on a bus in Java once who claimed he was a black magician, and who told me all about it. I didn’t like him very much and was trying really hard not to have him touch my knee anymore, so I didn’t listen as closely as I should have, and have cursed my high morals ever since, as I could have learned more than I did; but nontheless, I was surprised to find the darkness under the everyday life of what seemed, to a tourist like me at that time, to be one kind of simply Muslim culture.

A Javanese shadow puppet, with the traditional black-and-white decoration worked in

One thing I did remember him telling me was that much of the decoration you see in Java and Bali, of the alternating black and white squares, was about black magic and white magic being kept in balance. A warding, of a sort. There are many, many types of warding for bad influences – the eye beads, of course; and horseshoes, which despite folklore about “holding in luck” are held, in older folklore, to be about reversing evil influence (I imagine the evil swooshing around the curve of the horseshoe like a Nascar racer around a corner, and zooming away again). Fish are considered immune to the evil eye by Jews and others, possibly because they are so wet, and the evil eye’s effects are often of a wasting, drying kind (and fish are always wet). There are special woods, of course, like rowan branches in British/Celtic tradition, as well as the tying of red string; red thread is also, in Jewish custom, a ward for babies against the evil eye (people do tend to admire babies a lot).

The mention of string brings me back to the Corning Exhibit. I was riveted by the description of “witch balls”, which included this blurb: “The evil eye is not the only source of ambient negativity and ill will. “Witches,” for example, can include anyone who actively wishes misfortune or sickness on others, or who causes others to suffer. The witch ball is believed to be the ancestor of the Christmas tree ornament, which was originally meant to protect gifts from outsiders who might covet them. In the United States, witch balls were traditionally filled with colorful bits of paper and string to confuse and repel witches who might be lurking around the house.”

This witch ball, an antique, is one of the decorative, bright types of witch balls which you can still find today all over the internet. This one reminds me, oddly enough, of a glass eye bead.

Another source speaks of how witch balls were used to cover the tops of milk jugs, creamers, and bowls, but didn’t discuss why; I found myself thinking of the tales of magical beings being given offerings of milk, and malevalent ones liking to spoil it. Witches, for example, are widely-known to cause milk to curdle. Could the witch balls be a sort of charm against that, to begin with, and somehow expanding to mean protection for the whole household? In other literature, witch-balls are commonly described as simply colorful or reflective glass balls that were hung in windows or around the garden, to confuse and sometimes even imprison the malevalent presence which a witch may have sent toward your household. Strings are mentioned only rarely as being inserted, though there are ample examples, both new and old, of glass balls, often with glass threads running across the inside, which are described as “witch balls”. Wikipedia describes an appalachian tradition whereby black hair could be balled up with beeswax “into a hard round pellet about the size of a marble and is used in curses. In Ozark folklore, a witch that wants to kill someone will take this hair ball and throw it at the intended victim; it is said that when someone in the Ozarks is killed by a witch’s curse, this witch ball is found near the body.”

Bhutanese spirit trap: see? They’re everywhere

Then there are sprite traps (corruption of “spirit traps”), which are made from red thread woven or tied onto a branch (often rowan), sometimes with a bit of copper wire. The traps are placed in front of the front and back doors of a dwelling or other building. Once a spirit is caught, the threads are cut and placed inside a witch bottle (which appears to be a less-expensive form of witch ball), and the bottle is often buried under a doorstep or hearth or other place around the home. Back again to thread or string inside a glass object!

Another form of bad-feeling catcher: the Dream-catcher, which is traditionally hung above Ojibwe newborn’s beds to catch everything evil but let everything good through

Other stories, particularly of witch bottles which have been dug up recently around England, show that many witch bottles were filled with actual human bits such as hair or fingernails, bent pins and urine. This was apparently a way to point it toward a witch who may have been doing harm. When someone was unable to pass water, or took sick, or died, you would know who the witch was.

This might explain why the witch balls/bottles, the ones I find especially fascinating, with the string and other stuff in them, are so rare. It’s only on occasion that they are found, dug up or unearthed in some other way, and then I wouldn’t wonder if they didn’t often get thrown away, as I would guess the buried ones might be a bit creepy and dirty. In any case, my searches for images of the American kind of witch ball, with the bits of paper and string, have been mostly fruitless. I do wish I could find more pictures of them, as the image in my mind is strong, and I’d love to compare.

Witch bottle found under a house in England

As Brian Hoggard over at says, “How fearful of supernatural intrusion into your home would you have to be before you’d consider lifting your hearthstone, digging a hole and inserting a bottle filled with pins and urine?” Which brings up an interesting point. Even today, I know when I’m having extremely good fortune, I can’t help wondering when it’s going to end. It feels weird to boast about things – superstition kicks in and I’m compelled to knock on wood or make light of my fortune. I work hard at not congratulating myself on being happy, for the happier I get, the more I notice where I could be. “There but for the grace of God go I,” becomes my mantra, other peoples’ misfortune a persistent dark spot at the edge of my fortune.

