Cannibals at the Pantheon

Among the seven deadly sins, there is one for which the inhabitants of Rome — both ancient and modern — have always been (in)famous: the sin of gluttony.

One of the Roman squares which for centuries was associated with food, groceries and the most varied delicacies was the “Piazza della Ritonna”, that is the square in front of the Pantheon.
Here in the past there were numerous delicatessens called “spizzicherie”, shops in which food was sold “in spizzico”, in small quantities. Eggs, anchovies, salt, but above all cheese and cured meats, for which the piazza was renowned. The pizzicagnoli didn’t sell their merchandise only in authorized delicatessens, but the whole square was regularly invaded and occupied by stalls, sheds, movable booths — in short, it was a sort of chaotic outdoor market.

During Easter, the delicatessens would also set up baroque exhibitions, with spectacular lanscapes created with food in the attempt to impress the crowd with their opulence. In the square began a competition to build the most elaborate sculpture of cold cuts, sausages and cheeses.

Belli gave an account of these scenes in a 1833 poem (the translation for this and the following extracts in Roman dialect are in the notes):

De le pizzicarie che ttutte fanno
la su’ gran mostra pe ppascua dell’ova,
cuella de Bbiascio a la Ritonna è st’anno
la ppiú mmejjo de Roma che sse trova.
Colonne de casciotte, che ssaranno
scento a ddí ppoco, arreggeno un’arcova
ricamata a ssarcicce, e llí cce stanno
tanti animali d’una forma nova.
Fra ll’antri, in arto, sc’è un Mosè de strutto,
cor bastone per aria com’un sbirro,
in cima a una Montaggna de presciutto;
e ssott’a llui, pe stuzzicà la fame,
sc’è un Cristo e una Madonna de bbutirro
drent’a una bbella grotta de salame.
(1)”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”

Another more recent account comes from Giggi Zanazzo in 1908:

Ne le du’ sere der gioveddì e vennardi ssanto, li pizzicaroli romani aùseno a ffa’ in de le bbotteghe la mostra de li caci, de li preciutti, dell’òva e dde li salami. Certi ce metteno lo specchio pe’ ffa’ li sfonni, e ccert’antri cce fanno le grotte d’òva o dde salami, co’ ddrento er sepporcro co’ li pupazzi fatti de bbutiro, che sso’ ‘na bbellezza a vvedesse. E la ggente, in quela sera, uscenno da la visita de li sepporcri, va in giro a rimirà’ le mostre de li pizzicaroli de pòrso, che ffanno a ggara a cchi le pò ffa’ mmejo. (2)”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”

The tradition of food cornucopias continued until recent times. But not everyone loved those stalls and shops; in fact the authorities tried many times, starting from the 1400s and then cyclically over the centuries, to clear the square with various decrees and injunctions.

One of these episodes of restoration of the decorum is remembered on a commemorative plaque dating back to 1823 and displayed on the wall of the the building just opposite the Pantheon, at number 14 in Piazza della Rotonda:

POPE PIO VII IN THE XXIII YEAR OF HIS KINGDOM
BY MEANS OF AN OPPORTUNE DEMOLITION
CLAIMED FROM HIDEOUS UGLINESS
THE AREA IN FRONT OF THE PANTHEON OF M. AGRIPPA
OCCUPIED BY IGNOBLE TAVERNS AND
ORDERED THE VIEW BE LEFT FREE AND THE SPACE CLEAR

Of all the butchers working in this area, those coming from the city of Norcia had the reputation of being the most skilled, so much so that it was a common insult to wish the opponent would end up “castrated by a norcino [butcher from Norcia] at the Rotonda”.

And in Piazza della Rotonda, in 1638, there were two butchers from Norcia, husband and wife, whose sausages were the best of all.
From all quarters of the city, people flocked to buy them: these sausages were even too sublime and delicious.

Thus the word began to spread that the butchers were hiding a secret. What did they put in their sausages to make them so tasty? And didn’t someone swear they saw some chubby, round-bodied customers enter the shop and never come out?

The rumor finally reached the ears of the Captain of Justice, who started an investigation; while searching the premises, the police actually found human bones in the basement of the butcher’s shop.
Pope Urban VIII, born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini, sentenced the two butchers to be executed right in front of the Pantheon: they both were killed, slaughtered and quartered with an ax by another exquisite master in the art of butchery, the Pope’s official executioner.

This story remained alive in the memory of the Romans. The population was so impressed by the crime, that it reappeared from time to time in vernacular poems until as late as 1905, for example in this poem entitled About the skeletons found at the Rotonna (M. D’Antoni, in Marforio, IV, 308 – 1 Luglio 1905):

Ammappeli e che straccio de corata
che ciaveveno que’ li du’ norcini:
attaccaveno l’ommeni a l’ancini
come se fa a ’na bestia macellata.

