Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 4

As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.

  • Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.

  • Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
  • Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.

  • This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
    For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…

  • How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
  • What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
  • If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.

  • Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
  • In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.

The primitive seduction: two unusual “savages”

In 1929, New York’s Knopf publishing house issued the book Lobagola: An Africa Savage’s Own Story. This remarkable autobiography, written by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, told the adventurous and bizarre life of a “stranger in the XX Century“.
Bata LoBagola was born in West Africa, in a region of Dahomey (now Benin) so remote that it had not been yet reached by white men. Bata had his first encounter with Europeans in the last years of XIX Century when, together with some other members of his tribe, he ventured to the coast and saw a ship getting ready to set sail. When they got to the ship in a canoe, the “savages” were welcomed aboard by merchants, who for an hour or so toured them across the boat; but when the ship left the bank without warning, Bata’s friends, scared, jumped in the water and were devoured by sharks. Bata, who had been delayed under the deck, escaped that fate but had to leave for a different continent’s unknown lands. He was only seven years old.

He landed in Scotland, where he spent his adolescence under the protection of a generous benefactor, and was educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Almost by chance, he found out he could earn a little money in the entertainment world, simply telling about his country of origin and his people. So he started to perform in vaudevilles and small traveling shows, answering the audience’s questions and performing traditional dances. Being well-learned, intelligent and an excellent speaker, he soon became more than a simple sideshow attraction, and began being invited to speak before ethnologists and anthropologists. Traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, LoBagola lectured at the University of Pennsylvania and at Oxford, becoming some kind of “cultural ambassador” for West Africa and of his people’s uses and customs.

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To understand why audiences were so fascinated with this “savage”, we have to think about the mentality of that time. In the second half of XIX Century, intensifying colonialism had brought to the discovery of several primitive people, and simultaneously the new modern anthropology was born. On a popular level, adventure novels focusing on the exploration of virgin lands were among the most successful publications. And the insatiable desire for exotism mixed with a widespread and open racism, with the curiosity of seeing the backward primitive man with one’s own eyes; so much so that when he was invited to Philadelphia in 1911, LoBagola earned the definition of “best exhibit in the entire Museum“. As his promotional pamphlet put it, he really seemed “too refined for the primitive crudities of his tribe and too wild for sophisticated society“.

Bata Lobagola was by now a sort of celebrity, constantly touring as a cultural informant in schools and universities, but unfortunately his life took a turn for the worse. Bata had problems with alcohol and a tendency to be involved in small brawls, but the actual sword of Damocles hanging over his head was his homosexuality. Arrested several times for sodomy and minor misdemeanor, he ended up in prison for good in 1931 for petty theft and sexual crimes. The following year the Bureau of Naturalization, whose officials evidently thought something was wrong, began pressing LoBagola, eventually forcing him to confess a truth no one suspected until then.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola’s real name was Joseph Howard Lee, and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

Not everything, in his book, was made up: Joseph Lee had probably been in Glasgow in his youth, as his pages show a certain knowledge of the town, and according to several accounts he had a slight scottish accent. But for sure his childhood had not been spent among lions and elephants — much as it was certain that lions and elephants did not “team up”, as he had written in a creative page of his book, to hunt down humans.
If some readers, who were familiar with West Africa, had realized by the time his false autobiography appeared that his descriptions were pure fantasy, University professors never started to doubt his version. All the most curious if we consider that in the same book the idea is candidly suggested that one could tell anything about Africa to white men, and they would believe it.
Racial discrimination can be considered one of the factors behind LoBagola’s false identity: since 1907, pretending to be a savage ensured him certain privileges that paradoxically he wouldn’t had been able to attain as an afroamerican. He died in 1947 in Attica maximum security prison, where the most dangerous criminals of the time were detained.

But his strange fraud had an excellent predecessor.

