So, based on a conversation going on as a result of my last post (about my travel journal), here are two pics of my ancestor shrine. The first is one third of my shrine (it covers nearly three walls) and the second shows a close-up of the Marian shrine that is part of my ancestor shrine (by specific request of several of my dead).
Today I received the first submission to the Public Polytheistic Shrine Project. ^__^ T.P. Ward sent me images of this shrine, made in thanks to Hermes, Artemis, and Poseidon. Thank you, T.P.
This was created in a public park near his home.
Folks, if you are interested in joining this project (and i hope at least some of you are!), see the guidelines here.
Awhile back, I read a book called ‘Heavenly Bodies,” by Paul Koudounaris.(1). One of the House members had recommended it and I was just enthralled. It’s a book, with ample photographs, about venerating the dead. Or at least, it’s a book about how Catholics used to venerate the dead before the attitudes and prejudices of so-called modernity (and the Protestant reformation) interfered. The book is a beautiful account of ossuaries and decorated, bejeweled skeletons housed across Europe, skeletons one time believed to be the bones of Roman martyrs (it’s almost certain that in reality they were not) and shipped across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries to be housed in churches and chapels and given cultus. Now, in all too many cases, the skeletons at least are hidden away like some embarrassing and dirty little secret, though the ossuaries still remain for those who wish to visit. The book incited longing in me, for a time when we as a culture understood that type of devotion, and sadness for what we’ve lost.
I realized after reading, that I had another book by the same author, one i’d picked up in London called “The Empire of Death” (and the author maintains a website of the same name). (2). He has a third book on the same topic, that looks as though it will focus not just on Europe, but Asia and Africa as well, soon to be released called “Memento Mori.” (3) Of course I have that already on pre-order! I’ve wanted to write something about this since reading “Heavenly Bodies,” but I’ve been hesitating and to be sure, I’m still not quite sure how to put my thoughts in order. These images, the idea — once powerful reality—of such devotion moves me intensely but on an instinctive, soul-deep level that has nothing to do with the cage of words.
There is a power in bone, a power in sacred relics that goes beyond the actual thing. It reaches to something deeper, opens us to something deeper and provides a very corporeal and visual sense of continuity with the power of our dead. This reification of the sacred into the box of decorated bones, and bone filled chapels once thronged with worshippers to me, speaks to something essential about our impulse to ancestor work. Christianity may have forbidden offerings to one’s own dead but where did that impulse go? How was it redirected? Well, apparently into a cultus of “saints,” into decorated skulls, bejeweled skeletons turned into fabulous works of art, adorning churches, receiving offerings, inspiring the people and connecting them with those that preceded them in their faith. It is right and proper and I think that the moment we turned our back on such devotion is the moment we embraced the despair and hopelessness, the spiritual disconnection and emptiness of a mechanized, pseudo-“rational” age.
I ‘get’ this. I cannot express the deep longing all of this evokes in me. I know if i had my mother’s skull or skeleton, i would empty myself decorating it, enshrining it, paying homage to it not only in love of her, but as a conduit to Sigyn and Loki, Gods Whom she adored throughout her life. There is part of me that feels empty, lacking in that this is not even an option. I do not want my religion to be “rational.” I do not want the deepest abysses my soul travels to be reduced to cold, dead scripture. I do not want the sacred, the terrifying, the awe-inspiring, the holy stripped from my devotional and ritual experience. I do not want the starvation of the spiritual senses that such an excision inevitably brings.
Instead, i wish to be inebriated with the sense of my Gods. I wish to be laid out, struck down prostrate with love and veneration of my dead. i want to touch and see, smell and taste, and hear the roar of the ineffable each moment that I walk upon this earth. My soul hungers for anything and everything that will conjure that, that will open me up to that, bringing me into the flow of ecstatic veneration.
I want the option of ascending a shrine to our sancti on bended and bloodied knees, leaving a crimson trail of devotion behind me in the stone. I want the option of losing myself in the raging tide of choirs chanting and singing hymns of praise to our Gods and our dead, a living Office, a liturgy of invocation. I want that overwhelming ecstasy of the senses that has nothing to do with physical hunger and everything to do with being a living offering to my Gods; and I want to lay incense, light candles, pour out libations over the bones of my dead. I want the option of pressing my lips to the alabaster brittleness of bejeweled skulls knowing that I am restoring a connection with my ancestors and our sancti that has the power to raise us up, push us forward, in a tide of revolution and revelation against the dull violation of filter-infested “modernity.”
Give me bones, and skulls, and reliquaries of the dead, and I will show you a path to Mystery. I will show you a path to renewal. I have no more words. The longing for what we have lost or foolishly traded away fills me with screaming.
1. Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris
2. The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
3. Forthcoming: Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris
first image: from empiredelamort.com/mummies-2/rott-am-inn-germany-big/ shows a “martyr” from the Roman Catacombs. It’s one of many jeweled skeletal relics throughout Europe, though most are now hidden away. As Mr. Koudounaris points out, we don’t know who these men and women were, but they certainly were not christian martyrs. Still, they provided a locus for veneration and faith.
second image: Another jeweled martyr from Waldsassen Germany.
third image: Milan, Italy ossuary chapel of San Bernardino aloe Ossa.
fourth image: Sedlec, Czech Republic: Sedlec ossuary.
fifth iage: Wolfenschiessen, Switzerland: skull niche in the mortuary chapel.
All images are courtesy of empiredelamort.com.