La carne umana doppo stritolata
l’insaccaveno, e li, que’ l’assassini
faceveno sarcicce, codichini,
vennennola pe’ carne prelibbata.

Saranno stati boja anticamente
a mettese a insaccà la carne umana:
però so’ più bojaccia ’nder presente.

Perchè mò ce sò certi amico caro,
che ar posto de’ la carne un po’ cristiana,
Ce schiaffeno er cavallo cor somaro!! (3)”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

We should note at this point that the whole story may well be an urban legend.

The trope of the butcher who sells human flesh for pork is in fact a very ancient and rather widespread type of urban legend: the talented Sofia Lincos analyzed it with Giuseppe Stilo in an in-depth research divided into three parts (one, two and three, Italian only).

As I searched for clues in the judicial chronicles of the time, I managed to find a single reference to the story of the Pantehon’s cannibal butchers. It can be found in a 1883 book by David Silvagni, who quotes a manuscript dossier compiled by Abbot Benedetti:

These dossiers bear the title (given by the Abbott himself) of Ancient Facts Occurred in Rome, and they trace the history of the most famous misdeeds and the most famous executions, starting with the Cenci trial, of which there is another older but identical copy. And it is important to read these faithful accounts of atrocious deeds and even more atrocious executions, which the author narrates with the same calm and simplicity with which today a newspaper chronicler would announce a theater play. […] And so great is the restraint that the diarist shows, that there is not one word of indignation even for the bloodiest of all stories found in the manuscript. In fact, in a very calm and aunassuming style he recounts the “execution of justice commanded by Pope Urban VIII in the year 1638 and performed in the Piazza della Rotonda, in which two impious, wicked butchers who mixed pig meat with human flesh were killed, slaughtered and quartered”.

D. Silvagni, La corte e la società romana
nei secoli XVIII e XIX
(Vol II p. 96-98, 1883)

The abbot Benedetti lived at the end of the eighteenth century, more than a hundred years after the alleged incident. But as his prose is described to be austere and impartial, I am inclined to think that he was transcribing some sort of register, rather than reporting a simple rumor.

So did this story actually happen, is it a legend, or perhaps an exaggeration of real events?

We don’t have a definitive answer. In any case, the history of the two butchers of the Pantheon represents an ironic warning not to indulge in gluttony, the capital sin of the Capital. A warning which, alas, was not given much attention: the people of Rome, known for being gourmands, would gladly turn down all enticements of Paradise for a good plate of carbonara.

[Note: This is the iconic Roman actress & cook Sora Lella. “Who gives a damn, let me eat!”]

Note   [ + ]

1. ”Among the delicatessens that make a great exhibition for Easter, the best one this year is Biagio’s, in Piazza della Rotonda. Columns of caciottas, a hundred of them to say the least, hold an arc decorated with sausages, and one can see a host of little animals coming in many shapes. Among others, above stands a Moses made of lard, holding his stick in the air like a policeman, on top of a mountain of ham; and below him, to whet your appetite, there are a Christ and a Madonna made of butter, inside a beautiful grotto of salami.”
2. ”On the two evenings of Thursday and Good Friday, in their shops the Roman pizzicagnoli make an exhibition of cheese, hams, eggs and sausages. Some place a mirror as a background, while others create huge caves of eggs or salami, with the Holy Sepulchre inside, and puppets made of butter which are a beauty to be seen. And on those evenings, the people coming from the visit to the cemetery go around gazing at the shows put up by the most prominent butchers, competing against each other to see who makes the best one.”
3. ”Wow those two butchers certainly had a lot of gall: they attacked men on hooks like a slaughtered beast. They ground and stuffed the human flesh, and those killers made sausages and cotechino, selling it as delicious meat. In ancient times, those who made sausages from human flesh were surely criminals: but they are even more so in the present. Because nowadays there are some, dear friend, that instead of using meat from a Christian, they mix horse meat with donkey meat!”

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 7

In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 18

Me, preparing this post.

Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.

Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).

Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.

  • Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
  • Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
    You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
    As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
    For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.
  • On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
  • Although he had proclaimed himself innocent, Hew Draper was imprisoned in the Tower of London for witchcraft. Once in his cell, he began sculpting this stuff on the wall. Suuuure, of course you’re innocent, Mr. Draper.

  • Here’s a nice article (Italian only) on death & grief in the digital era, mentioning Capsula Mundi, the Order of the Good Death, as well as myself.
  • Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
  • There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
  • Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.

  • A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
    “Another one?”, I hear you say.
    Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
  • Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
    Here’s a useful infographic:

  • Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
  • On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)

  • Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.

