Law and the Dead

An Encounter with the Restless Dead

The saga refers to what happened as wonders, but I would not call them such. After all, people had died. Oh, it wasn’t just those who had initially died. No, they had returned, others had fallen sick, and more had joined their ranks.law - farmstead

Unlike the dead of other Indo-European descendant cultures, the dead always walked in Iceland. Draugar, they were called, revenants. Other places had them too – the Greeks, for example. They too knew revenants and practiced arm-pitting dead enemies, severing the vital tendons that would allow ambulation should the deceased arise to walk and seek revenge (Ogden 162). But the Greeks also had ghosts; the preference for cremation during the Archaic Era coincided with a diversification of Greek underworld beliefs. The previously faceless dead that existed unaware of the living world above now understood that their descendants poured out and burned offerings for them. The expansion of cremation burial also coincided with the arrival of the psychopomps – a role which would be extended during the Classical Era (F. P. Retief “Burial Customs”).

The Icelanders though, they did not burn their dead, and so their dead walked as you or I do (Davidson 9).

The Court is Convened

But these were not the mindless rotting zombies of movies; let’s not think that they were. No, draugar didn’t rot, and were fully capable of thought and action, passing through the earth of their mounds to visit and all too often harass the law - doorliving. But their visits also brought sickness, and that’s just what they brought to the people of a place called Frodis-water.

So the people of Frodis-water decided to hold a dyradómr, a kind of door-court during which the dead would be judged in accordance with the law, and hopefully sent on their way. Now doorways are significant; they’re liminal places where living and dead can meet. To keep your beloved dead close, you might bury them in a doorway, and the door post holes found before Bronze Age burials could not have been a coincidence (Hem-Eriksen “Doorways”). So they held their door-court at the doorway and called the dead to them to hear their judgement.

Surprisingly, the dead took their judgements and left without argument. But that was the power of the law, and no one living or dead, wants to reside outside of the protection of the law.

The Law is Sacred

You see, law – or at least a certain kind of law – was sacred. It was the difference between order and chaos, between thriving and destruction, and as such, it was valued. It is the ŗta of the Vedic texts and the asha known to the Zoroastrians. These were in turn cognate with the Greek aristos, ‘the best’; harmonia, ‘harmony’; and ararisko, or ‘to fit, adapt, harmonize’. All though, can probably be traced to the same Proto-Indo-European root word, *H²er-, or ‘to fit together according to the proper pattern’ (Serith 30).

The First Rule?

We don’t know that “proper pattern” though, and we cannot claim to know it despite the fact that it would be useful to anyone who follows any traditions inspired by pre-Christian IE cultures. However, we can perhaps infer what law - noosesome of those laws might be. I am going to infer one right now: that our rights to this world are lost when we breathe our last.

This is why the dead must be dragged by fetters or snares from the world of the living. It is why the Rig Veda refers to the “foot fetter of Yama” (the Lord of the Dead); why there are hel ropes in the Sólarljóð; why Horace wrote of mortis laqueis, or “snares of death; and it is why Clytemnestra had a net (Giannakis “Fate-As-Spinner”). The dead do not wish to go, so they must be dragged. It is noteworthy that they only return at the end of all things (Ragnarök), or that their return brings sickness and death. This is one law we can infer; this is part of the proper pattern.

The Rule of Law

Another is that nothing exists outside of this. To be removed to the Underworld is not to be removed from the reach of law. The Underworlds are varied, and descendants would not have made ancestor offerings were those ancestors truly gone and wholly disconnected. We must always remember that a human community has two sides: the living who dwell in the Middle Earth, and the dead who dwell below.

law - gibbetThe story of the door-courts suggests that both living and dead are equally bound by the law. We also see this reflected in the burial customs of those deemed to exist outside the protection of the law. These were often the criminals left to rot at the crossroads, those buried in unhallowed grounds, and those who were too young at the time of their passing to be formally accepted in a community (Petreman “Preturnatural Usage”). Is it any coincidence that the materia magica sought from the human body came most often from these sources? Is it also coincidence that those were the sources thought by the Ancient Greeks to carry the least miasma (Retief “Burial”)? To exist as dead inside the protection of the law is to sleep soundly – or at least it should mean that. Of course, there have always been violations as Burke and Hare could well attest.

