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.

Fumone, the invisible castle

If by “mystery”, even in its etymological root, we mean anything closed, incomprehensible and hidden, then the castrum (castle), being a locked and fortified place, has always played the role of its perfect frame; it is the ideal setting for supernatural stories, a treasure chest of unspeakable and terrible deeds, a wonderful screen onto which our fears and desires can be projected.

This is certainly the case with the castle of Fumone, which appears to be inseparable from myth, from the enigmatic aura surrounding it, mostly on the account of its particularly dramatic history.

Right from its very name, this village shows a dark and most ominous legacy: Fumone, which means “great smoke”, refers to the advance of invaders.
Since it was annexed to the Papal States in XI Century, Fumone had a strategic outpost function, as it was designated to warn nearby villages of the presence of enemy armies; when they were spotted, a big fire was lit in the highest tower, called Arx Fumonis. This signal was then repeated by other cities, where similar pillars of thick smoke rose in the sky, until the alert came to Rome. “Cum Fumo fumat, tota campania tremat”: when Fumone is smoking, all the countryside trembles.
The castle, with its 14 towers, proved to be an impregnable military fortress, overruling the armies of Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, but the bloodiest part of its history has to do with its use as a prison by the State of the Church.
Fumone became sadly well-known both for its brutal detention conditions and for the illustrous guests who unwillingly entered its walls. Among others, notable prisoners were the antipope Gregory VIII in 1124 and, more than a century later, Pope Celestine V, guilty of the “big refusal”, that is abdicating the Papal throne.

These two characters are already shrouded in legend.
Gregory VIII died incarcerated in Fumone, after he opposed the Popes Paschal II, Gelasius II and Callixtus II and was defeated by the last one. In a corridor inside the castle, a plaque commemorates the antipope, and the guides (as well as the official website) never forget to suggest that Gregory’s corpse could be walled-up behind the plaque, as his body was never found. Just the first of many thrills offered by the tour.
As for the gentle but inconvenient Celestine V, he probably died of an infected abscess, weakened by the hardship of detention, and the legend has it that a flaming cross appeared floating over his cell door the day before his death. On several websites it is reported that a recent study of Celestine’s skull showed a hole caused by a 4-inch nail, the unmistakable sign of a cruel execution ordered by his successor Boniface VIII; but when researching more carefully, it turns out this “recent” survey in fact refers to two different and not-so-modern investigations, conducted in 1313 and 1888, while a 2013 analysis proved that the hole was inflicted many years after the Saint’s death.
But, as I’ve said, when it comes to Fumone, myth permeates every inch of the castle, overriding reality.

Another example is the infamous “Well of the Virgin”, located on the edge of a staircase.
From the castle website:

Upon arriving at the main floor, you will be directly in front of the “Well of the Virgin”.  This cruel and medieval method of punishment was used by the Vassals of Fumone when exercising the “Right of the Lord” an assumed legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to be the first to take the virginity of his serfs’ maiden daughters. If the girl was found not to be a virgin, she was thrown into the well.

Several portals, otherwise trustworthy, add that the Well “was allegedly equipped with sharp blades“; and all seem to agree that the “Right of the Lord” (ius primae noctis) was a real and actual practice. Yet it should be clear, after decades of research, that this is just another legend, born during the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Scholars have examined the legislations of Germanic monarchies, Longobards, Carolingians, Communes, Holy Roman Empire and later kingdoms, and found no trace of the elusive right. If something similar existed, as a maritagium, it was very likely a right over assets and not persons: the father of the bride had to pay a compensation to grant his daughter a dowry — basically, possessions and lands passed from father-in-law to son-in-law at the cost of a fee to the local landlord.
But again, why asking what’s real, when the idea of a well where young victims were thrown is so morbidly alluring?

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I would rather specify at this point that I have no interest in debunking the information reported on the castle’s website, nor on other sites. Legends exist since time immemorial, and if they survive it means they are effective, important, even necessary narratives. I am willing to maintain both a disenchanted and amazed look, as I’m constantly fascinated by the power of stories, and this analysis only helps clarifying that we are dealing, indeed, with legends.
But let’s go back to visiting the castle.

Perhaps the most bizarre curiosity in the whole manor house is a small piece of wooden furniture in the archive room.
In this room ancient books and documents are kept, and nothing can prepare the visitor for the surprise when the unremarkable cabinet is opened: inside, in a crystal display case, lies the embalmed body of a child, surrounded by his favorite toys. The lower door shows the dead boy’s wardrobe.

