An anthropologist and a historian examine the development of the cult of Santa Muerte (Holy Death) in this article, “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage,” which currently is a free download.
Firstly, taking an ethno-archaeological, anthropological and historical viewpoint, we argue that Santa Muerte accreted from the meeting of two distinct conceptions of death during the colonial era, when Spanish colonizers brought Christianity to Latin America to convert Indigenous people, and with it the figure of the Grim Reaper which represented death. . . .
Through further religious bricolage in the post-colony, we describe how as the new religious movement rapidly expanded it integrated elements of other religious traditions, namely Afro-Cuban Santeria and Palo Mayombe, New Age beliefs and practices, and even Wicca. In contrast to much of the Eurocentric scholarship on Santa Muerte, we posit that both the Skeleton Saint’s origins and contemporary devotional framework cannot be comprehended without considering the significant influence of Indigenous death deities who formed part of holistic ontologies that starkly contrasted with the dualistic absolutism of European Catholicism in which life and death were viewed as stark polarities
The nearest supermarket has candles for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santo Niño de Atocha, etc., but no Santa Muerte. I wonder how long it will take before “our distributor” (they blame everything on “our distributor”) has them in stock.
Just as the reality of coronavirus lockdown descended (even on those of us who live in lightly populated areas), two differnt Facebook friends linked to this YouTube video, released on April 17th. The location is the Piazza Sant’Oronzo in the southern Italian city of Lecce, at the heel tip of the “boot.”
The dance is a traditional style called pizzica. I had learnt about it only recently, when I met an Italian scholar living in the US, Giovanna Parmigiani, who published an article in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies about how some residents of that region were, in a sense, re-paganzing the dance, but in their own unique way, reflective of their regional history and their understanding of tradition.
Based on conversations with Giovanna, reading her work, watching videos, I realized that the Lecce dancer’s performance turned the pizzica tradition on its head.
Instead of being at a crowded festival, the dancer is alone.
Instead of wearing white, she is wearing black.
Instead of having live music, she dances to recorded music.
Instead of being in a crowd, she is alone.
She is alone.
The newspaper La Repubblica picked it up and placed the video on its own YouTube channel, commenting
A dancer dressed in black dances the pinch in the heart of Lecce. In Piazza Sant’Oronzo, on what is the symbol of the city: the coat of arms of the She-wolf, on which the woman moves almost as if she wanted to awaken everyone from slumber. The video that appeared on Facebook has become a sort of exorcism, in the days of quarantine due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The taranta of evils to be chased away at a mad pace is known, and this is the message launched by the dancer. Who, assures those who filmed it by turning off the social controversy that have not missed, lives 40 meters from the square, and then moved within the limits imposed by the [lockdown] decree [Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator].
I get the “exorcism” part, but watching this late at night sent me into a horrible dystopian place, a real tragic place, where the dancer and the few passers-by (and the cop at 2:39) were the last people in a deserted city, not exorcising but defying their inevitable deaths from . . . .whatever it was.
When I remember the spring of 2020, I will remember this video as much as I remember the equally deserted Main Street of my nearest little town.
For even though my daily life has “social distancing” built in and even though I do have easy contact with nonhuman nature, and thank the gods for that, I know that I am still connected to the collective unconscious and the world soul, not to mention the internet.
And so I have had some really chilling dystopian dreams, right down to masses of people committing suicide becasue there was nothing left to live for and no way to survive. That particular dream might partly have been launched by reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the week before at the urging of a friend.His own son is named Cormac — what does that tell you? Bad choice. But without the pandemic, I doubt it would have lodged itself in my psyche.
Archaeologists discovered the man’s skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and an infant, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest were jawless, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes sticking out from the lake’s surface.
The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of the finding: During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said.
The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant’s, were human. While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, including dismembered jawbones and arms and legs (all from the right side of the body), said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. [See Images from the Mysterious Burial Found in Sweden]
Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of “blunt-force trauma” on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn’t kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, [Swedish archaeologist Fredrik] Hallgren said.
So we have people who have been clubbed in the head laid to rest in the lake — but maybe not immediately after they were injured, since some showed signs of healing. For an unknown reason, their lower jaws are missing.
Were they “us” or “them”?
