by KARL STEEL
Hi everyone! I’m trying to trick you into reading this whole thing with this jaunty opening.
My interest in Sky Burial and the European Middle Ages can be traced, exactly, to this July 13th tweet. Since then, I’ve become, I think, the world’s leading expert in the medieval Evilmerodach tradition (it didn’t take more than 3 days) and written somewhere close to 11,000 words on the topic. I’m also making this the center of one of my talks during my week as a visiting medieval scholar at UCLA in early February: trust me, I’ll get it down to 5000 words for you, by then.
The posts are as follows:
The following post, which should be savored (or avoided?), comprises three parts, which you might read sequentially, or which you might take à la carte: part 1 is a brief review of medieval European burial habits, and more on the knowledge of sky burial in the West; part 2, on Mandeville’s texts on sky burial, and their patterns of illustration; part 3, where I finally do some interpretation, some of it speculative, and some of it wrestling with contemporary art also interested in the practice. It’s where I get ecocritical. Hip folks might skip to the end.
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
I. Burial Habits and Foreign Customs: Esca Vermibus meets Esca Avibus
Medieval aesthetics keep coming back. Gothic lines and gothic semicircles can be found anywhere anyone in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries had too much money and a more than a bit of mania (at Wave Hill, for example); they’re anywhere any university ever hankered for what they believe to be respectable antiquity (or perhaps not so respectable); I’ve watched fireworks, with other medievalists, from a Brooklyn building blessed with a Romanesque façade and lobby. But none of these buildings that I know of includes its own transi tomb; no industrialist, no moneyed aesthete – none I know of, anyway – had themselves, or their prospective tenants, represented in full size (if not “life size”) sculptures in the process of becoming esca vermibus (food for worms).
Here, then, is one of the sharpest cultural differences between the Middle Ages and now: they were fascinated with human putrefaction, and we are not. The villains of our big-budget films often meet their ends, not through a gut-devouring disease, but by tumbling off something tall. To this, we can compare the legendary death of the heretic Arius, whose guts slid out as he sat on a toilet; the sinus cavities of Vespasian, swarming with his namesake wasps; Guinevere’s ghost, crawling inside and out with vermin (105-23); the many corpses of Sir Amadace; the beloved body of The Squire of Low Degree, which, though embalmed, and though the wrong body, is still worn to dust by the kisses of an insatiable princess (929-32).
For all this, for the medievals, the exposure of human corpses to the appetites of larger animals was generally considered a horror: an accident of war, a deliberate humiliation, an erasure of the memory of the deceased. Unless something went wrong, the transformation of body to dust was subterranean work, something done out of sight. Some of you will remember the ninth-century program of establishing funerary chapels to ensure paupers had decent burials; or a forged cartulary from the same period that requires the “humane inhumation” (“humanitatis causa humaverit”) of the indigent, “so that they are not polluted by pigs, nor torn by beasts or dogs” [ut neque a porcis inquinetur nec a bestiis seu canibus laceretur; PL 97: 749b-c]. Thomas of Kent tells of how Alexander the Great, before burying the assassinated Darius, took the extra step of burning Darius’s viscera, to keep pigs from eating them, while Thomas of Cantimpré’s exempla collection (The Book of Bees) recounts why this wasn’t over-cautious: there, invisible, grunting pigs invaded a monastery, broke into the sepulcher of a wicked man, and scattered his guts about the cloister.
Amid this focus on inhumation of still fleshy (if sometimes disemboweled) corpses, other funerary methods were known in Europe and parts immediately adjacent, if only faintly. Classical texts are very well aware that many Central Asians – Zoroastrians, the peoples living around the Caspian Sea (Scythians, Bactrians, Hyrcanians, Massagetae, &c) – exposed corpses, or even the not-quite-dead, to be eaten by dogs and birds. The practice was sufficiently well-known for Diogenes the Cynic to turn it into a joke (It is reported that Diogenes said that if dogs tore apart his body, he would have a Hyrcanian funeral; if Vultures, Iberian; Diogenem dixisse testatur, si canes cadaver suum dilacerarent, Hyrcanam fore sepulturam; si vultures Iberam).
