Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 8

Here we are for a new edition of LC&MW, the perfect column to dawdle and amaze yourself at the beach!
(It is also perfect for me to relax a bit while writing the new book for the BB Collection.) (Speaking of which, until Septembre 15 you can get 20% discount if you buy all 4 books in one bundle — just insert the coupon BUNDLE4 at check out. Comes with a free Bizzarro Bazar Shopper.) (Oh, I almost forgot, the above chameleon is a hand, painted by great Guido Daniele, whose job is to… well, paint hands.)
Alright, let’s begin!

  • In Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor, archeologists finally found one of the legendary Aztech “towers of skulls” that once terrorized the Spanish conquistadores. These racks (called tzompantli) were used to exhibit the remains of warriors who valliantly died in battle, or enemies and war prisoners: they were descibed in many codices and travel diearies. The newly-discovered “tower” could well be the famed Huey Tzompantli, the biggest of them all, an impressing rack that could hold up to 60.000 heads, according to calculations (just imagine the nightmarish view).
    On this new site 650 skulls have been found, but the number is bound to increase as the excavation proceeds. But there’s a mystery: the experts expected to find the remains, as we’ve said, of oung warriors. Until now, they have encountered an unexplicable high rate of women and children — something that left everyone a bit confused. Maybe we have yet to fully understand the true function of the tzompantli?
  • One more archeological mystery: in Peru, some 200km away from the more famous Nazca lines, there is this sort of candelabra carved into the mountain rock. The geoglyph is 181 meters high, can be seen from the water, and nobody knows exactly what it is.

  • During the night on August 21, 1986, in a valley in the north-west province of Cameroon, more than 1700 people and 3500 cattle animals suddenly died in their sleep. What happened?
    Nearby lake Nyos, which the locals believed was haunted by spirits, was responsible for the disaster.
    On the bottom of lake Nyos, active volcanic magma naturally forms a layer of water with a very high CO2 concentration. Recent rainfalls had facilitated the so-called “lake overturn” (or limnic eruption): the lower layer had abruptly shifted to the surface, freeing an immense, invisible carbon dioxide cloud, as big as 80 million cubic meters, which in a few minutes suffocated almost all living beings in the valley. [Discovered via Oddly Historical]

If you find yourself nearby, don’t be afraid to breathe. Today siphons bring water from the bottom to the surface of the lake, so as to free the CO2 gradually and constantly.

  • Ok — what the heck is a swimsuit ad (by Italian firm Tezenis) doing on Bizzarro Bazar?
    Look again. That neck, folks.
    Photoshopping going wrong? Maybe, but I like to think that this pretty girl is actually the successor of great Martin Joe Laurello, star of the freakshow with Ringlin Bros, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Barnum & Bailey and other travelling shows.
    Here you can see him in action, together with fellow performer Bendyman.

  • The latest issue of Godfrey’s Almanack (an installation by the creator of the wonderful Thinker’s Garden) is devoted to the sea, to ancient navigation, to sea monsters. And it is delightful.
  • Say what you wish about Catherine The Great, but she surely had a certain taste for furniture.
  • Meanwhile in Kenya there’s a lawyer who (for the second time!) is trying to sue Israel and us Italians for killing Jesus Christ. That should teach us a lesson. You can murder, plunder and destroy undisturbed for centuries, but never mess with somebody who has connections at the top.
    P.S. An advise for Greek friends: you may be next, start hiding all traces of hemlock.
  • On this website (click on the first picture) you can take a 360° tour through the crytpt of Saint Casimir, Krakow, among open caskets and exposed mummies.

  • The above pic shows one of the casts of Pompeii victims, and it has recently gone viral after a user speculated ironically that the man might have died in the midst of an act of onanism. You can figure out the rest: users making trivial jokes, others deploring the lack of respect for the dead… Now, now, children.
  • If you’re on vacation in Souht East Asia, and you’re thinking about purchasing a bottle of snake wine… well, think again. The practice is quite cruel to begin with, and secondly, there have been reports of snakes waking up after spending months in alcohol, and sending whoever opened the bottle to the hospital or to the grave.

  • From July 21 to 24 I will be at the University of Winchester for the conference organised by Death & The Maiden, a beautiful blog exploring the relationship between women and death, to which I had the pleasure of contributing once or twice. The event looks awesome: panels aside, there will be seminars and workshops (from shroud embroidery to Victorian hairwork techniques), guided tours to local cemeteries, concerts, art performances and film screenings.
    I am bringing my talk Saints, Mothers & Aphrodites, which I hope I will be able to take on tour throughout Italy in autumn.

That’s all for now, see you next time!

The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. 15th Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

strega.jpg

stregone-khDG--673x320@IlSecoloXIXWEB

The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

IMG_3312

percorso-didattico-san-calocero-albenga-120549.660x368

One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)