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.

The Grim Reaper at the Chessboard

Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.

The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:

Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:

Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s notorious
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being  the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.

In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.

That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.

In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no

allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.

(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte… Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)

The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…

But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.

This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.

It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.
(Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

(Thanks, Mauro!)

Monstrous pedagogy

Article written by our guestblogger Dario Carere

The search for wonder is far more complex than simple entertainment or superstition, and it grows along with collective spirituality. Every era has its own monsters; but the modern use of monstrosity in the horror genre or in similar contexts, makes it hard for us to understand that the monster, in the past, was meant to educate, to establish a reference in the mind of the end-user of the bizarre. Dragons, Chimeras, demons or simply animals, even if they originated from the primordial repulsion for ugliness, have been functional to spirituality (in the sense of searching for the “right way to live”), especially in Catholicism. Teratology populated every possible space, not unlike advertising does nowadays.

We are not referring here to the figure of monsters in fairy tales, where popular tradition used the scare value to set moral standards; the image of the monster has a much older and richer history than the folk tale, as it was found in books and architecture alike, originating from the ancient fear of the unknown. The fact that today we use the expressions “fantastic!” or “wonderful!” almost exclusively in a positive sense, probably comes from the monster’s transition from an iconographic, artistic element to a simple legacy of a magical, child-like world. Those monsters devouring men and women on capitals and bas-reliefs, or vomiting water in monumental fountains, do not have a strong effect on us anymore, if not as a striking heritage of a time in which fantasy was powerful and morality pretty anxious. But the monster was much more than this.

The Middle Ages, on the account of a symbolic interpretation of reality (the collective imagination was not meant to entertain, but was a fundamental part of life), established an extremely inspired creative ground out of monstrous figures, as these magical creatures crowded not only tales and beliefs (those we find for instance in Boccaccio and his salacious short stories about gullible characters) but also the spaces, the objects, the walls. The monster had to admonish about powers, duties, responibilities and, of course, provide a picture of the torments of Hell.

Capital, Chauvigny, XII century.

Chimeras, gryphons, unicorns, sirens, they all come from the iconographic and classical literary heritage (one of the principal sources was the Physiologus, a compendium of animals and plants, both actual and fantastic, written in the first centuries AD and widespread in the Middle Ages) and start to appear in sculptures, frescos, and medieval bas-reliefs. This polychrome teratological repertoire of ancient times was then filtered and elaborated through the christian ethics, so that each monster, each wonder would coincide with an allegory of sin, a christological metaphore, or a diabolical form. The monkey, for instance, which was already considered the ugliest of all animals by the Greeks, became the most faithful depiction of evil and falsehood, being a (failed) image of the human being, an awkward caricature devised by the Devil; centaurs, on the other hand, were shown on the Partenone friezes as violent and belligerous barbarians — an antithesis of civil human beings — but later became a symbol of the double nature of Christ, both human and divine. Nature became a mirror for the biblical truth.

Unicorn in a bestiary.

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Capital, Church of Sant’Eufemia, Piacenza, XII century.

Bestiaries are maybe the most interesting example of the medieval transfiguration of reality through a christian perspective; the fact that, in the same book, real animals are examined together with imaginary beasts (even in the XVI century the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included in his wonderful Monstrorum historia a catalogue of bizarre humanoid monsters) clearly shows the medieval viewpoint, according to which everything is instilled with the same absolute truth, the ultimate good to which the faithful must aim.

Fear and horror were certainly among the principal vectors used by the Church to impress the believers (doctrine was no dialogue, but rather a passive fruition of iconographic knowledge according to the intents of commissioners and artistis), but probably in the sculptors’ and architects’ educational project were also included irony, wonder, laughter. The Devil, for instance, besides being horrible, often shows hilarious and vulgar behaviors, which could come from Carnival festivities of the time. The dense decorations and monstrous incisions encapsulate all the fervid life of the Middle Ages, with its anguish, its fear of death, the mortification of the flesh through which the idea of a second life was maintained and strenghtened; but in these images we also find some giggly outbursts, some jokes, some vicious humor. It’s hard to imagine how Bosch‘s works were perceived at the time; but his thick mass of rat-demons, winged toads and insectoid buffoons was the result of an inconographic tradition that predated him by centuries. The monsters, in the work of this great painter, already show some elements of caricature, exaggeration, mannerism; they are no longer scary.

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Ulisse Aldrovandi, page form the Monstorum Historia.

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Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic in the San Giovanni Baptistery (Firenze), XII century.

