Ritual Sacrifice: Bog Bodies and Beyond

Ritual Sacrifice: Bog Bodies and Beyond

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If you’re like me, when the state of the world gets you down your mind goes to introspective places like, “how did humankind get this way?” I keep returning to an old grad school steady, Kenneth Burke and his theory on the cult of the kill. Then I recently found an article on the ritual killings of bog bodies in Europe and thought I’d share the results of my recent rabbit hole:

Evidence of human sacrifice has been discovered deep into prehistory. Ritual human sacrifice was thought to have originated in complex societies such as the Aztecs but archeologists are finding ties to hunter-gatherers throughout the Upper Paleolithic period as well. This is an important development because it suggests that our earliest ancestors were far more advanced than previously thought. It also poses the question if humans have been observing the symbolic importance of burial and death since our species began. sunghir-burial.jpg(Credit)

The photo above is an artistic rendering of two preteens whose bodies were found in modern Russia radiocarbon dated to the Stone Age. They were discovered with grave inclusions consisting of over 5,000 chipped ivory beads and fox teeth. Their bones were covered in a pigmented clay called red ochre. Because of their elaborate decorations and odd placement the remnants did not match other funeral sites documented from that period. The photo below depicts another odd burial of three teenagers from the same time found in the Czech province of Moravia with similar anomalies. Scholars argue that these strange similarities can be explained by ritual sacrifice.

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Other instances of ritual sacrifice have shown up along the vast cultural timeline including the Japanese tradition of Hitobashira in which a person was buried alive under a public building like a dam or bridge in prayer to the gods for protection from natural disasters and enemy attacks. This tradition took place as early as 323 AD.

1024px-Maruoka_Castle_20100529-01.jpg(Maruoka Castle, one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan is rumored to have been constructed with a human pillar, found in the legend of “O-shizu, Hitobashira.” Credit)

Human sacrifice is common in Western myth and practice including Greek mythology and religious texts. In Homer’s Illiad, Iphigenia was to be sacrificed by her father in hopes of winning the Trojan War. According to the Bible, Judges 11:30-34, Jephthah vows his daughter as a burnt offering if he won the battle against the Ammonites. The Celts ritualistically impaled victims in order to foretell the future from their death moans. Many pre-modern tribes practiced headhunting or the ceremonial beheading of an adversary for magical purposes. I hate to use Wikipedia as a reference here but honestly the list of examples is so long you can explore evidence yourself spanning every continent and epoch all the way through the European colonization of the Americas. It is still practiced in parts of the developing world. Of course, the Aztec’s popularized the tradition having purportedly killed a few thousand people each year who were both members of the Aztec community and prisoners of war.

1280px-James_Cook,_English_navigator,_witnessing_human_sacrifice_in_Taihiti_(Otaheite)_c._1773.jpg(Depiction of a human sacrifice in Tahiti c. 1773. Credit)
800px-Tollundmannen.jpg(Tollund Man lived in the 4th century BCE and is one of the best studied examples of a bog body. Credit)Borremose_Man2.jpg(Borremose Man:Credit)

Bog bodies are some of the best known examples of mummified human remains. They vary wildly in age, spanning as far back as 8000 BCE until WWII. Due to high levels of acid found in decaying peat moss, a few of the bodies are in perfect condition showing details like hair and follicles. While the exact number of cadavers found has been contested, hundreds of full and partial bodies have been catalogued and studied. Most of them are casualties of ritual sacrifice scientists now believe.

Weerdinge-men_1904 2.jpg(By Geert Jannes Landweer (1859-1924), Public Domain)Moselig-fra-Stidsholdt-Mose,-Torslev_DO-637_original.jpg(Stidsholt Woman, severed head discovered in 1859. Credit)

What I can’t stop thinking about is how pervasive this practice has been. We cannot deny that modern civilization bears a common thread. Ritual sacrifice has touched every continent and many major religious groups. Modern Christians worship a man who was publicly tortured and offered up to a greater deity in exchange for life beyond the grave.humansacrifice2.jpg (Credit)

It’s easy to cleave whole parts of the story and use it draw lines between the civilized and barbaric world. It’s a lot like what I talked about in my post on cannibalism. Again, this isn’t a discussion on the acceptability of murdering humans, rather an exercise in deducing why things are the way they are. In fact, a recent study suggests human sacrifice might have yielded many of the social hierarchies that now exist. This common early behavior made societies less egalitarian and eventually gave rise to strict class systems. In other words, ritual killing helped thin the crowd from dissenters and kept the powerful in place. Because power elites have been able to solidify their positions over centuries we’ve evolved to less obvious forms of social control like policing, taxation, and war to keep class systems in place.humansacrifice9.png(Egyptian stone carving of human sacrifice. Credit)

Regardless of how we arrived at present state at least we have more or less stopped the sanctioned killing of folks. I don’t know if I’m convinced that ritual sacrifice alone caused complex class distinctions to emerge but I do think it’s important to take stock of where we came. When people wonder why things like gun violence and war are so difficult to stamp out I shudder to think the answers are much closer than we care to admit.