The somber story is that of “Little Marquis” Francesco Longhi, the eight and last child of Marchioness Emilia Caetani Longhi, and brother of seven sisters. According to the legend, his sisters did not look kindly upon this untimely heir, and proceded to poison him or bring him to a slow demise by secretly putting glass shreds in his food. The kid started feeling excruciating pains in the stomach and died shortly after, leaving his mother in the utmost desperation. Blinded by the suffering, the Marchioness called a painter to remove any sign of happiness from the family portraits, had the little boy embalmed and went on dressing him, undressing him, speaking to him and crying on his deathbed until her own death.

This tragic tale could not go without some supernatural twist. So here comes the Marchioness’ ghost, now and then seen crying inside the castle, and even the child’s ghost, who apparently enjoys playing around and moving objects in the fortress’ large rooms.

A place like Fumone seems to function as a catalyst for funereal mysteries, and represents the quintessence of our craving for the paranormal. It is no cause for indignation if this has become part of the castle’s marketing and communication strategies, as it is ever more difficult in Italy to promote the incredible richness of our own heritage. And in the end people come for the ghosts, and leave having learned a bit of history.
We would rather ask: why do we so viscerally love ghost stories, tales of concealed bodies and secret atrocities?

Fabio Camilletti, in his brilliant introduction to the anthology Fantasmagoriana, writes about Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known by the stage name of Robertson, one of the first impresarios to use a magic lantern in an astounding sound & light show. At the end of his performance he used to remind the audience of their final destiny, as a skeleton suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Camilletti compares this gimmick to the idea that, ultimately, we ourselves are ghosts:

Robertson said something similar, before turning the projector back on and showing a skeleton standing on a pedestal: this is you, this is the fate that awaits you. Thus telling ghost stories, as paradoxical as it may seem, is also a way to come to terms with the fear of death, forgetting — in the enchanted space created by the narration, or by the magic lantern — our ephemeral and fleeting nature.

Whether this is the real motivation behind the success of  spook stories, or it’s maybe the opposite — a more mundane denial of impermanence which finds relief in the idea of leaving a trace after death (better to come back as a ghost than not coming back at all) — it is unquestionably an extremely powerful symbolic projection. So much so that in time it becomes stratified and lingers over certain places like a shadow, making them elusive and almost imaginary. The same goes for macabre tales of torture and murder, which by turning the ultimate terror into a narrative may help metabolyzing it.

The Longhi-De Paolis castle is still shrouded in a thick smoke: no longer coming from the highest tower, it is now the smoke of myth, the multitude of legends woven over history’s ancient skin. It would be hard, perhaps even fruitless in a place like this, to persist in discerning truth from symbolic construction, facts fom interpretations, reality from fantasy.
Fumone remains an “invisible” castle that Calvino would have certainly liked, a fortification which is more a mental representation than a tangible location, the haven of the dreamer seeking comfort (because yes, they do offer comfort) in cruel fables.

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – II

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The Prince, just like a sorcerer, is stirring the preparation in a big cauldron. Eventually, the long-awaited reaction takes place: a mysterious liquid is ready. On the other side of the room, the two bound and gagged servants can’t even scream anymore. The man is sobbing, while the woman, even immobilized, stays vigilant and alert — perhaps the new life she carries in her womb prevents her from giving in to fear, commanding an already impossible defense. The Prince hasn’t got much time, he has to act quickly. He pours the liquid down a strange pump, then he gets close to his victims: in their eyes he sees an unnameable terror. He starts with the man, puncturing the jugular vein and injecting the liquid right into his bloodstream with a syringe. The heart will pump the preparation throughout the body, and the Prince watches the agonizing man’s face as the dense poison begins to circulate. There, it’s all done: the servant is dead. It will take two to three hours for the mixture to solidify, and surely more than a month for the putrified flesh to fall off the skeleton and the network of veins, arteries and capillaries the process turned into marble.
Now it’s the woman’s turn.

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What you just read is the legend surrounding the two “anatomical machines” still visible in the Underground Chamber of the Sansevero Chapel. According to this story, Prince Raimondo di Sangro created them by sacrifying the life of his servants in order to obtain an exact representation of the vascular system. to an otherwise impossible to achieve level of accuracy. Even Benedetto Croce mentioned the legend in his  Storie e leggende napoletane (1919): “with the pretext of a minor fault, he had two of his servants killed, a man and a woman, and their bodies weirdly embalmed so that they showed all their internal viscera, the arteries and veins, and kept them locked in a closet…“. The two “machines” are in fact a man and a woman (pregnant, even if the fetus was stolen in the Sixties), their skeletons still wrapped in the thick net of circulatory apparatus.