George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703, declaring to be native of Formosa (Taiwan), at the time a faraway island of which very little was known. Psalmanazar had astonishing habits: he only ate raw, cardamom-spiced meat, he slept sitting upright in a chair, performed complex every-day rituals to honor the Sun and Moon, and followed an unknown calendar. And his tales of his native land were fabulous and cruel — particularly his descriptions of the annual ritual sacrifices of 18.000 young boys, culminating in cannibalism.
George Psalmanazar was invited to talk about Formosan culture in the most important intellectual clubs, and even lectured before the Royal Society.
In 1704 he published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a book which immediately had enormous success and several reprints. Everywhere Formosa was the talk of the day: readers and intellectuals were fascinated by the accounts of these savages who only wore a golden plate to cover their genitals, who dwelled in underground homes feeding on snakes, and occasionally eating human flesh. Besides reporting on Formosa’s customs and traditions, Psalmanazar also detailed language and alphabet, so convincingly that many german grammars went on including this information even decades after the hoax had been confessed.

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In 1706, facing growing skepticism and the accounts of those travelers who had actually been to Formosa, Psalmanazar had to drop the mask: he actually was born in France, was educated by Jesuits, and his only talents were a huge knowledge and an uncommon attitude for languages. So much so that he succeded in constructing one from scratch, to support his lies and reach fame.
Before dying in 1763, he wrote a second book of memoirs, published posthumously, where he uncovered some details about the creation of his hoax. But not even in this last autobiography did he reveal his true name, which today still remains a mystery.

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In spite of his last years’ religious convertion and his remorse for the scam, Psalmanazar’s work is now regarded as a small masterpiece of ingenuity. Besides a functioning language, the author gave his fantastic island a history, cults and traditions, even several different coins and over precise ceremonial outfits, and today his fresco seems to anticipate, on the account of its obsessive care for detail, some modern literary constructions (think of Tolkien’s appendices about his imaginary Middle Earth’s genealogy, linguistics, botany, etc.).
But there’s more, as historian Benjamin Breen writes:

As I devoured the immense creativity on display in Description of Formosa, it occurred to me that Psalmanazar was also telling us something fundamental about the origins of modernity. The world of seafarers, merchants, slaves, and transported criminals that created Europe’s overseas empires was built upon elaborate fictions, from Prester John to Jonathan Swift. Although the scale and singularity of his deception made him unique, Psalmanazar was also representative: while he was inventing tales of Formosan cannibalism, his peers were writing falsified histories of pirate utopias, parodic accounts of islands populated by super-intelligent horses, and sincere descriptions of demonic sacrifices.
These works raised profound questions about the nature of truth and fiction. Is the act of travel also an act of authorship, of inventing a reality that we each filter through our individual preconceptions? How do we understand worlds that differ so fundamentally from our own that they almost seem to be other planets?

(B. Breen, Made in Taiwan?: An Eighteenth-Century Frenchman’s Fictional Formosa)

For LoBagola’s story, the main source is a wonderful podcast on Futility Closet. LoBagola’s autobiography can be found on Amazon. George Psalmanazar’s story is splendidly told in Banvard’s Folly, and Description of Formosa is available on the Internet Archive.

Grief and sacrifice: abscence carved into flesh

Some of you probably know about sati (or suttee), the hindu self-immolation ritual according to which a widow was expected to climb on her husband’s funeral pire to be burned alive, along his body. Officially forbidden by the English in 1829, the practice declined over time – not without some opposition on behalf of traditionalists – until it almost entirely disappeared: if in the XIX Century around 600 sati took place every year, from 1943 to 1987 the registered cases were around 30, and only 4 in the new millennium.

The sacrifice of widows was not limited to India, in fact it appeared in several cultures. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about a people living “above the Krestons”, in Thracia: within this community, the favorite among the widows of a great man was killed over his grave and buried with him, while the other wives considered it a disgrace to keep on living.

Among the Heruli in III Century a.D., it was common for widows to hang themselves over their husband’s burial ground; in the XVIII Century, on the other side of the ocean, when a Natchez chief died his wives (often accompanied by other volunteers) followed him by committing ritual suicide. At times, some mothers from the tribe would even sacrify their own newborn children, in an act of love so strong that women who performed it were treated with great honor and entered a higher social level. Similar funeral practices existed in other native peoples along the southern part of Mississippi River.

