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I’m sorry about yesterday’s exiguous post.  Usually I edit out Sumi’s additions to my writing, but if a black cat can’t speak out on Halloween, then when can she have her say?

Anyway, I am still thinking about our 2018 Halloween topic: cities and the dead.  I wonder if the week’s worth of posts came out quite the way I wanted.

Let’s look at the entries one by one: the introductory post turned into a discourse upon land usage in the United States. The second post was an article about four (4!) tombs, which hardly seems like a city. The 3rd post was about some pretty cathedrals and a physically abusive Visigoth king. The Vietnamese graveyard was enormously satisfying to look at, but I worry that I didn’t explore why people would lavish so many resources on such a project (a question which is enormously magnified for the Ming tombs). This leaves my drawing of a haunted fish city, which was a work of art by myself and not really a place in the real world.

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I am left with a feeling akin to what I felt when I was in LA: Where exactly is the city?  Everything in Los Angeles was city-like (often beautifully so), but the true heart of a city–the throngs of individuals afoot, the drunkards shouting at each other, the eccentric man dressed as a pickle, the street vendors selling sausages–all that was hidden away somewhere else as you drive around endless freeways looking for it.

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Except in the case of these “cities of the dead”, that magic is well and truly hidden away forever–replaced by inscriptions, marble finials, and ceramic dragons.  I feel like I would have done a better job writing about cities by writing about a guillemot colony or a bacteria culture than by writing about even the greatest cemeteries.

Perhaps there is a fundamental paradox within the concept itself.  Cities are, above all, places where people live and conduct their business.  If there are no people, then a place is maybe not a city, even if there are buildings and monuments and every other trappings.  Maybe cemeteries are really abandoned cities or a wastelands even if they are adjacent to a living city (or inside the city itself). Necropolises are so close to the real thing, but so far away…separated by the greatest of veils.

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I think cemeteries are beautiful and special and I like going to them whenever I go to a new city in order to get a sense of what the inhabitants are like and what they love best, but it is worth recalling that such tourism is an exercise in chasing ghosts.  Of course there are no actual ghosts: specters are really feelings and ideas.  Feelings and ideas are, of course, things that only exist within the minds of the living.  If you are within a City of the Dead it is because you have crafted it within yourself as you wrestle with the past and with the long shadows the dead have cast over us by building the world as it used to be.  The people who used to be here are always with us–in our actions, our outlooks, our genes, and our hearts, but they are not in any cities.  Cities are places for the living. Cemeteries are just places of memory where we try to understand how we got to where we are now and remember what we lost along the way.

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Roman sarcophagus of Italian marble (ca. 3rd century AD, Getty Museum, California)

Almost every culture has myths and stories about the undead—supernatural beings trapped between the living world and the underworld.  The majority of such creatures are horrible, monstrous, or sad, yet such is their dark hold on our imagination that they reoccur in the legends of many different places.

An ancient Roman cemetery complex along the Via Latina

This year, in order to celebrate Halloween, that special time between seasons when the veil to the underworld if lifted, Ferrebeekeeper presents some of the undead who are less familiar than Hollywood’s smooth-talking vampires and shambling zombies.  Although undead folklore stretches back to prehistory, an appropriate place to begin with our exploration is in the cemeteries and columbariums of Ancient Rome–which were haunted by several sorts of undead spirits. Roman funereal practice changed back and forth from burial to cremation several times (and some families or individuals preferred to stick with the unfashionable tradition).  Cemeteries and funereal monuments were found by the side of thoroughfares just outside of towns and cities.  One can imagine how spooky these unlighted tombs were at night when filled with footpads, desperate fugitives, wild animals, and pre-industrial darkness (even without the various wandering dead whom the Romans believed in).

Ancient Roman Cemetery from Roman Gaul (today at Alyscamps, Arles, France)

The most common Roman apparitions were two sorts of ghosts: the manes and lemures, which were separated by moral alignment.  Manes, the spirits of deceased loved ones, were basically benevolent– although they still enjoyed drinking blood, which Romans provided for them with animal sacrifices and with gladiatorial games (which were originally intended for funereal purposes).  Wealthy Romans held sumptuous feasts to satiate the manes, and even people of more humble means sacrificed and gave offerings to the spirits of the dearly departed. The lemures, however, were not so benevolent.  These were dark and restless spirits who died bad deaths.  Some lemures were forever lost and could not find the underworld.  Others were tied to this world through foul acts or evil temper.  The lemures were imagined as shapeless black forms of malevolence.  Romans tried to placate the lemures with sacrificial offerings of funereal black (most often black beans, superstitiously cast behind—although other black sacrifices are hinted at).

Colombarium of Pomponius Hylas Within The Park On Via Latina (ca. 1st century AD)

Beyond such ghostly revenants, Romans greatly feared witches and the liminal tricks which they could play with life and death.  Anyone who has read The Golden Ass will recall the indelible first story within a story–wherein the wicked Thessalonian sorceresses Meroë and Panthia kill the narrator’s friend, drain his blood, and rip out his heart which they replace with a sponge.  After an agonizing night of fear, debasement, and suicidal thoughts, the narrator is delighted when dawn breaks and his murdered friend is alive (all the night’s horrors merely a dream).  The two men proceed out of town and stop at a spring to drink, whereupon the sponge in the murder victim’s chest falls out and he falls drained & dead upon the sand (The Golden Ass is an unrivaled work of literature, but not for the faint of heart).

The Romans also feared the Lamiae.  According to myth, Lamia was a beautiful Libyan queen who was loved by Zeus, but something went (badly) awry with their affair and Lamia wound up devouring her only child and pulling out her eyes.  Thereafter she roved the dark on a serpent’s tail looking for other children to devour.  The Romans were fascinated by this horrifying figure, and in later Roman folklore the Lamiae are an entire category of monster rather than one being.  These later Lamiae were able to alter their appearance to become fair.  They would then seduce young men and eat their life essence.  The Romans were not the only ones fascinated by this kind of misogyny mythology and the Lamiae outlived the manes, lemures, and witch-cursed victims, to find a place in 19th century poetry and art.

Lamia (John William Waterhouse, 1905, oil on canvas) note the snakeskin wound around her legs

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