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How were the “machines” really built?
The answer is maybe less exciting but also less cruel than legend has it: they were created through great expertise and great patience. And not by Raimondo di Sangro himself: in fact, the Prince commissioned this work in 1763-64 to Giuseppe Salerno, a physician from Palermo, providing for the iron wire and wax necessary to the construction, and gratifying the Sicilian artist with a nice pension for the rest of his life. If the skeletons are undoubtedly authentic, the whole vascular system was recreated using wire, which was then wrapped up in silk and later imbued in a peculiar mix of pigmented beewax and varnish, allowing the wire to be manipulated, bent in every direction and acting as a shock-absorbant material during transportation.
Giuseppe Salerno was not the only person to build such “machines”, for as early as 1753 and 1758 in Palermo a doctor called Paolo Graffeo had already presented a similar couple of anatomical models, complete with a 4-month-old fetus.

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The “black” legend about servants mercilessly killed stems from the figure of Raimondo di Sangro, whose life and work — just like the Sammartino’s Christ we talked about in our previous article — seem to be covered by a veil, albeit a symbolic one.
An extraordinary intellectual and inventor, chemistry, physics and technology enthusiast, Raimondo di Sangro was always regarded as suspisious because of his Freemasonry and alchemic interests, so much so that he became some sort of devil in popular fantasy.

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At the dawn of science, in the middle of XVIII Century, rationalism had yet to abandon alchemic symbology: alchemists obviously worked on concrete matter (chemistry will later grow from these very researches), but every procedure or preparation was also interpreted according to different metaphysical readings. Raimondo di Sangro claimed he invented tens of contraptions, such as a folding stage, a color typography, a sea chariot, hydraulic machines and alchemic marbles, fireproof paper and waterproof tissues, and even a much-celebrated “eternal candle”; but all the information about these creations come from his own Lettera apologetica, published in 1750, and some scholars maintain that these very inventions, whether they really existed or not, should be interpreted as symbols of the Prince’s alchemic research. Accordingly, the originary placement of the “anatomical machines”, inside the Phoenix Apartment on a revolving platform, looks like a symbolic choice: maybe Raimondo di Sangro thought of them as a depiction of the rubedo, a stage in the search for the philosopher’s stone in which matter recomposes itself, granting immortality.

Today, the two “machines” still amaze scholars for their realism and accuracy, and they prove that in the XVIII Century an almost perfect knowledge of the circulatory system had already been reached. Modern versions of these models, created through injection of sylicon polymers (this time on real cadavers), can be seen throughout the well-known Body Worlds exhibitions coordinated by Gunther Von Hagens, the inventor of plastination.

Here is some more info (in Italian): an article on the Prince buying the machines; an in-depth analysis of his inventions’ esoteric symbolism; an essay on Raimondo di Sangro in reference to his relationship with Free Masonry. And, of course, the Sansevero Chapel Museum website.

You can read the first part of this article here.

The mysteries of Sansevero Chapel – I

If you have never fallen victim to the Stendhal syndrome, then you probably have yet to visit the Cappella Sansevero in Naples.
The experience is hard to describe. Entering this space, full to the brim with works of art, you might almost feel assaulted by beauty, a beauty you cannot escape, filling every detail of your field of vision. The crucial difference here, in respect to any other baroque art collection, is that some of the works exposed inside the chapel do not offer just an aesthetic pleasure, but hinge on a second, deeper level of emotion: wonder.
Some of these are seemingly “impossible” sculptures, much too elaborate and realistic to be the result of a simple chisel, and the gracefulness of shapes is rendered with a technical dexterity that is hard to conceive.

The Release from Deception (Il Disinganno), is, for example, an astounding sculpted group: one could spend hours admiring the intricate net, held by the male figure, and wonder how Queirolo was able to extract it from a single marble block.

The Chastity (La Pudicizia) by Corradini, with its drapery veiling the female character as if it was transparent, is another “mystery” of sculpting technique, where the stone seems to have lost its weight, becoming ethereal and almost floating. Imagine how the artist started his work from a squared block of marble, how his mind’s eye “saw” this figure inside of it, how he patiently removed all which didn’t belong, freeing the figure from the stone little by little, smoothing the surface, refining, chiselling every wrinkle of her veil.

But the attention is mostly drawn by the most famous art piece displayed in the chapel, the Veiled Christ.
This sculpture has fascinated visitors for two and a half centuries, astounding artists and writers (from the Marquis de Sade to Canova), and is considered one of the world’s best sculpted masterpieces.
Completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, it portrays Christ deposed after crucifixion, covered by a transparent veil. This veil is rendered with such subtlety as to be almost deceiving to the eye, and the effect seen in person is really striking: one gets the impression that the “real” sculpture is lying underneath, and that the shroud could be easily grabbed and lifted.