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Better Know a Taphophile: Courtney

Better Know a Taphophile: Courtney

Happy Saturday everyone. I’m thrilled to share my first guest interview today! Courtney and I met in my home state of Indiana. She was one of my favorite patron’s when I worked at Allen County Public Library in early to mid 2000s. Besides her genuineness and great taste in library material I always knew there was a reason I immediately liked her! Here is Courtney’s story about why cemeteries have been an important place since her teen years:

I’m drawn to the stories of cemeteries. In the small town where I grew up there was a large historic cemetery where my friends and I liked to go. We rambled around picking out our favorite stones and tried to imagine the deceaseds’ lives based on dates, family plots, and the monuments themselves. My favorite was a tall white obelisk that had a man’s name on the front. The right face read, “His Wife” with dates. Not uncommon for a woman’s life to be entirely whittled down to that. More memorable was the left side which read, “His Other Wife.” She was dead and yet only rated trusty #2 in memorium. It says so much about that time and family. The inscription has remained with me.

I also had a picnic in that same cemetery with the first boy I really loved. It was for prom. It was a small group. We were 17. It is one of the most precious memories I have from high school. We were weirdos and happy to have a place to go that captured the melancholy of that time. We used to say that witches were burned at the stake in that spot because it seemed fittingly spooky. We didn’t really believe it though. IMG_5573.jpg(Photo courtesy, Courtney K.)

If I could be buried anywhere I would want to be there in Batavia Cemetery…but I know it’s full. I also get the practicality of cremation or the allure of being buried in a tree-growing pod. In my wildest dreams I want people to wonder who the hell I am. Buried under a block of granite with some weird quote and my name, maybe there will even be a picture and the lyrics to my favorite song. Screenshot 2017-11-04 10.19.56.png

My favorite novel, Wuthering Heights centers around graves, death, and ghosts. I am also a HUGE Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. At least 25% of that show takes place in cemeteries. Buffy refers to herself as “She Who Hangs Out In Cemeteries a Lot.” I have definitely ran around the cemetery pretending to be Buffy. I don’t think our culture focuses enough on death and dying. It’s shocking when death is the most normal thing there is next to birth and more certain.batavia185085nph.jpg(Credit)

Thank you so much for sharing your charming story, Courtney! You definitely win my vote for best prom!

If you have a story that you’d like to tell please leave a comment below and I’ll send you contact info. Or see this post. I’d love to interview you or share your cemetery story here!

Hanging Coffins: Burial in the Sky

Hanging Coffins: Burial in the Sky

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Doing research for my last blogpost about the Madagascarian custom of dancing with corpses I found another touching ritual that was too good not to share. Nailed among the cliffs in various parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, and China you can find solemn effigies of early Eastern culture. For some ethnic communities this centuries old practice has survived and involves suspending wooden coffins hundreds of feet in the air.

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In areas where hanging coffins have been discovered but the local population is no longer practicing the custom, exact reasons for the bizarre tradition are scarce. For native people who have maintained their heritage the process is thought to prolong decomposition and also prevents rivals or animals from stealing off with bones.

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In preparation for the ceremony the cadaver usually undergoes a smoking process to stave off rot. A funeral is then given at home while the corpse is blanketed and seated in a special death chair. After a period of mourning a celebratory procession is held. Family members sometimes try to acquire samples of the loved one’s blood for the purpose of rubbing it into their skin which is thought to absorb the spirit. The consecration concludes with remains being shuttled vertically to coffins suspended in the rocks.

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Sadly, the tradition itself is passing away. Younger members of such practicing ethnic groups have adopted more Christianized funerals and many of the ancient sites are in danger of falling down. There are very few resources devoted to preserving the sites. Although, recent efforts by preservationists have seen more governmental funding and research being devoted to the cause.

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What’s fascinating is that these burial sites are not always easy to locate. As you can see from the establishing shot regions in which memorials have been discovered are extremely mountainous and difficult to traverse. Coffins are often hidden within crags or lined along crevices invisible from the ground.

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This CNN Travel video describes one hanging coffin enthusiast who travels by boat to some pretty remote locations. The article concludes by stating that new sites are still being discovered and that experts remain puzzled by the logistics of dragging heavy remains up hundreds of feet. I know I’d be damn grateful if my friends and family took the effort to drag me up the side of the mountain to be buried with the clouds.

