Life and death are inescapably intertwined. Life feeds and flourishes upon death, whether directly, as with the cunning predator who feasts upon its slain quarry, or indirectly, as the docile frugivore who consumes the fruits brought forth by the decay of the countless lifeforms that create the loam. Life in turn must eventually surrender itself to its dissolution in death, struck down by the predation of beast, disease, or time’s entropy — the vital substance is transmuted into the sustenance that nourishes new life, and so the cycle continues in perpetuity, so long as life persists in the universal schema.
Just as life feeds death and death brings forth life as a physical reality, so does it do the same within the collective — cultural — imagination of human society and within the pysche of the individual. One’s relationship to death — how it is perceived, rationalised, explained — ultimately reflects upon one’s raison d’être and one’s joie de vivre, the way one carries oneself through life on the cultural wings of philosophy and morality, and the way one revels and finds enjoyment therein. Such dispositions are not formulated in isolation, however, of singularly “spiritual” ruminations over matters of life and death — as all the other edifices of human thought, it is shaped and honed, one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees of perfection, by the ecological landscape, and a people’s cultural means of orienting within and navigating its physio-chemical contours. The “material” realm, the bodily praxis, the “substance” of life instructs the mind and the character of a culture — and from these diverse environmental conditions, we find diverse (and in some instances, nigh-on irreconcilable) formulations of the fate of man beyond the deathly threshold, and how he must bear out his life to its gates.
The chasms created between cultures by their respective attitudes towards the dead can be illustrated in the tale of my own blood, tenuously straddling, as it does, two different chthonic realms. Amongst one half, you will find customs and dispositions quite familiar and comfortable to the average individual living within modern Western society. Great old Irish funerals — the laying to rest of one’s dearly-departed done in all jovial pomp and ceremony, with many words exchanged, sincere or politely-exaggerated, in commemoration to the deceased’s character and accomplishments. The dead are enthroned in both actual fact and in memory, with lavish stones erected in their honour or upon their corpse for the living to ever after visit and pay homage to their remnants. Tales of spectral visitations from the departed upon the hour of death or in the years post-mortem are yet regarded with all awful seriousness, or at least with a time-honoured expectation to keep one’s incredulity politely to oneself. In short, the dead are remembered, as fondly as may be done in their absence, and they thus continue to participate in the lives of those left behind via the tales and customs of the living directed towards them. Immortalised in memory.
These sentiments reach their most explicit physical expression in the festival of Halloween, the latter day Christian derivative of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain; in its original, uncommercialised form, the festival was primarily marked by customs honouring your forebearers and more-recently departed peers, with such acts as visiting graves and holy sites, leaving food out for visiting ghosts, ritualised mummery, and lighting special lanterns to either drive away unkindly spirits or guide the souls of the beneficent dead toward your home. In short, one remembers the dead with all possible fondness, with especial fervency devoted to their cult at certain, liminal times of the year such as marked out by Samhain.
The other half of the family, on the other hand, does nigh on the exact opposite, and for it, in a world so familiar with the honoured dead and their memorials, it may seem bizarre indeed. Said-half is of the ever-fabled “gypsy blood,” of the Romani peoples. It should be noted first that, as the cultural magpies of vanishing, pre-industrial Europe, not all Roma hold the same dispositions and beliefs about death, especially in these latter days. The Romanichal of the British Isles, for instance, variously hold beliefs similar to native Anglicans and otherwise have been influenced to some degree by the funeral rites of Scottish and Irish Travellers, either of whom (originally) are of the psychopomp type already described above. Similarly, Finnish Roma make use of cultural paraphernalia particular to their cross-germination with the Finns; Spanish, with some flare for the “Moorish;” and so forth and so on. Still others are influenced by an adopted religion in some measure, with some holding a ritual and philosophical stance towards death that is nearly (if not entirely) indistinguishable from the religion’s canon, be it Romani evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, or Judaism. The following views as such apply specifically to a Baltic Roma stock, one which, compared to notes made by outside observers over the centuries, seems the most representative of the ancestral clade of mortuary beliefs from which others have since modified themselves from.
