Tag Archives: ritual

The Grisly Quest For Body Parts

I’m working on a story that involves research into some ancient Christian practices. And I’m reminded yet again about the weird human penchant for bones.  When people die we either bury them in dirt or burn them. Some places like Cuba and New Orleans, which have little dirt due to high water tables, bury their people in above ground caskets where there is less chance of a body floating away or unpleasantly moldering in a hot climate. Most cultures inter their dead one way or another.

But along with the ritualistic aspects of burying the dead comes the adoration, idolizing and power of those people  who gained fame and notoriety.  Ancient Celts would save the heads of their enemies, as an honor to the fighter and for the power that would be imbued to them. Drinking from skull cups (kapala) has been done as part of ritual, to honor the defeated person, or for power to pass onto the drinker in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Celtic, Chinese, Scythian, Rus, Bulgarian, Uzbek and even Lord Byron. Shrunken heads of the Amazon also fall into this except the skull bone was removed.

People have a grisly fascination with that which supports us but yet remains invisible until we die. Bones. The early Christian church was no slacker in this regard. Any body part of a sainted individual was ready for demolition and salvation in a reliquary. Finger bones, skulls, leg bones, you name it. If it could be found and sanctified the churches and monasteries would hang on to such a reliquary to make each of them special. Never mind that the vaunted saint might not rest easy when their bones were scattered far and wide. Funny that we’re very touchy about our dead getting proper rites and their remains being undistrubed…unless their saints. Then it’s a wholesale grabfest for every pious group.

Of course any place that boasted of owning the used hanky, holey sock, or toothpick of a saint would have a chance of getting more believers to view the grisly religious tourist attractions. Of course this wasn’t just the Christian religion, with the Vatican being the biggest repository of weird sideshow bits of dead people. Buddhists often used the skull cup and other beliefs have their body parts too.

Of all the prized possessions it seems people have sought the head most of all. Coinciding with this research I’m doing CBC was talking about the stolen heads of famous musicians like Beethoven and Haydn. It was a pretty popular sport in the 1800s to dig up a grave and grab the head of a famous poet or composer. In some cases the macabre quest was for science. What had made these people so great? In some cases it was for grisly rewards. Own the head of Marie Antoinette…yours for $100,000. And in some cases it was for that nebulous religious aura. I touched the finger bone of St. Peter and therefore I’m blessed, I’m closer to heaven, I will get that X that I prayed for.

Whatever the reason, we are similarly repulsed and drawn to aspects of the dead. Don’t look at a corpse, and  bury the bones, but oh wait if it’s got some power, well then I will touch it, look at it, revere it. Humans are very odd, at one point fearing everything to do with death and the dead and at the other end, eternally pulled to and fascinated by it. Look at vampire fiction. There is a crossover with the dead and the living; and zombies, though not as sexy as vampires, are definitely gaining mainstream time but usually in  a more campy way. But in the true essence of humanity our natures our dichotomized by our logic and our beliefs and I’m sure in the future we’ll continue to see body parts revered in some way or another.

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Endangered Species Vs Cultural Tradition

Our world is in trouble in a lot of ways and anyone, whether an individual or a government, who denies this is practicing the head in the sand technique. Overfishing has caused the closing of fisheries in numerous countries, caribou herds are threatened, whales are on the endangered list , rhinos and tigers and other large land mammals are in danger of extinction. The list of endangered or near extinct fauna is extensive. Not all are hunted by humans for food or trophyism but the ones that are hunted/farmed/fished for food run into more conflict.

There are the people who make their livelihoods/their jobs from hunting a particular land or marine animal. When they are told they can’t do this anymore they are rightfully upset, scared of a future that is uncertain at best. Then there are native peoples of the lands, whether they’re Native Americans/First Nations, Danes, Laplanders, or Fiji Islanders (to name a few), they all have centuries of traditions and customs.

In many pre-industrial societies, food was a focus of stability. Towns and cities were often built on fertile land near water sources. Herds of animals were domesticated or hunted near villages. Customs, rituals and spiritual rites took place around food and the creatures that sustained the life of a people. These were so ingrained that you cannot separate an animal from the ritual. Initiatory rites as well as rituals for sustenance and good hunting were common.

But time is time, and everything changes through time. The land shifts, erodes and buckles. Species ebb and flow with the changing seasons and shift in climates, and from natural disasters. Although a species can hunt another to extinction, especially if it’s transplanted from its natural habitat, it’s not common. Only homo sapiens have been so resilient, adaptive and creative to live anywhere and hunt what they need. In most ecosystems if the predator overhunts the prey, the predators flourish but then there is not enough prey and the predators die back, maintaining a natural balance.

Only the human species has been able to circumvent this natural balance, bringing technology to bear on the environment to the point of detriment for every living thing including people. And so we have species all over the world that are endangered, protected or becoming extinct and yes, there are many species becoming memories only. Then we have traditional cultures saying, “We have always done this. It’s part of our traditions. It’s you people who disturbed the balance, not us.”

