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In ancient Greece, there were two incarnations of death. The more well-known Greek personification of Death was Thanatos, the child of Nyx and brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Thanatos represented natural death and was portrayed as a gentle being. He was represented either as a kind handsome bearded man with wings or as a beautiful winged child. Thantos is sometimes portrayed carrying a butterfly, a wreath, or an inverted torch. Thanatos is frequently represented on funerary stele and on vases—a peaceful figure who led souls away after they had lived full lives.
However Thanatos had a flock of hellish sisters, the Keres, dark flying beings with sharp teeth and an insatiable taste for blood. The Keres represented violent senseless death. They flew in the thousands above battlefields and hung over plague ravaged cities. The Keres were associated with the apparatus of violent death–famine, madness, agony, hate, and violence, yet classical authors also sometimes treat them as oddly personal—like a bullet with a soldier’s name on it. Keres were portrayed like harpies or demons—cruel women with fangs and talons dressed in bloody ripped garments. When they found a wounded or sick person the Keres would descend to feast on blood. Hesiod’s harrowing poem, The Shield of Heracles describes them in such a manner:
The black Keres, clashing their white teeth,
Grim faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread,
Kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted
To drink black blood. Whom first they caught.
Lying or fallen newkly wounded, around him
They threw their might talosns, and the shade to Hades
Went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted
With human blood: they threw away the corpse
And back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire
Hesiod also indirectly indicates that the Keres were among the horrible fates which flew out of Pandora’s box and have subsequently plagued mankind. The Romans also believed in these cruel & deadly incarnations of fat. The Roman name for the entities was tenebrae—“darknesses”
The Keres do not fit neatly into the larger Greco-Roman pantheon. Perhaps, like Nyx herself, they were outsider gods left over from some earlier tradition. Throughout the course of classical history, their portrayal and their fatalistic meaning changed. However they were a part of classical thought. It is important to mention them when writing about the Greek underworld. The dark realm below was haunted by these cruel children of night—they would fly forth when disaster struck humankind.
According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out. The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire. Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.
All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun. The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans. Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job. Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology. To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below. After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces. The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.
This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed. So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba. These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):
Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly. They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.
Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning
Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;
Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.
Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.
Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld. They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).
Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision). I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.
Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”
That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque). I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest. If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.
In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead. Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger. This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires). However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.
In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire. His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan. Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian. Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).
In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea. The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity. Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence. Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans. The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).
Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument. Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings. After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos. Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile. Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.
Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there. Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world. Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.
He died as a revered figure in 343 AD. Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:
Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.
Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman. But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning. After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint. His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world. Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.
Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century. Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions. Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).
Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master. A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son. Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message. Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.
Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess. He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines. Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization. By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.
In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things). Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius. Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices. Yet the story rankled the god’s heart. When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows. As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”). Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.
Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher. Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.
Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing. When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction). The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades. Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius. Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.
Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art). Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians. Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently. In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever. In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.
Years ago, when I first moved to New York and was a bright optimistic young person, I would travel around the city via subway. Every day I entered and left the same entrance to the same underground train stop. One day somebody dropped a bag of cheap glitter stars right by the exit. These stars were different colors and different shapes. They started as a glittering clump at the top of the stairs but thanks to foot traffic and weather, they quickly got everywhere. Blocks away one would come upon glistening stars dotted along the sidewalk.
Then the stars began to fade and deteriorate. Their shininess wore off in the rain. Their arms broke as people walked on them, but every once in a while you would see one that had caught in a protected location and survived. Eventually there were no glitter stars left at all, but I suppose that the stuff they are made out of—bits of plastic and metal foil—is still out there in a landfill, or running down through drains into the ocean, or just blowing in the wind.
I mention all of this because it is a poignant metaphor for the currently projected fate of the expanding universe. The ultimate destiny of the universe was once a problem relegated to theologians and mystics (and crazy people). However, when cosmologists fathomed how the universe began–with the big bang 13 plus billion years ago–the question of how the universe would end became a legitimate scientific topic. Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe was expanding provided an ominous hint as to the ending.
The way the universe will end is contingent on whether the momentum of the universe’s expansion is greater than the force of gravity (which in turn depends on the amount of matter in the universe and the density of that matter). The current scientific consensus–based on carefully considered estimates of the universe’s mass density and on the most recently observed rate of cosmic expansion—is that the universe will continue to expand indefinitely.
Physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists therefore now project a rather glum fate for everything that exists. The death of the universe is divided into 4 stages summarized below:
Stelliferous: (Now to 100 trillion years into the future) This is an era teaming with stars: great masses of matter coalesce together into stellar masses and begin fusing together and releasing all sorts of energy as they do so. Bit by bit though the brightest stars will wink out and only long-lived red dwarfs will remain.
Degenerate (100 trillion to 1037 years in the future) After even the red dwarfs fade into darkness, most of the universe’s mass will remain in the dying husks of stars, or in the remains of more exotic stellar death (black holes left by the destruction of super massive stars, neutron stars, and white dwarfs). Electromagnetic energy in the Degenerate era will be generated by particle annihilation and proton decay rather than stellar fusion.
Black Hole Era (1038 to 10100 years into the future) After protons all decay away from the universe, the only large objects creating energy will be black holes which will themselves slowly evaporate into exotic matter over a vast expanse of empty time.
Dark Era (10100 years into the future to eternity) Protons and black holes will be gone and only the effluvia radiation from their passing will still exists in the universe. All that remains will be photons of immense wavelength, neutrinos, positrons, and electrons–sad burned-out remnants which lack any order or meaning. The universe will be incredibly vast, a horrible dark cold broken thing and it will remain that way forever.
So there you have it. The fate of the universe is to slowly freeze and decay over trillions and trillions of years and then dissipate away into dark nothingness over eternity.
Of course 10100 years is a very long time indeed. There is still plenty of time for beach parties and flower gardening, but this is not the end I would have wanted for anything I esteem as much as the universe. There isn’t much I can do about it though, except to hope that some unknown aspect of the cosmos provides a more spectacular and fiery end or that Vishnu intervenes. Or maybe there is a multiverse in which our cosmos floats like an abstract bubble: in the past, every time we thought we understood the universe it turned out that we were only looking at a small part of a greater whole. It wouldn’t surprise me if something still eludes us.
The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new. But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power. She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld. One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.
Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld? Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers. The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor. Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers. It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”. The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico. Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.
And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself? The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild! The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold. The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.
In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage. Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils which are an ingredient in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings. In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success. The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.
Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers. However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed]. I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape. The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans . Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination. The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.
The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).
Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa. With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device. Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!
The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture. It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes. The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).
This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages. To quote Wikipedia:
In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.
Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.
Ugh enough of that. The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!