Death’s Apprentice – Part Twelve

He thrust his spade in again and again ripping up more of the grave. And then…

Then he hit something hard. Rock solid. Like a coffin hard.

Eugh. His skin prickled, his stomach rolled. He picked up the candle lamp and held it over the grave with a shaky hand. He wanted to know what it was but by the same token, he didn’t. He swallowed the lump at the back of his throat and forced himself to take another look.

Yes. Yes. It was a coffin. He turned away disgusted with himself. Joe Bones was now the desecrator of graves as well as belonging to the most reviled family in Bloxwich.

‘Get out then,’ said Azrail, making Joe jump.

‘Do you think,’ he said, feeling the pounding of his heart inside his ribcage, ‘you could not sneak up on me?’

‘I didn’t,’ replied the old man, ‘what’s a matter? You not got the stomach for this line of work?’

It was only then that Joe noticed the long black package resting at Azrail’s feet. It was very long, probably as tall as the old man himself, and it was wrapped in what looked like black bags that had been stuck together with grey duck tape. It had a small part on top of it that looked like a…no, it couldn’t be a head? Could it?

It looked to Joe suspiciously like a dead body. And he’d seen lots of dead bodies. Not real bodies of course, but in the movies. He’d seen loads in the movies and they all looked like that; long and body shaped covered in bin liners and duck tape or brown tape, depending on what was available.

‘Is that…?’ Joe said pointing his shaky hand at the package. He noticed that his hand shaking. That was not a good look, so he quickly lowered it hoping that Azrail hadn’t seen his nerves.

‘What? A dead body?’ asked Azrail, with a smirk that made him look quite evil in the sickly orange glow of the candlelight.

Joe waited patiently for him to answer but it didn’t look like he wasn’t going to get one so he said, ‘So, is it?’

‘What do you think?’

Joe didn’t know what to think anymore so he said nothing and instead placed the lamp at the side of the grave, slung the spade beside it and began to pull himself out of the quite substantial hole. He dug his fingers into the side of the opening. The earth was wet and claggy beneath his fingers. He held on and pulled himself up whilst jabbing his knee into the side of the grave. He finally emerged covered from head to toe in black, sticky mud. His mother was going to kill him.

‘Grab that end then,’ said Azrail, bending down and grabbing the feet end of the body.

Joe bent down and…could he feel ears beneath the layers of black plastic and tape? The head felt squishy and…no he couldn’t think about it anymore else he was going to be sick.

On the count of three they hoisted the body into the air and with a fluid movement, they threw the body into the gaping hole.

It landed with a thump.

‘Off you go then,’ said Azrail, pointing at the hole.

‘What?’ asked Joe, worried that Azrail wanted him to get back in the hole. With the dead body. ‘You want me to get in?’

The old man hissed through his yellow jagged teeth. ‘No you moron, I want you to fill it back up.’

Wow,thought Joe, he leaves me to do all the work then calls me a moron. It’s a good job I need this work or I’d show him who’s the moron.

Joe swallowed his anger and grabbed the spade. The handle was sticky and black and caked in mud. He looked up at Azrail and said, ‘You gonna stand there and watch or…?’

‘No, I’ve got other matters to attend to,’ he replied. He spun on his heels, the tails of his coat swishing through the air and then he was gone into the black.

Joe looked at the pile of dirt and the spade in his hand. Great, he thought, just what he needed. And to think he could be lying in bed at home listening to his music or playing on his Xbox.

He dug his spade into the earth and began to shovel it back over the body.

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The Day of the Dead

As Halloween is coming up and sugar skulls are becoming very popular I thought I would discuss what the Day of the Dead is.

Sugar skulls are a source of huge inspiration for me and I use the imagery in my jewellery making. My previous post Pain Distraction – Resin Skull Pendant Project is an example of how you can use this inspiration to make necklaces and keychains.

I have included a free downloadable printable sugar skull at the end of this article that you can download and colour in.

The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is a Mexican festival that takes place on 1st November to 2nd November, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the Catholic calendar. The 1st November is often referred to as Dia de Los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) and 2nd November is generally referred to as Dia de Los Muertos.

Although in modern times it has become associated with Halloween, the two celebrations are different in tone. Halloween is about the dark, ghouls and mischief, whereas the Day of the Dead is about colour and celebrating life. Death is a major theme of the festival but rather than people fearing the dead, this festival is about showing love and respect for the deceased. People hold parties, dress-up, sing and give offerings to lost family members.

The Day of the Dead has its origins in the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people who thought it was disrespectful to mourn the dead. Indeed, in these cultures, the dead were very much still part of the community, and, like the Day of the Dead festival, they believed that their lost loved ones returned to the land of the living temporarily. In fact, the Aztecs had a goddess of earth and death, called Coatlicue, who wore a necklace of human hearts, hands and a skull pendant. Todays Day of the Dead festival has drawn ideas from these beliefs along with those of the Catholic feasts, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Altars are placed in the homes of the living and are laden with offerings for dead – such as water, bread and a candle for each dead soul – to welcome them back to the land of the living. To make sure the souls of the dead can find their way back to their burial place, a trail of marigold petals is laid from the altar to the grave, a symbolic thread to be followed.

Perhaps the most well-known symbol of the Day of the Dead is the skull or Calavera. In the early Twentieth Century, a famous printmaker and lithographer, Jose Guadalupe Posada, made an etching known as La Calavera Catrina (translated as Elegant Skull), a depiction of a female skeleton wearing only a hat. She was Posada’s way of poking fun at Mexicans whom he saw as trying to emulate traditions of European aristocratic elites. She has become a symbol of the Day of the Dead Festival, especially in the costumes that revellers wear.