A splendid example of the “monstrous pedagogy” which adorned not only vast and imposing interiors but even the objects themselves, are the stalls, the seats used by cardinals during official functions. In her essay Anima e forma – studi sulle rappresentazioni dell’invisibile, professor Ave Appiani examines the stalls of the collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta, work of an anonymous sculptor under the priorate of Giorgio di Chillant (end of XV century). The seatbacks, the arms, the handrests and the misericordie (little shelves one could lean against while standing up during long ceremonies) are all finely engraved in the shape of monsters, animals, grotesque faces. Demons, turtles, snails, dragons, cloaked monks and basilisks offered a great and educated bestiary to the viewer of this symbolic pedagogy, perfectly and organically fused with the human environment. Similar decorations could also be admired, some decades earlier, inside the Aosta Cathedral.

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Stalls, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

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The dragon, “misericordia”, 1469, Aosta Cathedral.

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Handrest, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.

Who knows what kind of reaction this vast and ancient teratology could arouse in the believers — if only one of horror, or also curiosity and amusement; who knows if the approach of the cultivated man who sculpted this stalls — without doubt an expert of the symbolic traditions filtered through texts and legends — was serious or humorous, as he carved these eternal shapes in the wood. What did the people think before all the gargoyles, the insects, the animals living in faraway and almost mythical lands? The lion, king of the animals, was Christ, king of mankind; the boar, dwelling in the woods, was associated with the spiritual coarseness of pagans, and thus was often hunted down in the iconography; the mouse was a voracious inhabitant of the night, symbol of diabolical greed; the unicorn, attracted by chastity, after showing up in Oriental and European legends alike, came to be depicted by the side of the Virgin Mary.

Every human being finds himself tangled up in a multitude of symbols, because Death is lurking and before him man will end his earthly existence, and right there will he measure his past and evaluate his own actions. […] These are all metaphorical scenes, little tales, and just like Aesop’s fables, profusely illustrated between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for that matter, they always show a moral which can be transcribed in terms of human actions. 

(A. Appiani, Op. cit., pag. 226)

So, today, how do we feel about monsters? What instruments do we have to consider the “right way to live”, since we are ever more illiterate and anonymous in giving meaning to the shape of things? It may well be that, even if we consider ourselves free from the superstitious terror of committing sin, we still have something to learn from those distant, imaginative times, when the folk tale encountered the cultivated milieu in the effort to give fear a shape – and thus, at least temporarily, dominate it.

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.

elephant-skeleton

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.

Don’t touch my hair

Every now and then we come across news reports about bullying acts that involve, among other things, the complete shaving of the vexed person.
In these pages we have often drawn attention to the fact that human beings are “symbolic animals”, namely that our mind acts through symbols and frequently – sometimes unconsciously – relies on myths: therefore, why do people consider cutting someone’s hair by force as a disfigurement? Is it only an aesthetic concern, or is there more to it?

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First of all, this kind of violence damages somebody’s appearance, and the hairdo has always been one of the most important ways of expressing personality. Since ancient times, every hairstyle has been assigned more or less explicit meanings.

For example, to wear one’s hair down was normally considered as a sign of mourning or submission. Yet, in different contexts such as ritual ceremonies, to leave one’s hair down was a crucial element of some shamanic dances – the irruption of the sacred that wildly sweeps social conventions and restrictions away.

Consider that women have always regarded their hair as one of their most effective weapons of seduction: the hairdo –to hide or show the hair, to wear it up or down – frequently marked the difference between available or modest women; therefore, some cultures go as far as to forbid married women to show their hair (in Russia, for example, there is a saying that “a girl has fun only as long as she is bareheaded“), or at least oblige her to hide it every time she enters a church (Christian West), in order to inhibit its function as a sexual provocation.

The way people comb their hair reflects their individual psychology, of course, but also the values shared by specific social contexts: fashion, the beliefs widespread in a certain period, precepts of religious institutions or a rebellion against all these things. Hairdos that challenge the dominant taste and knock down barriers have often come with social or artistic rebellions (Scapigliatura, the beat generation, the hippie movement, punk, feminism, LGBT, etc.).

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Therefore at the end of the 1960s – a period marked by strong social tensions – longhaired people were often charged by the police, in most cases for no other reason than their look:

Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone.

(Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970)

Have you ever changed the colour of your hair, your haircut or hairdo at crucial moments in your life, as if by changing the appearance of your hair, you could also change your inner self? Obviously nowadays hairdos are still strongly connected to personal emotions. But there’s more to it.

Like nails, hair has always been associated with sexual and vital force by the public imagination. Therefore, according to magical thinking a powerful empathy exists between people and their hair. It is a bond that can’t be broken even after the hair are severed from the body: the locks that have been cut or got stuck between the comb’s teeth are precious ingredients for spells and evil eyes, whereas a saint’s hair is normally worshipped as a very miraculous relic. Hair preserves the virtues of its owners and the intimate relationship between human beings and their hair outlive its severance.

