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Oh no! I just noticed that I published an incomplete version of the special Halloween post about “Spoon River” I mow cannot find the full post so, I guess, don’t read that post until I go back and rewrite it (at some time in the future! Right now I am too weak to wrestle any more with the larger themes of that dark cross sectional diagram of American society). Speaking of dark views of society, our Halloween-theme weeks invariably feature a post about Gothic aesthetics. It would be unconscionable not to have a post about Gothic tombs–but there are so many contenders! Where do I even start?

The answer is…Portugal? Above is the exquisite sarcophagus of Pedro I of Portugal who ruled the Iberian nation from 1357 until his death in 1367. The magnificent royal coffin is located in the Royal Monastery of Alcobaça right next to the equally splendid matching sarcophagus of Inês de Castro, a Gallician noblewoman whose life and death was the central story of Pedro’s life and career. The full horrible story of their cursed love has been told in numerous operas and was universally known in Portugal in the 14th century, however since there are few 14th century Portuguese gossip mongers still around, we will have to outline the story here. This is bad news since not only is the story a full-on “Game of Thrones style” disaster, but many of the parties involved shared similar names (which I guess were common to all Iberian princes and princesses).

Pedro I was the son of Afonso IV of Portugal (1291 –1357) an important king who kicked off the age of exploration (and made Portugal a world power), but Afonso IV struggled mightily against his powerful neighbors, the Kings of Castile. In 1325 Alfonso XI of Castile entered a child-marriage with Constanza Manuel of Castile, the daughter of Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (and great granddaughter of Ferdinand I of Castile) . Two years later, Alfonzo XI of Castile annulled this marriage to Constanza Manuel in order to marry Afonso IV of Portugal’s daughter Maria of Portugal (Pedro’s sister). Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) Alfonzo XI of Castile mistreated Maria of Portugal (who would have expected such behavior from a man who threw his child bride to the curb to grasp for more power?)

Anyway, Afonso IV of Portugal reached out to the equally aggrieved Juan Manuel (the powerful father of Constanza Manuel) and Constanza Manuel was married to Prince Pedro (later to become King Pedro I, whose sarcophagus we are writing about). Alas, Constanza Manuel brought the noblewoman Inês de Castro with her to Portugal as a lady-in-waiting. Pedro married Constanza Manuel, but he began a love affair with Inês de Castro which scandalized the nation. In 1345, Constanza Manuel bore Peter a son, Ferdinand, and then died. Afonso IV banished Inês de Castro to a convent, but Pedro kept seeing her (and she kept bearing him children). Fearing Castilian influence (and worried that Pedro’s sickly legitimate son would fall prey to the multitudinous illegitimate ones), Afonso IV sent three courtly assassins to deal with Inês de Castro. In 1355, the king’s goons beheaded her in the convent in front of her children. Afonso IV believed this would solve the problem, but, for some reason, it instead sent Pedro into a towering rage. Prince Pedro rebelled against his father and begin to ravage the heartlands of Portugal. Afonso IV martialed his army and defeated Pedro in battle, but as soon as he was victorious, he died and Prince Pedro became Pedro I, King of Portugal.

“The Death of Inês de Castro”, Karl Pavlovic Brjullov

Two of the assassins who had executed Inês de Castro fled to Castile, but King Pedro I offered Alfonzo XI various hostages in exchange for the fugitives. Once he had the killers back in Portugal he tried them for murder and when they were convicted, he personally, physically, literally ripped their hearts out (although the third killer, Diogo Lopes Pacheco, got away and after many adventures returned to die as an elderly prosperous Portuguese nobleman with his heart in its proper place).

A historical re-enactment

According to legend, Pedro I had a magnificent throne made for the mummified body of Inês de Castro and would force courtiers to kiss her leathery hand. Actual primary sources from 14th century Portugal do not corroborate this detail (although they also don’t explicitly say that Pedro I didn’t build a throne for his mummified posthumous wife). However what is certain is that he arranged for exquisite matching coffins so that she would be the first person he saw after resurrecting (excepting Jesus or super angels or whatever).

The Coffin of Inês de Castro, Portugal’s posthumous queen

It is a terrible story…but they really are beautiful fancy coffins. I don’t know, though, something about this story makes me wonder if it is actually worth it to be King of Portugal. Maybe supremely high social status is not the panacea we imagine it to be. I guess we can ask King Pedro I.

Sometimes you have to rip out a few hearts


36531980Snake coffins! Who hasn’t paused to quip about these ridiculous funerary vessels? There is something inherently amusing about the concept. Perhaps it is the fact that coffins, by nature, are already long and skinny: therefore, making a traditional coffin for an extremely long skinny animal results in something completely risible. Maybe the humor arises from simple schadenfreude at the demise of a hapless reptile. Imagine opening up a pencil box and instead of rulers, pencils, and pens, finding a long, bandaged snake mummy!

Double Snake Coffin (Cairo Antiquities Museum, Late Period (664-332 BC) cast bronze)

Double Snake Coffin (Cairo Antiquities Museum, Late Period (664-332 BC) cast bronze)

Of course somewhere out there a pragmatist is reading this and saying “Wait, what? How common are snake coffins anyway? Has anybody actually ever made such a thing?” Such a query is germane since snakes lack hands and thus cannot build coffins… or any sort of burial container really. Yet snake coffins do exist. The ancient Egyptians built ceremonial coffins for all manner of sacred creatures—including snakes. Such caskets usually date from the New Kingdom and sometimes actually still contain snake mummies!

Snake Coffin with Mummy (Egyptian, Late Period: 664-332 B.C.E., Wood, animal remains, linen)

Snake Coffin with Mummy (Egyptian, Late Period: 664-332 B.C.E., Wood, animal remains, linen)

Snake Coffins

Snake Coffins (Late Period: 664-332 BC, Wood)

Snake Coffin

Snake Coffin (Egyptian, Late Period, Bronze) Note the Sacred Red/White Crown of Lower and Upper Egypt

Cynics will note that nobody since the Ancient Egyptians has made actual snake coffins—but such criticism will not stop me from completing this poorly researched article on time. Even today the association between snakes and coffins remains strong. Numerous artworks and handicrafts feature the two elements together—as can be seen in the following gallery of images.

Cryptic Snake Coffin tattoo

Cryptic Snake Coffin tattoo

Snake Coffin Memory Stick?

Snake Coffin Memory Stick?


Small coffin made of snake skin

Small coffin made of snake skin

Of course the real association—between reptiles, death, and rebirth–is ancient and compelling. But, as you can tell by the tone of the essay, we are ignoring this larger point. Anyway, in the modern world snakes and death have become decoupled. Unless you are one of my Australian readers, you are about a hundred thousand times more likely to be killed by some healthcare provider’s bureaucratic snafu than by one of the world’s few remaining venomous snakes. So appreciate the art on this page with wry insouciance.

Oh come on!  What is that? MS Paint?

Oh come on! What is that? MS Paint?



Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2023