Three Items about the Dead

Whose Bones Are Those?

The Halloween news rush brought item about a new unit established at an Oxford college to perform cross-disciplinary investigations of religious relics

In what is thought to be the first research body of its type in the world, the unit, based in Keble College, will bring together experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics, osteology —the study of bones — chemistry, geography and archaeology with leading authorities in ancient Greek and Hebrew, Byzantine studies, ecclesiastical history and theology.

I am not sure what tone to take with this — not my saints after all — and it really does not matter to me if the skull of St. Cuthbert or whatever turns out to be someone else. One on level, this is interesting archaeology. On another, it feels like a re-run of the 16th century — the “stripping of the altars” and all that — but with “functional” science (instead of Protestantism) taking on “superstitious” religion (instead of Catholicism).

So why now? Is there a culture war motive, with “leading authorities in . . . . theology” participating in the disenchantment of the world? On the other hand, they hint that they may have found John the Baptist.

Four Scary Places

Still thinking about the dead? So are the editors at Indian Country Today, which ran this piece titled ” Get Spooked! 4 Scary Places to Visit This – or Any – Halloween,” on Friday last.

Halloween is the holiday when we face fear and get right in the face of the supernatural. Children wear costumes and adults seek out opportunities to confront the unknown or, some would say, the misunderstood. In that spirit, we offer four places you can go to laugh at your deepest anxieties. Or scream.

But why would you scream? Read it and find out.

Beads of copal (Wikimedia Commons).

Paganism at the Public Library

If I had time to drive over to Pueblo, Colo., today, I could view the winners of the public library’s Día de los muertos altar contest. Unfortunately, they were supposed to be set up at 1 p.m., so set-up is in progress as I write, with winners announced at 3:30 p.m.—and everything dismantled by 4:30.

The entry form states,”Altars judged on overall appearance, originality, and creativity reference [sic] to traditions of Día de los Muertos.” Battery-operated candles only, please.

The instruction sheet goes on to tell you that you may commemorate “ancestors past, celebritys [sic] or beloved pets.” So maybe Vlad the Impaler could count as a celebrity, as he did at the university on the mesa in 2007?

As I wrote in 2011, I am sensing some tension between people who want the altars to be done only in some correct Mexican-ish manner, and those wanting to take the tradition in new directions.

The instructions are quite specific as to how you are supposed to represent Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire, and of course copal incense (not burning, though) is recommended. (I like copal too.)

So I regret that I cannot see these altars, but I appreciate that the library is teaching an effectively Pagan tradition. My gardening priestess, however, wants me to haul a big round of bale of spoiled hay from a neighbor’s ranch for winter mulch this afternoon, however. That’s another Samhain ritual.

6 Comments

  1. Medeina Ragana says:

    With regard to Dia de los Muertos, found this article which I thought was very interesting: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/dia-de-los-muertos-altars-loving-tribute-deceased-n454541

    To me, this is how “religion” started: worship of the ancestors, then worship of a particular charismatic ancestor who eventually was turned into a “god”.

    Nevertheless, this a perfect example of how human cultures borrow from each other, especially mixture of European christian and Native iconography. Gee, maybe us Europeans should be screaming “cultural appropriation?” No, because this what ALL cultures from the beginning of “time” have done.

  2. Pitch313 says:

    About the interdisciplinary study of religious relics–What humans venerate as sacred or holy is probably not a matter of scientific conclusion. So what if a saint’s toe turns out to be a cow bone?

    About those scary places–Im’ not a ghost hunter, and probably not all that ghost susceptible. But I’ll admit that California missions probably do host something of the Native Californians who were confined there. To me, more a spiritual echo than a haunt. (I routinely visited old Mission Dolores with an occult agenda for several years.)

    About Paganism at public libraries–In my youth, I gathered a heap of occult, magical, and paranormal stuff from my local public library. Knowledge,information, self-education, deities from many cultures, spooky rituals that take so much preparation. Altars,not so much. I associated altars with Christian churches, and kept my distance from them.

  3. Medeina Ragana says:

    “but about the library giving instructions on how to perform Paganism.” Something they probably got out of a book, and we know there are lots of “oo oo let’s play we’re pagan!” books out there.

    • This is Pueblo, Colorado, remember. It is a little north of the zone of 18th-century Spanish settlement, but some people who follow those customs may have learned them from los viejitos, the old folks. On the other hand, you might be right in suspecting that there is some checking of correct folkloric tradition going on.

      The professor mentioned in the older, linked blog post is indeed Mexican by birth.

      • Medeina Ragana says:

        Coursera, in the last year, had a course on Native Mexican (including the SW of the US) “healing” techniques which I took signed up for, always being interested in healing techniques from other cultures. I was disappointed because a lot of those “techniques” seemed to me heavily influenced by modern “New Age” ideas. The herbal seminar within the course was useful, but there were some other things that I just shook my head at, like the technique of wrapping someone in a shawl. I really tried to keep an open mind, but the more I got into the course, the more I started to wonder about the people who were “teaching” it and where they got their ideas from.

        Similarly, I’ve purchased some books about modern Russian healing/”pagan” practices and again it’s obvious that a lot of those techniques were heavily influenced by modern New Age ideas and, in the Russian case, by Hindu influences (probably coming from Madam Blavatsky). I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, some genuine pre-Soviet practices would be included in the book and if you really peruse it with an electron microscope you might, just might, find something like that, but it’s almost all overwritten by the modern influences of New Age and Hindu belief. (No disrespect to the Hindus at all.)