Skulls are also used in the sugar skull tradition. Sugar skulls are made from cane sugar and are decorated with icing, beads and feathers. When they are offerings for the dead, the name of the deceased is often written in foil on the skull’s forehead. Other items given to the dead include Pan de Muerto, the Bread of the Dead, pulque, a sweet fermented beverage, atole, a thin porridge and hot chocolate. Perhaps the most iconic image of the festival is the sugar skull with its vivid colours and its unique look which is beautiful and not a little bit ghoulish or scary. They certainly inspire me. They’re so beautiful and I think it’s a shame to just bring them out once a year.

My house has so many skulls. Not all are sugar skulls. My favourite is Frank and he has a very important job to do; holding my headphones. He is a modern interpretation of a sugar skull that I picked up at a local store. I saw him and I was in love!

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Frank

Free Downloadable Printout of a Sugar Skull to colour in:

Sugar skull print out

 

With thanks to Ardelfin at morguefile.com for the Day of the Dead image.

References:

https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel-and-adventure/top-10-things-know-about-day-dead

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_the_Dead

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calavera

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/day-of-the-dead-2017-event-google-doodle-what-is-it-meaning-why-celebrate-when-time-date-a8032586.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_art

Gothic Interior or Halloween Inspiration – Skulls

Halloween is nearly upon us and my mind has turned to all things spooky and Gothic.

I love Gothic decor and, in particular, skulls. My house isn’t Gothic as such, but rather a more traditional but modern interior with the addition of skulls. Lots of them!

I think my love for skulls really took off when I was bought a bottle of Crystal Head Vodka. The bottle is so cool as it’s shaped like a skull. Then, my sister bought a skull decanter with six skull shot glasses for my birthday one year. They’re so fab I decided not to lock them away and instead I’ve put them on display. The glasses are on my mantelpiece with cactus plants in them. I am absolutely in love with them!

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And from there it’s kind of snowballed.

A lot of my jewellery work is skull related. They’re a powerful symbol of death and mortality, topics that can be hard to talk about, but which I find incredibly fascinating.

Skull Symbolism

The skull serves as a reminder of the closeness of death and is, therefore, a memento mori (Latin translation: Remember you will die). It can be argued that the idea of memento mori began with the Romans but really took hold in the minds of Medieval Christians and then had a resurgence in the Victorian era. The skull is a representation of the vanity of worldly goods and earthly pleasures. It’s a reminder of how fleeting our lives, and time, are. Also, it reminds Christians of God’s Judgement upon their death.

the closeness of death

Perhaps the most astonishing examples of Memento Mori are found in mainland Europe in the Chapels of Bones, or Ossuaries. I’m absolutely entranced by the Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal. In fact, I nearly used it as a setting for one of my chapters in Ashes (Book Two of my YA Paranormal Romance Trilogy, Bones, Ashes, and Dust). You can check the book out here. I loved the feel of the place but, it didn’t matter how much I tried to use it in the story, it didn’t quite fit. I shall, however, use it in a future story, I am sure.

The chapel itself measures 18.7 metres by 11 metres and is made from the skulls and bones of over 5000 people. There is a warning over the door that reads: We bones that are here, await yours. Death will claim everyone, one day.

Death will claim everyone, one day

Another fine example is that of Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. This is said to be lined with the skeletons of over 40,000 people. I’m not sure whether that figure is correct but I will take other people’s word for it. I don’t fancy standing in there to count them all!

Sedlec Ossuary. Photo by Pudelek (Marcin Szala) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5568806

Perhaps the most famous example of Memento Mori is the Mexican festival, The Day of the Dead, which utilizes a lot of skull imagery. I’m not going to talk about that here because I’m going to write a post specifically on the subject as I feel it deserves its own page. But what I will say is that the skull not only represents death but life too.

the skull was the seat of a person’s soul

The Celts used the skull to represent time, power, divinity and initiation and believed that the skull was the seat of a person’s soul. The Nazi SS wore skull insignia as a symbol of loyalty until death, others use the skull as a way of warding off death, especially in apotropaic magic (magic designed to avert evil).

Drinking from the skull of the enemy is the stuff of legends. According to Herodotus, the Scythians used the skulls of the slain enemy as drinking cups. A powerful warning and a symbol of victory and control. Livy too, reports the Celtic tribe, Boii, used the skulls of the enemy in ceremonies.

I think I could get used to drinking from the skulls of my enemies but in 2018 I’m not sure that’s acceptable. Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong….?

Only joking!

So, why do I like skulls? What importance do I attach to them?

I can’t say why I love skulls, it’s just something that resonates very deeply with me. I feel the need to confront my mortality and use it as a reminder to seize every opportunity that is offered to me. I see the skull as a symbol of wisdom and truth and, as in apotropaic magic, I use it as a charm of protection.

So how can I use the skull in Jewellery making and in my art?

There is so much that can be done with skull imagery. Here’s a project I’ve just finished:

This is George. George is an upcycled skull that I’ve hand decorated with pearlised beads and acrylic crystals. It’s been very therapeutic to take the time to stick the individual beads onto the skull. I’ve enjoyed this project because I’ve been able to take time over it. You can see George on Etsy, here.

Do you like the skull aesthetic?

Oh, and here’s a picture of Frank, my favourite skull:

 

References:

The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols, Nozedar, A., Harper Element 2008

Capela dos Ossos. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 19th July 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capela_dos_Ossos

Celtic Skull Symbol Meanings. (n.d.). Retrieved 19th July 2018, from https://www.whats-your-sign.com/celtic-skull-symbol-meanings.html

Seldec Ossuary. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 19th July 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec_Ossuary

Skull Cup. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved 19th July 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_cup

Human Skull Symbolism. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 19th July 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skull_symbolism