Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gods and Monsters: A Review

Dr. Pretorius: To a new world of gods and monsters! (The Movie Bride of Frankenstein (1935) )

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. . . . Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time . . . renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1812)

Tony Robinson's Gods and Monsters on TV was the first on what might be called folk belief and folk customs. These are beliefs that may grow from a religious background, but are not part of that background, and may persist even after the soil in which they were planted has long gone. Of course, some of these persist to this day, for instance, in the belief that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder, or have thirteen at dinner, or to see only one magpie. But others were less related to individualistic notions of luck, and more linked to communal beliefs, and actually have their basis more in rational than magical thinking. And these are, as he notes, "Ideas that today seem unbelievable, but were seen as uncontroversial and hugely influential, with some having shaped our history as much as mainstream religion."

Robinson will be looking at three different kinds of belief over three episodes:

- The Undead
- Evil Spirits
- Disease

In this first episode, he conducted a very gruesome but effective investigation on dead, with both dramatic reconstructions and actual experiments - a pig that had been killed was buried in a shroud and later dug up.

People in the past believed that even in death a body retained some vital force, and that the dead could rise from the grave to cause havoc among the living. Why did they believe this? What powers did they believe the dead had? And what did they do about it?

I was amazed to discover that corpse mutilation persisted (and was abetted by local authorities) until the mid-1800s when it was legally outlawed - the archives contain a law which tells coroners that the dead body must never never be mutilated by a stake driven in it. Murderers and suicides would be ritually buried at crossroads, with a stake driven through the dead body.

This belief may be very ancient - Robinson took us to see some skeletons from Celtic times in which the head has been detached after death from the body before the body was buried. Ancient Rome also had concerns about dead bodies

The dead were separated from the living by a series of rituals which fulfilled emotional, spiritual and practical considerations. It was important to do the right thing by the deceased in order to send the soul on its journey to the next world, to placate restless spirits, to remove a potential source of infection and to reintegrate the survivors into the world of the living. (1)

Information from an inscription from Sarsina, probably dating to the first century BC, in which a Horatius Balbus donated burial plots for the town's inhabitant also shows similar preoccupations:

The inscription of Horatius Balbus also denied burial in the donated land to those who hanged themselves or who followed some immoral trade for profit.... For others it was not the activities and crimes of life that earned them non-burial but the means of death itself. Horatius Balbus singled out those who hanged themselves. The exclusion of suicides from the cemetery and normative rites would fit with other times and places. Although fundamental changes in belief, especially due to Christianity, need to be gauged, suicides have often been regarded as transgressing accepted boundaries. In Tudor and Stuart England, for example, suicide was a crime, and suicides were tried as self-murderers, their property was confiscated and their bodies were denied Christian burial. Until the early nineteenth century English suicides could be buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through their hearts (Macdonald and Murphy1990:15) (1)

But it is in the Middle Ages that this becomes recorded history. In the 12th century, William of Newburgh describes how a tale of a man of "evil conduct" who gets married in York, and - jealous of his bride - catches her in a passionate act of adultery by spying from the rafters. He accidentally falls in his rage, and is mortally wounded, dying a few days later. Newburgh, who was an early proto-historian recording these tales, notes that:

A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.

The plague had come to the town, and it was assumed because of the coincidence, that it was related to the dead body, animated, and poisoning the air. A number of the townspeople died, assumed to have been killed by the monster and so two brothers conducted an unofficial exhumation of the body:

Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames....

What would they have seen, and how did it confirm their belief? Robinson places the notion of a dead body coming back to life in the Christianity of the Middle Ages, with the day of judgment seeing the dead bodies rising. In fact, there has long been a tradition against cremation for this very reason. He shows a fresco illustrating this. These seem to have been widespread in the culture of the day - The Fisherman's Chapel in Jersey has a wall painting showing the dead rising from coffins as the angel blows the last trump. So there was good reason to assume that the dead would rise up some day. Resurrection of the dead mean resurrection of the body, but in an extremely literal way, like the reanimation of a corpse.

The burial and exhumation of a pig showed other factors at work. The decay of a dead pig is close to that of human beings - in fact the closeness in physiology is why the ancient Greek Galen experimented on the anatomy using pigs. Full of gas from decomposition, the dead body might exhale, and it was alive with maggots, and air bubbled through blood at the nostrils. Hair would remain, but the shrinking of the skin against the body would give the impression that hair and finger nails had grown.

So it was a very rational belief, based not just upon religion, but also upon observation, that a dead body could come back. The English death customs, like those which persisted in Romany culture (described in the 1950s by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald), were geared to prevent the corpse being reanimation.