A small group of early Christian works recorded this fact too, though most of this material was just as lost to the Middle Ages as the classical texts themselves. With some help, I’ve turned up a few more texts since I last posted here: Theodoret of Cyrus’ A Cure for Pagan Maladies (9.33), smugly content that Persian converts to Christianity now bury the dead; Procopius’ The Persian Wars (I.xii.3-5), in which a Georgian Christian king switches his allegiance to the Byzantines when commanded by the Persians to follow their funeral customs; the martyrdom of Saint “not the Cornish one” Ia, her corpse left to be eaten by birds, not to scorn it, but because this is what Persians do (Latin here, at 11); and especially Agathius’s sixth-century Histories (Latin translation in footnotes here and here), which, though disapproving, still tells a story of several Byzantines (of course called “Romans”) who come across an exposed corpse in territory newly captured from the Persians. Piously, they bury it, and then at night, they endure a dream vision of an old, dignified man, garbed and bearded like a philosopher, who rebukes them for stuffing a corpse into Mother Earth. In the morning they find the corpse lying atop the grave, evicted by the insulted soil. My hunch, however, is that none of this was known to Latin Christendom, nor would the Latins have cared much about the issue, given their wonted distance from Persia. And with the Muslim conquests that followed not long after Agathius’ writing, burial practices through Mesopotamia would have seen radical changes.
Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, the key source (if not the choke point) for most medieval ethnographic and geographic musings, drew its material on Central Asia from Solinus, which records the superb camels of the Bactrians, the anthropophagy of the Scythians, and the fire-worshipping of the Zoroastrians, but nothing about exposing the dead. Jerome’s Against Jovinian was well-known to the Middle Ages (as it is to Chaucer scholars) primarily as a vector of misogynist contagion, while its ethnography would be repurposed much more rarely: in a (pseudo?) Chrysostomic sermon adapted by Paul the Deacon (PL 95:1542D-1543A), and then, much later, copied into the Speculum Historiale of Vincent of Beauvais, a work of no small popularity. That may be it, however, for Jerome’s material on cultural variation.
The Latin Middle Ages would have to wait until the late thirteenth century, and especially the fourteenth, for the deliberate, funerary exposure of the dead once again to become a cultural thing. This required, first, the emergence of Jacopo de Cessolis’s hugely popular political allegory on chess, which made Evilmerodach a star by featuring him as its exemplary bad king. No longer relegated to being just a bizarre Babylonian footnote, Evilmerodach parlayed his newfound fame into a staff position with the Speculum humanae salvationis¸ few of which could be complete without its own illustration of Evilmerodach dismembering Nebuchadnezzar’s corpse and feeding it to birds. This was not exactly sky burial: Evilmerodach did this not to honor his father but to ensure this former king, who had already come back once before, stayed dead.
II. Tibetan Sky Burial Finally Comes to Europe: Franciscan Missionaries, and the Many Mandevilles
Into this fertile soil fell Odoric of Pordenone’s account of his time spent (1320s) in, or near, Tibet, during his return from his missionary trip to China. This friar heard of, or witnessed, a Tibetan funeral method in which, if a man’s father dies, he summons his relations and the clergy and:
carry the body into the country with great rejoicings. And they have a great table in readiness, upon which the priests cut off the head, and then this is presented to the son. And the son and all the company raise a chant and make many prayers for the dead. Then the priests cut the whole of the body to pieces, and when they have done so they go up again to the city with the whole company, praying for him as they go. After this the eagles and vultures come down from the mountains and every one takes his morsel and carries it away. Then all the company shout aloud, saying, ‘Behold! the Man is a saint! For the angels of God come and carry him to Paradise.’ And in this way the son deems himself to be honoured in no small degree, seeing that his father is borne off in this creditable manner by the angels. And so he takes his father’s head, and straightway cooks it and eats it; and of the skull he maketh a goblet, from which he and all the family always drink devoutly to the memory of the deceased father. And they say that by acting in this way they show their great respect for their father. And many other preposterous and abominable customs have they.