Oedipus in Indonesia

This article originally apeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 49, “Incest”

There were once two animals: a dog called Tumang, and a female boar named Celeng Wayungyang. They weren’t ordinary animals, but two deities transformed into beasts because of a sin they had committed long before.
One day, in the jungle, the sow-goddess drank the urine of a king who was hunting nearby and got pregnant; being a supernatural creature, she gave birth to her daughter within a few hours. The king, who was still in the jungle, heard the baby cry, and when he found her, he adopted her.
The little girl, called Dayang Sumbi, grew up at the palace and became a skilful weaver, a beautiful girl courted by many princes and noblemen.
One day, while she was spinning on the terrace, her loom fell down to the courtyard and since, being a princess, she could not put her feet on the ground to go and get it, Dayang Sumbi promised aloud that she would marry anyone who would bring it back to her. To her great disconcert, it was Tumang the dog the one who granted her wish, and she was obliged to marry him, unaware that he was actually a demigod. As soon as the king found out about the outrageous union between his daughter and a dog, he disowned her and banished her from the palace.
The couple went to live in a hut in the jungle, where Dayang Sumbi soon discovered that on full moon nights Tumang returned to his original appearance, turning into a young and wonderful lover; together they conceived a son, and they called him Sangkuriang.

When Sangkuriang was ten years old, his mother asked him to find a deer’s liver, for which she had a taste. So the boy went hunting in the jungle with his loyal dog Tumang (he didn’t know the dog was his father).
In the forest there was no sign of deer, but the two of them bumped into a beautiful female boar, and Sangkuriang thought that maybe her liver would do anyway. However, when he tried to kill the beast, Tumang the dog – having realized it was the goddess, which means Sangkuriang’s grandmother – diverted the bow and made him miss the target. Sangkuriang was furious and aimed his arrows at Tumang, killing him. Then he brought the dog’s liver to his mother, who cooked it believing it was wild game. As soon as she discovered the trick, though, poor Dayang Sumbi flared up, realizing that she had just eaten her husband’s liver; therefore she hit her son on the head with a ladle, and the blow was so severe that the boy completely lost his memory, and ran away into the forest, terrified.

Twelve long years passed.
Sangkuriang had become a handsome, strong and attractive young man. He didn’t remember anything at all about his mother, so when one day he accidentally met her – being the daughter of a goddess, she was still young and beautiful – he fell in love with her. They decided to get married, until one day Dayang Sumbi, while she was combing her fiancé, noticed on his head the scar left by the ladle and realized Sangkurian was her son.
She tried to convince him to break off the engagement but the young man, still a victim of amnesia, didn’t believe her and insisted that the wedding should be celebrated.

Then Dayang Sumbi devised a trick, an impossible proof of love. She told Sangkuriang she would marry him only if he managed to fill the entire valley with water: furthermore, still before the cock crowed, he should build a boat so that the two of them could sail together on the newly formed lake. The woman was sure that this was going to be an impossible task.
But, to her great surprise, Sangkuriang invoked the help of heavenly spirits and made the riverbanks collapse, filling the valley with water: he had managed to create a lake!
Then he cut down a huge tree and started to carve a boat.
Dayang Sumbi realized that her son was going to succeed in the challenge, so she feverishly started to weave huge red veils; she too prayed the heavenly creatures, and they spread the big veils along the horizon. The cocks, deceived, thought that dawn had already come and began to crow. Deceived, Sangkuriang flared up and kicked the unfinished boat upside down, which turned into an enormous mountain. The splinters formed other mountaintops around the first one.

Mount Tangkuban Perahu, its profile reminiscent of a capsized boat.

This very old legend is still told nowadays by the Sundanese people of the Island of Java, and it sounds surprising not only because of its resemblance with the story of Oedipus.
This myth actually explains the creation of the Bandung basin, of Mount Tangkuban Parahu (which literally means “capsized boat”) and of the mountains nearby. But Lake Bandung, described in the legend, is dried out since no less than 16,000 years and the mountains took shape even earlier, because of a series of volcanic eruptions.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are positive that in the colourful legend of Sankguriang and of the challenges his mother threw down at him to avoid the incestuous relationship there is a kernel of historical truth: orally handed down through generations, it seems to bear the ancestral memory of the lake which disappeared thousands of years ago and of the seismic events which gave rise to the mountain range.
On the base of this myth, scholars have therefore dated the settlement of the Sundanese people in this geographical area to approximately 50,000 years ago.

Bestiario Mexicano

I am delighted to present you with a project that I hold dear. In fact, when some time ago I was asked to write an essay for Claudio Romo’s Bestiario Mexicano, I immediately accepted: I never made a mystery of my unconditional admiration for the Chilean illustrator, and I talked about him on this blog on several occasions.