Also in the Pacific area, for instance in Fiji, there were traditions involving the strangling of the village chief’s widows. Usually the suffocation was carried out or supervised by the widow’s brother (see Fison’s Notes on Fijian Burial Customs, 1881).

The idea underlying these practices was that it was deemed unconcievable (or improper) for a woman to remain alive after her husband’s death. In more general terms, a leader’s death opened an unbridgeable void, so much so that the survivors’ social existence was erased.
If female self-immolation (and, less commonly, male self-immolation) can be found in various time periods and latitudes, the Dani tribe developed a one-of-a-kind funeral sacrifice.

The Dani people live mainly in Baliem Valley, the indonesian side of New Guinea‘s central highlands. They are now a well-known tribe, on the account of increased tourism in the area; the warriors dress with symbolic accessories – a feather headgear, fur bands, a sort of tie made of seashells specifying the rank of the man wearing it, a pig’s fangs fixed to the nostrils and the koteka, a penis sheath made from a dried-out gourd.
The women’s clothing is simpler, consisting in a skirt made from bark and grass, and a headgear made from multicolored bird feathers.

Among this people, according to tradition when a man died the women who were close or related to him (wife, mother, sister, etc.) used to amputate one or more parts of their fingers. Today this custom no longer exists, but the elder women in the tribe still carry the marks of the ritual.

Allow me now a brief digression.

In Dino Buzzati‘s wonderful tale The Humps in the Garden (published in 1968 in La boutique del mistero), the protagonist loves to take long, late-night walks in the park surrounding his home. One evening, while he’s promenading, he stumbles on a sort of hump in the ground, and the following day he asks his gardener about it:

«What did you do in the garden, on the lawn there is some kind of hump, yesterday evening I stumbled on it and this morning as soon as the sun came up I saw it. It is a narrow and oblong hump, it looks like a burial mound. Will you tell me what’s happening?». «It doesn’t look like it, sir» said Giacomo the gardener «it really is a burial mound. Because yesterday, sir, a friend of yours has died».
It was true. My dearest friend Sandro Bartoli, who was twenty-one-years-old, had died in the mountains with his skull smashed.
«Are you trying to tell me» I said to Giacomo «that my friend was buried here?»
«No» he replied «your friend, Mr. Bartoli […] was buried at the foot of that mountain, as you know. But here in the garden the lawn bulged all by itself, because this is your garden, sir, and everything that happens in your life, sir, will have its consequences right here.»

Years go by, and the narrator’s park slowly fills with new humps, as his loved ones die one by one. Some bulges are small, other enormous; the garden, once flat and regular, at this point is completely packed with mounds appearing with every new loss.

Because this problem of humps in the garden happens to everybody, and every one of us […] owns a garden where these painful phenomenons take place. It is an ancient story repeating itself since the beginning of centuries, it will repeat for you too. And this isn’t a literary joke, this is how things really are.

In the tale’s final part, we discover that the protagonist is not a fictional character at all, and that the sorrowful metaphore refers to the author himself:

Naturally I also wonder if in someone else’s garden will one day appear a hump that has to do with me, maybe a second or third-rate little hump, just a slight pleating in the lawn, not even noticeable in broad daylight, when the sun shines from up high. However, one person in the world, at least one, will stumble on it. Perhaps, on the account of my bad temper, I will die alone like a dog at the end of an old and deserted hallway. And yet one person that evening will stub his toe on the little hump in the garden, and will stumble on it the following night too, and each time that person will think with a shred of regret, forgive my hopefulness, of a certain fellow whose name was Dino Buzzati.

Now, if I may risk the analogy, the humps in Buzzati’s garden seem to be poetically akin to the Dani women’s missing fingers. The latter represent a touching and powerful image: each time a loved one leaves us, “we lose a bit of ourselves”, as is often said – but here the loss is not just emotional, the absence becomes concrete. On the account of this physical expression of grief, fingerless women undoubtedly have a hard time carrying out daily tasks; and further bereavements lead to the impossibility of using their hands. The oldest women, who have seen many loved ones die, need help and assistance from the community. Death becomes a wound which makes them disabled for life.