Earlier accounts of Tibetan funerary rituals were already available, in the thirteenth-century missionary ethnographies and travel accounts of the Franciscans John of Plano Carpini and, later, William of Rubruck. Neither writer includes the birds, however; for them, the anthropophagy is the sole responsibility of the family of the deceased. And, as William of Rubruck observes, the Tibetans have abandoned the practice, “for it made them detestable in the eyes of all men” (143). Both works enjoyed a little popularity: fourteen manuscripts, comprising two versions, survive from John of Plano Carpini, and only five of William’s, all produced in England (58).
By contrast, Odoric’s travels enjoyed an astounding success: more than 117 manuscripts survive, with translations into French, German, Italian, and Latin. And with Odoric travelled the Tibetan funerary birds, and from this success, the birds assumed even more popularity, as his account of “Tibet” or “Ryboth” found itself incorporated, as you might have expected, into the Book of John Mandeville.
The key difference between Mandeville and Odoric is not Mandeville’s omission of the final, negative judgment. That happy deletion had already happened in Odoric’s 1351 French translation, Mandeville’s more immediate source, which ends its account of Ryboth only by speaking of the honor done the father. The difference is, instead, something that appears in every Mandeville I’ve read (including the Latin here or here). To save you the work of checking mine, and because there are no word count limits on the internets, here is my record of (mostly) the English versions, from printed sources:
and the birds of the country, which have long known the custom, come flying above — such as vultures, eagles, and all other birds that eat flesh — and the priests throw pieces of the flesh to them, and they carry it not far away and eat it (insular French, 182, trans Higgins; possibly the earliest version)
And briddes of the contré cometh thider, for they knoweth the custome, and they flieth aboute hem as egles and other briddes eteth, and eteth the flesshe. And the prestes casteth the flessh to hem, and they berith hit a little thenne and eteth hit. (Defective Version, 2770-73133, ed. Kohanski and Benson, and the most widespread of the English Mandevilles; Anthony Bale’s translation in modern English here)
And [the] byrdes of the countre come theder. For they know Well the custome. And they flye above theym as they were Egles and other Byrdes: that ete flesshe. And the preestys cast the pecces unto them and they bere hit a lytell from thens and than they ete it (Richard Pynson’s 1496 printing, based on a version of the “Defective” Mandeville; used again in Wynken de Worde, 1499; likewise in a 1568 printing; very small changes—“about” and “then” for “above” and “then” —happen in 1582, repeated in 1612, 1618, 1639, &c, into 1705 and 1722)
And the foules of raveyne of alle the contree abowten [that] knowen the custom of long tyme before comen fleenge abouen in the eyr, as egles, gledes, rauenes, and othere foules of raveyne that eten flesch. And than the preestes casten the gobettes of the flesch, and than the foules eche of hem taketh that he may and goth a litille thens and eteth it, And so thei don whils ony pece lasteth of the dede body. (Cotton, 224, ed Seymour)
And the Fowles of raveyne of alle the Contree abouten knowen the custom of long tyme before, and comen fleenge aboven in the Eyr, as Egles, Gledes, Ravenes and othere Foules of raveyne, that eten Flesche. And than the Preestes casten the gobettes of the Flesche; and than the Foules eche of hem takethe that he may, and gothe a litille thens and etethe it: and so thei don whils ony pece lastethe of the dede Body. (1725 printing, proud of being based on the Cotton. This is the first comparative, scholarly edition, and, like a scholar, it snipes at its predecessors: “all other printed Editions are so curtail’d and transpos’d, as to be made thereby other Books”; Google’s version lacks a charming handwritten note in the copy scanned for Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Read its whole introduction: as with Elizabeth Elstob, it’s an essential piece in the development of English medieval studies)