It’s precisely because of Sanmartino’s extraordinary virtuosity in sculpting the veil that a legend surrounding this Christ dies hard – fooling from time to time even specialized magazines and otherwise irreproachable art websites.
Legend has it that prince Raimondo di Sangro, who commissioned the work, actually fabricated the veil himself, laying it down over Sanmartino’s sculpture and petrifying it with an alchemic method of his own invention; hence the phenomenal liquidness of the drapery, and the “transparence” of the tissue.

This legend keeps coming back, in the internet era, thanks to articles such as this:

The news is the recent discovery that the veil is not made of marble, as was believed until now, but of fine cloth, marbled through an alchemic procedure by the Prince himself, so that it became a whole with the underlying sculpture. In the Notarial Archives, the contract between Raimondo di Sangro and Sanmartino regarding the statue has been found. In it, the sculptor commits himself to deliver “a good and perfect statue depicting Our Lord dead in a natural pose, to be shown inside the Prince’s gentilitial church”. Raimondo di Sangro binds himself, in addition to supplying the marble, “to make a Shroud of weaved fabric, which will be placed over the sculpture; after this, the Prince will manipulate it through his own inventions; that is, coating the veil with a subtle layer of pulverized marble… until it looks like it’s sculpted with the statue”. Sammartino also commits to “never reveal, after completing the statue, the Prince’s method for making the shroud that covers the statue”. With this amazing contract, comes another document describing the recipe for powdered marble. If the two documents unequivocally prove the limits of Sammartino’s skills, they also show the alchemic genius of Sansevero, who put his expertise at the service of the hermetic doctrine, realizing one of the most important mysteric images of christian symbolism, that Holy Shroud Jesus was wrapped in, after he died on the cross.

(Excerpt from Restaurars)

Digging a bit deeper, it looks like this “sensational” discovery is not even recent, but goes back to the Eighties. It was made by neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, who became interested in Raimondo di Sangro after being contacted by his spirit during a seance. Miccinelli published a couple of books, in 1982 and 1984, centered on the enigmatic figure of the Prince, freemason and alchemist, a character depicted in folklore as both a mad scientist and a genius.
The document Miccinelli found in the Archives is actually a fake. Here is what the Sansevero Chapel Museum has to say about it:

The document […], transcribed and published by Clara Miccinelli, is unanimously considered nonauthentic by scholars. In particular, a very accurate analysis of the document was conducted by Prof. Rosanna Cioffi, who in note 107, page 147 of her book “La Cappella Sansevero. Arte barocca e ideologia massonica” (sec. ed., Salerno 1994) lists and discusses as much as nine reasons – frankly inconfutable – for which the document cannot be held to be authentic (from the absence of watermark on the paper, to the handwriting being different from every other deed compiled by notary Liborio Scala, to the fact that the sheet of paper is loose and not included in the volume collecting all the deeds for the year 1752, to the notary’s “signum” which just in this document is different from all the other deeds, etc.). […] There are on the other hand certainly authentic documents, that can be consulted freely and publicly, in the Historic Archive of the Banco di Napoli, unearthed by Eduardo Nappi and published on different occasions: from a negotiable instrument dated December 16 1752, in which Raimondo di Sangro describes the statue in the making as “a statue of Our Lord being dead, and covered with a veil from the same marble”, to the payment of 30 ducats (as a settlment of 500 ducats) on February 13 1754, in which the Prince of Sansevero unequivocally describes the Christ as being “covered with a transparent shroud of the same marble”. All this without taking into account one of the Prince’s famous letters to Giraldi on the “eternal light”, published for the first time in May 1753 in “Novelle Letterarie” in Florence, in which he thus talks about the Christ: “the marble statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ being dead, wrapped in a transparent veil of the same marble, but executed with such expertise as to fool the most accurate observers”. […]
All the documentary evidence, therefore, points to one conclusion: the Veiled Christ is a work entirely made of marble. To settle things once and for all, there was eventually a scientific non-invasive analysis conducted by the company “Ars Mensurae”, which concluded that the only material present in this work is marble. The analysis report was published in 2008 in: S. Ridolfi, “Analisi di materiale lapideo tramite sistema portatile di Fluorescenza X: il caso del ‘Cristo Velato’ nella Cappella Sansevero di Napoli”. […]
We believe that the fact that Sanmartino’s Christ is entirely made from marble only adds charm […] to the work.

