Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 2: Sky Burial, Mostly Persian

This blog post is a preliminary sketch of what and when medieval Western Europe (hereafter, for simplicity’s sake, “medieval” or “medieval people”) would have known about funerary practices of exposing bodies to be eaten by dogs or birds (i.e., “sky burial”). I’m concentrating on classical and late antique texts, saving John Mandeville for the next post.

If you’ve been following along, this Friday continues last Friday’s treatment of the medieval legend of Evilmerodach (who, by late twelfth century, was known for having dismembered the corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and feeding it to birds). Like the Evilmerodach post, it is also a sketch for the second part of the “Creeping Things” chapter for my second book, currently titled How Not to Make a Human: Ecology, Ethics, and Vulnerable Animals in the Middle Ages (everything after the colon is up for grabs; suggestions from you are just short of obligatory). I will be aiming to explore the differences between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds) in medieval culture and, ultimately, in the contributions this contrast might make to contemporary ecocriticism.

Again, I’ll stress that embryonic character of this post, despite its great length: I have a hunch where thick footnotes are needed, and slightly dimmer hunches about where I might be wrong. If you’re at all in the vicinity of offering a “well, actually,” don’t hesitate.

If they could, medieval people tended to bury their dead, flesh still on bone, ideally near some a church, a shrine, or some other holy site. This habit of fleshy inhumation has a distant analog in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, where burial is needed to give the spirit rest, to provide continuing rites of care, especially for the sake of family or the larger community, which constituted itself by seeding the ground with its dead, suffusing a place with memory (Walton, 317, and of course Peter Brown). As in these ancient worlds, shrines, churches, and the blessed dead were the hearts of any medieval community worth a Fodor’s Guide.

That said, for a medieval Christian, practices like this could be, technically, unnecessary: Augustine of Hippo’s On the Care of the Dead (late fourth century) argues that the dead, as a rule, have no knowledge of goings-on in the mortal world, and, furthermore, that they (and their corpses) are past all harm or human benefit. Heartbreakingly, at least for those of us bereft of beloved parents, Augustine says that if the dead knew our world, then his mother would come and comfort him; but they don’t, so she doesn’t (16). For all this, Augustine allows that the dead, or at least their bodies, can be cared for: he reasons that care in burial and prayer at well-situated gravesites, though probably of no benefit to the dead themselves, still can witness to Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, encourage bodily training of piety (Althusser avant la lettre) and also comfort us, because we ourselves are also creatures of flesh. Measured and thoughtful care of the dead have some use.

Augustine’s cautious approach to funeral rites were clearly overshot in medieval Europe. There, elaborate inhumation, memorial rites, and a whole industry of pleading for intervention from the holy dead became nearly as common as human death itself.

In this culture, exposure was a horror. We all know about the “beasts of battle” of Germanic poetry, the eagles, ravens, and wolves that eat the unburied corpses of the dead. In the Song of Roland, as the Battle of Roncesvalles sours for the Christians, Turpin begs Roland to blow the horn and summon Charlemagne; while they’re all certain to die before rescue arrives, at least the Emperor can take their bodies away and bury them in churches, where “neither wolf nor pig nor dog will eat of us” (1750; “N’en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen”; trans. from Gilbert). Petrarch’s Historia Griseldis, itself an adaptation from the last tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, allows its heroine to register a complaint when she’s certain her children are being taken away to be killed: “I ask you one thing: take care that wild beasts or birds do not mutilate this little body, unless you are commanded to the contrary” (Unum queso: cura ne corpusculum [mark the anguish of that “little body”] hoc fere lacerent aut volucres, ita tamen nisi contrarium sit preceptum; trans and text from Sources and Analogues I.121; in the medieval French, “Je te prie, toutesfoiz…que tu gardes a ton povoir que les bestes sauvaiges ne devourent ou menguent le corps de cest enfant, se le contraire ne t’est enjoin”; in the English poet, ll. 567-72). And the Apocalypse of St John, last book of the Christian scriptures, features birds invited to “the great supper of God” [cenam magnam Dei], to feast upon the soldiers and horses of the army of the Beast: this is clearly a humiliation, at least for the dead (for the birds, it is something better: more on that in a later blog post). No one would willingly allow the corpse of anyone they loved to be exposed like this.

Nonetheless, at least from Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Europeans knew about still another funerary practice, which stretched from the Caspian Sea and Caucasus through Mesopotamia and perhaps even as far as the Indus, and, as I’ll write in next time, when I finally take on Heidegger, eventually up to Tibet.