In the morbid lore of this side, one does not remember the dead, if it can be helped. So vehement is that point that you are traditionally proscribed from using a recently-dead person’s name for a newborn, such that you won’t inadvertently invoke the deceased’s memory even when talking to or about someone else entirely. After all, in this view, there are no pearly gates of heaven or the torments of hell in the preternatural imagination, no otherworldly plane in which the dead primarily abide and which can be accessed, with relative safety and succour, during the conjunctions of prayer or at specific times of the year. Such trappings are secondary, when belief in them is present at all, a pretty accessory sewn haphazardly onto the original, primary belief of the muló, the earthbound dead which every individual, whatever their deeds in life, are thought to become for a time after their passing.
Unlike the friendly ghost of a dead relative on temporary leave from his penance in purgatory, or a heavenly spectre of the departed assuring you of their paradisaical peace, a muló and anything connected to it in life is invariably regarded with a dread that seems on par for what should be received by an awful, hated entity. Whether stemming from this dread or the dread itself arises from it, a spiritual contamination (marimé) with tangible/physical effects is thought to surround anyone and anything that was associated with the recently-deceased, which can, if not properly-handled, result in the ill luck, sickening, or even death of the survivors. It is on account of this contagion that one would have traditionally gotten rid of most of the personal possessions that belonged to the deceased — they are either interred with the dead (as with clothing), burned or wrecked (as with an individual’s wagon), or they are traded away to outsiders in all due haste (as with jewellery, though jewellery could also be buried). In this way, the living are purged of most of the affected memorabilia associated with the muló. Those individuals considered the most contaminated or the most at risk from the mischief of the muló — typically the family and those in direct contact with the corpse before its disposal — are also expected to undergo a period of ritualised abstinences (such as from alcohol or from cutting one’s hair) during a set period of mourning following the death, in order to purify themselves in a not-dissimilar fashion to the deceased’s inanimate possessions.
Once the mourning period is completed, with ostensible success — marked by a lack of unusual misfortune during this time — the family and community at large is thought to be cleansed of the muló’s immediate destructive influence, with the spirit of the newly-dead successfully severed from its malingering amongst the living. The banished spirit remains this way so long as its memory is not needlessly remarked upon ever after. Thence in such a way can later tragedies still be attributed to a particular muló, in attempting to rationalise what the incredulous outsider might chalk up to pure, unhappy accident. For example, the inadvertant utterance of the dead’s name, or stumbling upon their place of internment, might be blamed for a relative’s illness long after the deceased’s passing, if any connection can be made to such a breaking of a morbid taboo. In such ways, the dead persist to be a threat long after their banishment from the realm of the living, inveterately feared and undesirable.
It is only those individuals who become a “living ancestor” during their life — a figure of such esteem or adoration for their deeds that they are said to embody best what it means to be Rom, to be a “man,” as all those most exemplary figures that came before them — who are remembered in death as a folk hero, their names invoked often and freely as one of the beneficiaries of one’s folk. And though others — the less-remarkable, the unextraordinary — are said to join the ancestors after death, whether in heaven or Jannah (depending on one’s particular, adopted religious persuasion), these individuals are not remarked much upon nor honoured much beyond the funerary rites compared to the remarkable ancestors (and, again, contrary to the established doctrine of an adopted religion, the dearly-departed would still traditionally be seen as capable of acting harmfully towards the living, even from their “ascended” state).
Caught in contemplative limbo between these two worlds — where the dead are universally revered versus, with few exceptions, universally reviled and best not spoken of — I was particularly struck on a personal level by a conceptual dichotomy concerning the afterlife as drawn up in “Myths and Rites of South American Indians,” an essay by the late, great Amazonian anthropologist, Pierre Clastres. In it, Clastres compared the rites of death of the so-called “primitive” forest peoples of the Amazon jungle to the likes of the Andean and Meso/South American civilisations (such as the Incans and the Aztecs). In the case of the latter type of societies, you find something with similarities to the latter day Celtic case — the dead of all stripes, not just the extraordinary, are remembered with extravagant rituals and are received with warmth at all times or at particular holidays dedicated to them. Paraphernalia representing the dead ancestor (if not actually being a portion of their corpse) were a regular staple of household shrines or served as sacred objects to be brought out on important occasions, ostensibly allowing the dead to continue to hold a presence, preside, and participate amongst the affairs of the living. The importance of the dead to religious life and their reverence in such societies survived these peoples’ conversion to Christianity, and carried down to the present as the “Day of the Dead” festivals celebrated throughout much of Latin America, bearing resemblance, once more, to the evolution of Halloween and its dedication and invocation of the dead within the Gaelic milieu.