Some hunter-gatherer people are known to deposit animal bones in lakes to encourage their rebirth — you can think of the lake as a womb or perhaps a gateway to the Underworld. And there are traditions of throwing weapons, personal ornaments, and other items into lakes as well.
You could speculate, therefore, that these were “us” — members of that group who were returned to the “womb,” even as the hunters want the animals to be re-born.
On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?
In creating anodyne and harmless religions, we risk creating powerless religions, religions that cannot address the overpowering emotions that accompany human life. By contrast, our Pagan ancestors understood only too well just how vicious and uncomfortable the relation between the self, time, and nature truly is.
The old-time people had multiple and creative responses to death, we can say that much.
In rural 19th-century Estonia, as depicted in the film November, people did not merely put out food offerings for the Dead on All Souls Day — they fed them. And talked to them. And if the Dead wished to enjoy a sauna, a fire had already been lit. And then things get weird.
November is a beautifully photographed black-and-while film (with a little infrared too?). Sometimes it is such a series of images that I felt as though I was watching someone’s curated Instagram feed or Tumblr blog, until the snowman started talking or the Devil twisted someone’s neck and took his soul.
Maybe instead of “Baltic Gothic,” we should call it “Estonian Hoodoo.”
Things you will find in November: shapeshifting; wolves; dirty doings at the crossroads; servants who steal from German aristocrats justifying their thefts in the name of Estonian nationalism; people stealing from each other; sleepwalking; the Plague personified as a beautiful woman, a goat, or a pig; lots of folk magic (with some spectacular failures); dreams; visions; love; and death.
The society depicted is nominally Christian but the other elements justify the label Pagan-ish. In fact, it made me think of a novel that I had read, The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which is set in medieval Estonia at the time of Christian crusades against the Baltic Pagans.
Color me surprised. November is based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, who wrote The Man Who Spoke Snakish as well. This novel was Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), and I am not sure if it has been published yet in an English translation.
Scientifically speaking, this research, which was first published in 2014, says our consciousness may still function for a period of time after our physical body is declared dead. So, in theory, a person could literally hear themselves be pronounced dead by a doctor.
There is a long tradition of such research though. I recall how some 18th-century French scientist (probably executed himself during the Reign of Terror) persuaded friends who had appointments with Madame Guillotine to start blinking their eyes as the blade came down and to keep blinking as long as they could thereafter, his way of asking the same question.
(That Wikipedia entry is kind of scary itself. How much do some of the French revolutionaries resemble the social justice warriors of today, such the ones who shouted down an American Civil Liberties Union speaker by chanting deeply philosophical slogans such as “Liberalism is white supremacy”? Read the entry for the inevitable trajectory such movements take, from outrage to radicalism to authoritarian radicalism to mass murder to collapse.)
• “Animism at the Dinner Table.” From Sarah Lawless’ blog — really, this is the basic basic level of a Pagan life. It is more important than pantheons, Lore, texts, dressing up like the ancestors and all the stuff that people get worked up about.
What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits.
I called this photo “the lone magus” — Gavin Frost overlooking the New River, West Virginia, New Year’s Day, 1995.
I learned this morning that S. Gavin Frost, co-founder of the Church (and School) of Wicca and someone whom I counted as a friend, died early this morning. He was born in 1930 in Staffordshire.
Jo, his daughter, posted on Facebook:
In our family, we do not believe in grieving too much, so today, raise a glass, a brandy alexander, a glass of mead, but a spirited glass, have a good conversation with a friend, be a little risqué (or a lot), dance a tango, tell someone you love them that you might not have said this to lately. That was the true spirit of my father – living his life the best way he knew how. He shared a lot of information with the world and opened doorways for many. Celebrate Gavin’s passing as he begins his next adventure, never fear, this is just another doorway, another state of being. He left a legacy, in many respects, that cannot be equaled. In his final hours, consumed by pain, he felt concern for his wife, for him, his soulmate of nearly 50 years, for her safety and her future, as much as for his freedom from pain. He does not wish for flowers, and deeply abhors wreaths, so do not send these things as tokens of your appreciation. Instead, send your tokens of appreciation by way of donations to his favorite charities and educational institutions. If you have a raptor or rescue center nearby, send a donation to them for he loved hawks. Send a donation to an educational institution, high among the list, King’s College in London, St Andrews Presbyterian University in Laurinburg, NC, the Osteopathic School in Lewisburg, WV, and NCSSM in Durham, NC. And finally, if so inclined, send a donation to the Church of Wicca, PO Box 297, Hinton, WV, his late life passion. There is not a funeral, as he has donated his body for medical research, but you are welcome to plant a hardwood tree in his honor as this was also a passion of his – regrowing our forests.