There are many excellent artists, who can strike you for their visionary imagination or their poetic touch; but if these elements are backed with a personal research that is not merely aesthetic, their works rise to a different level.
Such authors are rare.

For this reason, as he will be in Bologna from March 25 to 28 (all the details on Logos Edizioni‘s FB page), I strongly advise tou to go an meet Claudio in person if you have the chance.
With him, you will be able to talk history, literature, art; he will infect you with his passion for Borges and Cronenberg, Kircher and Frank Herbert, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Arcimboldo, effortlessly shifting from the philosophy of language to comic books. He will tell you why Chile is such a liquid land, that it somehow instills a fluid vision of reality in the mind of Chilean people; he will get all excited talking about alchemical etchings, or the sacrality of lucha libre. As with all real great artists, he will amaze you with his modesty and his boundless enthusiasm.

For a person who has such a vast and faceted culture, drawing is not a simple means of “expression” for his inner world, but rather resembles a tool to understand reality. It is a tile within a much larger intellectual exploration, an urgent, inevitable need.

Such authors are rare indeed.

This colorful Bestiario Mexicano Romo has been working on for several years, is now finally published in its definitive, expanded version.

The book represents his personal take on five mythological figures of the Maya tradition which are still common today in Yucatán folklore: the Sinsimito, the Aluxes, the Nahual, the Waay Pop and the Waay Chivo.

Claudio presents us with a fantastical and awe-inspiring interpretation of all these creatures, combining Pre-Colombian iconography with a modern and surrealist sensibility.

In the introduction, I addressed the concept of metamorphosis and the nature of the monstruous, trying to show how – despite these monsters’ apparent exotism vis-à-vis our own tradition – there are several interesting similarities between the Mesoamerican culture and European paganism.

Each monster also has its own in-depth information box, which integrates Claudio’s poetic descriptions of these spuernatural figures: besides defining their aspect, specific powers, behavior and regional variants, I have also tried to explain their anthropological value, the symbolic function served by the different creatures.

I think the book is a little gem (I don’t take any credit for that), packed full with wonderful imagery from start to finish, and Claudio really deserves a wider recognition; in my own small way, I hope my contribution helps clarify that his Bestiario, with all its richness, should not be confused with a simple comic book.

Unfortunately for the time being the book is out in Italian language only. If that’s no problem for you, you can still get your copy of Bestiario Mexicano on this page.

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.”

Spirits of the Road: The Cult of Animitas

The traveler who exits the Estación Central in Santiago, Chile and walks down San Francisco de Borja street, after less than twenty meters will stumble upon a sort of votive wall, right on the side of the train station on his left, a space choke-full of little engravings, offerings, perpetually lit candles, photographs and holy pictures. A simple sign says: “Romualdito”, the same name present on every thankful ex voto.

If our hypothetical traveler then takes a cab and heads down the Autopista del Sol towards the suburb of Maipù, he will see by the side of the opposite lane an altar quite similar to the first one, dedicated to a young girl called Astrid whose portrait is almost buried under dozens of toys and plush bears.

Should he cross the entirety of Chile’s narrow strip of land, encased between the mountains and the ocean, maybe crossing from time to time the border to the Argentinian pampas, he would notice that the landscape (both urban and rural) is studded with numerous of these strange little temples: places of devotion where veneration is not directed towards canonical saints, but to the spirits of people whose life ended in tragedy. This is the cult of the animitas.

An expression of popular piety, the animitas are votive boxes that are often built by the side of the road (animita de carretera) to remember some victims of the “mala muerte”, an awful death: even if the remains of these persons are buried at the cemetery, they cannot really rest in peace on the account of the violent circumstances of their demise. Their souls still haunt the places where life was taken from them.

 

The Romualdito at the train station, for instance, was a little boy who suffered from tubercolosis, assaulted and killed by some thugs who wanted to steal his poncho and the 15 pesos he had on him. But his story, dating back to the 1930s, is told in countless versions, more or less legendary, and it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what happened: one thing is sure, the popular faith in Romualdito is so widespread in Santiago that when it was time to renew and rebuild the station, his wall was left untouched.

Young Astrid, the girl with the plush toys altar, died in 1998 in a motorcycle accident, when she was just 19-years-old. She is now known as the Niña Hermosa.

But these funeral altars can be found by the hundreds, mostly installed by the roadside, shaped like little houses or small churches with crosses sicking out of their tiny roofs.

At first they are built as an act of mercy and remembrance on the exact spot of the fatal accident (or, in the case of fishermen lost at sea, in specific sectors of the coast); but they become the center of a real cult whenevert the soul of the deceased proves to be miraculous (animita muy milagrosa). When, that is, the spirit starts answering to prayers and offerings with particular favors, by interceding bewteen the believer and the Holy Virgin or Christ himself.