From these perspectives, the case against the dead at Frodis-water may already seem airtight. After all, we’ve already established that by virtue of being dead they’re not supposed to be in the world of the living, and that they are just as subject to this “proper pattern” law as we ourselves are. However, there is one more legal argument pertinent to the dead that we have not yet examined, and that is the law of possession.

Claiming and Keeping Space

Fire has always been sacred to the various Indo-European descendant cultures, and was considered to have various functions. We’re perhaps the most familiar with fire as a medium through which offerings may be made to law - firethe holy powers, but fire also played an important role in property ownership too. For the Norse, carrying fire sunwise around land you wished to own was one method of claiming that land (LeCouteux 89), and under Vedic law new territory was legally incorporated through the construction of a hearth. This was a temporary form of possession too, with that possession being entirely dependent on the ability or willingness of the residents to maintain the hearthfire. For example, evidence from the Romanian Celts suggests that the voluntary abandonment of a place was also accompanied by the deliberate deconstruction of the hearth. And the Roman state conflated the fidelity of the Vestal Virgins to their fire tending duties with the ability of the Roman state to maintain its sovereignty. The concept of hearth as center of the home and sign of property ownership continued into later Welsh laws too; a squatter only gained property rights in a place when a fire had burned on his hearth and smoke come from the chimney (Serith 2007, 71).

Sovereignty and the Dead

There is more here too – the matter of sovereignty looms large. So too perhaps is a form of imitation of the relationship between king and goddess of sovereignty played out here between men and the wives who keep the hearthlaw - hearth fires burning. To maintain the hearth was to maintain possession of property, and to maintain the hearth, a woman was required. (Or several, if you happen to be the Roman state.)

And here is where I come to my final argument regarding law and the dead: the dead keep no fires in the habitations of the living. Without the ability to maintain a hearth fire, the dead cannot claim sovereignty in the land of the living, and this is an important point to bear in mind. Because while we often joke that possession is nine tenths of the law, thankfully for the people of Frodis-water, it most likely was that which saved them.

Sources

Davidson, H. R, Ellis. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.
Giannakis, George. “The “Fate-as-Spinner” Motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greek and Indo-European (Part II).” Indogermanische Forschungen Zeitschrift Für Indogermanistik Und Historische Sprachwissenschaft / Journal of Indo-European Studies and Historical Linguistics 104 (2010): 95-109. Web.
Hem Eriksen, Marianne. “Doorways to the Dead. The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia.” Archaeological Dialogues 20.2 (2013): 187-214. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. <https://mariannehemeriksen.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/eriksen-marianne-hem-2013.pdf>.
Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land – Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions Bear And Comp, 2015.
Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Petreman, Cheryl. “Preternatural Usage of Human Body Parts in Late Medieval and Early Modern
Germany.” Diss. U of New Brunswick, 2013.
Retief, Fp, and L. Cilliers. “Burial Customs, the Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece.” Acta Theologica 26.2 (2010): n. pag. Web.
Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. ADF Pub., 2009.

Clowns, Masks, and Ritual

masks - death masks

A Time of Madness, Masks, and Clowns

On the 20th of August 2016, some clowns allegedly tried to lure a kid into the woods near his apartment complex in masks - wasco clownGreenville, South Carolina. Over the course of the next week, a further five sightings were reported to the local police department. Those of us who didn’t live in Greenville, especially those of us raised on Stephen King’s IT, were relieved to not be there. Over the course of the coming weeks, the number of sightings grew – as did the number of locations. People speculated that it was all some kind of publicity stunt for the upcoming IT remake, but the movie’s producer denied all. A kind of paranoia and hysteria grew around the clowns, and as the reports grew, so did the debate around just what the clowns were and why they had masks - evil clownstarted to become so prominent. Some people pointed out the Fortean aspects of these crazes (which happen periodically), whereas others just stuck to more mundane explanations of creepy attention-seekers in bought or rented suits and masks. In a kind of collective madness, exacerbated by the fever of the late election cycle, we hurtled towards Halloween and rumors of a ‘clown purge’. With the exception of one Halloween night attack on a family by a gang of clowns that thankfully left them with comparatively minor injuries, there was no purge. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the clowns disappeared from the news.

