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.

Exorcising México

México has been exorcised. Yes, the whole country. The Roman Catholic church pulled out one of the big guns: Exorcismo Magno — it takes a team of exorcists.

Can a country with deep Christian roots like Mexico find itself at the mercy of demons? Some in the Church fear so.

And as a result, they called for a nation-wide exorcism of Mexico, carried out quietly last month in the cathedral of San Luis Potosí.

High levels of violence, as well as drug cartels and abortion in the country, were the motivation behind the special rite of exorcism, known as “Exorcismo Magno.”

According to this article (in Spanish), same-sex marriage  (“matrimonio gay”) was also targeted by the team of magic-workers.

We will watch for changes.

Pentagram Pizza: Where You Find an Eagle Eating a Snake . . .

pentagrampizza¶ After reading this article, I think I will write something for Fate magazine about how Tenochtitlan was really a Mexica overlay on a forgotten Roman colony. Should be good for a few chuckles.

¶ After a long hiatus (in comic book years), Asterix the Gaul returns.

¶ An old acquaintance, Loretta Orion, pops-up in this Samhain-themed article, “Phantoms of the Hamptons.” She is the author of Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived (1994).

The “2012” Prophecy and Ancient Maya Politics

If you know someone who starts getting nervous as the end of the year approaches because of the “Mayan prophecy,” send them here.

They should be able to understand how it all goes back to the king of one of the ancient Mayan city-states proclaiming how great he was.

The key to understanding the reference to 2012 is a unique title that this Calakmul king gives himself. In the text, he calls himself the “13 K’atun lord”—that is, the king who presided over and celebrated an important calendar ending, the 13th K’atun cycle (9.13.0.0.0). This event had occurred just a few years before in AD 692. In order to vaunt himself even further and place his reign and accomplishments into an eternal setting, he connects himself forward in time to when the next higher period of the Maya calendar would reach the same 13 number—that is, December 21, 2012 (13.0.0.0.0).

Adding New Gods

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus wonders about how new gods are added to polytheist pantheons.

Something that will often happen, particularly with reconstructionist-based practitioners, is that further research into a particular deity and their connections leads to “new-to-me” or various other re-discovered deities that are then taken into one’s personal pantheon. Or, suddenly, a deity emerges in one’s experiences that one hadn’t paid attention to previously, or gets one’s attention in some fashion or other; whether they are readily identified or if it takes some study to figure out who they are, such encounters often occur that expand one’s personal network of divine relationships.  . . .

What about the less-frequent (but nonetheless possible) reality of totally new deities, though? How does one deal with this issue when it arises? I have yet to see any modern Pagan or polytheist treatment of this matter, nor any conventional training and education on when and why it can occur, nor how to handle it when it does. And, while it might not be that frequent of an occurrence, I suspect that we are going to see a lot more of it in the near future as our community expands and the world continues to change.

He goes on to discuss how today’s Pagans might deal with the emergence of new gods, including an ancient oracular practice

The blog made me think, for example, of how the Santa Muerte cult has grown, moving even beyond people with roots in Mexico. The image has been around a long time—go into any folklore museum in New Mexico, for instance, and you will see the similar Doña Sebastiana in her cart, a relic of the old lay brotherhood of the Penitentes. Does that make La Santa Muerte a “new” goddess, or just an upgraded one?

The Campus Day of the Dead, 2011

Day of the Dead altar to Marilyn Monroe, CSU-Pueblo

Day of the Dead Altar to Marilyn Monroe

As planned,  I stopped by the Student Center on Wednesday to check out the Day of the Dead altars.

No Vlad the Impaler altar this year! No altars to firefighters or Victorian writers either. Apparently Chicano Studies conformity was enforced, with Catholic Campus Ministries stepping in as a co-sponsor as well. Lots of crosses, “correct” altar decorations, Jesus candles, and Guadalupe candles—even if She is, as we say in religious studies, a multivalent symbol.

The altar to Marilyn Monroe shown above was the only one that broke the mold a little, sharing the “anyone can participate” feeling from previous years.