The hunter-gatherer and horticulturist tribal societies of the Amazon, on the other hand, stand in stark opposition to such cultures when it comes towards their attitude for death and the dead. The “forest peoples” cast their dead into “oblivion,” as Clastres puts it: traditionally, the dead are disposed of as quickly as possible, often accompanied with rituals or charms to ward against them from ever returning. For the related aim of banishing them beyond recall, the deceased are seldom referred to afterwards, sometimes to the point of forbidding the use of their name for children. Cemeteries and tombs — monuments to the dead — were practically non-existent prior to these tribes’ increasing assimilation into modern society by state agents and missionaries; the dead would often be buried in unmarked graves, which were then either forgotten or pointedly avoided henceforth. During the period of mourning, the family of the deceased, or else the whole tribe, was expected to observe a set of ritualised abstinences, at the risk of ritual contamination or incurring the dead’s ire if not properly observed. At some point, all of the deceased’s personal belongings would be broken and discarded, or else burned, what with their being regarded as tainted by the dead’s dangerous, memorial contagion. In general, only “ancestors” were the exception to this ban on remembrance of the departed — those, in other words, enshrined in legends and myths, be they a shaman or warrior, for the awfulness of their deeds, whose images are burned into the cultural imagination as folk heroes, giving it the inspiration and idea personae that sustains it for decades or centuries to come. All else are deliberately dissolved into the haze of amnesia.
HERE AND NOW
The attitude of the Amazonian forest peoples toward the dead has an uncanny resemblance to the Roma belief, and it is more remarkable in that the peoples are not close, cultural relatives of one another. The Roma are a nomadic, “Indo-Aryan” tribal people that began migrating out of the Punjab region of India over a millenia ago, whereas the native Amazonians are thought to be, judging from current genetic evidence, descendants of either an ancient Australasian or Pacific Islander migration thousands of years ago, or an admixture thereof with Palaeoindians who crossed the Bering Strait even further back. Some clue to understanding how this synchronicity of beliefs arises in cultures placed a world apart lies from a particular insight of Clastres in his speculation over the “endocannibalistic” funerary practices once practiced by the Yanomami and Guayaki peoples.
Unlike cannibalism — an act involving the consumption of an individual from an antagonistic tribe, such as a prisoner of war, often as an act of retribution — endocannibalism can be defined as the act of eating one’s own tribesmen, generally upon their death by other causes, i.e. they are not killed for the purpose of their consumption. According to Clastres, the Yanomami people of Venezuela would burn their dead to cinders, or else leave them to decay away, leaving only the bones, which would then be taken, ground to a powder, and then mixed into a banana pureé which was to be consumed by the deceased’s closest kin. In another instance, the endocannibalism of the Guayaki of Paraguay took the form of the consumption of the dead tribesman’s flesh, rather than his bones, and the whole tribe, excepting the dead individual’s family, would then partake in this funerary feast.