They found this practice alternately repulsive, barbaric, antiquated, but also, in some instances, of most interest to me, another way to mourn, no less valid than fleshly inhumation. Knowledge of these practices not only connected medieval people to a wider cultural world, doing much to help themselves imagine themselves in light of another’s word; as I will argue in a later post, they also provided a way for medieval people to imagine themselves and their bodies differently, by recognizing that bodies could be given over as flesh to large carnivores, not just worms, but without abandoning mourning. Exposure need not be humiliation, and being consumed need not be done in secret, in the grave. Here, in this open consumption, was a place for medievals to recognize that our bodies could be material flesh and our bodies at the same time: as I will argue in an upcoming post, this was material recognition of the way all flesh, all bodies, belong to the world at large and ourselves at the same time. A material reduction (we are flesh) can continue to acknowledge our emotional connection to the particularity of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones (we are beloved flesh).

This post, however, will mainly be devoted only to what the medievals could have known. Evilmerodach and Odoric of Pordenone (especially as transmitted by the Book of John Mandeville) were enormously popular in the later Middle Ages. But what about the earlier period?

The oldest potential references to “sky burial” may be those depicted in an obelisk carving at Göbekli Tepe (or Göbeklitepe) and paintings at Çatal Höyü (or Çatalhöyük), both in modern-day Turkey (thank you to Kathleen Kennedy for turning me on to these!), which each feature vultures soaring over or fluttering about headless human corpses. I make no claims that memories of these astonishingly ancient cultures reached to the Middle Ages or even to the classical world: each site was occupied for some 2000 years (itself no small time!), the former abandoned about 10,000 years ago, the latter 7,000, and therefore at the most recent more temporally distant from Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) than we are, now, from the invention of writing (c. 3500 BCE).

Testart p 35

Testart p 35

And what some think to be sky burial in fact may be only depictions of military victories, with the headless corpses of the vanquished left to be eaten by vultures, and the skulls taken as trophies, or so argues the, it must be said, appropriately named Alain Testart in “Des crânes et des vautours ou la guerre oubliée” (“On Skulls and Vultures, or, The Forgotten War”). We will let that rest, then, and return to what I suspect may be our most ancient, incontrovertible reference to sky burial, from Herodotus.

Our Greek historian writes:

But there are other matters concerning the dead which are secretly and obscurely told–how the dead bodies of Persians are not buried before they have been mangled [without my knowing Greek: ἑλκυσθῇ, to drag, draw, or tear in pieces] by bird or dog. That this is the way of the Magians I know for a certainty; for they do not conceal the practice. But this is certain, that before the Persians bury the body in earth they embalm it in wax (Godley trans, Loeb, Vol 1, I.140, p 179).

This account is more than a little confused (I’m not the only one who thinks so: one expert calls this account “desperate”): either the practice is secret, or it’s not; and corpses are left out to be dragged or torn, but not so much so that they can’t be embalmed and buried. Herodotus may be reflecting (and, if we’re feeling reckless, anticipating) the variety of Zoroastrian burial methods under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids: the famous exposure of bodies in free-standing dakhma, “towers of silence,” must be remembered alongside the cliffside and other tomb structures of ancient Iran. The towers may be but a (ninth-century?) refinement of a cultic practice of keeping the decomposing corpse free from contact with visible plant life and damp earth, which, we can observe, might be achieved just as well by swathing the corpse in wax, or letting dogs or birds consume the flesh of a corpse staked to dry, bare ground.

Strabo’s Geography (before 23 CE) is more assured that Herodotus, though perhaps no more accurate. He writes that the Persians “smear the bodies of the dead with wax before they bury them, though they do not bury the Magi but leave their bodies to be eaten by birds,” adding what became a common charge that “these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers” (XV.iii.20). Elsewhere (XI.xi.8, V, p. 293 in Loeb trans), Strabo explains that the Caspians starve and expose those over 70 years old, abandoning them on (or strapping them to?) desert biers, watching from a distance, and considering them blessed if – and only if – these hapless elderly are attacked by wild dogs or birds. Very Mad Max. And, citing Onesicritus, a historian who embedded with Alexander the Great, Strabo imagines that the Bactrians keep dogs expressly to kill their aged and sick, adding a description that, in essence, imagines the Bactrian cities as necropoles:

While the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Bactrians look clean, yet most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones (XI.xi.3, V, p. 282-83 in the Loeb).

To me at least, further examples are shockingly plentiful: in what might be chronological order, from 45 BCE to the third century CE, Persian sky burial shows up in Cicero’s stoic Tusculan Disputations (I.xlv); Plutarch’s Moralia (499, Vol VI p 371 in Loeb, where he says Hrycanians do it with dogs, Bactrians with birds); Sextus Empiricus’s skeptic Outlines of Pyrrhonism (III.227); Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (XLI.iii); Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX, on Pyrrho); and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Killing Animals (IV.21). Christian examples, in a list that may be just as non-exhaustive, include the Book of the Law of the Countries, written by pupils of the Syriac gnostic Bardesanes (d. 222; in Syrian, Bar Dayṣān; one translation here: search for “In the whole of Media”); the Recognitions of pseudo-Clementine (IX.25); and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (I.iv, search for “And of the benefit which visibly proceeds”). And, finally, the source that first led me down this path, Jerome’s Against Jovinian (II.vii), where he writes:

The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old. The Hyrcani throw them out half alive to the birds and dogs: the Caspians leave them dead for the same beasts. The Scythians bury alive with the remains of the dead those who were beloved of the deceased. The Bactrians throw their old men to dogs which they rear for the very purpose, and when Stasanor, Alexander’s general, wished to correct the practice, he almost lost his province (a point Jerome gets from Porphyry).