Governments are trying to protect dwindling resources so there will be something to hunt in the future and have placed restrictions and moratoria on different species. Sometimes only a certain quota is allowed to be taken and then there is more conflict. As in the missing salmon this year on the Pacific coast. There was nothing to fish. If anyone, Native or other fisherman wanted to take the fish because it was their right, if would diminish a chance for that species to survive. And now we have Innu hunters shooting caribou in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The thing is, it is their right to do so and have some protection based on ancestral tradition. That’s fine, but conservation officials say that a particular type of caribou, the Red Wine, have moved in amongst the other more prolific herd. There is supposed to be less than 100 of the Red Wine caribou left and they’re protected. The interesting thing is that five years ago Grand Chief Penashue  said about hunters in the protected preserver, “The hunt in the Red Wine caribou range was not just an illegal protest, it was completely inconsistent with Innu values. … Putting a threatened caribou herd at further risk can never be justified on the basis of aboriginal rights.”

Yet today this same chief is supporting the hunting of the caribou because statistically fewer would be hit compared to the George River herd. Seems those ancestral Innu values have changed. So it’s only good to assert traditional rights when it suits you and because the ministry or the government aren’t working with you, it’s now all right to hunt endangered species?

What is not right is asserting traditional and cultural rights over species that are endangered. To do so is pure stupidity because there will be nothing to fight over or use in traditional ways in a very near future. This is the biggest problem when various cultures try to assert their rights because it’s always been done this way. And where do we draw the timeline if someone says, we’ve done it this way for a hundred years, a thousand years, or whatever. Just because one’s ancestors did it doesn’t mean we can continue to do it, whatever it may be. The world has changed and denying that does no good.

I support the right of people to keep their traditions (that’s all those unique cultures all over the world) but not at the expense of losing endangered species or in subjugating other people. Our ancestors did all sorts of things, including using outhouses, killing and beating people and eating foods we wouldn’t touch. They lived without central heating, they sewed everything by hand and only the richest (or the military) might have gone more than a hundred miles from their local village. Life was constant hard work. We cannot always say, because my people once did it I have the right to do it now. We have to be reasonable and holding a species as hostage to get your way is the same as saying well you won’t listen to me so I’ll just beat this kid until I get my way. They’re both innocent (caribou or child) and some healthy reasoning should come in to play as opposed to punishing/speeding the extinction of the species. In this case the Innu should be ashamed of themselves because even killing one more of an endangered herd lessens its chance for viability and recovery.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/labrador-innu-break-hunting-ban-kill-64-caribou/article1370834/

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Body Adornment

The other half to yesterday’s blog on camouflaging the true shape of our bodies is one of adornment. People are like crows. We have always been attracted to shiny and colorful objects. Ever since Grog the caveman noticed the bright blue stone, we’ve been collecting these things. The best way to store such objects, if you were an itinerant caveman, was to wear it. And look, that blue stone brought the sky back again or slowed the mammoth down so we could kill it.

Body adornment covers jewellery made of glass, metal, clay, wood, stone, feathers, bone, etc. strung or worn in many ways across different parts of the body. As well it has been stuck through and pierced into whatever piece of flesh could be pierced. From lip and nose discs to rings on fingers, toes, nipples, to pieces of wood or stone or metal punctured through chests, backs, arms and other fleshy bits–if it could be done, someone has done it.

Jewellery has as many uses as clothing does. In many cases such adornment started out as a ritualistic aspect with Grog, perhaps a dedication to a belief or god or path. As well, certain body markings indicated tribal/familial affiliations or ranks of authority. A pope would wear an amethyst ring that the faithful would kiss. A particular group in the jungle may have their noses pierced while their neighbors had their eyebrows be-ringed. Whether a fashion trend in that area or a mark of community, these regional differences served the purpose of identifying one group from another.

Facial and body makeup also came along, where applications may have been used for special occasions, rituals, power or to enhance characteristics, such as outlining the eyes to make them look bigger; but also the kohl liners worked to reduce sun-glare into the eyes. There have been practical applications for some body makeup and painting, such as coatings to keep sun off, or insects from biting.

Tattoos and scarification are other ways in which the body has been marked for centuries. Piercings can be temporary, as in the sundance done by some plains nations in North America, where the man’s chest is pierced for the (up to) four-day sundance. But permanent marks are part of identification, authority or belonging to a particular group. Scarring the skin with ridges and whorls, along with embedding items under the skin have been done in some areas for quite a while. Sailors were long known to pick up tattoos on their travels. I’m not sure of the reason why and that would take a bit more research. Some I believe had to do with visiting foreign countries where some of these practices were more common.

Tattoos are big now in parts of modern tribal culture as well as the resurgence of the burlesque dance style. Dancers often have designs that are reminiscent of the 50’s and the earliest North American white tattoos (I say white because I’m not sure if any First Nation groups did tattooing like the Maori have done). Maori tattoos served several purposes including looking fierce in battle, along with the facial gurning.

But last and probably the most popular reason for adorning one’s body, whether with rings, earrings, necklaces, piercings, makeup, tattoos or scarification is for the sheer enjoyment of decoration. We have not traveled that far since Grog started smearing red clay handprints onto his chest, tying a blue stone about his neck and piercing his ears. Though he may have decorated some for superstitious reasons or protection from spiritual or real elements, there came a time that it was just cool and fun to decorate himself. And let’s not forget the status symbol of having the brightest colored rocks or the largest gems in the whole tribe. That hasn’t changed much. If it had, we wouldn’t pay through the nose (does that term come from jewellery?) for precious gems and gold. As long as there are humans we will be given to adorning ourselves and structures around us. If you don’t like a particular fashion of body decoration, be assured that within a hundred years it will change again.

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