In a cultural nexus that generally abhors the dead, one would think this sort of practice would be suicidal, what with the ingestion of an object of such horror and danger — but, as Clastres contests, it is precisely for this reason that some such tribes would consume their dead. The dead, ripped from the gift of life and human affection, pose an ever-present threat to those who remain behind, for their spirit or essence is thought to rage in blind grief or jealousy for their disembodiment. The “afterlife” in such a cultural imagination is no garden-like Eden where one continues to indulge in all the pleasures of the flesh and then some, even without one’s body. Once the body is destroyed, much of its privileges, unique to its structure, goes with it, and all that is left to the disembodied entity is a realm of confusion and enigmatic, invisible (but potentially lethal) gestures, until or if the dead can “move on,” oft-times into a kind of animistic reincarnation when a specific fate for the dead is given at all. With the exception of the elevation of a folk hero, this after-death state and reincarnation is not thought to be too greatly influenced by the mores and morals of the society, unlike the karmic cycle of the Hindu civilisation — generally-speaking, one could end up as any manner of creature, there being no exceptional and immutable place reserved for the “human” spirit. This fluid spiritual universe would later inspire the philosophical concept of “Amerindian perspectivism” of the Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (who was in turn a familiar of Clastres’ earlier work), which, in all brevity, described the traditional cosmology of the Amazonian tribes as one in which the spirit is determined or influenced by the body and its perspective, such that the “human spirit” is only human so long as it is “clothed” in the flesh and structure of the human form.
Death is as such merely a release of the shapeless spirit (and, from a more-materialistic standpoint, energy) that is necessary to generate a new life. In lingering amongst its disowned brethren or near the haunts of its old host, the spirit would be in violation of this natural cycle, and to the detriment of the living, by, either unintentionally or deliberately, bringing further sickness, ill luck, and even death to those who remain. In protecting themselves from the wrath and mischief of the dead, and in turn helping the dead along into their dissolution, the living take steps to essentially shun and censor the lingering ghost, refusing to call up even the memory of them, as much as it can be helped, such as by no longer using their name, and abandoning their bodies in unvisited vistas or in waterways. In the case of the endocannibals, the fulfillment of the cycle of life and death by the annihilation of the dead is taken to its most extreme fulfillment — rather than leaving the corpse intact and running the risk of allowing its restless spirit to linger, tethered, about it and its familiar places in life, the tribe or relatives of the deceased would consume the body, absorbing its vital essence/spirit immediately into itself.
We can delineated amongst the traditional views of such Amazonian tribes and the Roma a shared, explicit “here and now” aspect of death — there is/was very little in the way of a separate “other world” to which the dead go upon their departure from life, and around which hinges the action of supernatural affairs. Instead, the dead remain, either lingering in an earthbound limbo concerning their physical remains, or otherwise (at least until the influence of “world religions” interjects otherwise) passing on, body and soul, into the substance of another living being, whereas their old self remains only in memory (if it was worthy of remembrance). It is a fairly earthly, immediate, “pragmatic” view of death, for it does not need to grapple much with the dubious metaphysics of an otherworldly plane, a supernatural realm rarely if ever accessible to mortal observers, to which the disembodied conscience somehow travels to, undetected, upon death. Neither must it defend how a very specific moral system — amongst a world composed of a myriad of moral perspectives — ostensibly helps get you to such a place or its best incarnation. It is simply a description of the cycle of life — death swallowing life and life born of death— but coloured by the hopes and fears of the living, whether in immortalising those who were the most beneficial to the flourishing of the tribe in their life or in the terror of the dead dragging one down into premature destruction with them. It is, ultimately, the pragmatism of those who live the most in tune to “the moment,” in direct converse with the rest of the natural world and its rhythms — like the ebb and flow of life and death — which they sustain and directly provision themselves from. It is the practicality and eloquence of living what can be asserted as the life most befitting of human nature — that of the nomad.
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS
The effect that nomadism has upon the cultural and psychological character of a social group is a well-studied phenomena in the area of human behavioural ecology. “We were all nomads, up until 12,000 years ago,” the popular heuristic goes, with some (like the Roma or certain tribal peoples) having lived such a lifestyle down to modern times — hence, its importance and interest to those who wish to understand human “nature” and its evolutionary descent. Nomadism refers merely to the strategy of following certain vital resources across the landscape, whether game animals, the seasonal availability of water or edible vegetation, or fresh land for horticultural tillage. That in and of itself may imply, with all material “practicality,” just how the nomad is generally more “in tune” with the lay of the land and his own physiological needs (his own “nature”) than is, say, the modern man — the man of strict hierarchy, the divided man — who (on average) cannot navigate without a network of satellites to guide him and whose feeding habits/tastes are often on par with a child who wants only candy and sweetmeats. The nomad, in pursuing his quarry and calculating its capture, must understand the lay of the land and the various ecological processes occurring across it in order to reliably support himself, whereas the sedentary, modern man need only understand how to optimise his performance at certain, stereotyped tasks to gain his bread/wages.
