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.

How Halloween Came Back to Derry

A short video (Irish with subtitles; English) describing how a large public Halloween festival in the Northern Irish city of Derry began in a pub in the early 1980s and grew from there.

And while some speakers, including folklorist Jenny Butler, do discuss the ancient festival of Samhain, you will see that the Derry festival was not so much a self-conscious bit of Celtic revival as it was a way for people to step out of “the Troubles” (as the Irish euphemize the 1960s–1980s in Ulster) for one night of the year and be someone else.

You may also note a brief mention of pumpkins — the North American influence is there too.

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).

Not *My* Ancient Pagan Survival

All right, you have put away the skulls, bats, and dishes for your ancestors, all the while humming, “It’s the Most Magickal Time of the Year.”

It’s time to think about Yule! And to ponder, is this custom an ancient Pagan survival? (Slightly NSFW.)

As for your pre-Christian traditional Yule tree, Obama wants to tax it.  Suddenly embarrassed, the White House has “delayed” the tax.

We Did Not Burn the Landowner After All

Jack o' Lantern depicting the Gunpowder Plot. Stacked barrels on the left, arches over head, Guy Fawkes with a torch at right—carved by the neighbors' daughter, an architecture student.

There is an Anglo-American couple (her from the UK, him from right here) down the road who always have a Bonfire Night party.

M. and I bumped into the American half recently, and he said that this year’s “Guy” would be a certain wealthy local hobby-rancher.

Having earned his money elsewhere, this guy is busy buying up every piece of vacant land he can find, erecting pretentious ranch gates, quarreling with the Forest Service, and possibly interfering with water rights (still unproved, but if so, it’s a hanging offense).

Unlike the actual largest landowner in this end of the county — who might be found on a mechanic’s creeper underneath one of the engines at the volunteer fire department, fixing something — he holds himself aloof from all community activities.

He has a bad case of “Texas Vertigo”—he thinks the world revolves around him. And, says the woman who waited tables down at the little steakhouse while working on her nursing degree, “He’s a two-dollar tipper.”

“All right,” I thought, on hearing my neighbor’s announcement, “it’s a real Aradia moment. Di legare il spirito del oppresore and all that.

Not the neighboring landowner but a cable TV talker.

But when M. and I walked up the neighbors’ driveway, dish in hand, to where everyone gathered around the fire pit, beer kegs, and tables of food, the “Guy” was someone else—a certain cable television political pundit.

Not nearly as interesting from a folk-magic perspective, if you ask me.

Burn! Burn!

It is still an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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.)

 

Did You Contribute to the Halloween Economy?

It is worth more than $2 billion annually.

Not really that big in the overall holiday picture, though.

Halloween’s haul was the smallest, accounting for a mere 2.6% of holiday spending.

But for a few industries, October 31 is the night to shine. According to the National Confectioners Association, sweets-makers reap 8% of their annual sales during Halloween, making it candy’s biggest holiday. Costumes, cards and decorations account for the rest.

M. and I bought one bag of mini-Hershey bars—that was our contribution to the Halloween economy. We had one group (two kids) of trick-or-treaters, which is more than we have had for about the last four years.

Our rural road used to have some kids. They all grew up, or their parents moved them into town so they would be more easily able to attend “activities. Or someone got a transfer, and the house is still on the market two years later.

There is one family left with four little kids, but I think that  they are Mennonites, and it is probably against their religion. But I more respect for that position than for those Christians who turn Halloween into non-alcoholic tailgating.

So the party is over, and now it is time for real Samhain.

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.

The Pagan Studies Samhain

Our little celebration here at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, during which we Pagan scholars and friends discard our tweed jackets and switch to Samhain black, made it to The Huffington Post.  (Scroll to the bottom.) Thanks, Grove, I think.

It’s another example of how Wicca, in particular, is becoming the new Other in the religious landscape, elbowing aside the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone else who fills the blank of, “But how will the _________  react?”