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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”).   Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength.  Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave.  Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways.  The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature:  Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics.  Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.

Burial Mound

In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength.  Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living.  They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans).   Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.

Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure.  A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound.  In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.”  When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him.  As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest.  When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).

Viking Hoard

We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve.  Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body.  After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm.  The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them.  More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target).  After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir.  In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes.  In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,

 “I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired.  But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out.  You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings.  Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy.  You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone.  And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone.  This will drag you to your death.”

Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.

There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar.  Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things.  Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful.  When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).

The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence.   To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside).   The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.

As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings.  Then even these undead sailors began to fade away.  Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend.   Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead.  However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today.  The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes.   These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers.   More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world:  in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

Ghosts and the disquieted dead abound in China and, as elsewhere, these manifold specters hold up a dark mirror to society as a whole.  Chinese folklore features hungry ghosts, hanged ghosts, sexually abused ghosts, and happy, helpful servant ghosts.  There are the wrongfully dead ghosts who were denied justice by merciless bureaucrats and there are drowned ghosts who always lurk in the water grabbing at things.  There are ghost brides, ghost thieves, and ghost hunters.  All of this is in addition to the countless fiends, demons, nature spirits, immortals, monsters, gods, and supernatural animals which make up the endlessly invigorating Chinese pantheon.    Yet out of all the many sorts of ghosts and revenants, one particular category of Chinese apparition stands out as an exemplary type specimen of the undead.   These are the jiāng shī, the hopping reanimated corpses which are analogous to the vampires and mummies of western horror.  In English such undead beings are called hopping ghosts or Chinese vampires.

Here’s a diagram?

Like vampires, jiāng shī feed off of the life energy of the living and command supernatural powers, but there are some big differences.  Jiāng shī are created in many different supernatural ways when the po, an aspect of the soul, is returned to the body (this often involves a shock of yin energy from cats or the moon), but they are essentially of two varieties:  1) recently dead souls who died far from home and literally hop back to where they are from sometimes with the help of a Taoist sorcerers, and sometimes through pure homesickness ; and 2) ancient corpses which have gone so long without decaying that they become reanimated by dark yin magic.  The Chinese name means “stiff corpse” and the undead monsters are literally stiff from rigor mortis.  Because of this handicap, jiāng shī have a hard time with mobility and their movements are often unnatural and erratic—hence they are believed to move by means of hopping (although some of the more powerful and ancient ones are also reputed to fly).   Unfortunately their lack of agility is more than made up for by superhuman strength.

They are not ladies’ men like western vampires and–hey! What’s going on here?

Contemporary hopping ghosts look like contemporary corpses–except for the fact that they are animated and are hopping violently and quickly towards you to suck out your qi energy (oh and they have long sharp fingernails).  Ancient jiāng shī, however, have a very distinctive and operatic look:  they are dressed in Qing dynasty graveclothes and they have pale green skin and white hair (as well as claws and fangs).  Both sorts of hopping ghosts bear an overwhelming smell of putrefaction with them—which is so appalling that it is occasionally fatal.  They feed on qi energy which they strangle/gouge out of their victims, either manually or by hopping on top of the heads of sleepers.

If you are having trouble with hopping ghosts, there are several ways of dealing with them.  The animated corpses are driven off by Taoist mirrors, brooms made with real straw, rice, or fresh chicken blood.  Sometimes applying a yellow and red Chinese death blessing to their forehead will give the jiāng shī peace (although this should be attempted only in extreme circumstances!).  They cannot abide the light of the sun.  In the end though there is only one sovereign remedy to permanently get rid of jiāng shī, and it is the ultimate solution to any undead problems.  If you burn a jiāng shī and all of its accessories (creepy funeral suit, coffin, etc.) you will be permanently rid of the monster.

Good old fire!

The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history.  Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel.  They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD.  They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes.  They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.

But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know.  We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths).  The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history.  This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves.  These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure.  Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up).  A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood.  Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb.  Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure.  Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants.  Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans.  Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties).  Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
Kostromskaia kurgan, Gold)

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