Within the civil structure, beginning with the “primitive” or “barbarian” civilisations like the old Celtic or Incan, one embarks down a road of increasing disjuncture from the “cold, hard” realities of nature in the experience of the individual. The cycle of life and death slowly begins to blur in clarity to those who do not procure much of their own sustenance from that cycle themselves, beginning with the various, specialised, urban slaves of the god-kings; the “bondmaiden” born to work the kneading trough of her masters from childhood into old age in exchange for the humble rations provided to her by an overseer does not develop the navigational knowledge or botanical savvy of a nomadic forager. The further down this junction one departs, one eventually gets to the extreme, psychotic rupture of the modern world, where the average member of the growing, urbanised, global populace — the slaves of the newest, fabulously-wealthy god-kings — can state, with all pish-poshing horror and horrifying seriousness, that: “I do not eat plants or animals — I eat mostly pasta!”
Reality increasingly becomes defined by the wants and whims of the state as civil history “advances,” and therein, obtaining sustenance becomes a matter of fulfilling one’s role within the social institutes that support the state machinery, rather than it being a matter of how well one can anticipate and capture the fruits and fauna of the land. Just as the procurement and consumption of sustenance becomes increasingly controlled by or otherwise mediated through the machinery of civil governance, the rites and beliefs surrounding death — life into sustenance — becomes captured by the state and its interpretations. The state’s appropriation of the psychology of death is covered in greater detail in the essay “Tomte” — it shall be said here as much that the “veil” between the living and the dead familiar to the civil mind may be seen as a curtain of mental obfuscation, drawn down to facilitate the propaganda of state religions, what with manufacturing fanciful tales of a paradise that awaits the child-minded subjects who obey all that the parasitising, upper echelon of society demands of them, and which, more relevant here, is partly an emergent psychological property of those who keep some distance between themselves and their nature, the natural, shrewd sense of the nomad.
To the point of a sounder , pragmatic sense being absent in or supporting the latter development of the beatitudinous dead in civil societies: if, like a staunch, materialist sceptic, one would discount the existence or actual power of the dangerous undead, whether of Amazonian traditions or the Roma muló, one can yet credit the disposition with a practical utility on the point of hygiene. The Roma, the Amazonian peoples, and many other nomadic/semi-nomadic peoples the worldover invariably have many codes and customs demanding strict procedures in maintaining hygiene, both of the person, between persons or animals, and in the preparation of food. A person in such a long-lived culture has generations of evolutionary history behind oneself to testify what happens to those who did not maintain such cleanliness: the ready spreading of contagion, and a resulting decrease in fitness and increase in mortality. Nomadism in and of itself is a hygienic behaviour — beyond following food resources, one also does not stay in one place overly-long for risk of coming too often in contact with one’s waste, and so one moves on after a time, leaving the rest of nature to absorb any remaining refuse and “refresh” the spot for the next time the group may rest there.
Sedentism, the act of settling and staying in one place, by contrast, is extremely unhygienic, so much so that it has only been within the last century that the most affluent parts of civilisation have finally figured out how to adequately handle wastes within settlements. It is a well-established observation in epidemiological history that once humans began to abandon nomadic lifestyles in wholesale, as with the advent of agrarian civilisations, infectious diseases became a much more commonplace and devastating problem, due to, quite literally, “shitting where one eats:” the phenomena of humans living in one place meant an increased incident of contamination to food and water sources with trash and human/animal excrement, resulting in regular bouts of cholera, E. coli infection, dysentery, etc.. Many of the people living such a sedentary lifestyle, in eventually forming the underprivileged foundation upon which hierarchical societies rest, often have little to no choice in regards to the location and quality of their accommodations, whether as hereditary vassals tied to a certain plot of land or as hopeless thralls of the great slums of today’s “third world.” Between that lack of choice, the frugal means enforced on them, and the already precarious sanitation, there arises the famously-appalling “filth” of the urban poor that goes hand-in-hand with all civilisations, a filth that would be impossible amongst the habitus of the religiously-neat and comparatively “free” nomad. It is ironic, then, that such nomadic peoples have often been smeared as the “filthy savages” when encountered by the the elites of civilisation — the same elites whose standards of hygiene, up until recently, was often the equivalent of the French fad of rarely washing but covering one’s stench up with pricey perfumes, and whose vassals fared even worse as far as body odour and vermin-free living went.