And fewles of þe cuntree þat knawez þe custom commez þider and houers abouue þam, as vowltures, egles, rauyns, and oþer fewlez of rauyne. and þe prestez castez þis flesch to þam, and þai bere it a lytill þeine and etez it. (Egerton Version, 167, ed. Seymour)
Than cometh foules fest fleenge / That knoweth the maner of þat doynge / And etenne the flesshe eueri dele, / For thei knowe the custome wele. (Metrical Version, 2826-29, Seymour; the Metrical version is so highly idiosyncratic that it may deserve a post of its own)
One 1705 printing, based on the “defective version,” misses the Tibet bit, as does the 24-page (!) version, printed at least four times from 1710 to the 1780s, and which stands among the last Mandevilles produced without pretentions to scholarly antiquarianism, and also as the Mandeville most ruthlessly winnowed to its zaniest core: all who teach Mandeville should teach it, alongside the introduction to the 1725 scholarly edition. To tempt you, here is its complete title:
The Foreign Travels and Dangerous Voyages of that renowed English Knight Sir John Mandeville. Wherein he gives an Account of Remote Kingdoms, Countries, Rivers, Castles, and Giants of a prodigious Height and Strength. Together with the People called Pigmies, very small and of a low Stature.
To which is added, An account of People of odd Deformities, some without Heads, — Also dark inchanted Wildernesses, where are fiery Dragons, Griffins, and many wonderful Beasts of Prey, in the Country of Prester John. — All very delightful to the Reader.
In printed editions, illustrations of sky burial portray one of three things:
the father corpse’s, bent on hands and knees, with blood gushing from the stump of its neck; above it is a knight (perhaps a priest in knightly garb) with a sword, handing the father’s head, on a platter, to his son (1481 (also here) and 1482 German printing (in full color), quite similar to this;
two naked men standing over or nearly straddling a table, one holding an arm and a leg, the other a cleaver, with nothing on the table itself but a head, while birds swoop about them, flying off with bits of body (1499, German);
one perhaps naked man, with a cleaver, and two nearly naked companions, wearing what may be medieval speedos, likewise around a table, with birds making off with body parts (1488, German; or this one, 1481).
This latter is similar to this c. 1425-1450 German Mandeville, St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv (Abtei Pfäfers), Cod. Fab. XVI, 101v, with two fully clothed men, one a priest in a robe, each with cleavers, around a table on which lies a mostly intact, bald corpse, itself in a black speedo, while 2 birds make off with a hand and a foot. A similar image appears in this well-known French manuscript (BNF fr. 2810, 223r), which lacks the speedo, and has the priest only standing by, flanked by two attendants. These latter types must have their origin in illustrations of Evilmerodach.
My current sense is that illustrations were not terribly common, and, furthermore, that English printed books were content just to copy German illustrations, and, furthermore, that they compounded that lazy efficiency by letting this plagiarized program of illustration taper off before the book’s final sections, where the sky burial passage appears: prior to the nineteenth century, no English printed edition that I know of illustrates sky burial. Neither do any of the digitized manuscripts or printed books have marginalia, annotation, or doodling in the sections of sky burial, so, for now, here is a case where modern edited texts may be mostly sufficient for interpretation.
III. Your Bodies, Ourselves: On Waste, Wanting, and our Feathered Friends
Mandeville’s account of sky burial chiefly differs from Odoric’s in its awareness of the cultural participation of the hungry birds in this ritual. Birds come because they know the custom. We know this kind of behavior is not atypical for birds, squirrels, goldfish, or the other critters of city parks, which all know well what a sandwich, or a bag of bread and a pensioner, promise. We and other animals habituate ourselves to each other. We like to be their hosts; we find it amusing to watch them eat; we like to feel that we’re helping out somehow.