Of course, at least from a contemporary perspective, there is still a huge stumbling block: the metaphore would be perfect if such a tradition concerned also men, who instead were never expected to carry out such extreme sacrifices. It’s the female body which, more or less voluntarily, bears this visible evidence of pain.
But from a more universal perspective, it seems to me that these symbols hold the certainty that we all will leave a mark, a hump in someone else’s garden. The pride with which Dani women show their mutilated hands suggests that one person’s passage inevitably changes the reality around him, conditioning the community, even “sculpting” the flesh of his kindreds. The creation of meaning in displays of grief also lies in reciprocity – the very tradition that makes me weep for the dead today, will ensure that tomorrow others will lament my own departure.

Regardless of the historical variety of ways in which this concept was put forth, in this awareness of reciprocity human beings seem to have always found some comfort, because it eventually means that we can never be alone.

Smoked mummies

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The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.

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It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.

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This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.

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The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.

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The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.

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Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.

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This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.

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In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.

Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

I morti in piedi

Le tradizioni funerarie, come qualsiasi altra espressione culturale, non sono fisse e immutabili ma si evolvono e variano a seconda dell’epoca e della sensibilità della società che le adotta. Non bisogna perciò stupirsi se anche nell’ambito delle pratiche di sepoltura si formano nuovi costumi, e in qualche caso delle vere e proprie mode.

È quello che succede da qualche anno nel bacino del Golfo del Messico, dove sta prendendo piede l’usanza dei muertos paraos (“morti in piedi”). Si tratta ancora di una nicchia all’interno della tradizione più classica, ma si contano già diversi casi di questa peculiare e fantasiosa attitudine nei confronti del cadavere di un defunto. Rintracciarne la storia può riservare alcune sorprese.

Il primo caso di muerto parao avvenne nel 2008 nell’isola di Porto Rico. Le spoglie di David Morales Colon, un giovane vittima di una sparatoria, per volere dei parenti vengono preparate nella camera ardente in maniera pittoresca: il cadavere è fissato sulla sua motocicletta preferita, come se stesse ancora sfrecciando a tutto gas sulla strada (l’avevamo segnalato in un vecchio post).

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Questo tipo di disposizione scenografica della salma non è, com’è intuibile, in alcun modo contemplata dalla legge, che prevede severe norme igieniche, in particolare in relazione alla vicinanza fra il pubblico e il cadavere. In effetti, sempre nel 2008, i responsabili delle pompe funebri passano qualche guaio giudiziario, soprattutto dopo che replicano l’exploit sul corpo di  Luis Angel Pantoja Medina, esposto in piedi nel salotto di famiglia per tutti e tre i giorni della veglia funebre.

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Ma è difficile imputare un vero e proprio reato agli imbalsamatori: si tratta, in definitiva, di un modo forse un po’ stravagante di onorare le passioni e gli ultimi voleri del defunto.
Nel frattempo le fotografie e i video realizzati nelle camere ardenti fanno il giro del mondo, complice la rete, e ci vuole poco perché l’idea prenda piede.

Quindi su internet compare la salma di Carlos Cabrera, alias El Che Cabrera, seduto come se stesse meditando sull’imminente rivoluzione, nel tentativo di dare un’estrema veste iconografica alla sua figura.

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Ed ecco il boxeur Christopher Rivera, le cui spoglie mortali sono fissate all’angolo di un ring, come se la morte non avesse minimamente intaccato il suo spirito battagliero: un guerriero pronto ad affrontare l’aldilà con forza e determinazione immutate.

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La moda dei muertos paraos sbarca a New Orleans. Qui “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, storico musicista e cantante jazz e blues, leader di una banda tradizionale di ottoni, decide che “nessuno guarderà il mio cadavere dall’alto in basso”. Si fa quindi imbalsamare in piedi, per l’estremo saluto.