In any event, one perhaps then comes upon a “rational” explanation for the general abhorrence of the dead of a people that live the nomadic life. Such traditions — of the jealous, malevolent dead — may have developed from the hard, practical lessons earlier in human history, one any “primitively-social” species must learn, that those who do not handle their dead with caution and due diligence run the risk of being infected by the disease that killed the deceased, or would be sickened by any contagion released in the decomposition process, or would otherwise draw the pestilence of flies and potentially-dangerous scavengers toward the group. The dead, in other words, are recognised as unclean, and treated accordingly, whether abandoned in a henceforth quarantined/avoided area with their potentially-infected possessions, or otherwise put to use, with supposed honours, in being quickly devoured before the newly-dead corpse falls into dangerous rot. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” as the saying goes — and in the relatively “egalitarian” society of the “primitive”/nomad, where every man is a “god,” his own agent and power amongst the peerage of nature, the closest to “divinity,” the cleanliness is zealous as such, so much so that it supersedes the dubious comforts proffered to the dead in civil society.
In the comparatively less-hygienic and disoriented state in which the majority — the poor masses at the pyramidal base of hierarchy — within civilisation must live, this good animalian sense for hygiene is entirely abandoned, for in a hierarchy of needs, cleanliness is often a lower priority than insuring one has bread on the table or that one can avoid the wanton violence of one’s fellow drudges or the thugs of the state long enough to pass one’s genes on. The dead — and much of their contagion — are kept in relatively close proximity to the living, and are in fact “embraced” (sometimes, as has been mentioned, to the point of keeping relics or “medicines” composed of the dead’s remains in some cultures). To put it very harshly: the civil beliefs surrounding the dead, like much else of the metaphysical/mythological propaganda servicing a hierarchical society, tells the commoner to embrace “waste,” including the “filth” of the dead, in spite of or disregarding the physical risks of such. In its classical revulsion to all things “natural” and of man’s nature, the priests of the state encourage one to break mentally with the cycle of life and death, spreading tall tales about the dead departing entirely to a superior world (or an inferior one, if you were not a good citizen in life) rather than abiding as the stuff of the earth, and great, absurd, ritualistic pains are encouraged — conveniently profitable to the charlatans — to ensure the disembodied self makes it to its extraterrestrial paradise safely, and with much pomp and expensive ceremony to entertain the living.
So the beginning of “religious nonsense” and its inveterate escapism, its abhorrence of the sensual, elevating man to a temporary passenger on earth, for which he may then bear all the indignities, torments, or the squalor of one’s present life, imagining it is all fleeting compared to the beautiful fiction of Utopia everlasting somewhere beyond his biological termination. And the living will gladly make a fetish or glamourous doll of his corpse, to dance with or congregate about, despite its noxious disintegration or its empty/negative value, swept up as they are in the unnatural fictions of civil non-sense.
THE CULT OF THE ANIMAL AND THE CULT OF THE PLANT
All of that might be said to be a quite acerbic assessment of the mortuary rites of sedentism. A more “positive” evaluation is offered by Joseph Campbell in his work on “The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology,” which can lend some very useful insights to this matter.