Dancing Dead: Dans Macabre and Famadihana

Dancing Dead: Dans Macabre and Famadihana

If you happen to be a real-life Indiana girl the music video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was something of a novelty. Forget dirty dancing, dead dancing suddenly became a sexy date idea, at least for Tom Petty. Then again stranger things have happened in Indiana.

Actually, dancing with the dead and its many visual forms have been around since plague gripped the Middle Ages. This genre of art depicted the horrifying realities of being surrounded by the dead and came to be called dans macabre. Today it’s an actual burial rite still practiced in Madagascar known as famadihana.

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Dans macabre fits also into the category of momento mori, which you can read about in my other blogpost here. Imagine that everyone you loved was plague-stricken or could be taken away at any moment due to starvation or war. That was pretty much the scene in 14th and 15th century Europe.

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Even before the Middle Ages skeletons were a common motif. This skeleton with jugs adorned a cistern at the famous House of the Faun in Pompeii , built during 2nd century bc.  In order to cope with the bleakness people took to art. Debate surrounds the particulars of how dans macabre became such a public sight but most scholars agree that the murals painted at Cimetière des Saints-Innocents in Paris between 1424–25 launched the imagery to fame.  Charnier_at_Saints_Innocents_Cemetery.jpg(Credit)

Above is a rendering of the murals found along the churchyard ossuary (i.e. storage facilities filled with bones). The murals were destroyed in 1669. I’ve also written about this churchyard here. These panels were celebrated in Paris and likely kicked off the morbid illustrations that spread throughout Europe.

7b8c3c58a92c91942349076ba295ea6c--wrap-style-danse-macabre.jpg(From La Danse macabre written in 1486. Credit)

Dans macabre is powerful because it forces the onlooker to think about death as a person and perceive it as an active force. It’s also a useful religious tool reminding god-fearing souls to repent. More than anything I think dans macabre is a way to be darkly humourous about death. Many of the images involve dancing skeletons and clergy or wealthy lords. This functioned as a form of political satire reminding upper classes that death keeps us all inextricably linked. Unfortunately, most murals that adorned public places like churches have been lost to time. But there’s a ton surviving in print. This amazing book called Simolachri, Historie, e Figure de la Morte holds a bunch of peculiar illustrations collected from original manuscripts published in Germany, 1538:

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Here is a skeleton playing xylophone for a hobbling old woman while death dances behind her. Other famous images include Michael Wolgemut’s woodcuts found in Historia mundi, 1493:

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There’s something so perfect about dancing and death. In it we find a sense of poetic justice or triumphing over the sadness of dying. It’s reasonable to consider that for some cultures this has become more than images on a page.

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The celebration above is called famadihana, a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Known as the turning of the bones, people dig up bodies of their ancestors every 5 to 7 years from the family crypt and redress them in fresh cloth. Entire families take turns dancing with corpses around the tomb to live music.

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To begin the dearly departed’s burial garments are removed, the bodies dusted and re-dressed in fresh silk. Family members then dance until sunset at which point the remains are returned to their graves but placed upside-down to symbolize the cycle of life and death.

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While the ceremony is dwindling in popularity due to costs of exhuming and re-interring loved ones, many have been undeterred. In fact, this practice recently made headlines because of public health concerns involving contact with corpses and a rapidly developing new plague. According to the article those who participate in the ritual have been reluctant to desist because they feel it is an intrinsic part of their way of life. It’s clear from watching this first-hand experience of the celebration that famadihana is an important part of the grieving process for those who know nothing else than dancing away their sorrow while clutching someone’s bones.

Maybe Tom Petty was onto something after all…

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Taphophile Interview Series: Why do you like cemeteries?

Taphophile Interview Series: Why do you like cemeteries?

Thanks everyone who reached out to share your love of cemetery talk! I wanted to keep the dialogue going by hearing more about you. I devised the following interview questions and if you feel so inclined I’d love to share them here! Please be as open-ended within 500-900 words. Pictures are also helpful but not required. Respond with your answers to diggirldesigns@gmail.com. I can’t wait to hear from you!

  1. What draws you to cemeteries?
  2. When did you develop this interest?
  3. Do you have a favorite cemetery or burial place that you’ve visited (or always wanted to visit)? Where is it?
  4. Are general topics of death and dying important to discuss? Why or why not?
  5. Tell us more about yourself—any other hobbies or interests?
  6. How do you want to be memorialized (if at all) after your death?

Thanks again for your continued support in this blog!

-Alysen

13423838_576381755854388_1951536562035813735_n(Photos Copyright Alysen Wade 2017)

Good Christian Death: History of Churchyard Cemeteries

Good Christian Death: History of Churchyard Cemeteries

Death is the most natural part of the human experience yet there is nothing innate about how we treat our deceased. Throughout history societies have employed vastly different practices for disposing of and memorializing the dead. To be clear, cemeteries are only one form of ritual commemoration.d3d4238a174333d52a7f9d87a4c04a44--memento-mori-genre.jpg(Example of Romano-Germanic momento mori demonstrating the importance of committing loved ones to the ground. Credit)

There are even subtle differences between words that describe specific burial places such as necropolis and churchyard. Today I’ll focus on the churchyard, which is defined as a consecrated space owned by a church or attached to a church structure. This analysis is specific to Christian churchyards that spread westward from the early Middle Ages.