Some writers (Herodotus and Justin) – or, I might say, some genres –present themselves as simply doing ethnography, only listing customs, as they might list geographical features. Strabo is horrified, at least by the Bactrians. Porphyry is horrified too, although his conclusions may surprise: yes, some people are meat-eaters, or parent-eaters, or parent-exposers, but at least we philosophers need not behave like this. And Eusebius anticipates the colonial missionaries of modernity, when he argues that the conversion to Christianity corrects these terrible practices (the pagans no longer “expose their dead kindred to dogs and birds….For these and numberless things akin to these were what of old made havoc of human life”), so that Christian conversion is, for any culture, and not only Jews (more frequently targeted as culturally anachronistic), an emergence out of a muddled past into a neat, correct, universal civilization.

Still, whether in philosophic or many of these religious texts, the most frequent reason for these ancient writers to cite sky burial (and its associated practice that we might call “sky euthanasia”) is to pose as cosmopolitan admirers of the great variety of human culture. Plutarch lists these and other practices (sati, for example) to argue that virtue can resist chance’s worst harms: Central Asians positively love to have their bodies exposed to beasts! Bardesanes’s students and pseudo-Clementine alike use worldwide cultural heterogeneity to argue for human freedom and against the compulsion of the stars. If stars had so much power, human culture would be more easily classifiable, more homogeneous. But, says Book of the Law of the Countries, “the truth is, that in all countries, every day, and at all hours, men are born under Nativities diverse from one another, and the laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs.”

In the hands of other writers – Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and even Jerome – we have something similar to Pomponius Mela’s first-century Chorographia (II.8), namely – a curious appreciation of human difference in what we might call (and no doubt has been called) the “cultural variation topos.” Diogenes does it with admirable force:

The same thing is regard by some as just and by others as unjust, or as good by some and bad by others. Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter; to Greeks it is unlawful. The Massagetae…have their wives in common; the Greeks have not. The Cilicians used to delight in piracy; not so the Greeks. Different people believe in different gods; some in providence, others not. In burying their dead, the Egyptians embalm them; the Romans burn them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes.

Cicero Tusculan Disputations also merits citation at length:

But why should I notice the beliefs of individuals, since we may observe the varied deceptions under which the races of mankind labour? The Egyptians embalm their dead and keep them in the house; the Persians even smear them with wax before burial, that the bodies may last for as long a time as possible; it is the custom of the Magi not to bury the bodies of their dead unless they have been first mangled by wild beasts [nisi a feris sint ante laniata]; in Hyrcania [no surprise] the populace support dogs for the benefit of the community, while the nobles keep them for family use: it is as we know a famous breed [nobile…genus] of dogs, but in spite of the cost, each householder procures them [translation modified] in proportion to his means, to mangle him [lanietur], and that they consider the best mode of burial (Loeb, King translation, p. 291, I.XLV).

I’m as yet uncertain about the medieval afterlife of these points. To take two examples: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies accuses Persians only of being fire-worshippers (XIV.iii.10), led to this error by “the giant Nebroth,” and its several references to the ferocious Hyrcanians and neighboring Scythians says nothing about the exposure of the elderly or the dead to possible animal mangling or excarnation. Gregory of Tours, writing a generation before Isidore, likewise calls the Persians only fire-worshippers (History of the Franks, I.v), blaming this, more correctly, on “Zoroastra.” Note also his annoyance (X.26) at the appointment of a Syrian merchant, Eusebius, as bishop of Paris in 591, who stuffed the household with other Syrians: some of them, I expect, might have had more than passing knowledge of the customs of the Sassanids: and yet no word from Gregory. Nor am I entirely sure, yet, about the survival of many of my texts into the Middle Ages. Chaucerians know the afterlife of the more misogynist passages of Jerome’s Against Jovinian, and I know the text as a whole survived, as we see from this twelfth-century copy.

But quick searches of the Patrologia Latina and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica suggest that Jerome’s ethnographic musings may not have been much talked about.

More research is needed! The next post – here perhaps before next Friday – will be on Mandeville, and, if there’s room, against Heidegger and on the ecocritical and affective implications of all this. Hang out, hang on!