Admittedly, this all may be pushing too hard at Mandeville. A Tibetan plateau is not a city park. But even the most cautious interpretation must still recognize Mandeville’s careful attention to nonhuman behavior, and, more importantly, to their essential function for this ritual. Here is a case where the edibility of the human corpse is not a battlefield horror, as with most medieval accounts of bodies eaten by birds; nor is it a sign of the transience, and hence contemptibility, of all mortal things, as with most, if not all, medieval accounts of bodies eaten by worms, toads, and other swarming things of the grave. Nor is it hidden away underground, a repulsive sign of the body’s failure, offered up to others as a warning against worldly attachment.
Here edibility is instead part of the public acts of mourning, of familial attachment, especially of material connection of father to son. Managed edibility also recognizes the material stuff of life, and how this material stuff will always come to belong to some other body, and so forth, until this whole sublunary world comes to nothing. This ceremony recognizes, as well, that we are not exempt from this attachment to bodies at once ours and destined for others: not only the birds partake of the corpse. When the human – at least in Odoric and Mandeville – share out tidbits of the father’s head among friends, they join the birds in this simultaneous recognition of body as flesh and as a temporary home.
In brief, Mandeville’s account recognizes that we are bodies, made of the same material stuff as other bodies, while also recognizing that the passing association in which matter becomes, for a time, self, also counts for something. We love these bodies and these selves that are never just our own. Mandeville doesn’t pretend that bare materialism is the one answer, that our whole family is made of meat; but, in this passage, he doesn’t argue that we’re not meat, either. Within this consumable world, not one or the other answer will suit.
Mandeville’s accomplishment can be best understood by comparison to a set of modern works concerned with feeding birds. Greta Alfaro’s “In Ictu Oculi” (also) consists of a single camera trained on a banquet table, laden with food, open to the sky. Then vultures arrive, in shocking numbers, to eat and fight over and through the dinner, until they leave nothing behind but shambles. Valerie Hegarty’s crows do similar work: in 2013, they mangled and tore at several historical rooms at the Brooklyn Museum. These birds are reminders of death (the most famous “in ictu oculi,” I’ve just learned, is this painting); they are chaotic eruptions into the bourgeois order of dining and reception protocol, like the famous Last Supper of Buñuel’s Viridiana. In effect, these birds are worms, representing and enacting the fundamental, filthy disorder of this mortal world.
Mandeville likewise diverges from several works, all titled “Sky Burial,” published over the last 16 years in a clump of literary journals (feel free to alert me to others). Representative gobettes: Vida Chu “bodiless soul / set free” (Literary Review 1999); David Citino, “carrion me” returned to “bless the soil” (Southern Review 2000); Wanda S. Praisner, “‘You see?’ I say, / pointing to the birds. / But she doesn’t” (“Earth and Sky Burials,” Paterson Literary Review, 2004); Hoag Holmgren (in prose), “ancient burial ceremony for humans,” “a giving back…nothing wasted” (Gettysburg Review 2005); Peter Pereira, “released to the sky,” “not dust into dust / but flesh into flesh” (Prairie Schooner 2006); Cara Dorris, on a murdered (?) woman, “the vultures have already flown to the / light, yet / something is alive here” (Cicada 2010); Dean Koontikoff, whose stubbornly anti-spiritual poem breaks the convention, “To the side a fire pit / cradles jigsaw pieces of charred / bone in its ashen basket: a skull” (This Magazine, 2010); Joseph Harrison, “summoned, for centuries,” “flying / ever higher, / They disarticulate / In wind and sun” (Parnassus 2013); and Eric Weinstein, “A smudge of dust or mud goes / undissolved, though it grows less // with each digestion by another” (Michigan Quarterly Review 2014). These might be understood as works that, mostly, imagine our world as wormless.