But regardless of whether some of the clowns were supernatural as some claimed, or simply fucked up people in scary masks, there is a curious history to clowns and the act of masking that deserves some examination. Because sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to dress for the job you want.

A Dichotomy of Clowns

Believe it or not, but as creepy as clowns are, the original clown (at least in the Anglosphere) was supposed to be a kind of harmless rustic fool. According to the Etymological Dictionary Online, the word ‘clown’ (as ‘cloyne’ or ‘clowne’) is theoretically derived from various Scandinavian language words for ‘clumsy’, and was first used in the 1560s to denote a ‘rustic boor, peasant’. (1) However, the word is not the thing, and the history of the ‘rustic fool’ figure in entertainment settings goes back to the Ancient Greek sklêro-paiktês, a word which comes from the verb paizein ‘to play like a child’. (2) This is not the only word for this kind of performer in Greek theater, but I do not need to include them here to further make the point that this figure of a ‘rustic fool’ that we call ‘clown’ is quite ancient.

Ancient Greek theater was inextricably tied up in acts of ritual, Aristotle even cited the cult of Dionysius as being the origins of drama.(3) While this is a claim that is still debated, it does illustrate that theater was not merely a form of entertainment for the Greeks (although it was undoubtedly that too).

The clowns, or rather ‘clown-like’ performers of today arguably have their origin in the Zanni of the 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte. There were essentially two types of Zanni: the stupid and boorish ( in other words, those we would recognize as being clowns today); and the intelligent trickster types. Strangely, it is the more threatening Zanni, the member of the Zanni known as Arlecchino – despite his somewhat darker theorized origins – who is considered to be among the stupid. To quote Jennifer Meagher from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

” The zanni (servants) were in many ways the most important—and certainly the most subversive—characters of masks - harlequinthe commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other. Perhaps best known of these is Arlecchino, or Harlequin (1974.356.525), a character whose origin is contested. It is likely that he derived either from Alichino, a demon from Dante’s Inferno (XXI-XXIII), or from Hellequin, a character from French Passion plays, also a demon charged with driving damned souls into Hell. Arlecchino is characterized as a poor man, often from Bergamo, whose diamond-patterned costume suggests that he is wearing patchwork, a sign of his poverty. His mask is either speckled with warts or shaped like the face of a monkey, cat, or pig, and he often carries a batacchio, or slapstick.”(4) (Emphasis is my own.)

Also worthy of note here, is the fact that “All characters except Pedrolino and the innamorati wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies, Atellanae Fabulae, that featured character types similar to those of the commedia.” (5) The Commedia has its roots in old old custom.

To return to that first quote though, and Arlecchino’s connection with hell in both of his origins stories, there is a far richer history to be found here that makes this hellish connection, and especially with the dead especially apt.

Harlequin and Herela Cyng

Harlequins are curious things, both in terms of their dress as the black-masked performer in checkered material carrying a club, and the history suggested by the etymology of their name. The most complete exposition of the history of both the name and character comes from Flasdieck in his 1937 article entitled “Harlekin. Germanischer Mythos in romanischer Wandlung”. In it, the origins of the word ‘Harlequin’ are traced back to the OE *Her(e)la cyng, or ‘King Harilo’, which is itself a by-name of Wodan – a god connected with leading the dead in the form of the Wild Hunt. (6) In turn, Flasdieck traces ‘Her(e)la’ back to *Xarilan – a word deriving from *Xaria, or ‘army’. This is synonymous with Herjann, and leads us to the Germanic tribal name, the Harii. (It’s all a lot more complex than that, I’m trying to condense about seven pages of etymology into less than a paragraph. Seriously, get Kershaw’s book if you can.)

Remember the black mask of the Harlequin? Maybe it’s no coincidence – per Tacitus in Germania 43 (emphasis is my own):

“As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.”