Hence the custom, within many families, to keep hair bunches and the first deciduous teeth. The scope of such practices goes beyond the perpetuation of memory – in a sense they attempt to guarantee the survival of the condition of the hair’s owner.

(Chevalier-Gheebrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, 1982).

The hair bunch that a man receives from the woman he loves as a token of love is a recurrent fetish in nineteenth century Romanticism, but it is during the Victorian era that the obsession with hair attains its summit, especially in the field of jewellery and of accessories connected with mourning. Brooches and clasps containing the hair of the deceased, arranged in floral patterns, complicated arrangements to be hanged on walls, bracelets made of exquisitely plaited hair… Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most moving examples of popular funeral art. At the beginning the female relatives of the deceased used his/her hair to create these mementos to carry with them forever; photography wasn’t always available at that time, and many people couldn’t afford a portrait, so these jewels were the only tangible memory of the deceased.

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Over time, this kind of objects became part of the fashion of the period, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when queen Victoria and her courtiers dressed in mourning for dozens of years. After the example of the Royals, black turned out to be the most popular colour and mourning jewellery became so widespread that it began to contain hair belonging to other people as well as to the deceased. In the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 tons of human hair were imported by English jewellers to their country every year. In order to establish a connection between the jewel and the deceased, the name or its initials started to be carved on the object.

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All this brings us back to the idea that hair is connected to the essence of its owner’s life, and holds at least a spark of his/her personality.

Let’s go back to the victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, whose head was shaven by force.

This is a shocking insult because it is perceived as a metaphorical castration for a male, and as a denial of femininity in the case of a female victim. The hair is associated to certain powers, such as strength and virility – consider Samson, for example – but above all to the concept of identity.

In Vietnam, for example, a peculiar divinatory art was developed, that may be called “trichomancy”, which allows to understand somebody’s destiny or virtues by observing the arrangement of hair follicles on the scalp. And if hair tells many things about individual personality, to the monks that renounce their individuality to follow the ways of the Lord, shaving is not only a sacrifice but a surrender, a renunciation to the subject’s prerogatives and identity itself.

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To cut the hair is not a trivial act.
In the past centuries a thick head of hair was a sign of power and nobleness. So the aristocratic privilege to wear long hair in France was exclusively reserved to Kings and Princes, whereas in China all that wore their hair short – which was considered as a real mutilation – were banned from some public employments. According to American Natives, to scalp the enemy was an ultimate mutilation, the highest expression of contempt. In parallel, within some cultures to cut the hair during the first years of somebody’s life was a taboo because the new-born babies may run the risk to lose their soul. Countless peoples consider a baby’s first haircut as a rite of passage, involving celebrations and propitiatory acts to draw evil spirits away – after part of their vital force has gone together with their hair, babies are actually more exposed to dangers. Within the Native American tribe of the Hopi in Arizona, the haircut is a collective ritual that takes place once a year, during the celebrations of the winter solstice. Elsewhere, the haircut is suspended during wars, or as a consequence of a vow: Egyptians didn’t shave during a journey and recently the
barbudos of Fidel Castro swore not to touch their beards nor hair until Cuba would be freed by dictatorship.

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All this explains why to cut the enemy’s hair by force is regarded as a terrible punishment since antiquity, sometimes even worse than death. People always assign deep meanings to every aspect of reality; even today a mere offence between kids that, all things considered, could be innocuous (the hair will quickly grow back) is usually a shock for the public opinion; maybe because in the haircut people recognize – with the obvious differences – the echoes of cruel rites and practices with an ancestral symbolic significance.

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I Templi dell’Umanità

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Il primo piccone colpì la roccia in una calda notte di agosto. Era una sera di sabato, nel 1978. […]
Cadde una stella nel cielo, grande e luminosa, che lasciò dietro di sé una striscia ben visibile di polvere dorata che ricadde sulla Terra.
Tutti pensarono che fosse un buon segno, e Oberto disse che in effetti indicava il momento perfetto per iniziare a scavare un Tempio, come quelli che da migliaia di anni non esistevano più. Si sarebbe fatto tutto grazie alla volontà e al lavoro delle mani…

Questo, secondo il racconto ufficiale, è l’inizio della straordinaria impresa portata avanti in gran segreto dai damanhuriani.

Damanhur è una cittadina egizia che sorge sul Delta del Nilo, e il suo nome significa “Città di Horus“, dal tempio che vi sorgeva dedicato alla divinità falco. I damanhuriani di cui stiamo parlando però non sono affatto egiziani, bensì italiani. Quell’Oberto che interpreta la stella cadente come buon auspicio è la loro guida spirituale, e (forse proprio in onore di Horus) a partire dal 1983 si farà chiamare Falco.