This feeling that the bad things are out there, waiting to pounce, must have been very pronounced in the old days. I always think of the Salem witch trials, or Cromwellian England, or even, to a lesser degree, McCarthyism, as these moments when that feeling – the one that tells us this happiness is fleeting, that there is bad luck (or, if you prefer, bad intentions) lurking just beyond reach – has taken over an entire populace. They are horrible moments, periods of extreme unease when no one feels they can trust another person, when the winter of the soul sets in and no one is certain of anything anymore, least of all why. Some of my friends would have us believe that this moment, now, 2007, is one of those times: when getting in and out of the US is becoming more and more difficult and there is free license to look into all our private affairs for no reason at all; when people living next door to each other are encouraged to turn each other in.

That may be true; but I get through it by working, all the time, to try to generate some light in this darkness. Hanging onto the wonder, looking at minutae and seeing the joy and the life in it – and helping others to see and remember those joys – is one of the best ways I know to find our way. May you all find your paths without stumbling.

Some links:
Curious Expeditions discusses some interesting bottles which may or may not ward off bad luck for the drinker (much as the Greek cups do), among a collection of other remarkable, though less magic-oriented, bottles.
– An excellent page on the history of the Ojibwe’s use of dreamcatchers and the woman ethnologist who carefully and extensively studied them.
– An unusual, completely unopened witch bottle made of ceramic, with a face on it, in the BBC News
– Another witch bottle in the BBC News.
One place to buy eye beads, if you’re interested.

Incorruptible and Forever

Cabinet of Wonders, history, magic, religion, reliquaries

Highgate Cemetery, in London

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

As I mentioned in my post on reliquaries, some relics are actually whole saints, preserved in a state that is called “incorruptible”. This means “the property of a body — usually a human body — that does not decompose after death…
Incorruptibility is seen as distinct from the good preservation of a body, or mummification. Incorruptible bodies are often said to have the Odour of Sanctity, a sweet smell…if a body remains incorruptible after death, this is generally seen to be a sign that the individual is a saint. The converse is not true: not every saint is expected to have an incorruptible corpse.”
[wiki] And incorruptible bodies, according to the Catholic Church, must be bodies that have not been embalmed or otherwise preserved.

Here’s a question, though: “Is decomposition a BAD thing?”

I am always torn about this supposedly miraculous incorruptibility, mostly because so many of them really look mummified. I really want them to be real, because it’s such a fascinating and weird addition to the minutae of the world: I mean, what a marvelous concept, to be so outside the physical order of things that you smell like flowers, or keep your dewy complexion, even though you have departed this earthly plane. I suppose it seems glamorous, extraordinary even, to leave behind whatever mystical quality makes your flesh stay and stay, as if you had never left. And yet, there is something creepy, something unnatural about it, too. And so often a dead saint is described as “fresh and sweet as the day they died” – but then when you see pictures of them they don’t look much different than some of the mummies in, for example, Guanajuato, Mexico, none of whom are considered saintly in the least.

Incorruptibility has shown up in many different religions, but Catholicism is the place where it really has taken hold. With the belief in relics came a desire to exhume the corpses of people who had been particularly devout or who had caused miracles during their lifetimes. A good number of the bodies thus exhumed were proclaimed incorrupt, which was for a long time a real weight in the argument for someone’s beatification.

Theoretically, accidentally preserved corpses are typically discolored, wrinkled, distorted, skeletal looking and lacking in elasticity, whereas a truly incorruptible body doesn’t have any of those characteristics: instead, they are moist and flexible, and often retain certain organs intact, such as the liver or heart. Unlike most long-dead corpses, incorruptibles supposedly have a sweet, almost floral, smell; and all this even after years in damp, corrosive places.

The reliquary containing St. Sergius’ incorrupt body. St. Sergius of Radonezh died in 1392.

Unfortunately, the really old saints, such as Sergius of Radonezh are kept in very old reliquaries, and are therefore mostly closed from view; it is only since the 1700s or so, when glass became a proper industry, that large reliquaries have been able to incorporate enough glass to make it possible to to get a really good view of the body thus preserved. Thus, the incorruptibles in more recent reliquaries, such as the head of the amazing St. Catherine of Siena, whom the folk at Curious Expeditions went to see, are actually on display. A surprising number of incorruptible saints are quite recent, with a number of them living and dying in the 19th century; and you can actually see photographs of them when you read about them in Wikipedia or elsewhere.

