By David Metcalfe
“A human being is experienced as a power, and power reveals itself to the human being. We have seen how in certain respects a dead person as compared to a living person experienced an increase in power. The dead person possessed knowledge of the future, which the living (using dead magic) could gain access to and utilize. The living corpse, the revenant in particular, has command of monstrous physical forces. A revenant could shift its physical location in a way that a living person could not, and it also had the ability to transform its shape.”
- from Barbarian Rites, by Hanz-Peter HasenFrantz (trans. by Michael Moynihan)
The internet is an immortality machine without the need for Kurzweil’s Singularity. All you need is a name on which to hang a thin frame of philosophy, a single photograph of emotional resonance, and you can affect a return. A physical site of personal importance is even more potent, a grave on which the living can focus their intentions, gifts, talismans and memories. Dead heroes return in the lives of their attentive lovers, and when a society wishes to forget, to forgo such revenant returns, it seeks ways to blot out the names, the memories, and most importantly the body of the deceased so no return can be made.
The body of Rudolph Hess, a close companion of Hitler, was recently exhumed from its resting place in a Bavarian cemetery, cremated, and scattered in an effort to take power away from his enduring image as a hero of nascent Neo-Nazis. According to the New York Daily News, Roland Schoeffel, deputy mayor of Wunsiedel where Hess was buried, said “Now, hopefully we can put it all behind us, we hope the phantom has left.” His tombstone, where someone had scratched “I Dared” was also removed.
Yes, it’s the 21st century, and we no longer hang apotropaic charms on our doorway, or conduct ritual mutilation, to keep the dead down (at least most don’t admit to doing so.) Fears of their return, however, are no less prevalent, and precautions are taken despite our wish to evolve away from our shadowy unconscious. We know that whether or not the dead themselves come back, their memories festering in the minds of admirers can bring them back as an impetus for actions that carry on the goals they had in life.
With no body to limit them, the dead can become energetic focal points for followers who need something more to inspire their actions. Their tombs become shrines, where meditations are focused on what is left of their existence, the raw motivating forces that lead them to become nortorious or national heroes.
U.S. President Barack Obama was sworn in using the same bible as former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. It was the first time the bible had been used since Lincoln’s presidency, and the action was a significant symbolic reminder of what Obama’s presidency was supposed to represent.
He also used the iconic Lincoln Memorial as the location of his inaugural welcoming event. The Washington Times on December 20, 2008 reported:
“The Lincoln Memorial is heavy with symbolism for Mr. Obama, who will arrive on its steps Jan. 18 following a train ride that traces Lincoln’s inaugural path from Philadelphia to Washington.
The memorial also is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the event comes a day before the nation celebrates the King holiday Jan. 19. The inauguration is Jan. 20.
“It is one of the great, patriotic symbols of our country,” Presidential Inaugural Committee spokeswoman Linda Douglass said Friday. “It’s a symbol of the American spirit; it’s a symbol of unity; it’s a symbol of our values. So for all those reasons it’s an appropriate place to celebrate an inauguration that is really built around celebrating our common values as a people.”
What power we seek for ourselves, we fear in our enemies. When Osama Bin Laden was assassinated by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, within 24 hours his body was buried at sea. Islamic burial traditions and the refusal of any nation to accept his body have been cited as reasons behind the burial, but there is also the sense that fears of his tomb becoming a point of focus for Islamicist terrorist groups played a part in the action.
In North African traditions that intermix Islamic and pre-Islamic influences, saints’ tombs become popular sites for both spiritual and occult work. Incubation, the use of lucid dreaming to induce spirit contact, is one of the practices that have remained consistent since ancient times. Sleeping near, or on, a saint’s tomb is thought to bring the seeker in contact with the spirit of the saint, and in some instances is considered as valid as a physical initiation into the mysteries of the specific saint’s lineage and devotional practice.
Similar practices can be seen in Catholic traditions of pilgrimage and visionary work. Just as in the Islamic traditions saints offer dreams and visions to devotees who seek assistance at their shrines. The bones of the saint, or some physical remains, housed as holy relics in cathedrals and churches provide the energetic point of contact between the world of the living and the dead.
It’s impossible to address the full depth of this practice as it’s reflected in cultures around the world, but it suffices to recognize that where these practices are viewed positively, there is always potential for their reversal or subversion. In Mexico and South America, folk saints vie for attention with the officially recognized canon, and more often than not represent forces that foster the needs of the people over the needs of the controlling powers.
“A human being is experienced as a power, and power reveals itself to the human being.” Those who live under the auspices of a single goal, as representatives of an ideological power, become vessels for that power to be realized in the world. When the body is gone, their names, their memories, and the stories attached to their lives become vessels for the same powers. Disassociated from a physical form their myth knows only limitations in the credibility, capability and belief, of their witnesses. To see the normally staid officials of the Western world having to address this fact, and utilizing it for themselves, without fully admitting what the implications of their actions are, is very interesting indeed.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher and artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is author of “Of Dice and Divinity – Some Thoughts on Gambling and the Western Tradition,” forthcoming in The Immanence of Myth.
Writing and scrawling regularly for The Eyeless Owl, his illustrations were brought to life in the animated collaborative grotesquery A Serious Enquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature featured at select venues in downtown Chicago during the Spring and Fall of 2010. He contributes to Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Reality Sandwich, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.
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