Gli anni ’70 in Italia vedono fiorire l’interesse per l’occulto, l’esoterismo, il paranormale, e per le medicine alternative: si comincia a parlare per la prima volta di pranoterapia, viaggi astrali (oggi si preferisce l’acronimo OBE), chakra, pietre e cristalli curativi, riflessologia, e tutta una serie di discipline mistico-meditative volte alla crescita spirituale – o, almeno, all’eliminazione delle cosiddette “energie negative”. Immaginate quanto entusiasmo potesse portare allora tutto questo colorato esotismo in un paese come il nostro, che non aveva mai potuto o voluto pensare a qualcosa di diverso dal millenario, risaputo Cattolicesimo.

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Oberto Airaudi, classe 1950, ex broker con una propria agenzia di assicurazioni, è da subito affascinato da questa nuova visione del mondo, tanto da cominciare a sviluppare le sue tecniche personali. Fonda quindi nel 1975 il Centro Horus, dove insegna e tiene seminari; nel 1977 acquista dei terreni nell’alto Canavese e fonda la prima comunità basata sulla sua concezione degli uomini come frammenti di un unico, grande specchio infranto in cui si riflette il volto di Dio. Nella città-stato di Damanhur, infatti, dovrà vigere un’assoluta uguaglianza in cui ciascuno possa contribuire alla crescita e all’evoluzione dell’intera umanità. Damanhur inoltre dovrà essere ecologica, sostenibile, avere una particolare struttura sociale, una Costituzione, perfino una propria moneta.
E un suo Tempio sotterraneo, maestoso e unico.

Così nel 1978, in piena Valchiusella, a 50 km da Torino, Falco e adepti cominciarono a scavare nel fianco della montagna – ovviamente facendo ben attenzione che la voce non si spargesse in giro, poiché non c’erano autorizzazioni né permessi urbanistici. Dopo un paio di mesi avevano completato la prima, piccola nicchia nella roccia, un luogo di ritiro e raccoglimento per meditare a contatto con la terra. Ma il programma era molto più ambizioso e complesso, e per anni i lavori continuarono mentre la comunità cresceva accogliendo nuovi membri. L’insediamento ben presto incluse boschi, aree coltivate, zone residenziali e un centinaio di abitazioni private, laboratori artistici, atelier artigianali, aziende e fattorie.

Il 3 luglio del 1992, allertati da alcune segnalazioni che parlavano di un tempio abusivo costruito nella montagna, i Carabinieri accompagnati dal Procuratore di Ivrea eseguirono l’ispezione di Damanhur. Quando infine giunsero ad esaminare la struttura ipogea, si trovarono di fronte a qualcosa di davvero incredibile.

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Corridoi, vetrate, specchi, pavimenti decorati, mosaici, pareti affrescate: i “Templi dell’Umanità”, così Airaudi li aveva chiamati, si snodavano come un labirinto a più piani nelle viscere della terra. I cinque livelli sotterranei scendevano fino a 72 metri di profondità, l’equivalente di un palazzo di venti piani. Sette sale simboliche, ispirate ad altrettante presunte “stanze interiori” dello spirito, si aprivano al visitatore lungo un percorso iniziatico-sapienziale, in un tripudio di colori e dettagli ora naif, ora barocchi, nel più puro stile New Age.

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I damanhuriani cominciarono quindi una lunga battaglia con le autorità, per cercare di revocare l’ordine di demolizione per abusivismo e nel 1996, grazie all’interessamento della Soprintendenza, il governo italiano sancì la legalizzazione del sito. Ormai però il segreto era stato rivelato, così i damanhuriani cominciarono a permettere visite controllate e limitate agli ambienti sacri. Nel 2001 il complesso di templi vinse il Guinness World Record per il tempio ipogeo più grande del mondo.

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Ma perché tenere nascosta questa opera titanica? Perché costruirla per quasi quindici anni nel più completo riserbo?

In parte propaggine del sogno hippie, l’idilliaca società di Damanhur proietta un’immagine di sé ecologica, umanistica, spirituale ma, nella realtà, potrebbe nascondere una faccia ben più cupa. Secondo l’Osservatorio Nazionale Abusi Psicologici, infatti, quella damanhuriana non sarebbe altro che una vera e propria setta; opinione condivisa da molti ex aderenti alla comunità, che hanno raccontato la loro esperienza di vita all’interno del gruppo in toni tutt’altro che utopistici.