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Allo stesso modo, lo scorso aprile la mondana Mary Cathryn “Mickey” Easterling, gran dama di New Orleans, è rimasta seduta – senza vita -, tra fiori, piume di struzzo, sigarette con bocchino, e tutto il suo usuale armamentario di seduzione, all’interno del Saenger Theatre.

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Il proprietario di una ditta di veicoli di pronto soccorso, deceduto quando un colpo di pistola è accidentalmente partito dall’arma di un suo collega, viene immortalato nell’atto di guidare un’autoambulanza.

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La moda conquista altri stati. Un biker di ben 82 anni, Bill Standley, viene seppellito in Ohio in una bara di plexiglas appositamente studiata, a cavallo della sua amata moto.

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Ma da dove nasce questa moda? È una trovata degli ultimi anni, o sono esistiti dei precursori?
Se questo trend vi sembra moderno e originale, ricordiamo qui l’antesignano Willie “The Wimp” Stokes Jr., ganster e pappone di Chicago (figlio di “Flukey” Stokes Sr.) che nel 1984 venne esposto, e in seguito seppellito, all’interno di una bara a forma di Cadillac con banconote da 100$ nascoste sotto i suoi anelli con diamante.

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E viene spontaneao azzardare un parallelo, anche soltanto pensando al patrimonio che gli Stati Uniti hanno ereditato geneticamente e culturalmente dall’Africa, fra questo peculiare tipo di rapporto con la morte, e quello esibito dalle tribù Ga-Adangme del Ghana e del Togo.
In queste popolazioni dell’Africa, infatti, vigono dei pittoreschi costumi funebri: le bare vengono realizzate da falegnami esperti, ciascuna in una foggia che richiami i gusti personali o il lavoro del defunto. Le hall di queste pompe funebri assomigliano ad un laboratorio di un parco divertimenti: se un morto viveva di pesca, il suo sarcofago sarà a forma di pesce. L’operaio, invece, verrà sepolto in una bara a forma di martello. Se il trapassato indulgeva nell’alcol, la sua cassa avrà la forma di una bottiglia, se era un gran fumatore assomiglierà ad una sigaretta, e così via. Ecco quindi che anche qui, come nella moda dei muertos paraos, il funerale non è standardizzato e identico per tutti, ma personalizzato: le bare dei Ga-Adangme sono un colorato, vivace e simbolico viatico per l’aldilà, nel rispetto delle passioni e della vita del defunto, così come si è dipanata.

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Per noi, che ancora deponiamo i nostri morti in loculi “democraticamente” identici, orizzontali, nascosti alla vista, potrebbe quasi sembrare un insulto o una mancanza di rispetto verso il morto. Ma ogni funerale non è che un simbolo volto ad elaborare il lutto, e le modalità di consegna del defunto all’ “aldilà” mutano come e quando muta la cultura.

Così, non è detto che la moda non sbarchi anche sulle coste italiche. E il cadavere di una donna, seduta al suo posto preferito, con una birra in una mano e una sigaretta nell’altra, potrebbe in futuro sembrarci meno assurdo di quanto crediamo.

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(Grazie, ipnosarcoma!)

On the Midway

Abbiamo spesso parlato dei sideshow e dei luna-park itineranti che si spostavano di città in città attraversando l’America e l’Europa, assieme ai circhi, all’inizio del secolo scorso. Ma cosa proponevano, oltre allo zucchero filato, al tiro al bersaglio, a qualche ruota panoramica e alle meraviglie umane?
In realtà l’offerta di intrattenimenti e di spettacoli all’interno di un sideshow era estremamente diversificata, e comprendeva alcuni show che sono via via scomparsi dal repertorio delle fiere itineranti. Questo articolo scorre brevemente alcune delle attrazioni più sorprendenti dei sideshow americani.

Step right up! Fatevi sotto signore e signori, preparate il biglietto, fatelo timbrare da Hank, il Nano più alto del mondo, ed entrate sulla midway!