 The cult of the animitas is an original mixture of the indigenous, pre-Hispanic cult of the dead (where the ancestor turned into a benign presence offering protection to his offspring) and the cult of the souls of Purgatory which arrived here with Catholicism.
For this reason it shows surprising analogies with another form of folk religiosity developed in Naples, at the Fontanelle Cemetery, a place to which I devoted my book
De profundis.
The two cults, not officially recognized by the Roman Church, have some fundamental aspects in common.

Animitas, built with recycled material, are folk art objects that closely resemble the carabattoli found in the Fontanelle Cemetery; not only for their shape but also for their function of making a dialectic, a dialogue with the Netherworld possible.
Secondly, the system of intercessions and favors, the offerings and the ex voto, are essentially the same in both cases.

But the crucial element is that the objects of veneration are not religious heroes, those saints who accomplished miraculous feats while they were alive, but rather victims of destiny. This allows for the identification between the believer and the invoked soul, the acknowledging of their reciprocal condition, a sharing of human misery – a feeling which is almost impossible when faced with “supernatural” figures like saints. Who of course have themselves an apotropaic function, but always maintain a higher position in respect to common mortals.
On the other hand the
animitas, just like the anime pezzentelle in Naples, are “democratic” symbols, offering a much easier relationship: they share with the believers the same social milieu, they know firsthand all the daily hardship and difficulties of survival. They are protective spirits which can be bothered even for more modest, trivial miracles, because they once were ordinary people, and they understand.

But while in Italy the cult developed exclusively in one town, in Chile it is quite ubiquitous. To have an idea of the tenacity and pervasiveness of this faith, there is one last, amazing example.
Ghost bikes (white-painted bicycles remembering a cyclist who was run over by a car) can be seen all around the world, and they are meant as a warning against accidents. When these installations began to appear in Chile, they immediately intertwined with popular devotion giving birth to hybrids called
bicianimitas. Boxes for the ritual offerings began to appear beside the white bicycles, and the funeral memorials turned into a bridge for communication between the living and the dead.
Those living and dead that, the
animitas seem to remind us, are never really separated but coexist on the city streets or along the side of dusty highways stretching out into the desert.

The blog Animitas Chilenas intends to create an archive of all animitas, recording for each one the name of the soul, her history and GPS coordinates.
Besides the links in the article, I highly recommend the essay by Lautaro Ojeda,
Animitas – Una expresión informal y democrática de derecho a la ciudad (in ARQ Santiago n. 81 agosto 2012) and the in-depth post El culto urbano de la muerte: el origen y la trascendencia de las animitas en Chile, by Criss Salazar.
Photographer Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann put up a
wonderful animitas photo gallery.
Lastly, you should check out the
Difunta Correa, Argentina’s most famous animita, dedicated to the legendary figure of a woman who died of thirst and fatigue in the Nineteenth Century while following her husband – who had been forced to enroll in the army; her body was found under a tree, still holding her newborn baby to her breast. The cult of the Difunta Correa is so widespread that it led to the construction of a real sanctuary in Vallecito, visited by one million pilgrims every year.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

MAK_1540

Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

immagine-banner

In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

cristina5

So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

Cristina Sul Lago_small

But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

Cristina

In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

MAK_1358

MAK_1377

MAK_1384

MAK_1386

MAK_1395

MAK_1400

The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

MAK_1404

MAK_1422

In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

MAK_1407

MAK_1406

MAK_1409

MAK_1414

MAK_1417

MAK_1418

MAK_1427

MAK_1426

MAK_1429

The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

MAK_1445

MAK_1462

MAK_1471

MAK_1474

MAK_1477

MAK_1480

MAK_1481

MAK_1483

The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

MAK_1509

MAK_1510a

MAK_1508

MAK_1511

MAK_1515

MAK_1512

MAK_1523

MAK_1526

MAK_1536

MAK_1539

Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

MAK_1548

MAK_1544

MAK_1554

MAK_1556

MAK_1559

MAK_1560

MAK_1564

MAK_1571

MAK_1572

MAK_1574

MAK_1574a

The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

MAK_1579

MAK_1580

MAK_1581

MAK_1582

MAK_1587

MAK_1588

MAK_1589

MAK_1596

MAK_1597a

MAK_1597b

MAK_1597c

MAK_1600a

Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

MAK_1603

MAK_1601

MAK_1604

MAK_1606

MAK_1608

MAK_1611

MAK_1613

MAK_1607

MAK_1618

The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

MAK_1618a

MAK_1619

MAK_1620

MAK_1622

MAK_1624

MAK_1625

MAK_1628

MAK_1629

MAK_1627

MAK_1630

One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

MAK_1383

MAK_1566

MAK_1598

MAK_1567

MAK_1615

MAK_1626

The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

MAK_1638

Specchiarsi nell’Ombra

(Articolo a cura della nostra guestblogger Jennifer Bertasini)

Der_Student_von_Prag_01

Ovunque andrai, sarò con te,

sempre, sino alla fine dei tuoi giorni.

