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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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The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting of a lesser underworld deity by a lesser Spanish master.  In the Greek pantheon, Charon was the ferryman of the dead– he carried departed spirits across the river Styx a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Charon was a self-interested deity who acted only for money (which, in retrospect, makes him one of the more comprehensible Greek deities from a contemporary American perspective).  If a dead Greek person was properly buried/burned, he/she had a small coin for Charon to pole him/her across the dark river to the grim underworld.  If, however, souls died alone or nameless and were not given a funeral, they then had no way to pay the ferryman and were forced to wander for centuries o millennia at the border of death’s realm.  There is no mention of what Charon did with all of his spirit wealth: he certainly seems unhappy, unkempt, and ill-groomed in this painting.  Maybe he hoarded it all or invested it in unwise joint-stock schemes (or had some other perverse vice which we never heard about). José Benlliure y Gil has certainly done a splendid job at portraying the greedy gaunt boatman and his deceased charges.  Perhaps the painting has a particular strength because the First World War and the Spanish flu were such recent memories when the work was finished.  I especially like the dark owl perched on the despairing spirit in the little boat’s stern and the phantasmagoric figures swirling within the stygian haze.

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)

Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though.  The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself.  Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.

Hel

Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon.  Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence.  A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse.  Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.

Hermod before Hel (John Charles Dollman, 1909, print)

In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet.  She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead.  Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder.  Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism.  In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”

Goddess Helby (digital art by *Scitza on deviantart)

Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings.  During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death.  After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound).  The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.

The children of Loki ( Willy Pogany, 1920)

Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

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.

altar de muertos

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.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

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 and they are also used as ingredients 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.

The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity.  They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil.  Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves.  One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight.  One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence.  The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree.  Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).

This illustration should clarify things (sorry it's not in English).

Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity.  Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post).  Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.

The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim.  This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences.  The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and , slew him and cut him apart).  Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger).  Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants.  But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.

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