All’interno del luna-park, i vari stand e le attrazioni erano normalmente disposti a ferro di cavallo, lasciando un unico grande corridoio centrale in cui si aggirava liberamente il pubblico: la midway, appunto. Su questa “via di mezzo” si affacciavano i bally, le pedane da cui gli imbonitori attiravano l’attenzione con voce stentorea, ipnotica parlantina e indubbio carisma; talvolta si poteva avere una piccola anticipazione di ciò che c’era da aspettarsi, una volta entrati per un quarto di dollaro. Di fianco al signore che pubblicizzava il freakshow, ad esempio, poteva stare seduta la donna barbuta, come “assaggio” dello spettacolo vero e proprio.
A sentire l’imbonitore, ogni spettacolo era il più incredibile evento che occhio umano avesse mai veduto – per questo il termine ballyhoo rimane tutt’oggi nell’uso comune con il significato di pubblicità sensazionalistica ed ingannevole.


Aggirandosi fra gli schiamazzi, la musica di calliope e i colori della midway, si poteva essere incuriositi dalle ultime “danze elettriche”: ballerine i cui abiti si illuminavano magicamente, emanando incredibili raggi di luce… il trucco stava nel fatto che l’abito della performer era completamente bianco, e un riflettore disegnava pattern e fantasie sul suo corpo, mentre danzava. Con l’arrivo dei primissimi proiettori cinematografici, l’idea divenne sempre più elaborata e spettacolare: nel 1899 George La Rose presentò il La Rose’s Electric Fountain Show, che era descritto come

una stupefacente combinazione di Arte, Bellezza e Scienza. Lo show è l’unico al mondo equipaggiato con un grande palco girevole che si alza dall’interno di una fontana. Nel turbinare dell’acqua stanno alcune selezionate artiste che si producono in gruppi statuari, danze illuminate, danze fotografiche e riproduzioni dal vivo dei più raffinati soggetti.

Lo show contava su effetti scenici, cinematografici e si chiudeva con l’eruzione del vulcano Pelée.

L’affascinante e tenebroso esotismo delle tribù “primitive” non passava mai di moda. Ecco quindi i Musei delle Mummie (in realtà minuscoli spazi ricavati all’interno di un carrozzone) che proponevano le tsantsa, teste rimpicciolite degli indios Jivaro, e stravaganze mummificate sempre più fantasiose. Si trattava, ovviamente, di sideshow gaff, ovvero di reperti falsificati ad arte (ne abbiamo parlato in questo articolo) da modellatori e scultori piuttosto abili.

Uno dei migliori in questo campo era certamente William Nelson, proprietario della Nelson Supply House con cui vendeva ai circhi “curiosità mummificate”. Fra le finte mummie offerte a inizio secolo da Nelson, c’erano il leggendario gigante della Patagonia a due teste, King Mac-A-Dula; King Jack-a-Loo-Pa, che secondo la descrizione avrebbe avuto una testa, tre volti, tre mani, tre braccia, tre dita, tre gambe, tre piedi e tre dita dei piedi; il fantastico Poly-Moo-Zuke, creatura a sei gambe; il Grande Cavalluccio Marino, ricavato a partire da un vero teschio di cavallo, la cui coda si divideva in due lunghe pinne munite di zoccoli; mummie egiziane di vario tipo, come ad esempio Labow, il “Doppio Ragazzo Egiziano con Sorella che gli Cresce sul Petto”.

Più avanti la cartapesta verrà soppiantata dalla gomma, con cui si creeranno i finti feti deformi sotto liquido, e dalla cera: nel decennio successivo alla Seconda Guerra, famose attrazioni includevano il cervello di Hitler sotto formalina, e riproduzioni del cadavere del Führer.