Miccinelli has subsequently found in her home a chest containing an incredible series of Jesuit manuscripts which completely overturn the whole precolonial history of Andean civilizations as we know it. The “case” has divided the ethnological community, even jeopardizing accademic relationships with Peru (see this English article), as many italian specialists believe the documents to be authentic, whereas by the majority of Anglosaxon and South American scholars they are considered artfully constructed fakes. The harsh debate did not discourage Miccinelli, who just can’t seem to be able to open a drawer without discovering some rare unpublished work: in 1991 it was the turn of an original writing by Dumas, which enabled her to decrypt the alchemical symbologies of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The second part of this article is dedicated to another legend surrounding the Sansevero Chapel, namely the one regarding the two “anatomical machines” preserved in the Underground Chamber. You can read it here.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

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

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The elephants’ graveyard

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In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

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This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

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An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

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A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.70

Post inspired by this article.

Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

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The body plays a fundamental role in Christian tradition.
Among the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity is indeed the only one to imply a God who became a man himself, thus granting an essential value to flesh and blood. According to Christian doctrine, it is told that resurrection will not be merely spiritual, but will also concern the physical body. Nevertheless, our flesh never got rid of its intrinsic duplicity: on the one hand, it lets the perfection of God’s work shine through – so much so that a holy body can “retain” within itself a part of the sanctity of the soul, whence the cult of relics – while on the other hand, of all human elements, it is the weakest and more susceptible to falling into temptation. The corruption of the flesh cannot be avoided except by mortifying sensuality or – in the most extreme cases – through the final sacrifice, more or less voluntary.

During the Middle Ages a distinction actually arose, ever sharper, between the carnal body and the body which will be resurrected at the end of times. As LeGoff writes, “the body of the Christian, dead or alive, lives in expectation of the body of glory it will take on, if it does not revel in the wretched physical body. The entire funeral ideology of Christianity revolves around the interplay between the wretched body and the glorious body, and is so organized as to wrest one from the other“.

That is why, in the lives of the saints, a disdainful denial of physicality and earthly life prevails. But, and that’s where things get interesting, there is a clear difference between male and female saints.
If the male saint usually accepts his martyrdom with courage and abnegation, in the vitae of female saints, female bodies are relentelssly destroyed or degraded, reaching superhuman extents in the hagiographic imagery.
As Elisabeth Roudinesco writes (in Our Dark Side: A History of Perversion, 2007):

When they were adopted by certain mystics, the great sacrificial rituals – from flagellation to the ingestion of unspeakable substances – became proof of their saintly exaltation. […] While the first duty of male saints was, following the Christian interpretation of the Book of Job, to annihilate any form of desire to fornicate, woman saints condemned themselves to a radical sterilization of their wombs, which became putrid, either by eating excrement or by exhibiting their tortured bodies.

Gilles Tétart in his Saintes coprophages: souillure et alimentation sacrée en Occident chrétien (2004, in Corps et Affects, edited by F. Héritier and M. Xanthakou) recounts several examples of this paroxysmal crusade against the flesh and its temptations.

Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun who lived in the Sevententh Century and was known for her mystic raptures, was “so sensitive that anything dirty made her heart jump“. But after Jesus had called her back to order, she could clean up the vomit of a sick woman by making it her food. She later absorbed the fecal matter of a woman with dysentery. By divine grace, what once would have disgusted her to death, now provoked in her the most intense visions of Christ, holding her with her mouth pressed against his wound: “If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would sacrifice them to be your slave“, she uttered.

According to some accounts, Catherine of Siena sucked the pus from the breasts of a woman with cancer, and stated that she had never eaten anything more delicious. Christ appeared to her, and reassuringly said: “My beloved, you have fought great battles for me and, with my help, you are still victorious. You have never been dearer or more agreeable to me […]. Not only have you scorned sensual pleasures; you have defeated nature by drinking a horrible beverage with joy and for the love of me. Well, as you have perfomed a supernatural act for me, I want to give you a supernatural liquor“.

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Before we go further, it is important to always keep in mind that hagiographies are not History. They are in fact literary works in which every element finds its place inside the narration for a specific purpose – that is not the accuracy of facts. The purpose of these tales is rather to create a bond with the reader, who at the time was supposed not only to deeply admire the saints, but to empathize with their suffering, to feel the pain in first person, even if vicariously, to identify with their tormented body.

Secondly, it should be considered that the lives of saint women were mainly written by male monks, and clearly reflect male enthusiasm and fantasies. All this has brought several authors (B. Burgwinkle e C. Howie, G. Sorgo, S. Schäfer-Athaus, R. Mills) to analyze the hidden parallelisms between hagiography and pornography, as the two genres – all obvious differences considered – share some common features: for instance, the special attention given to the body, the importance of identification, the extremely detailed descritptions, the use of stylized characters, and so on.

