Macabre Masks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Anatoly Moskvin, a linguist and philologist born in 1966 in Nizhny Novgorod, had earned the unquestioning respect of his fellow academics.
He fluently spoke thirteen languages, and was the author of important studies and academic papers. Great expert of Celtic folklore and of Russian funerary customs, at the age of 45 he was still living with his parents; he refrained from drinking or smoking, collected dolls and it was murmured that he was a virgin. But everybody knows that geniuses are always a little eccentric.

Yet Anatoly Moskvin was hiding a secret. A personal mission he felt he had to accomplish, driven by compassion and love, but one he knew his fellow citizens, not to mention the law, would have deemed crazy.
That very secret was to seal his fate, behind the walls of the mental institute where Anatoly Moskvin now spends his days.

Nizhny Novgorod, capital of the Volga District and the fifth Russian city, is an important cultural centre. In the surroundin areas several hundred graveyards cand be found, and in 2005 Moskvin was assigned the task of recording all the headstones: in two years he visited more than 750 cemeteries.
It was a tough job. Anatoly was forced to walk alone, sometimes for 30 km a day, facing harsh condistions. He had to spend many nights outdoors, drinking from puddles and taking shelter in the abandoned barns of the inhospitable region. One night, caught in the dark, to avoid freezing to death he found no better option than to break in the cemetery burial chamber and sleep in a coffin which was already prepared for next morning’s funeral. When at dawn the gravediggers arrived, they found him sleeping: Anatoly dashed off shouting his excuses – among the general laughter of undertakers who luckily did not chase after him.

The amount of data Mskvin gathered during this endeavour was unprecedented, and the study promised to be “unique” and “priceless”, in the words of those who followed its development. It was never published, but it served as the basis for a long series of articles on the history of Nizhny Novgorod’s cemeteries, published by Moskvin between 2006 and 2010.
But in 2011 the expert’s career ended forever, the day the police showed up to search his home.

Among the 60.000 books in is private library, stacked along the walls and on the floor, between piles of scattered paper and amidst a confusion of objects and documents, the agents found 26 strange, big dolls that gave off an unmistakable foul odor.
These were actually the mummified corpses of 26 little girls, three to 12-year-olds.
Anatoly Moskvin’s secret mission, which lasted for twenty years, had finally been discovered.

Celt druids – as well as Siberian shamans – slept on graves to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. For many years Anatoly did the same. He would lay down on the grave of a recently buried little girl, and speak with her. How are you in that tomb, little angel? Are you cold? Would you like to take a walk?
Some girls answered that they felt alright, and in that case Anatoly shared their happiness.
Other times, the child wept, and expressed the desire to come back to life.
Who would have got the heart to leave them down there, alone and frightened in the darkness of a coffin?

Anatoly studied mummification methods in his books. After exhuming the bodies, he dried them with a mixture of salt and baking soda, hiding them around the cemetery. When they dried out completely, he brought them home and dressed them, providing a bit of thickness to the shrunken limbs with layers of fabric. In some cases he built wax masks, painted with nail polish, to cover their decomposed faces; he bought wigs, bright-colored clothes in the attempt of giving back to those girls their lost beauty.


His elderly parents, who were mostly away from home, did not realize what he was doing. If their son had the hobby of building big puppets, what was wrong with that? Anatoly even disguised one of the bodies as a plush bear.

Moskvin talked to these little bodies he had turned into dolls, he bought them presents. They watched cartoons together, sang songs, held birthday parties.

But he knew this was only a temporary solution. His hope was that science would someday find a way to bring “his” girls back to life – or maybe he himself, during his academic research, could find some ancient black magic spell that would achieve the same effect. Either way, in the meantime, those little girls needed to be comforted and cuddled.

You can’t imagine it”, said during the trial the mother of one of the girls Moskvin stole from the cemetery and mummified. ”You can’t imagine that somebody would touch the grave of your child, the most holy place in this world for you. We had been visiting the grave of our child for nine years and we had no idea it was empty. Instead, she was in this beast’s apartment. […] For nine years he was living with my mummified daughter in his bedroom. I had her for ten years, he had her for nine.”.

Anatoly replied: “You abandoned your girls in the cold – and I brought them home and warmed them up”.

Charged with desecration of graves and dead bodies, Moskvin faced up to five years in prison; but in 2012 he was declared suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, unfit to stand trial, and thus sentenced for coercitive sanitary treatment. In all probability, he will never get out of the psychiatric institute he’s held in.

The little girls never awoke.

Moskvin’s story is somehow analogue to the ones I told in this series of posts:
L’amore che non muore – I   (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – II  (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – III  (English)

La sconosciuta della Senna

Parliamo oggi di una delle più romantiche ed enigmatiche figure di inizio ‘900: l’inconnue de la Seine.