Altri classici spettacoli erano le esibizioni di torture. Pubblicizzati dai banner con toni grandguignoleschi, erano in realtà delle ricostruzioni con rozzi manichini che lasciavano sempre un po’ l’amaro in bocca, rispetto alle raffinate crudeltà annunciate. Ma con il tempo anche i walk-through show ampliarono l’offerta, anche sulla scia dei vari successi del cinema noir: ecco quindi che si poteva esplorare i torbidi scenari della prostituzione, delle gambling house in cui loschi figuri giocavano d’azzardo, scene di droga ambientate nelle Chinatown delle grandi città americane, dove mangiatori d’oppio stavano accasciati sulle squallide brandine.

La curiosità per il fosco mondo della malavita stava anche alla base delle attrazioni che promettevano di mostrare straordinari reperti dalle scene del crimine: la gente pagava volentieri la moneta d’entrata per poter ammirare l’automobile in cui vennero uccisi Bonnie e Clyde, su cui erano visibili i fori di proiettile causati dallo scontro a fuoco con le forze dell’ordine. Peccato che quasi ogni sideshow avesse la sua “autentica” macchina di Bonnie e Clyde, così come circolavano decine di Cadillac che sarebbero appartenute ad Al Capone o ad altri famigerati gangster. Anzi, crivellare di colpi una macchina e tentare di venderla al circo poteva rivelarsi un buon affare, come dimostrano le inserzioni dell’epoca.

Nulla, però, fermava le folle come il frastuono delle moto che giravano a tutto gas nel motodromo.
Evoluzione di quelli progettati per le biciclette, già in circolazione dalla metà dell’800, i motodromi con pareti inclinate lasciarono il posto a loro volta ai silodrome, detti anche Wall of Death, con pareti verticali. Assistere a questi spettacoli, dal bordo del “pozzo”, era una vera e propria esperienza adrenalinica, che attaccava tutti i sensi contemporaneamente con l’odore della benzina, il rumore dei motori, le motociclette che sfrecciavano a pochi centimetri dal pubblico e gli scossoni dell’intera struttura in legno, vibrante sotto la potenza di questi temerari centauri. Con lo sviluppo della tecnologia, anche le auto da corsa avranno i loro spettacoli in autodromi verticali; e, per aggiungere un po’ di pepe al tutto, si cominceranno a inserire stunt ancora più impressionanti, come ad esempio l’inseguimento dei leoni (lion chase) che, in alcune varianti, vengono addirittura fatti salire a bordo delle auto che sfrecciano in tondo (lion race).

Ogni sideshow aveva i suoi live act con artisti eclettici: mangiaspade, giocolieri, buttafuoco, fachiri, lanciatori di coltelli, trampolieri, uomini forzuti e stuntman di grande originalità. Ma l’idea davvero affascinante, in retrospettiva, è l’evidente consapevolezza che qualsiasi cosa potesse costituire uno spettacolo, se ben pubblicizzato: dalla ricostruzione dell’Ultima Cena si Gesù, ai primi “polmoni d’acciaio” di cui si faceva un gran parlare, dai domatori di leoni alle gare di scimmie nelle loro minuscole macchinine.


Certo, il principio di Barnum — “ogni minuto nasce un nuovo allocco” — era sempre valido, e una buona parte di questi show possono essere visti oggi come ingannevoli trappole mangiasoldi, studiate appositamente per il pubblico rurale e poco istruito. Eppure si può intuire che, al di là del business, il fulcro su cui faceva leva il sideshow era la più ingenua e pura meraviglia.

Molti lo ricordano ancora: l’arrivo dei carrozzoni del circo, con la musica, le luci colorate e la promessa di visioni incredibili e magiche, per la popolazione dei piccoli villaggi era un vero e proprio evento, l’irruzione del fantastico nella quotidiana routine della fatica. E allora sì, anche se qualche dime era speso a vanvera, a fine serata si tornava a casa consci che quelle quattro mura non erano tutto: il circo regalava la sensazione di vivere in un mondo diverso. Un mondo esotico, sconosciuto, popolato da persone stravaganti e pittoresche. Un mondo in cui poteva accadere l’impossibile.

Gran parte delle immagini è tratta da A. W. Stencell, Seeing Is Believing: America’s Sideshows.