Masks and Ritual

masks - death masks
Image from here: http://bit.ly/2nBmA5a

Returning to the ancient classical world though, and this time the funerals of Rome, we see the act of masking in impersonation of the dead. One of the living would wear a death mask and clothes of the newly deceased, and impersonate them as much as they could. To clarify a little here, by ‘death mask’, I mean masks molded from the actual face of the deceased usually after death. Other mourners would similarly impersonate the ancestors of the deceased with their own respective masks. (7) Viewed from this perspective, the funeral then becomes a drama in which the decedent is escorted to the grave by the dead themselves.

To quote Kershaw in her ‘The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde’, “It is the nature of the dead that they are not seen”, and yet there were times during the ritual year when the dead very much needed to be present. So how to solve a problem like that? How to give form to the unseen?(8)

Again from Kershaw (emphasis is my own): “The means by which they become the dead are Masks. By mask we do not necessarily mean something which covers the face. The most primitive form of masking is simply painting the face (and body). And while we have, from Scandinavia, representations of cultic dancers wearing very realistic wolfs’ heads and fur garments reaching to the knees, as in the helmet plate from Torslunda described in 1.4.3 above, other masks consist of (or are made to look like ?) parts of an animal’s head, or the whole head with the jaws agape and the masker’s face showing, as in the pictures of Herakles in his lion skin or Hades in his ????….The mask shows that the wearer is a dæmonic, or more-than-natural, being. He is no longer himself: he is an Ancestor.” (9)

Though Kershaw was writing about the embodiment of ancestors by living warriors by means of donning masks, this same principle applies equally to the impersonation of the deceased at the Roman funeral – the belief in possession by ghosts or the ‘more-than-natural’ is quite ancient.

Exapanding the ‘More-Than-Natural’

Earlier on in this post, I made the joke that sometimes you have to dress for the job you want, hopefully that joke ismasks - werewolf becoming somewhat clearer now. But I do not believe that this principle applies solely to the dead, and that we can see a form of this kind of embodiment of the ‘more-than-natural’ in some of the sources on shapeshifting too. For example, Sigmund and Sinfjötli of the Volsunga Saga become wolves through the donning of skins, and this theme survived into the 17th century when Thiess the self-described werewolf of Livonia testified that he and his fellow werewolves [on their journey to hell to retrieve seeds stolen by a sorcerer called Skeistan] had to strip off and don skins. (10)

Conversely, a person might return to the human state by either shucking the mask or skin, and/or dressing once more in the clothes of man. We see this at play in Petronius’s Satyricon in which a soldier protects his clothes by magically turning them into stone before turning into a werewolf. To protect one’s clothes is to protect one’s ability to return to the human state. This theme is also present in Marie de France’s 12th century lay Bisclavret (a Breton word meaning ‘werewolf’) in which a werewolf’s clothes are stolen him from returning to his human form.(11) This is not so different from the protective powers of cultivated land when being pursued by the Other in the wilds, the clothes acting as a civilizing influence in much the same way as working the land does a field.

Of Masks and Clowns

The 2016 spate of clown sightings were noteworthy in numerous ways, not in the least because every single clown described was of the ‘horror’ variety. They were embodying the Pennywise, the sick, murderous clown that goes out of its way to terrify children and adults alike, and all during a time of high passion and acrimonious national discourse. Given the historical use of masking within ritual contexts, and the meaning of that act of masking, a whole new dimension is added to the question of just what possessed those people to don those masks and go out behaving in ways they perhaps wouldn’t normally. Now obviously, I’m not suggesting that all of those clowns were possessed by some spirits stirred up by the then-zeitgeist, but it is an interesting thought, isn’t it?

Sources
(1) Etymological Dictionary Online – Clown
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=clown
(2) Etymological Dictionary Online – Coulrophobia
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=coulrophobia
(3) The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama – Eric Csapo, Margaret C. Miller P
(4)+(5) Commedia dell’Arte – Jennifer Meagher
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm
(6) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (Pp 11, 15-19, 38-40)
(7) Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals – Geoffrey S. Sumi
(8) The One Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo) Germanic Männerbünde – Kris Kershaw (p26)
(9) Ibid.
(10) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp 118-121)
(11) Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages – Claude LeCouteux (Pp113-116)