La leggenda vuole che a Parigi, a fine ‘800, il corpo di una donna venisse ripescato dalla Senna – avvenimento non straordinario per l’epoca. Portata all’obitorio, un operatore funebre restò affascinato dalla sua bellezza, ma sopratutto rimase impressionato dal sorriso della ragazza: un sorriso che restituiva una tale idea di pace e serenità da ricordare quello della Gioconda. La giovane suicida doveva aver trovato, nel suo ultimo gesto, quella felicità che le era stata negata in vita.

Così l’impiegato della morgue eseguì una maschera mortuaria della bella sconosciuta, cioè un calco in gesso del suo viso. Dopodiché il corpo fu esposto nella vetrina dell’obitorio, com’era uso fare a quei tempi, affinché qualcuno dei passanti potesse identificarlo (vista con occhi contemporanei, una simile usanza può sembrare strana ma la morte, allora, non era ancora il tabù occultato e nascosto che è al giorno d’oggi).

Nessuno riconobbe la salma, che trovò una sepoltura comune e anonima.

Da quando la leggenda si diffuse, la “sconosciuta della Senna” divenne in breve tempo un clamoroso caso che stimolava la fascinazione macabra della Parigi bohémienne dei primi del ‘900. Cominciarono a circolare molte copie della maschera mortuaria, che andarono a ruba. Una seconda serie di calchi venne addirittura fatta a partire da una fotografia di quello originale, e queste “copie di copie” riproducevano dei dettagli compleamente irrealistici – ma tant’è, anche questa seconda ondata fu esaurita nel giro di pochi mesi. Pareva che tutti gli intellettuali e gli artisti fossero innamorati di questo viso enigmatico, e mille dissertazioni furono fatte sul suo sorriso e su quello che poteva rivelare della vita, della posizione sociale o della morte della povera ragazza. Le maschere mortuarie dell’inconnue addobbavano case e salotti esclusivi: secondo quanto riportato da alcune testimonianze, la ragazza divenne addirittura un ideale erotico, tanto da ispirare l’acconciatura dei capelli di un’intera generazione femminile, e da suggerire ad attrici del teatro e del cinema il look vincente.

La sconosciuta della Senna apparve in poemi, romanzi, pièce teatrali, novelle – ma non stiamo parlando di libriccini scandalistici. Per farvi capire la statura degli autori che ne scrissero, basta un veloce elenco di nomi: Rilke, Nabokov, Camus, Aragon, più recentemente Palahniuk

Ma chi era veramente la sconosciuta della Senna? Mille teorie sono state avanzate, tra cui quella che vuole che la giovane donna non fosse morta suicida, ma vittima di un omicidio. Il dottor Harry Battley è convinto di aver trovato in un negozio di anticaglie una fotografia della sconosciuta ancora in vita. Secondo le sue “ricerche” si tratterebbe di un’artista ungherese di music-hall, invischiata in un torbido adulterio di cui avrebbe pagato le conseguenze… insomma, vi risparmiamo i dettagli: la fotografia è interessante, ma la teoria che ci sta dietro è quantomeno bislacca.

La verità è probabilmente molto lontana dalla leggenda, e sicuramente molto meno romantica. Chiunque abbia un minimo di familiarità con le scienze forensi avrà già capito che il volto dell’inconnue ha davvero poche possibilità di essere il volto di un’annegata. Georges Villa, illustratore, dice di avrer saputo dal suo maestro Jules Lefebvre che il modello era in realtà una giovane donna morta di tubercolosi nel 1875.

Che il pesante calco utilizzato per le maschere mortuarie potesse poi immortalare un lieve e delicato sorriso come quello della sconosciuta, è altrettanto improbabile. Il sorriso potrebbe, in effetti, essere stato scolpito a posteriori sul negativo del calco. Secondo Claire Forestier, che lavora nella ditta di modelli in gesso che probabilmente all’epoca prese il calco, la sconosciuta non era affatto morta, ma era una viva e vegeta modella di 16 anni.

Non sapremo mai con certezza l’identità della sconosciuta che appassionò e fece innamorare mezza Europa. Ma la sua macabra storia finisce con un inaspettato, surreale happy ending.

Nel 1958, in America, venne costruito il primo manichino di addestramento per il pronto soccorso, chiamato Rescue Annie (o Resusci Annie). Indovinate un po’? I suoi inventori decisero di regalargli il volto della sconosciuta della Senna. Utilizzato nell’addestramento al massaggio cardiaco e alla respirazione bocca a bocca, il volto della sconosciuta (oltre ad aver contribuito a salvare molte vite) divenne così “il più baciato del mondo”.

Un sito (in inglese) che esplora in modo molto approfondito la leggenda, le teorie di omicidio ma soprattutto l’eredità lasciata da questa figura nella letteratura, nell’arte e nella musica del ‘900 è The Legend Of The Inconnue.

r. Harry Battley