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Sarah Schäfer-Althaus, in her paper Painful Pleasure. Saintly Torture on the Verge of Pornography (in Woods, Ian et alii, Mirabilia 18 2014/1) focuses on three saint women: Saint Agatha, Saint Apollonia e Saint Christina.
In the case of Saint Agatha, according to some versions, during the torture a significant inversion occurs. If Saint Catherine, as we’ve seen, found the horrid pus “delicious”, for Saint Agatha the suffering turns into pleasure.

“The pains are my delight”, she literally exclaims, “it is as if I were hearing some good news” – an announcement, which enrages her male tormentor to such an extent that he redirects his attention not only back at her already mutilated body, but especially at her breast – the utmost signifier of her femininity – and has it brutally cut off. Once more, contemporary readers might expect a reaction denoting anguish and pain, a cry for heavenly relief for her suffering, yet instead, Agatha angrily replies in several versions of her legend: “Are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself wanted to suck?”

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Therefore the aggression reveals a sexual nuance, or at least there is some kind of erotic tension in the martyrdom, which in itself can be read as a symbolic defloration of the saint’s femininity. A real defloration or penetration – it must be stressed, cannot happen  the saint woman can’t be actually raped, because it is essential for the hagiographic tale that she preserves her virginity to her death.

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The same goes for Saint Apollonia and Saint Christina: here too, the penetration is merely symbolic, so that the protagonists can be joined with Christ while still chaste, and therefore their mouths end up being violated. Saint Apollonia endures the torment of having all of her teeth pulled out, and Christina has her tongue cut off.
At first glance the sexual allusion in these tortures might not be evident, but Schäfer-Althaus unveils its metaphorical code:

In medieval common knowledge, the mouth was on the one hand considered a “lock” with the teeth functioning as the final “barrier”, deciding what ideas and thoughts enter and leave the body. On the other hand, however, from Antiquity up to the ninteenth century, the mouth was linked to the female genitals and the tongue was often paralleled with the clitoris. The clitoris was in return often described as a “little tongue” and belonged to one of “woman’s shameful members”.

So these two torments could imply sexual violence, although it is only symbolic in order to allow the reunification with Jesus. These are, eventually, tortures which violate all of the most feminine body parts, yet preserving the purity of the soul.
So much so that Saint Christina can dare pick up her freshly cut tongue, and throw it in the face of her tormentor.

And her tongue, this instrument of speech and this symbolic clitoris, takes away his eyesight.

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If the parallel between hagiography and pornography is intersting but let’s face it a little risky, undoubtedly these hyperbolic tales compiled, as mentioned, by male authors in a monastic environment, give us a glimpse of medieval male fantasies.
There are scholars, like the already quoted Roudinesco, who have come as far as to recognize in these medieval tales an anticipation of Sade’s themes or, more precisely, a source of inspiration for the Marquis‘ work:

This is why The Golden Legend, a work of piety that relates the lives of saints, can be read as prefiguring Sade’s perverse inversion of the Law in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. We find in both the same tortured bodies that have been stripped naked and covered in filth. There is no difference between these two types of martyrdom. The Marquis adopts the model of monastic confinement, which is full of maceration and pain, removes the presence of God, and invents a sort of sexological zoo given over to the combinatory of a boundless jouissance of bodies.

After all, the line between pleasure and pain is often blurred, and this is even more true in hagiographic literature, since in martyrdom the pain of sacrifice is inseparable from the joy of reunification with God.
And the hidden gratification for the most atrocious details, the colourful language and the vivid descriptions, had to provoke in the reader a desire: desire to emulate these fearless saints and these powerful, incorruptible virgins who were able to transform pain into ecstasy.

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Charlie No Face

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Nell’area di Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circola una leggenda metropolitana, quella del Green Man, chiamato anche Charlie No Face. Si tratta di una creatura mostruosa, un uomo senza faccia che si aggira di notte lungo le strade meno battute, alla ricerca di una vittima a cui rubare il volto che gli manca. È la classica storia che si racconta attorno al fuoco di un campeggio, o ai bambini per minacciarli se non fanno i bravi: “Se resti fuori dopo il tramonto, Charlie No Face verrà a prenderti”.
Come accade con tutte le leggende urbane, le declinazioni della favola sono molteplici: il Green Man, dalla pelle verdastra e fosforescente, è di volta in volta un fantasma, un orco, un povero operaio caduto in una vasca di acido, un elettricista colpito da un fulmine e dato per morto che vive nascosto in un vecchio capanno abbandonato… è stato avvistato in una mezza dozzina di posti diversi, come la strada fra Koppel e New Galilee, oppure un’area industriale deserta a New Castle, o ancora un tunnel dismesso della ferrovia a South Park, e via dicendo.

Certo, questa è la leggenda. Pochi sanno, però, che Charlie No Face non è affatto un personaggio di fantasia.