E, allora, mi poserò sulla tua tomba.

(de Musset, La nuit de décembre)

C’è un corvo, posato su una pietra tombale; un giovane uomo si china sulla lapide su cui sono incisi i versi di de Musset: il ritratto del defunto si specchia negli occhi del curvo visitatore. I loro lineamenti coincidono alla perfezione.

Questa la scena finale de Lo studente di Praga (1913), sperimentale film horror in bianco e nero basato su uno script di Hanns Heinz Ewers. La silhouette del giovane appena sepolto e della sua ombra aberrante coincidono con quella di Balduin, studente spadaccino che, dilapidato il patrimonio in notturne dissolutezze, baratta il suo riflesso con una somma ingente di denaro, firmando un contratto con Scapinelli – novello demonio oscarwildiano – e sancendo, così, la sua disfatta. Tra eteree contesse annegate, ballerine caucasiche e duelli da drammatica operetta, si consumano delitti e incomprensioni: il colpevole non può che essere il riflesso di Balduin, incarnante la materializzazione dei suoi antichi disagi esistenziali e della scissione interiore che gl’impedisce, tra l’altro, di vivere una soddisfacente intimità con la sua amata. Impossibile sfuggire a colpe pregresse, né al proprio lato istintivo (che può finire per guidarci, indipendentemente dalla ragione): dopo un incontro rivelatore col suo doppio, nelle suggestive vesti del vetturino della carrozza su cui Balduin sta viaggiando, il giovane spara al phàsma, all’apparizione. Prevedibilmente, è dalle sue stesse arterie che il sangue finisce per fluire; un ghignante Scapinelli strappa il contratto sul cadavere.

Tangibile, all’interno della pellicola, l’influsso di Hoffmann (La storia del riflesso perduto), ma la letteratura Otto-Novecentesca appare ampiamente costellata di opere analoghe, in cui la perdita dell’ombra, la fuga del riflesso e lo sdoppiamento rappresentano la cedevolezza dell’autocontrollo rispetto alle pulsioni, e i personaggi appaiono in balia di terrificanti Doppelgänger che agiscono in loro vece, portandoli alla morte, o – soluzione ancor più aberrante! – a forme terribili di psicosi e follia.

Si pensi ai testi di Chamisso (Storia meravigliosa di Peter Schlemil), Andersen (L’ombra), Jean Paul (Espero), Richard Dehmel (Masken), Ferdinand Raimund (Il re delle Alpi e il misantropo), Oscar Wilde (Il ritratto di Dorian Gray), Poe (William Wilson), Dostoevskij (Il sosia). La personalità di ognuno di questi autori era venata da disturbi psichici, nervosi, sessuali, aggravati dall’abuso d’alcool e d’oppiacei; tratto in comune: frequenti allucinazioni sulla scissione di sé. Jean Paul, ad esempio, si perdeva in solipsistiche elucubrazioni sull’Io, rabbrividendo d’orrore nel non riuscire a riconoscersi riflesso nelle iridi di un interlocutore; Maupassant tremò nell’osservare se stesso strisciare notturnamente all’interno della sua camera al fine di dettare nuovi appunti; Goethe intercettò l’inquietante figura del Sé del futuro cavalcargli incontro lungo il sentiero per Drusenheim; Chamisso, trascinatosi a letto in seguito a una notte brava, accusò il colpo di trovarvi il suo doppio e di esser costretto a convenire che Quello fosse il reale se stesso; in Eines Nachts, Poritzky cedette alla superstizione infantile di osservare il proprio riflesso nello specchio a mezzanotte: perso nei ricordi della giovinezza, la sua figura parve sdoppiarsi tra passato e presente, sino a che il poeta non inorridì innanzi all’improvvisa realizzazione del suo terrificante invecchiamento.

XXX_034L_Lynd_Ward_William_Wilson

Il terrore d’impazzire, di perdere il controllo della propria coscienza, sembrano dunque essere alla radice del timore della perdita dell’ombra, del pensiero di un doppio libero d’agire indipendentemente dalla nostra volontà, della cessione del proprio riflesso agli altri – demoni, solitamente, che essendo originariamente loro stessi ombre, al pari di spiriti, spettri, elfi e maghi, desiderano averne altre per sé. Ed è questo, dunque, il germe del terrore primigenio: non possedere un’ombra implicherebbe l’astrazione dal mondo sensibile, quello dei vivi. Solo le anime (si pensi a leggende persiane, o allo stesso Inferno dantesco) e i morti, giacendo, non proiettano mobili riflessi.