Tabù alimentari

L’uomo è un animale onnivoro, e può mangiare e digerire cibi di origine vegetale e animale alla stessa stregua. Eppure la maggior parte degli esseri umani consuma soltanto poche varietà di prodotti alimentari.

Alcune popolazioni si nutrono di alimenti che disgustano altre popolazioni: i tabù alimentari sono fra i più radicati, e intimamente legati al gruppo etnico di cui si fa parte. Secondo alcuni antropologi (tra cui Marvin Harris) sarebbero stati i fattori ambientali a far prediligere un certo cibo a un determinato popolo. Il tabù della carne di maiale per ebrei e musulmani nel Medioriente deriverebbe dalla difficoltà nell’allevare questo animale, che è tendenzialmente stanziale e abbisogna di ombra e acqua: permettere il consumo di carne di maiale avrebbe significato mettere in pericolo l’identità stessa della tradizione nomade.

Secondo altri antropologi (come ad esempio Steven Pinker) il tabù alimentare sarebbe alla base stessa della nostra identità. Nel primo periodo di vita di un bambino sarebbe assente la distinzione fra cibi buoni e cibi disgustosi: così, proprio nel periodo cruciale in cui si apprende a preferire dei cibi piuttosto che altri (fino ai 4 anni), i genitori escludono dalla dieta del bambino alcuni alimenti, e questo basta affinché i bambini crescano trovandoli disgustosi. La tattica, poi, si perpetua da sé: i figli, crescendo, diventano dei genitori che non danno da mangiare cibi disgustosi ai propri figli.

Nelle tribù è talmente importante questo elemento aggregativo (il pasto comunitario, le regole interne per la consumazione del cibo), che si è notato come la maggior parte dei tabù alimentari proibiscano proprio il cibo preferito dalla tribù nemica.

Oggi, nel mondo, esistono ancora fortissimi tabù alimentari. Quello che è buono e appetibile per alcuni, per altri è disgustoso e detestabile. Insetti, cavallette e lombrichi sono cibi prelibati per milioni di persone; ben quarantadue popolazioni mangiano ratti, mentre sono molte le popolazioni che non berrebbero mai un bicchiere di latte, in quanto secreto dalle ghiandole animali, come la saliva o il sudore. Per non parlare del formaggio, che altro non è se non latte andato a male. Un americano inorridisce in una nostra macelleria se gli viene proposta carne equina, e noi facciamo lo stesso di fronte a una zuppa cinese in cui galleggiano due zampe di cane. E come reagireste se in un ristorante sushi tradizionale in Giappone, vi servissero un pesce spellato e tagliuzzato, ma ancora vivo?

Praticamente tutti gli animali sono commestibili e vengono mangiati, in tutto il mondo.

L’entomofagia (il mangiare insetti) è fra le pratiche globalmente più diffuse. Questo signore ha provato ad importare questa tradizione culinaria “adattandola” ai gusti occidentali, proponendo un menu interamente a base di insetti:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3f7I_HAm4d8]

In tutto il sud-est asiatico, invece, uno dei cibi più apprezzati è il balut: si tratta di uova di anatra fecondate, che contengono cioè l’embrione quasi completamente formato del pulcino: lo stadio di sviluppo al quale sia preferibile consumare questa prelibatezza è strettamente questione di gusti personali.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpUW0b8G9Dk&feature=fvw]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6I9_ooR_7wE]

In Papua Nuova Guinea i pipistrelli si fanno arrosto:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImfTlurKDVE&feature=channel]

Anche da noi sono considerate commestibili le cosce della rana; ma ne mangereste il cuore ancora pulsante?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhLAb83oUNE&feature=related]

Forse l’unico tabù fondamentale condiviso dalla maggior parte delle popolazioni al mondo è il divieto di mangiare carne umana; eppure perfino il cannibalismo è stato accettato, in certe culture, nonostante fosse regolato da precise condizioni, e rigidamente motivato all’interno di un determinato quadro simbolico e tradizionale.