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La storia delle sette ci insegna che i metodi utilizzati per controllare e plagiare gli adepti sono in verità pochi – sempre gli stessi, ricorrenti indipendentemente dalla latitudine o dalle epoche. La manipolazione avviene innanzitutto tagliando ogni ponte con l’esterno (familiari, amici, colleghi, ecc.): la setta deve bastare a se stessa, chiudersi attorno agli adepti. In questo senso vanno interpretati tutti quegli elementi che concorrono a far sentire speciali gli appartenenti al gruppo, a far loro condividere qualcosa che “gli altri, là fuori, non potranno mai capire”.

Almeno a un occhio esterno, Damanhur certamente mostra diversi tratti di questo tipo. Orgogliosamente autosufficiente, la comunità ha istituito addirittura una valuta complementare, cioè una moneta valida esclusivamente al suo interno (e che pone non pochi problemi a chi, dopo anni di lavoro retribuito in “crediti damanhuriani”, desidera fare ritorno al mondo esterno).

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Inoltre, a sottolineare la nuova identità che si assume entrando a far parte della collettività di Damanhur, ogni proselito sceglie il proprio nome, ispirandosi alla natura: un primo appellativo è mutuato da un animale o da uno spirito dei boschi, il secondo da una pianta. Così, sbirciando sul sito ufficiale, vi potete imbattere in personaggi come ad esempio Cormorano Sicomoro, avvocato, oppure Stambecco Pesco, scrittore con vari libri all’attivo e felicemente sposato con Furetto Pesca.

Oberto Airaudi, oltre ad aver operato le classiche guarigioni miracolose, ha soprattutto insegnato ai suoi accoliti delle tecniche di meditazione particolari, forgiato nuove mitologie ed elaborato una propria cosmogonia. Poco importa se a un occhio meno incline a mistici entusiasmi il tutto sembri un’accozzaglia di elementi risaputi ed eterogenei, un sincretico potpourri che senza scrupoli mescola reincarnazione, alchimia, cromoterapia, tarocchi, oracoli, Atlantide, gli Inca, i riti pagani, le correnti energetiche, i pentacoli, gli alieni… e chi più ne ha più ne metta.

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In questo senso è evidente come il Tempio dell’Umanità possa aver rappresentato un tassello fondamentale, un aggregatore eccezionale. Non soltanto i damanhuriani condividevano tra loro la stessa visione del mondo, ma erano anche esclusivi depositari del segreto di un’impresa esaltante – un lavoro non unicamente spirituale o di valore simbolico, ma concreto e tangibile.
Inoltre la costruzione degli spazi sacri sotterranei potrebbe aver contribuito ad alimentare la cosiddetta “sindrome dell’assedio”, vale a dire l’odio e la paura per i “nemici” che minacciano continuamente la setta dall’esterno. Ecco che le autorità, anche quando stavano semplicemente applicando la legge nei confronti di un’opera edilizia abusiva, potevano assumere agli occhi degli adepti il ruolo di osteggiatori ciechi alla bellezza spirituale, gretti e malvagi antagonisti degli “eletti” che invece facevano parte della comunità.

È nostra consuetudine, in queste pagine, cercare il più possibile di lasciare le conclusioni a chi legge. Risulta però difficile, con tutta la buona volontà, ignorare i segnali che arrivano dalla cronaca. Se non fosse per l’eccezionale costruzione dei Templi dell’Umanità, infatti, il copione che riguarda Damanhur sarebbe lo stesso che si ripete per quasi ogni setta: ex-membri che denunciano presunte pressioni psicologiche, manipolazioni o abusi; famigliari che lamentano la “perdita” dei propri cari nelle spire dell’organizzazione; e, in tutto questo, il guru che si sposta in elicottero, finisce indagato per evasione ed è costretto a versare un milione e centomila euro abbondanti al Fisco.

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Il controverso Oberto Airaudi, alias Falco, è morto dopo una breve malattia nel 2013. Tutto si può dire di lui, ma non che gli mancasse il dono dell’immaginazione.
Il suo progetto dei Templi dell’Umanità, infatti, non è ancora finito. La struttura esistente non rappresenta che il 10% dell’opera completa. Ma i damanhuriani stanno già pensando al futuro, e a una nuova formidabile impresa:

È importante che i rappresentanti di popoli e culture si incontrino in luoghi speciali, capaci di creare un effetto di risonanza sul pianeta. I cittadini di Damanhur, che stanno creando un nuovo popolo, si sono impegnati a costruire uno di questi “centri nervosi spirituali”, che hanno chiamato “il Tempio dei Popoli”.
In questo luogo sacro, tutti i piccoli popoli potranno incontrarsi per dare vita a un parlamento spirituale […] Come i Templi dell’Umanità, il Tempio dei Popoli sarà all’interno della terra, in un luogo di incontro di Linee Sincroniche, perché non è un edificio per impressionare gli esseri umani – come i palazzi del potere delle nazioni – ma deve essere una dimostrazione del cambiamento, della volontà e delle capacità umane alle Forze della Terra.