Di qui il fiorire di leggende e superstizioni, contemporanee, antiche, esotiche o tribali. Per l’assenza di ombre al suo interno, il sacro recinto degli Arcadi (il Liceo), era assimilato al regno dei morti: chi osava avventurarvisi sarebbe deceduto entro un anno. La stessa sorte toccherebbe, secondo credenze diffuse presso popoli germanici e slavi, nonché presso gli ebrei, a chi durante particolari ricorrenze (la Vigilia di Natale, S. Silvestro, Sukkot, l’intervallo tra Natale e l’Epifania) non proietta alcuna ombra sui muri o ne mostra una sdoppiata; chi possiede un’ombra debole o incerta verrebbe invece considerato malato, e dovrebbe quindi essere esposto al sole per richiamare l’energia – il doppio – sfuggente.

Secondo Frazer (Il ramo d’oro), presso gli abitanti delle Isole Salomone vige il divieto di calpestare l’ombra del re – pena la morte, per oltraggio al corpo dello sovrano stesso -, mentre Ambonya e Uliase evitano di uscire a mezzogiorno, quando il sole, perpendicolare, rende le ombre evanescenti (ed è proprio a quell’ora che il guerriero leggendario Tukaitawa, per i Mangaiani, venne assassinato, in quanto la sua forza variava d’intensità a seconda della definizione del suo umbratile doppio, a sua volta dipendente dall’inclinazione del sole).

Per il primitivo, l’ombra è infatti un’entità tangibile e reale, in grado d’agire indipendentemente, o addirittura di prendere il controllo sulla coscienza, nei sogni e nelle visioni, prima di distaccarsi definitivamente dal corpo al momento del trapasso. E dove sceglie di rifugiarsi, allora, questa mobile e ambigua entità? Sulle pareti di una tomba egizia, forse, dipinta in colori sgargianti per non essere dimenticata. Oppure in una dimensione alternativa, tramutandosi, magicamente, in ciò che religiosamente si definisce anima.

Ed è appunto per il timore di perderla anzitempo che gli Zulù evitano di riflettersi nelle torbide paludi, che non restituirebbero chiaramente i loro lineamenti, e gli antichi Greci interpretavano il sognare il proprio eìdolon – separato da sé – come presagio di morte; per la stessa ragione – preservare l’anima dalla fuga – in alcune regioni tedesche vige l’usanza di velare gli specchi qualora vi sia un morto in casa: l’ombra potrebbe continuare a dimorare nella superficie riflettente, e scorgere due morti – quello reale e il suo riflesso – implicherebbe l’imminente decesso di un altro familiare.

Sia in Oriente che in Occidente si sono registrati, nel corso dei secoli, gustosi aneddoti inerenti al riconoscimento – anche giuridico – dell’ombra quale entità solida e materiale: l’antico diritto germanico prevedeva che un servo, offeso da un uomo libero, potesse rivalersi sulla sua ombra, mentre sotto l’imperatore Massimiliano era incluso, tra le pene più aspre, l’assassinio rituale di un’ombra tramite vanghe. Plutarco, infine, riferisce che il re Bochoris d’Egitto, trovatosi a giudicare il caso di un uomo che aveva goduto dei favori di un’etera durante il sonno, stabilì che la somma pattuita venisse versata dal doppio del reo – l’ombra, appunto – agente nel sogno.

ombre

Un’ombra come riflesso in grado d’agire indipendentemente dalla volontà, dunque, capace d’incarnare il lato oscuro, istintivo, pulsionale d’ogni uomo. Perdere l’ombra, in quest’accezione, o cederla ad altri, pur attraverso il dono d’un cammeo, uno scatto fotografico, un ritratto – a cui le popolazioni tribali, non a caso, si sottraggono – assume la sinistra valenza di una terribile perdita di coscienza o di controllo e, di conseguenza, può essere alla base del timore di morire o l’orrore d’impazzire. Orrore e timore più o meno esplicitati e riconosciuti, più o meno inconsci e striscianti, ravvisabili nel substrato delle etnie più disparate, abili nel trascendere le differenze culturali, oltrepassando i limiti – limiti così labili! – del Tempo e dello Spazio.

La nave nel buio

Trascorse il logorìo di giorni e giorni.
Ogni gola riarsa e vitreo ogni occhio.
Il logorìo di giorni e giorni!
(S.T. Coleridge, La ballata del vecchio marinaio)

dn9148-1_640

Talvolta la storia supera qualsiasi racconto folkloristico per macabra fantasia e inaudite coincidenze.