Gravedigger-Woodcut.jpg(Momento mori woodcut circa 1525. Credit)

Churchyards were a logistical necessity offering a place to partition decaying bodies within limited space. They also served a socializing function since medieval churchyards were gathering places for town functions or ceremonies.1200px-Saints_Innocents_1550_Hoffbauer.jpg(The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery is a defunct churchyard in Paris that was used from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was the oldest and largest churchyard in Paris and was used for mass graves. Credit)

Maintaining strict class distinctions was apparent as affluent citizens were laid to rest inside church catacombs protected from grave robbery while those with less means were consecrated outside. Even the iconic image of a little hillside churchyard was often the geological result of stacking remains on top of each other for years and elevating the land.

tmpnull.jpg(Unknown churchyard. Credit)

With all their idyllic imagery and quaintness, churchyards also share pretty barbaric roots. During Christianity’s rapid expansion in attempt to stamp out detractors, missionaries of the church were instructed to take over pagan burial grounds. This served not only to destroy so-called sacrilegious pagan relics but also allowed the Christian faith to maintain dominance by appropriating the sacredness of the space. It wasn’t enough for early Christians to control the living, they also required eliminating any memory of the polytheistic dead. Even the Vatican was built on top of 22 pagan tombs which are still secured in grottoes under St. Peter’s basilica7954354328_752c41598b_b.jpg(One of the world’s oldest surviving pagan cemeteries in Turkmenistan. Credit)

Churchyards are among my favorite burial sites despite their complicated past. Largely because they remain unchanged for hundreds of years churchyards hold generations of family members and relate a powerful narrative of belonging. I visited a couple small rural churchyards on a recent camping trip and was overwhelmed by the sense of community and care.IMG_4139.jpg(It was touching to see how cared for headstones were. This was obviously cleaned with a power sanding tool. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

The first church we stopped at was Jonah’s Run Baptist in Wilmington, OH. According to their website, Jonah’s Run was founded by Daniel Collett and a few others in 1839 who purchased 4+ acres to build a church and cemetery. The site was purchased from Levi Lukens, a Quaker who arrived from Virginia in 1802. The cemetery was nearly full before 1870. Not many are interred past the late 1800s save a few recent graves that were added as of the early 2000s.  IMG_4134.jpg(During a time when the average age of death was 30 this woman lived to be 90 in 1895. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

The second church we stopped at was Sharon United Methodist also in Wilmington, OH. Unfortunately, the church does not keep historical records that I could find. Like Jonah’s Run most of those laid to rest dated from late 1800s to early 1900s. We could not locate any recent graves. Aside from the beautifully ornate and handcrafted stones another remarkable characteristic was the softness of the ground. At no other cemetery have I felt so nervous walking around. It might have been due to recent rainfall but the earth had an unusually sodden feel that made me slightly worried about stepping too near the headstones.IMG_4137.jpg(Ann was laid to rest in 1843 and I’d like to know if these are her original boots or a family heirloom. I also love that death dates were recorded based on how many years, months, and days you lived. Copyright Alysen Wade.)

This couple died only 13 days apart in 1882:IMG_4136.jpg(Copyright Alysen Wade)

The ornate hand detailing was some of the best I’ve seen:IMG_4135.jpg(Copyright Alysen Wade)

Visiting these two churchyards really solidified for me that cemeteries are hyperlocal, intensely personal spaces. If you’re ever traveling in a remote location and spot a churchyard cemetery I urge you to explore. Special thanks to my friend, Ariel who didn’t mind veering off the beaten path!

Share What You Know! Call for Cemetery Stories

I’m usually the weird girl talking about cemeteries because I find myself endlessly fascinated by what other people know.  Everyone seems to have a ghost story or some kind of interest in the dead. Let me know if you have something to tell! It doesn’t have to be lengthy. 300-500 words and few pictures will do. Or if you’ve heard about something to explore we could collaborate on a research project. I’m down for anything. Just don’t plagiarize and if it’s a narrative it must have happened to you. Tell us about your childhood haunted house or the cemetery near where you live. I hope to hear from you!

Submit to diggirldesigns@gmail.com.*IMG_4060.jpg(Even Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, liked cemeteries. I discovered this photo taken by Lewis in a book published posthumously about his forgotten photography career. Circa 1850 Oxford, UK. Available here.)

*Editing rights reserved.