I drank some cups of colada morada with my Ecuadorian professor friend and nibbled some guaguas de pan. Eating babies—that’s a little edgy, but remember, it’s cultural. (Some pisco would have helped the colada.)

 

Quick Day of the Dead Instructions—And How Things Change

Last Monday a notice popped up in my university email: It’s time to build an altar for the Day of the Dead. (And do it in the correct, traditional manner!)

Several professors of Spanish have organized an altar-building event in the student center for a number of years now. But the event takes its own directions. In 2007, I photographed student-made altars to American war dead, to Victorian British writers, and even an altar to Vlad the Impaler.

In 2008, Wendy Griffin of California State University-Long Beach and I presented at the American Academy of Religion about Día de los muertos celebrations at our two universities. I was taken by the sneaky Paganizatioon of the event:

Since the instructions pushed a particular cosmology and an attitude towards the dead, I (Chas) wondered, having taught classes in American religion, if the altar-building could be construed as a classic church-state issue. After all, this was a state-supported university providing very explicit directions on how to perform a ritual—not that anyone followed them precisely! (Incense-burning in the student center probably violates some regulation.) At this point, I approached my colleague, the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-raised professor of Spanish who sponsors the event. “It sounds like tax-supported Paganism to me,” I said.

“Oh no,” she replied, “It’s cultural.” And she resumed laying marigolds on her altar to Frida Kahlo.

I am putting the instructions for the traditional altar below. But I think that I will stop by the Student Center with my camera to see what the American students have done with instructions from an Ecuadorian professor about how to celebrate a Catholic-Aztec Mexican holiday.

Traditions, they are always changing.

*****

The most important thing to place on your Day of the Dead altar is a photograph of the person(s) to whom you are dedicating the altar.
The three tier altar is covered in papel picado – which is bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs. The paper can be either handmade or purchased.  Three important colors are purple (for pain) white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration).
Candles are also placed all over the altar.  Purple candles again are used to signify pain. On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed – signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will illuminate the way for the dead upon their return.
Three candy skulls are placed on the second level.  These represent the Holy Trinity. On the center of the third level a large skull is placed – this represents the Giver of Life.
All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside.  Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense.  A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expel all its guilt when it is stepped on.
The Day of the Dead bread, pan de muerto, should be accompanied by fruit and candy placed on the altar.  The pan de muerto is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with white sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape on top. Pan de muerto is available in Mexican food stores and bakeries in Pueblo. You can also add the person’s favorite food.
A towel, soap and small bowl are put on the altar so that the returning souls can wash their hands after their long trip. There is a pitcher of fresh water to quench their thirst and a bottle of liquor to remember the good times of their life.
To decorate and leave a fragrance on the altar, the traditional cempasuchil flower is placed around the other figures.  Cempasuchil comes from Nahuatl cempoalxochitl, that means the flower with four hundred lives.  The flower petals form a path for the spirits to bring them to their banquette.

*The following websites will assist you with ideas as you prepare your altars*
http://www.diademuertos.net/
http://fwww.ladayofthedead.com%2fhistory.html
http://www.ladayofthedead.com/history.html
http://www.dayofthedead.com/

Altar decorations and materials are the property of those setting up the altar, any damage done to the altar during setup, the celebration, or at take down is the responsibility of the entrants and not the responsibility of the Dia De Los Muertos committee or CSU-Pueblo.

Talking about Tlaloc, 3

Reproduction Aztec sacrificial "Tlaloc" knife offered on eBay. Click to embiggen.

As I wrote about earlier, I have been maintaining a small shrine to the rain god Tlaloc under a nearby county-road bridge. Our creek—currently dry except for a couple of beaver ponds upstream—goes through a culvert there, one big enough for me to walk through standing straight.

When my shrine washes away, I will be happy to rebuild it in a different place!

The culvert is as near as I can come to the classic site:

Tlaloc did not only dwell in temples and on mountain tops. He lived in moist, fertile, and secluded caves too.