Le Rodeur partì dal golfo del Biafra nell’aprile del 1819, diretto all’isola di Guadalupa. Era una nave schiavista francese, e ospitava a bordo 22 uomini dell’equipaggio e 162 schiavi.
Stipati nel buio della stiva in condizioni igieniche orribili, gli schiavi venivano nutriti poco e male: cibo scarso e spesso avariato, e mezzo bicchiere d’acqua al giorno.

slave_ship

photo 1

Dopo 15 giorni di viaggio, alcuni degli schiavi cominciarono a diventare ciechi. All’inizio non venne data molta importanza alla cosa, ma la malattia degli occhi era evidentemente infettiva e l’epidemia cominciò a dilagare fra i prigionieri. Il medico di bordo, convinto che la causa fosse l’aria insalubre e impura che si respirava nella stiva, ordinò che agli schiavi fosse di tanto in tanto permesso di prendere una boccata d’aria. Ma, di fronte agli attoniti marinai, una volta portati sul ponte, molti fra questi schiavi si abbracciavano e si gettavano fuori bordo stretti l’uno fra le braccia dell’altro, impedendosi vicendevolmente di nuotare così da annegare più velocemente. Saltavano davvero “nella speranza, che prevale così universalmente tra di loro, che [i loro spiriti] sarebbero stati velocemente trasportati indietro alle loro case in Africa” – come sosteneva un anno dopo M. Benjamin Constant nel suo discorso alla Camera dei Deputati di Francia? Probabile, ma possiamo anche immaginare che per un uomo catturato, incatenato, chiuso al buio in condizioni terrificanti e i cui occhi avevano smesso di vedere la luce, le onde del mare sembrassero un destino preferibile a quello  che lo attendeva sul Rodeur.

Quale che fosse la motivazione, al capitano della nave non piaceva affatto perdere il suo prezioso carico in quel modo. Così ordinò che gli schiavi che venivano fermati mentre tentavano il suicidio, fossero poi fucilati o impiccati di fronte ai loro compagni.

Ma l’epidemia non si fermava: in breve tutti i prigionieri persero la vista, e allora fu lo stesso capitano a cominciare a gettare gli schiavi fuori bordo, nel tentativo di arginare l’avanzare della malattia (e di risparmiare sui costi di mantenimento per una “merce” ormai invendibile); 36 uomini persero la vita così, buttati alle onde.

cans Thrown Overboard from a Slave Ship, Brazil, ca_ 1830s_jpg

A poco a poco anche l’equipaggio cominciò ad essere inesorabilmente infettato dall’oftalmia, finché rimase soltanto un uomo ancora capace di vedere. L’unico in grado di stare al timone, e di cercare di riportare il Rodeur verso la salvezza – e forse anche la sua vista aveva le ore contate.

A tentoni, nelle tenebre della cecità, i marinai si diedero il cambio per giorni alle corde, senza speranza. E poi, un mattino, successe quello che il giornalista John Randolph Spears definì “uno degli incidenti più rimarchevoli della storia del commercio marino”. Mentre cercava disperatamente di recuperare la rotta, il solitario timoniere del Rodeur avvistò una nave che avanzava a vele spiegate: era la goletta schiavista spagnola Leon. La gioia esplose fra la ciurma: la fortuna aveva portato dei soccorsi proprio verso di loro!

Mentre la nave spagnola si avvicinava, però, gli occhi affaticati del timoniere si accorsero che essa sembrava andare alla deriva – le gomene erano lente e sfatte, e il ponte completamente deserto. Pareva un relitto galleggiante, abbandonato al mare, che si prendeva gioco delle loro speranze di salvataggio. Ma il Leon non era completamente deserto: arrivati a una distanza sufficiente da poter essere sentiti, i marinai francesi si misero a gridare verso la nave e finalmente degli uomini cominciarono ad apparire. Ma i passeggeri della nave straniera erano allucinati e terrorizzati tanto quanto i marinai del Rodeur: aggrappandosi alla balaustra, gli spagnoli risposero urlando che tutto il loro equipaggio era divenuto cieco a causa di una malattia sviluppatasi fra gli schiavi. In un attimo la speranza si trasformò in orrore, perché proprio dalla nave che avrebbe dovuto portare il Rodeur fuori dall’incubo, arrivava ora una preghiera di salvezza.

De_Windstoot-A_ship_in_need_in_a_raging_storm-Willem_van_de_Velde_II-1707-DCedit2

Colpite dallo stesso morbo e incapaci di darsi aiuto, le due navi si separarono.
Il 21 Giugno il Rodeur raggiunse Guadalupa; secondo la Bibliothèque Ophthalmologique, l’unico uomo che era scampato all’oftalmia divenne cieco tre giorni dopo essere riuscito a ricondurre in porto la nave.
Il Leon invece si perse nell’Atlantico, e non se ne seppe più nulla.