I was impressed and suspicious when I saw the remains of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who died in 1879 and was exhumed several times before being put in her glass reliquary in Nevers, France. Her face is so perfect, so impossibly serene and attractive, that I had difficulty not smelling a rat. Then I found out that during the last exhumation but one, the ever-so-helpful folk who did it actually washed the body, so when they re-exhumed her in 1909 there was a slight discoloration to her face. This led to cosmetic procedures: “A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans [a high-quality mannequin designer and manufacturer] in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body.” [wiki]

This explained everything! In fact, I was still suspicious, for it seems to me that “sunken eyes and nose” do not sound uncorrupted, never mind the discoloration, which was put down to the washing. On looking at the picture again, however, I can indeed see the underlying structure of a face, with that weird veneer that the wax mask gives to it. It’s odd. Part of me is simply skeptical. But part of me wants it to be true, because it would be another unexplained thing in a far-too explained world. I find the whole process of masking relics strangely bizarre, a queer kind of hygenicization of something that should be startling. I already struggle not to feel the wool is being pulled over my eyes, or perhaps (to be kinder) I simply feel that there is a strong sort of wishful thinking going on by those involved; so for the Church to indulge in this sort of cosmeticism when the miraculousness should be allowed its own self-evidence – it makes me feel as if I’m being patronized. I’d much rather see the real thing, miraculous or not.

The question of incorruptibility implies a certain belief, very present in many religions, but particularly Catholicism, that the earthly sphere is a place of sin and somehow, being earthly, less…important. A lesser place than the place beyond death, where we will all go to reap our rewards, rewards that are better than those we receive here. So when someone’s earthly remains, those parts of them that were left behind when they went to go to the spiritual world (to meet their Maker), don’t follow the natural processes of decay, it is symbolic of the purity, the lack of sin, when they lived here on earth. In other words, they were so saintly in regular life that the sinlessness permeated their fleshly self, and it remained “above” such things as returning to the dust from whence they came.

I could be describing this inaccurately, but this is as close as I can get to what seems to be the thinking.

The problem with this thinking, for me – who is not Catholic, and not studied in Catholicism – is the basic tenet that the natural, “earthly” world is a lesser world than the one we go on to after death (whatever that may be). The very word “incorruptible” implies this attitude, as if the natural processes were a corruption, dirtying what is holy; whereas I find, on looking around me, that the intricacy of the decomposition process is incredible, amazing – miraculous, if you will – whether they be the product of some Creator or the result of some intricate evolutionary processes. The completeness, the incredible tidiness of it, is astounding, particularly when you look carefully at the processes that happen after death.

A white-backed vulture. There’s a good reason vultures have no feathers on their heads.

In a natural environment, there are animals who live almost solely on dead bodies; they are, in essence, nature’s janitors. They decrease the amount of body that needs to decompose, scatter the bones, and generally reduce what is there. Then a host of smaller janitors move in, breaking the remains down farther, carrying it away and dispersing it until there is very little left. What remains is then covered with leaves or dead plant matter, which in turn keeps whatever is left moist so that it can be fully dissolved by bacteria – with the exception of bones, which, happily for science, sometimes live on for millenia.

I think one of the things that people find difficult about this process (aside from things like smell and general asthetics) is that, in essence, the body is being eaten, being devoured by the agents of the soil. We have trouble thinking about why anything would want to eat such a revolting meal. But just think about it: if there was ever any sense of divinity in the universe, wouldn’t it be symbolized by the fact that there are creatures out there who prefer to eat something so (to us) repulsive? That in this perfectly balanced world, everything is provided for, even the redistribution of our bodies’ nutrients back to the soil, so that fruit can be made and flowers can flourish? There is nothing so wonderful, in my mind, as the fact that something so unwanted as a dead body can be turned into something so desirable as a flower. And all the things which do that work for us – buzzards and blowflies and their ilk – should be venerated for the job they do to make our world as beautiful as it is.

Which brings me to another historical point of view about nature: that line we draw, the one which is so clear and so difficult to define – the line between humans and nature. There are many, many ways that people of European descent try to distinguish themselves as separate from animals, and death is one of the biggies. Embalming, solid-metal caskets, crypts, mummification, you name it: we try to cheat nature out of reclaiming us, and prove that we are not simply animals, to lie down and be taken by the soil. The preservation of bodies is not a new concept, but it has lasted surprisingly long, considering how crowded our earth has become. It was only recently, for example, that the first person of European descent was cremated here in the U.S. (see this great article from the other Cabinet, about Theosophists and cremation), because up until the last century, nearly everyone believed they would not be able to go to Heaven unless their bodies were preserved intact.