Nestled within this work is a conceptual distinction between two diverse mythological/cosmological frameworks concerning life and death: the so-called “cult of the animal” versus the “cult of the plant.” The cult of the animal is so-named as Campbell distinguished such a mythos as arising from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. With the game animal being front and centre in importance to such peoples’ survival, much of the key parts of the cosmological architecture revolves around the native fauna (totem animals amongst the Aboriginal Australians, for instance). Of interest here, though, is that Campbell makes the observation that such cultures have comparatively “negative” views of death. The slain game animal is not seen to immediately ascend to some celestial paradise, nor is it miraculously resurrected on the spot — it is slaughtered for its vital stuff to be immediately taken into oneself And so, too, does the “hunter” then conceive of his end. No fantastical, disembodied ascensions to a superearthly paradise as supported by a decadent lore and its society, no “resurrections” except through the physical transubstantiation of his body through consumption or decomposition. Death is as such treated with a special horror, and the living take great care in quickly disposing of the dead, often along with their significant possessions, to insure that they are not dragged down after the recently-departed. Burials of Palaeolithic peoples (ostensibly hunter-gatherers) with certain possessions recovered by archaeological digs would likely as such not be the “first signs” of a belief in the “after-life,” as is popularly and quaintly supposed, so much as the practice of getting rid of items “contaminated” by the dead individual.
The “cult of the plant,” on the other hand, presides over those societies that practice full-blown, sedentary agriculture (to be distinguished from the small-scale, rotational gardening/horticulture of the Yanomami and similar peoples). In such societies, game animals and foraged produce no longer constitute the main dietary staples — instead, a cultivated grass becomes the crucial foundation of the diet, to the point that, in times of hardship, they may be the only food that one can afford to subsist on, be it wheat, millet, rye, maize, rice, oats, etc.. In spending most of their labour hours in the act of cultivation rather than the hunt, the plant becomes the pivot around which the social-psychology of life and death revolves. To the naive observer, the plant, especially the annual varieties to which the cereal crops belong, does not seem to die and depart forever, unlike the animal — it withers away to nothing in winter, only to spring forth from the soil, seemingly renewed, the following year, reborn through its hibernating seed. This annual renewal, Campbell argued, inspires the belief in the resurrection of the human being, the immortality of the individual and his abiding soul, of one’s renewal beyond death’s winter, if not in this world than in another. Death becomes celebrated, as such, as one’s loved ones are not utterly annihilated but continue to participate in the social life, though in a more limited and remote form, via spectral visitations or in the grand devotional festivals to the dead, and one may see them again once one makes one’s own departure from life.
It is important to note as an aside that Campbell cited, but did not much embellish, a third category, a kind of cult of the pastoralist, which he described as an intermediary type between the two cults. Animal husbandry is generally thought to predate cereal agriculture — therefore, Campbell places the spiritual beliefs of pastoralist peoples as a transitory mix between the cult of the animal and of the plant, the development lying historically as it does between nomadic/semi-nomadic foraging and sedentary agriculture. One can as such find a mix of the beliefs of the two types in them, the beliefs of the animal cult becoming more “sophisticated” whilst the canon that will support the cultural conscience of the plant cult are yet embryonic if not still absent. I will treat it much the same way as Campbell did, leaving it to imagination after describing the other types which it bridges — though it is worth noting that the Celtic cultures, at least in their early life of Iron and the early Mediaeval age, as well as similar, pastoralist “barbarian” civilisations, would have fallen within this unique cult of the pastoralist. Not so much their latter day, post-conquest descendants. The Roma themselves might also fall under the pastoralist cult in this schema, rather than that of the animal — though in my opinion, the question draws attention to the shortcomings of Campbell’s concept. It is not the sustenance itself that matters, be it plant, animal, or dairy, so much as how it is won, i.e. by the hunt/forage, for which the nomad’s life is structured around — and animals are not the only “game” that can be pursued.
Returning to the point of the “positive” in the sedentary cult, this “cult of the plant;” beyond the assumed comforts offered to the individual in imagining their loved ones are not gone beyond any hope of reconciliation upon death, the cult of the plant can be seen as offering a potentially “wiser” path as far as spiritual contemplation goes. It has certainly been argued as such many times over by the apologists of state and hierarchy when it comes to finding ways to denigrate the “savage” tribe and its peerage. The roots of the plant dig deep into the soil, the collective putrefaction of countless lives, and draws its nourishment from it — so, too, might there be something said in the overwhelming power of remembering and clinging to the dead and their memory, and putting down “roots” in one spot.