Le donazioni sono ovviamente ben accette e, riguardo alla possibilità di detrazione fiscale, è possibile chiedere informazioni alla responsabile. Che, lo confessiamo, porta (assieme all’avv. Cormorano Sicomoro) il nostro nome damanhuriano preferito: Otaria Palma.

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Potete fare un tour virtuale all’interno dei Templi dell’Umanità a questo indirizzo.
Il sito del CESAP (Centro Studi Abusi Psicologici) ospita una esauriente serie di articoli su Damanhur, e in rete è facile trovare informazioni riguardo alle caratteristiche settarie della comunità; se invece volete sentire la campana dei damanhuriani, potete dare un’occhiata al sito personale di Stambecco Pesco oppure dirigervi direttamente al sito ufficiale di Damanhur.

Tristan da Cunha

Aprite un atlante e guardate bene l’Oceano Atlantico, sotto l’equatore. Notate nulla?

Al centro dell’oceano, praticamente a metà strada fra l’Africa e l’America del Sud, potete scorgere un puntino. Completamente perduta nell’infinita distesa d’acqua, ecco Tristan da Cunha, l’ultimo sogno di ogni romantico: l’isola abitata più inaccessibile del mondo.

L’isola, di origine vulcanica, venne avvistata per la prima volta nel 1506; le sue coste vennero esplorate nel 1767, ma fu soltanto nel 1810 che un singolo uomo, Jonathan Lambert, vi si rifugiò, dichiarandola di sua proprietà. Lambert, però, morì due anni dopo, e Tristan venne annessa dalla Gran Bretagna (per evitare che qualcuno potesse usarla come base per tentare la liberazione di Napoleone, esiliato nel frattempo a Sant’Elena). Tristan da Cunha divenne per lungo tempo scalo per le baleniere dei mari del Sud, e per le navi che circumnavigavano l’Africa per giungere in Oriente. Poi, quando venne aperto il Canale di Suez, l’isolamento dell’arcipelago diventò pressoché assoluto.

Le correnti burrascose si infrangevano con violenza sulle rocce di fronte all’unico centro abitato dell’isola, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, chiamato dai pochi isolani The Settlement. Chi sbarcava a Tristan, o lo faceva a causa di un naufragio oppure nel disperato tentativo di evitarlo. Fra i naufraghi e i primi coloni, c’erano anche alcuni navigatori italiani.

Nel 1892, infatti, due marinai di Camogli naufraghi del Brigantino Italia infrantosi sulle scogliere dell’Isola decisero, per amore di due isolane, di stabilirsi a Tristan da Cunha; essi diedero vita a due nuove famiglie (che ancor oggi portano il loro nome, Lavarello e Repetto) che si aggiunsero alle cinque già esistenti sull’isola, completando in questo modo il quadro delle parentele che esiste uguale ancor oggi a più di un secolo di distanza. Dopo i due italiani, nessun altro si fermerà a Tristan da Cunha originando nuove stirpi.

Passarono i decenni, ma la vita sull’isola rimase improntata alla semplicità rurale. Fra i tranquilli campi di patate e le basse case di pietra giunsero lontani racconti di una Grande Guerra, poi di un’altra. Tristan rimase pacifica, protetta dal suo deserto d’acqua, una terra emersa inaccessibile che nemmeno il progresso industriale poteva guastare.

Poi, nel 1961, il vulcano al centro dell’isola si risvegliò, e gli abitanti vennero evacuati. Sfollati in Sud Africa, rimasero disgustati dall’apartheid che vi regnava, così distante dai principi solidaristici della loro primitiva e utopica comunità. Ottennero così di essere trasferiti in Gran Bretagna, e lì scoprirono un mondo radicalmente diverso: un Occidente in pieno boom economico, che si apprestava a conquistare ogni risorsa, perfino a spedire uomini sulla Luna.

Dopo due anni, gli isolani ne avevano abbastanza della rumorosa modernità. Ottennero il permesso di tornare a Tristan, e nel ’63 sbarcarono nuovamente sulla loro terra, e tornarono ad occuparsi delle loro fattorie.

E anche oggi, Tristan resta un’isola mitica e remota: è raggiungibile unicamente via mare, e se ottenete il necessario permesso per sbarcare, neanche così è molto semplice. Non c’è infatti un porto sull’isola, che deve essere raggiunta mediante piccole imbarcazioni che sfidano le violente onde dell’oceano.