Since M. and I, as volunteer wildlife transporters for Colorado Parks & Wildife, interact with the Raptor Center down in Pueblo a lot, I think a donation is in order.
I took the photo above after M. and I had stopped for an overnight visit while passing through West Virginia, heading west. Gavin, Yvonne, and we went out for dinner at some restaurant high on a ridge over the New River, and talked for hours about almost everything except the Pagan scene. We were not avoiding that topic, but rather unlike some people in it whom we knew, the Frosts had many other interests besides just that one.
To some, he was a “controversial” figure, even scary, but I think his impish sense of humor plus British accent caused too many young Americans to miss the twinkle in his eye.
UPDATE: Twenty minutes after posting this— on a Sunday—the director of the raptor center and asked if I could pick up an injured hawk. Forty minutes later I was on my way to the Wet Mountain Valley to pick up a red-tailed hawk that had been found flapping weakly in a hayfield. It’s at the center now.
A member of my little rural volunteer fire department died last week at the age of 47.It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes So the chief, the treasurer, and I put on our rarely worn dress uniforms for the funeral — M. came too — and we went off to a little rectangular funeral chapel in a nearby town for the “celebration of life.”
The chief had quickly put together a quickie memorial display of an American flag in one of those triangular presentation boxes plus the man’s structural-fire helmet, which went onto the table with the urn and some other items, flanked by flowers and two easels holding collages of photographs. Pretty standard stuff these days.
But along with that, you had people sitting in rows and whispering too each other. The building was too hot (aren’t they always?). The music was canned vaguely spiritual pop — the only lively tune was “Spirit in the Sky” with its hard-driving opening chords — from way back in 1969.
The rent-a-cleric gave a [put deceased’s names here] eulogy, tripping over the fact that while the man’s legal first name was “Larry,” most people there knew him as “Scott” or “Scotty.” (His business cards read “Larry ‘Scott’ Lastname.”)
When the widow rose to speak — a tall, lanky woman clinging to the lectern for support, wracked by sobs — Scott’s mother rose and started waving her arms — the funeral director rushed up from the back of the chapel and led her away. She was not overcome by sadness, oh no, she apparently hates this woman, who was her son’s second wife.
The older woman came by the fire station two days later, wondering if any of her son’s personal items were there (they were not). She said she was “not allowed” to go up to his house, which is up on a ridge further on up the road. After she left, we looked at each other, and the words “mother-in-law from hell” were heard.
I ask that if I have a memorial service some day, there will be no recorded music. I think of these quasi-Protestant funeral-home services I have attended, where the rent-a-cleric sits on a bench gazing into the middle distance while some ghastly piece of “praise music” plays on cheap speakers.
If I cannot have live music — a harper playing “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” would be good — then just go straight to the fun part: “The evil bastard is dead — drink up!” Fire a volley to scare away ghosts. Please don’t sacrifice my dog(s). Then go home.
Pagans, we need to do better than what I sat through last Tuesday. I know that some people are doing it.
Take the outdoor funeral for an 86-year-old man surnamed Huang in central China’s Henan province in December 2012. A woman in a short, white skirt and halter top pulls a mourner on stage and begins to undress him, while periodically peeling off a piece of her own clothing.
¶ “The Three/Four Souls and Their Afterlives.” Heather at Eaarth Animist looks at different traditional accounts to learn what might explain her own experiences: “It has baffled many Western anthropologists how a studied people can talk about a dead person being reincarnated in a child and also being an ancestor. The problem comes from the anthropologist’s own Christian idea of one soul.”
¶ Scholar of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaf from the University of Amstersdam discovers a solid book on idolatry as a category within monotheistic religions: “One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.” There are some contemporary scholars of Paganism working on that area too, but maybe not enough.