The problem comes, though, in that man remains yet an animal, evolved to hunt and stride far and wide — and so his suffering at the hands of pestilence and the load of chains and thorny fences which the cult of the plant and its wealthy zealots erect around him. The potential of drinking deeply of the Plutonian fount of knowledge as the plant, and flourishing with it, is therefore lost to most; a draught of indigestible corruption is often what is had instead, whether in the continued load of chronic and infectious diseases associated with sedentism and its uncleanliness, or in the juvenile and manipulative fables fed in place of profound wisdom to suppress the common man’s desire for dignity and earthly success for the purpose of enhancing the wealth of a few. Whereas the net knowledge accumulated by such societies arguably far exceeds that accumulated by a given nomadic society, it comes at a cost that no one individual can retain and comprehend it all, making it ripe for a hundred abuses, for which the unscrupulous have not missed a chance at exploiting each one. It again comes down to the difference between direct, sensual tutelage and the taking in to oneself the roles of a hundred others to survive, as the jack-of-all-trades nomad, versus sifting through the bits and pieces of contextualless, abstracted “academics” and, at best, specialising in one particular, limited role within the social machine, as with the fenced-in civil/sedentary man.
In striving to emulate the immobile plant, the “great tree” and its diet of death, civilisation takes on the quality of a “modular organism” whose discrete “modules” are deracinated individuals, or stereotyped groups thereof organised under the pattern of ensnaring bureaucracy the worldover, and for which the loss of a few such modular tissues here and there makes little difference to the continuation of the whole. Ultimately, by exalting death and the momento mori, and by claiming man’s fate beyond death is supernal, superior to and beyond this world, ironically but unavoidably enough human life is belittled and trivialised — man becomes smaller, ant-like, a disposable cell in a corpulent body, with billions expected to suffer an unfulfilling existence or die young to “do their part” for the civil society, for the “whole.” But unlike a great old tree or any other living creature, the “whole” here is no organic, living entity — civilisation is a sociocultural architecture of delusion, a psychosocial machine that is built primarily with the interest of its few, privileged, wealthy operators in mind and sustained by indoctrination and pitiless coercion (see “Alates and Elites” and “The Somatic Coma”). The cult of the plant, when adopted by the animal, becomes a literal death cult, in its worship of the dead and the countless lives it drives into a premature grave or into a living death of ignominy and depression to fuel its engines and fanfares of destruction.
So much for the ruminations and reflections that may be found when one contemplates deeply one’s blood. In the figure of the muló and other representatives of the dangerous dead, the likes of the Roma and men who still wander — the ancestral man — preempt the formation of the death cult and its ministers. Though a harsh mistress compared to the twee tales of civil lore that illustrate after-death paradises for benefit of the bereft family, the exorcism of the dead from the living in their entirety — body and spirit — insures that the harsher mistress, the goddess of death, war, and pestilence, never comes to dominion over mankind, for to drink from Her draught and make with Her a covenant grants tremendous power, but at an incalculably high cost.
Between these two worldviews — the cult of the sedentary, the confined, the plant, and the cult of the nomadic, the free, the animal — I find myself oft preferring the latter. To be a man is to be an “animal” — animate, calculating, observant of the shifting shapes of all that one passes amongst. To live a life of freedom, unfettered, and to sing praises for the fleeting beauty of the present moment, is incalculably more valuable than living in vicarious servitude, wasting all of one’s moments fantasising over the immense luxuries of the death cult’s chosen elites which one will never own, except in an unlikely after-life. It is fitting that traditionally, red was the colour of choice for death and the funerary rites of the Roma — for red is the colour of blood, the vitality of the flesh, in which death and its purpose is entirely subsumed, a transformation in the service of begetting new life, new vitality, new blood. In celebrating the power of the blood, in its reverberating revelry in the present, and in its continuity into the future through the veins of new generations, old shapes, decayed husks, unquiet and uncleanly spirits, and their immediate (and potential) horrors are banished, rightfully irrelevant and best forgotten.