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Gli abitanti, oggi poco più di 260, pur fieri ed orgogliosi della loro solitudine, si stanno lentamente aprendo alle nuove tecnologie (per molto tempo l’unico accesso a internet è rimasto all’interno dell’ufficio dell’Amministratore dell’isola). Vivono in armonia e serenità, senza alcuna traccia di criminalità. La proprietà privata è stata introdotta soltanto nel 1999. Le navi da crociera che fanno scalo a Tristan sono pochissime (meno di una decina in tutto l’anno), e le uniche imbarcazioni che vi si recano regolarmente sono quelle dei pescatori di aragoste del Sud Africa.

Anna Lajolo e Giulio Lombardi hanno passato tre mesi sull’isola, intessendo rapporti di amicizia con gli islanders, e sono ritornati in Italia regalandoci un documentario, e diversi testi fondamentali per comprendere le difficoltà e le delizie della vita in questo paradiso dimenticato dal mondo, e lo spirito concreto e generoso degli abitanti: L’isola in capo al mondo, 1994; Tristan de Cuña: i confini dell’asma, 1996; Tristan de Cuña l’isola leggendaria, 1999; Le lettere di Tristan, 2006.

Ecco il sito governativo dell’isola.

Immortalità

La paura della morte è un processo psicologico riscontrabile in pressoché tutte le culture, ed è dovuto alla capacità del pensiero umano di figurarsi in future e passate situazioni, a trascendere il presente per visualizzare immagini differenti. La certezza della nostra dipartita deriva dall’osservazione della più basilare delle leggi naturali: il mondo è un continuo cambiare di forme, un aggregarsi e un disgregarsi senza tregua, e se siamo vivi lo dobbiamo al fatto che qualcun altro è morto. Quindi, sappiamo che siamo spacciati. Allacciamo la cintura di sicurezza ogni giorno, guardiamo bene prima di attraversare sulle strisce, facciamo check-up medici, ma in fondo sappiamo che prima o poi toccherà a noi. Secondo alcuni psicologi questo terrore è talmente paralizzante che la stessa cultura non sarebbe altro che uno stratagemma per sfuggire dalla paura della morte: un complesso sistema di produzione di senso, di modo che ci illudiamo di sapere cosa ci serve, cosa è importante, cosa si può fare e cosa no, quali sono le regole del successo, quali sono i valori e le tradizioni, chi siamo veramente –  un’imponente struttura simbolica in cui ognuno occupa una precisa posizione con doveri e diritti. Questo per combattere l’idea della morte, che annulla ogni senso e vanifica ogni nostro sforzo.

Dall’altro versante, la morte è stata combattuta concretamente e simbolicamente con le tecniche più disparate. Dagli elisir di lunga vita e la ricerca della pietra filosofale nell’alchimia classica, alle pratiche magiche e spirituali del Taoismo religioso, fino alla costruzione di mitologie che spostassero la vita oltre i limiti del corpo vero e proprio (il Nirvana, l’aldilà, la resurrezione Cristiana, ecc.) o che concedessero la consolazione di un’immortalità differita (raggiunta attraverso opere artistiche o dell’ingegno, attraverso la rilevanza storica acquisita dalla persona, attraverso l’atto di mettere al mondo dei figli per continuare a “vivere” nel loro ricordo, ecc.).

Oggi però anche la scienza tenta l’impossibile. Da trent’anni i ricercatori stanno studiando e mettendo a punto processi che rallentino l’invecchiamento. Ovviamente restare giovani non basterebbe, ma dovrebbe essere coadiuvato da ulteriori progressi medico-chirurgici per proteggerci da malattie e incidenti. Inoltre il quadro si complica se pensiamo alla densità di popolazione attuale – andrebbero risolti ovviamente anche i problemi relativi alle risorse energetiche. Da queste poche righe, è chiaro che stiamo parlando ancora di estrema fantascienza, nonostante l’ottimismo di alcuni ricercatori (vedi questo articolo).

A quanto ne sappiamo, in natura esiste un solo animale virtualmente immortale. Si tratta della turritopsis nutricula, un tipo di idrozoo della famiglia Oceanidae. Questa medusa è l’unico animale in grado di invertire il proprio orologio biologico: dopo aver raggiunto la maturità sessuale, la t. nutricula è capace di ritornare allo stadio immaturo, e regredire allo stato di polipo. Un po’ come una farfalla che si tramutasse in bruco, insomma. Questa sorprendente trasformazione è possibile grazie a un processo chiamato transdifferenziazione, in cui un tipo di cellula altera il proprio corredo genetico e diviene un altro tipo di cellula. Altri animali sono capaci di limitate transdifferenziazioni (ad alcune salamandre possono crescere nuovi arti), ma soltanto la t. nutricula rigenera il suo corpo tutto intero. Il processo teoricamente potrebbe essere ripetuto all’infinito, se non fosse che le meduse sono soggette agli stessi pericoli degli altri animali e poche di loro arrivano ad avere l’opportunità di ritornare polipi, prima di finire sul menu di qualche pesce più grosso. Ma, chi lo sa? forse proprio questa minuscola medusa svelerà agli scienziati il segreto per invertire l’invecchiamento.