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Il 18 Giugno 1919 un gruppo di ragazzini stava andando a farsi una nuotata in un’ansa del fiume Beaver, quando arrivarono al ponte di Morado che si innalzava sopra alle acque del Wallace Run. Si trattava di un grande ponte in legno su cui passava una linea di tram elettrici che connettevano le cittadine di Beaver Falls e Big Beaver: la massiccia struttura del ponte era un’attrazione conosciuta per la gioventù del luogo, che spesso si avventurava a scalarlo. Quel giorno, i ragazzini avvistarono un nido che qualche uccello aveva costruito proprio fra le assi più alte del ponte.
Cominciarono a sfidarsi su chi avrebbe avuto il coraggio di andare a controllare quanti uccelli c’erano nel nido: fu un bambino di soli otto anni, Ray, che salì verso la cima del ponte.
Purtroppo, sul Morado Bridge passavano due linee elettriche, una della potenza di 1.200 volt continui, e l’altra di 22.000 volt di corrente alternata. Il bambino per salire si aggrappò ad un cavo, e restò folgorato dall’immensa scossa, mentre il suo corpo letteralmente bruciava prima di staccarsi infine dai cavi e precipitare giù.

Ponte di Morado, bambino di 8 anni folgorato da cavo scoperto, in punto di morte“, titolava la gazzetta di Beaver Falls il giorno dopo. In effetti non c’erano quasi speranze per il piccolo Ray; eppure, dopo un mese passato fra la vita e la morte, la sua salute cominciò a migliorare. Raymond Robinson sopravvisse, ma la sua faccia era stata completamente sciolta dalla corrente. Non aveva più occhi, né naso; le labbra erano completamente sfigurate, così come le orecchie. Il braccio con cui era rimasto attaccato al cavo aveva dovuto essere amputato sotto il gomito, e il petto era un’unica, enorme cicatrice.

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Ritornato a casa sua dopo i lunghi mesi d’ospedale a Pittsburgh, Ray non lasciò mai più Koppel. Con un’amorevole famiglia che si prendeva cura di lui, si apprestò a vivere una vita da recluso, conscio che il suo aspetto avrebbe terrorizzato la gente. Nonostante fosse cieco, dava una mano in casa costruendo cinture, portafogli e altri oggetti da vendere; aveva una grande collezione di rompicapi di metallo, fatti di ferri di cavallo, tubi e molle, che risolveva abilmente per stupire i nipotini. Amava passare una vecchia falciatrice sull’erba del giardino, di tanto in tanto, e anche se qualche punto del prato non era ben rasato, i familiari non correggevano mai i suoi errori. Il fatto è che Ray, a detta di tutti i suoi parenti, era una persona di una gentilezza unica; tutti coloro che lo conoscevano bene avvertivano l’istinto e il dovere di proteggerlo dal mondo esterno, che sapevano poter essere crudele nei suoi confronti.
Nelle rare occasioni in cui doveva proprio mostrarsi a qualche estraneo, Raymond indossava un naso prostetico collegato a un paio di occhiali da sole. “Non discuteva mai delle sue ferite o dei suoi problemi” – racconta il nipote di Ray – “Era soltanto una realtà, e non c’era nulla che ci potesse fare, perciò non ne parlava mai. Non si è mai lamentato di niente”.

Eppure evidentemente quella vita gli stava un po’ stretta, Raymond aveva bisogno di un suo spazio privato, di qualcosa che lo facesse sentire più autonomo e meno dipendente dalla famiglia. Fu così che cominciò a passeggiare di notte lungo la strada statale 351 fra Koppel e New Galilee. Aiutandosi con un bastone, metteva un piede sull’asfalto e uno sui sassi a bordo carreggiata: con questo metodo avanzava seguendo la strada.

Le passeggiate notturne di Ray Robinson divennero presto una routine. Verso le 10 di sera egli afferrava il suo bastone e usciva di casa nella notte, sordo alle proteste di sua madre e del patrigno. “Perché devi per forza andare?”, chiedevano, ma Ray si incamminava lo stesso. Era il suo momento di libertà.

Presto si sparse la voce che c’era un uomo mostruoso che camminava la notte, sempre lungo la stessa strada, e per i teenager locali una storia simile era ovviamente un’attrattiva irresistibile. Nelle calde sere d’estate in cui non c’era nulla da fare, i ragazzi cominciarono a guidare su e giù per il tratto di statale per riuscire a vederlo. Ogni tanto ci riuscivano, e la storia si ingigantiva.