But the reason you will not find me going too far in any kind of neo-Aztec direction is that I am a little squeamish about sacrificing kids. Just candles and turkey feathers so far.

Yep, children were (are?) Tlaloc’s favorite—or so the Aztecs thought. Some were kids from enemy tribes, captured during raids or the flower wars. (As a euphemism, doesn’t “flower war” beat  Obama’s “kinetic military action” completely?) Or sometimes not. You had to be tough to be Aztec nobility.

The children were beautifully adorned, dressed in the style of Tlaloc and the Tlaloque. On litters strewn with flowers and feathers; surrounded by dancers, they were transported to a shrine and their hearts would be pulled out by priests.

If, on the way to the shrine, these children cried their tears were viewed as signs of imminent and abundant rains. Children who did not weep could have their fingernails torn off in order to achieve this effect. Every Atlcahualo festival, seven children were sacrificed in and around Lake Tetzcoco in the Aztec capital. They were either slaves or the second born children of nobles. . . According to the chronicler Durán, Tlaloc had the additional name of ‘Path Under the Earth’ or ‘Long Cave’.

Investigators such as Doris Heyden suggest that the little passages that lead off of the main caves underneath the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan could have been used to house the bodies of children that were sacrificed to this god each year. At an excavation elsewhere, the burial chambers of seven infants placed in a circle inside a cave were found. The centre of the cave roof was open and let in rain. There were also storing facilities thought to have once been grain deposits. The archaeologist who worked on this site, Linda Manzanilla, equated the caves, water, childrens’ bodies and grain with the mythical Tlalocan; the Tlaloque who lived there were small, like children, and it was abundant with both water and grain. Out of Tlalocan’s opening came the rain, seeds and new life and into it came the dead and retreating rain clouds

Well, there is a cosmology for you. How far down that road to go?

Was Tlaloc “the same” as the Mayan “Chaac,” or did one god displace the other, as this article (in Spanish) suggests, during a desperate time of drought?

Afterthought: the school bus used to stop almost on top of the shrine. Currently it does not, because there are no kids on our road young enough to ride it—except for two who are apparently homeschooled.  You cannot escape these connections?

Talking about Tlaloc

Feather offering for Tlaloc

Bundle of turkey, Steller’s jay, and flicker feathers placed in a dry spring basin.

On Friday morning, April 29, back from a early morning fire call (shed + trash + grasses at the edge of the prairie), I climbed the ridge behind the house and made an offering to Tlaloc, the god of rain.

(I think I need to make a lot more of them, given that it has not rained for a month.)

Later that day the Sand Gulch Fire exploded, forcing us to evacuate our house and spend the night in our pop-up camping trailer parked next to the fire station. But the next day it snowed four inches, helping to bring the fire under control.

The desert ecologist and nature writer Craig Childs got me thinking about Tlaloc a while ago with some evocative passages in his book House of Rain, which I reviewed on the other blog here (also referenced in this post).

At high, prominent springs or caves in Guatemala or the Yucatán,  one is likely to find the head of a decapitated rooster (replacing the turkey, which was commonly used in the past) along with pools of melted wax from votive candles (365).

This post kicks off my discussion about being an American Eclectic Witch reviving the cult of Tlaloc on a household basis—no stepped pyramids here, just real mountains.

Tlaloc

Both Aztec depictions of Tlaloc and Mayan depictions of the equivalent deity, Chaac (if you follow a sort of interpretatio azteca), leave me cold aesthetically, for all that they are richly symbolic. But one thing at a time—perhaps I can find one done in the style of pop-Mexican calendar art.

The worship of the gods can change over time—consider this “feast of St. Tlaloc.” We could do that!

More to come.

Church v. State, Mexican style

A crackdown on the cult of El Santo Muerte:

It is particularly popular with Mexico’s powerful drugs traffickers, a link which may explain why, protected by soldiers, municipal workers in Nuevo Laredo last week used back hoes to tear down the shrines lining a road just across the border from Laredo, Texas.

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