All Roma tribes have customs and rituals regarding death. The belief in the supernatural is fundamental, common to all Roma, and the extent to which they believe varies slightly from tribe to tribe. Spirits surround us all of the time. These must all be carefully guarded against, or combated by the use of spells and charms. For Roma, death is a senseless, unnatural occurrence that should anger those who die. At the approach of death, Roma are concerned not only with the pain and heartbreak of the final separation from a loved one. They are also worried about the possible revenge the dead, or muló, might seek against those who remain in the world of the living.

The Roma believe that the soul of the dead might be reincarnated in another man or animal. Most feared of all is the possible reappearance of the dead as a muló or "living dead." Unless strict precautions are taken, this muló might escape from the body and seek revenge on those who had harmed him when living or had caused his death. The mere sight of a muló, who can appear as a wolf, terrorizes Roma. It is a certain sign of bad luck.(3)

It was not stupid to believe this; he shows how with the best knowledge they had available, it was a perfectly rational belief given the way the corpse decomposed. The science of the time - observation of the dead body - all tended to confirm that the body remained alive in some fashion after the spirit had departed. In fact the notion that the hair and fingernails continue to grow persists to this day, again because observation suggests that this is happening.

A "good death", with confession, extreme unction, and a final Eucharist would ensure the body would not rise; a "bad death" such as a suicide, or a criminal's death, would not have this seal placed upon it, and the body might be reanimated by the dead spirit, to come back and wreak vengeance on the living. This idea of the "bad death" of a suicide or criminal persisted long after Catholicism was the dominant belief, surviving the English reformation.

It might be noted in passing as an aside that although the notion of taking one's own life is ancient, the word "suicide" to describe this is comparatively recent in origin, being first mentioned in Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici in 1642. In fact the word

suicidium was actually derived by combining the Latin pronoun for "self" and the verb "to kill." The word sounds deceptively Latin, but Henry Romilly Fedden, in his 1938 book Suicide, stated that the Romans described the act using Latin phrases, such as vim sibi inferre (to cause violence to oneself), sibi mortem consciscere (to procure one's own death), and sua manu cadere (to fall by one's own hand). Early English also used phrases, such as self-murder, self-destruction, and self-killer, all of which reflect the early association of the act with murder. (2)

But there was more to that. Blood was seen as holding "the life force" and we find this in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. . . . I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life. . . .

Later films drew on ideas of galvanism, of using electrical currents to stimulate muscles, as shown by Galvani with a battery and the leg of a dead frog, but there is nothing explicit in the book, which speaks that "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet".

The book was written in 1818, but by the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley was acquainted with galvanism, as seen by the introduction where she notes that "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated... galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth"

Tony Robinson then explores how the idea was also prevalent of consuming parts of the dead body. hadn't realised how prevalent (and among Royalty as well), the digestion of distilled parts of the corpse had been. The Key to Solomon, of course, is a Grimoire which uses parts of dead bodies, or material associated with them.

It is, of course, quite possible to secure the brain of a cock, and dissection with that object may perhaps be performed by deputy; the kitchen-maid or the poulterer's assistant would be easily secured. The dust from the grave of a dead man is the second ingredient of the process; but a visit to the nearest cemetery will not be sufficient, because it is useless to collect it on the surface; that which is next to the coffin will alone serve the purpose

But I'd assumed that this book - which probably dates from the 16th or 17th century (although as A.E. Waite notes, "is quite consistent with a literature which has done nothing but ascribe falsely") was a Hermetic tradition apart from popular culture.

But apparently the consumption of blood and brain, distilled into a fluid - this was, after all the age of the science and the Royal Society - and ingested was quite widespread, and would have medicinal and healing properties. Again, as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein shows, this was not in contradiction to early modern science, which seemed to support the ideas of a life force within the body. And Galvani had demonstrated that electricity could make an isolated frog leg twitch and cause the muscles of a recently dead corpse to jerk as if alive.

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquires were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter.

A rational picture of the world, supported by early modern science, the "modern Prometheus", appeared to confirm ancient beliefs in the life force, and again we can see that this is not simply irrational superstition, but backed by observation which appeared to support the theories concerning "the life force". And again, even today, death appears mysterious, the loss of the animation of the body, some spark being missing and left.

The enlightenment notion that science swept away superstition is a misguided myth and a false history, because, on the contrary, early modern science seemed to support and confirm ancient notions about dead bodies. It was only much later that more accurate observation provided a better and more accurate picture of how a dead body decays, and deep down, primal fears about death still surface in popular culture with vampires and zombies.

(1) Death and Disease in the Ancient City, Valerie M.Hope and Eireann Marshall, 2000

1 comment:


Browne also introduced the words 'Homicide' and 'Pathology' into English language among many, many others including 'suicide'. The complete 17th century vocabulary for a physician to determine cause of death.Browne's 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' concerns itself with examining and refuting common, folk-lore beliefs such as the undead etc. etc.but may be beyond Tony Robinson's references.