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Raymond si nascondeva dietro gli alberi, appena sentiva una macchina avvicinarsi, e dava poca confidenza agli estranei. Spesso questi ultimi lo insultavano e beffeggiavano in modo sadico. Altre volte, invece, gli capitava di incontrare dei ragazzi che gli offrivano delle birre o delle sigarette per scambiare due parole, o per potersi fare una foto assieme a lui. Più di una volta tornò a casa ubriaco, sconvolgendo la madre perché in casa sua non si era mai consumata nemmeno una goccia di alcol.

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Le passeggiate notturne di Raymond divennero una vera e propria attrazione ad un certo punto, tanto che la fila di macchine sulla statale 351 alcune sere aveva addirittura richiesto l’intervento della polizia. Fu più o meno in questo periodo che vennero coniati i nomignoli Charlie No Face e Green Man. Diverse volte Ray venne investito dalle automobili, diverse volte finì talmente ubriaco da perdere la strada per tornare a casa – lo trovarono i familiari, riverso sul bordo della strada, sfinito dopo aver vagato per ore nei boschi.

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Raymond continuò a passeggiare quasi ogni notte, dagli anni ’50 fino alla fine degli anni ’70, incurante della leggenda che si stava creando attorno alla sua figura. Negli ultimi anni della sua vita venne trasferito al Beaver County Geriatric Center, e lì morì nel 1985 a 74 anni. Ma ancora oggi egli è a suo modo presente, vero e proprio mito popolare moderno, nelle storie e nei racconti tramandati di generazione in generazione.

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(Grazie, Slago!)

Specchiarsi nell’Ombra

(Articolo a cura della nostra guestblogger Jennifer Bertasini)

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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.

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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.

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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 Pascualita

Nella cittadina di Chihuahua, capitale dell’omonimo stato in Messico, c’è un piccolo negozio di abiti da sposa; e in una vetrina di questo negozio potete ammirare un manichino del tutto particolare.


La gente del luogo la chiama La Pascualita. Fece la sua apparizione nella vetrina il 25 marzo del 1930, vestita di un leggero abito primaverile da sposa. Fin da subito le sue fattezze iperrealistiche stregarono i passanti: il suo sguardo vitreo sembrava fin troppo umano, la cura nei dettagli era estrema e l’illusione di trovarsi di fronte a una modella in carne ed ossa dava certamente i brividi.

Così iniziarono a nascere le leggende. Quel manichino, si cominciò a dire, assomigliava troppo a Pascuala Esparza de Perez, figlia dell’allora proprietaria: in poco tempo, la gente del posto si convinse che quello fosse in realtà il cadavere imbalsamato e perfettamente preservato della giovane ragazza, morta forse in gran segreto. Come spiegare altrimenti quella chioma autentica e quella pelle così perfetta?


La leggenda si arricchì di dettagli, e si sparse la voce che Pascuala fosse morta proprio il giorno delle sue nozze, in seguito al morso di una vedova nera. La ragazza, ovviamente ancora in perfetta salute, appena seppe di queste storie provò a convincere i suoi concittadini che era viva e vegeta… ma ormai nell’immaginario popolare il manichino era diventato “Pascualita”, la sfortunata sposa imbalsamata. Chi si trovava a passare di notte di fronte alla vetrina illuminata giurava di aver visto il manichino muoversi per seguirlo con lo sguardo. Secondo altri, Pascualita cambiava posizione da sola di tanto in tanto.


Fu così che i proprietari del negozio dovettero decidere che, dopotutto, essere al centro di questa storia fantastica e soprannaturale poteva anche funzionare come un’insperata pubblicità. Trasformata in attrazione turistica, ogni due settimane la Pascualita viene cambiata rigorosamente a tende chiuse, in modo che nessuno possa conoscere i suoi segreti, oltre alle commesse del negozio. Le quali dichiarano – non si sa se per contratto o per autentica superstizione: “Ogni volta che mi avvicino a Pascualita, le mie mani si mettono a sudare. Le sue mani sono così realistiche, e ha perfino le vene varicose sulle gambe. Io credo che sia una persona reale”.

A qualcuno di voi questa storia farà venire in mente la macabra vicenda di Elmer McCurdy. Ovviamente la Pascualita era, ed è, soltanto un manichino iperrealistico (se seguite un poco il nostro blog, sapete bene che preservare un corpo per 75 anni in queste condizioni non sarebbe possibile). Ma la statua della giovinetta vestita da sposa non è tanto interessante per la sua fattura, o per i presunti segreti che nasconderebbe; il suo fascino sta nella leggenda a cui ha dato vita, e che dimostra il nostro desiderio, il nostro bisogno di credere in questo tipo di storie – paranormali, macabre, fantastiche, che ci riportano ad una dimensione fuori dal tempo in cui bellezza e morte, orrore e poesia sono indissolubilmente fusi assieme.