There is a movement, begun in England in the 1990’s, to make the burial industry more ecologically friendly, called “the alternative death movement,” toward creating nature preserves where remains are interred with cardboard or other biodegradable caskets, and the only markers are native plants or stones. The bodies are not embalmed, and some are even simply wrapped in a shroud. The intense beauty of this kind of burial, to be returned to the embrace of the earth so as to nourish the land, seems to me far more mysterious and inspirational than the idea of leaving behind a moist and flexible carapace that is never allowed to go…well, home.

And really, the concept of forever is hard to grasp. Does having your remains stay immovable, fixed, speak more of eternity to you? Or does the more fluid, circular idea of matter constantly recycled – that your remains become part of the soil, then part of plants, then perhaps eaten by an herbivore, which in turn is eaten by another person, thus carrying some small part of you on in any number of others’ bodies – seem vaster and more eternal? I think I would have to go with the latter. I understand the miraculousness of saints who linger, to help their supplicants; but ultimately, I find I would not want it for myself.

Ursula LeGuin talks about this in a different way in the last couple of her Earthsea books: this need to herd the dead into a place of their own, and the way that the unnaturalness of it begins to take its toll. It’s a more metaphorical approach, but the idea that our natural cycle is to return to the earth, to the wholeness of everything, is well-presented.

I suppose the remains of saints are important in that they leave something behind for people to venerate. It is a kindness, a vehicle for more miracles, if you are a believer of those things. But for the rest of us, it is at this point just an industry, one that makes a great deal of money. If you have ever watched Six Feet Under, especially the episodes where the large corporation is trying to take over their small family funeral business, you may get some inkling. But try googling “casket manufacturer”, and you’ll come up with a really amazing peek into a big-business operation.

My friend Gwyan once did an art piece about how a lot of less-wealthy graves in Oakland, California got moved from the cemetery to make room for more graves. He found a mortuary catalog and printed flyers for caskets, from the Solid Bronze casket (yes, many coffins are actually metal these days) down to the Cardboard Casket, and posted them along the route the disenterred had taken from the cemetery to their new location. This from the same person who went with some others from the Cacophony Society (who were also involved with the origins of Burning Man) on a tour of the newly-abandoned California School of Mortuary Science, where all kinds of amazing things were unearthed, including a full glass bottle of LyfLyk – “For the velvety appearance of living tissue” (many thanks to the Frigid Fluid company for continuing to carry this fascinating product).

But I digress (eww!).

Abney Park Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery, in London, is a famous example of what happens when the burial industry goes awry: nature takes over, with quite wonderful results: leaning angels point to heaven, ivy from ancient wreaths has instead wreathed itself around wonderful Victorian monuments. The cemetery was built during the Victorian era, when the small local churchyards could no longer maintain the number of burials required. A ring of seven cemeteries were built in a ring around London, known as The Magnificent Seven, and an era of seriously fashionable Gothic burials was ushered in.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for us), the companies who built these cemeteries simply didn’t have the foresight to put money away for the future maintenance of the park, so when the cemetery was full, no more money was coming in and maintenance on it ceased altogether. By 1975, despite an annex across the road (where you can see Karl Marx’s tomb), it had become such a financial disaster that they actually closed it, and it was only because a trust was formed and efforts made to save the cemetery that it hasn’t completely fallen into ruin. Still, those intervening years have done wonders for the atmosphere of the place, and I would put it, along with its smaller sister cemetery, Abney Park in Hackney, as one of my top ten places to see in London. In fact Highgate was the scenery for a lot of the 1960’s Hammer Horror movies, so if you want to do a little armchair tourism, you could watch a vampire flick or two.

In any case, this fearfulness, this attitude toward “corruption”, is a conundrum not easily solved. To be separated from your loved ones forever – or, more hopefully, until they join you wherever – can be terrible to contemplate. No one knows for sure how death happens, and what happens to that meaningful spark that is you, when you go. Stepping off into a dark place is not an easy business. But to fear the breakdown of one’s body, that return of your less meaningful parts to whence they came, should not be a fearful process, because you’re not there anymore. It seems to me it is a gift you can give to the universe.

Don’t get me wrong, if you want to become incorruptible and be put in a really cool reliquary, I’m not going to stop you. We all need some miraculous weirdness to keep us interested, keep the wonder going. …I’m just saying, let’s not all do it.

Some links for your perusal:

The Mummy Locator, with all the information you could ever want about mummies – this page points to Guanajuato.

A really great site all about why and how not to spend a lot of money on fancy caskets.

A directory of places in the U.S. that do green burials, and information on home funerals and other back-to-basics ideas.

A very minimalist site selling cardboard and other self-assembly caskets for as low as $49.95.