Il progresso tecnologico avanza a passi da gigante. La scienza si sta già avvicinando alla produzione di organi di ricambio, la ricerca su clonazione, staminali e nanotecnologie applicate alla medicina promette di cambiare il modo in cui pensiamo al futuro. L’idea che non noi, non i nostri figli, ma magari i nostri lontani pronipoti potrebbero avere accesso a vite, se non eterne, lunghe qualche centinaio di anni, stimola la fantasia e pone inediti problemi morali e filosofici. Certamente molti lettori, stando al gioco della speculazione fantascientifica, si domanderanno: ne vale davvero la pena? Chi vorrebbe vivere così a lungo? Non sarebbe forse meglio trovare un modo per imparare a morire serenamente, piuttosto che imparare a vivere in eterno? Altri penseranno invece che, se c’è questa possibilità, perché non provare?

Se qualcuno fosse curioso di approfondire il discorso, questo libro di E. Boncinelli e G. Sciarretta traccia il sogno dell’immortalità dalle origini mitologiche fino alla scienza moderna; il bellissimo documentario Flight From Death – The Quest for Immortality analizza invece la psicologia della morte, la creazione della cultura come schermo protettivo, e l’accettazione del nostro destino finale.

In chiusura, proponiamo come spunto di riflessione la splendida incoscienza (e l’intuitiva saggezza) di una delle più belle fiabe, il capolavoro di James M. Barrie Le Avventure di Peter Pan: “Morire sarà una grande meravigliosa avventura.”

Vagina dentata

The Latin expression vagina dentata defines one of the most ancient archetypes of mankind: mythical representations of female genitalia equipped with ferocious dentition can be found in very different cultures and traditions.

In what can be read as an early warning against the dangers of the vagina, Hesiod recounts how, even before being born, Chronos castrated his understably surprised father Uranus from inside his mother Gaia’s vulva. In many other mythological tales, the hero on his quest has to pass through the gigantic vagina, armed with teeth, of a goddess: this happens in the Maori foundation myths, as well as in those of the Chaco tribes of Paraguay, or the Guyanese people. From North America populations to South East Asia, this monstrous menace was a primal fear. In Europe, particularly in Ireland and Grat Britain, cathedrals and castle fortifications sported the Sheela na Gig, gargoyles showing oversized, unsettling vulvas.

As you can guess, this myth is linked to an exquisitely masculine unconscious terror, so much so that Sigmund Freud interpreted it as a symbol of castration anxiety, that fear every male adolescent feels when first confronted with the female reproductive organ. Others see it as an allegory of the frustration of masculine vigor, which in a sexual intercourse enters “triumphantly” and always leaves “diminished”. In this sense, it is clear how the vagina dentata might be related to the ancient theme of the puella venenata (the “poisonous girl”), to other myths such as the succubus (which was perhaps meant to explain nocturnal emissions), and female spermophagus figures, who feed on men’s vital force, as for example the Mesopotamian demon Lilith.

The history of the vagina dentata, which was sometimes told to children, could have also served as a deterrent against molesters or occasional sex. Even in recent times, during the Vietnam War, a legend circulated among American troops regarding Viet Cong prostitutes who allegedly inserted razor blades or broken glass in their intimate parts, with the intent of mutilating those unwary soldiers who engaged in sex.

What few people know is that, in a purely theoretical way, a toothed vagina could be biologically possible. Dermoid cysts are masses of specialized cells; if these cells end up in the wrong part of the body, they can grow hair, bones or teeth. Inguinal dermoid cysts, however, do not localize in the vaginal area, but usually near ovaries. And even in the implausible scenario of a complete dentition being produced, the teeth would be incapsulated inside the cyst’s own tissue anyway.

Therefore, despite stories on the internet about mysterious “medical cases” of internal cysts growing teeth that pierce the uterus walls, in reality the vagina dentata remains just a fascinating myth.

As expected, this uncanny idea has been exploited in the movies: the most recent case is the comedy horror film Teeth (2007, directed by M. Lichtenstein), the story of a young girl who finds out her private parts behave rather aggressively during intercourse. Less ambitious, and more aware of the humorous potential of its subject matter, is the Japanese B-movie Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (2004, by T. Nakano).

In Tokyo Gore Police (2008, by Y. Nishimura) a mutant girl grows a crocodile mandible in place of her thighs:

Many great authors have written about vagina dentata, including the great Tommaso Landolfi, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Mario Vargas Llosa and others.