I do like many of these. Some, however, mistakenly believe that Tibetans expose their dead because they lack timber for burning corpses or soft earth for digging, as if Tibetans did not practice other methods of burial (including inhumation), as if all practices but inhumation were deviations from the norm (for this critique, 69), and as if all culture can be traced to a practical origin having to do with one’s natural environment (a kind of ecological evo-psych; see also the otherwise excellent Sandman “World’s End,” 121, for an example of this error). Several more of the poems characterize the practice as “ancient,” or use some similar marker of antiquity: but Tibetans seem to have picked up the practice only in the tenth century (65; certainly a long time ago, but not “ancient” so far as concerns medieval scholars). And, at any rate, William of Rubruck marked how Tibetan practices, as he understood them, had changed since the time of John of Plano Carpini’s visit. Neither Mandeville nor the European Franciscan missionaries believed the Tibetans practiced an unchanging, older, and – therefore – purer, form of culture than their own: that mistake, rare in the Middle Ages, would have to await the smugly triste dominion of world colonialism (see for example Khanmohamadi and Phillips).
The poems especially tend to take the practice as a balance or giving back, or as an abandonment of bodily constraints: “nothing is wasted,” writes Hoag Holmgren (a sentiment that also features in the “urban death” movement, with its call for composting our corpses: Slate; NYTimes). Given that our earth is not a closed system, given that we thrive, for now, on heat emanating wastefully from our Sun, and given that we have only 1.2 billion more years left to thrive in, the closed loop of the ecological fantasy is simply a bad idea (“heat is a disordered, useless state of energy that is generically the endpoint of an energy flow process”). Life is good at capturing and using heat that would otherwise go to waste, and our atmosphere at deflecting the light that would kill us: heat capture (and, one hopes soon, more effective heat dispersal) is what keeps us going.
And even if this funeral ceremony is a gift to the birds, a gift is always bound up with competition and especially with a continued grasping that marks the thing given as a gift, as having belonged to the giver and as being transferred to someone else, freely, without theft (we can all well imagine the use of reading this whole ceremony through The Gift of Death). For a taste of this competition:
And he that hath most nombre of foules is most worshiped….And thane alle his frendes maken hire avaunt and hire dalyance how the foules comen thider, here v., here vi., here x., and there xx., and so forth” (Mandeville, Seymour 1967, Cotton, 225)
Our social and emotional practices cannot be cancelled out by the gift, nor can these be reduced to pure sense. Bad feelings, misplaced longing, free-floating delight, and rambunctiousness, coupled with the memory and the pride in a lineage and the hope that the birds will come too to affirm our familial pride: all these are too part of the ceremony as Mandeville tells the story. Where culture and energy are concerned, waste is inevitable. Closed loops are an ontotheological fantasy, nothing more.
The project that most closely matches my particular interest in sky burial is the work of Brooklyn artist Alex Branch (written about so well in Alison Kinney’s “Every Creeping Thing that Creepeth”). Her video “Nothing Left to Take Away” (2011) records her feeding a swarm of seagulls on a snowy hillside until she runs – nearly – out of bread. She collapses herself into a nodule, while the seagulls refuse to leave: she has given them – nearly – all that she decided to bring them, and they remain unsatisfied (bad emotions on the nonhuman side too!). But there’s more: Branch is wearing a helmet made of bread, which the seagulls go for, horribly rending chunks from it, as she continues to lie still, letting them take it until, presumably, they fall to complaining again.
Alex Branch, “Nothing left to Take Away,” screenshot
We have generosity, bad feeling, bad feeding, and even grief, all at once; attachment to ourselves, which is also to the bodies that enable us to be, for a time; but also disattachment, an ironic displacement from our self-possession once we realize, too, that the stuff that lets us be can never be fully ours.
Where Branch does Mandeville still better, finally, is by being a woman. Her bread armor gets at this better, at the body given over as food to others, and at the traditional associations of women and kitchens and ovens. If the paradigmatic verminous medieval corpse is a woman, a sign of the grotesque truth of feminine beauty so far as clerical misogyny was concerned, then the bird-eaten corpse of Tibet, with the body honored by being eaten, is a man, with all the public honor and dick-measuring that accompanies that. What Branch offers, however, is her own body, “armored” by food, harassed by gulls, hers and vulnerable and a gift all at once, wrapped in art’s high culture, which never offers itself as just a “natural” gift to a fundamentally sensible world. This is a practice that collapses the distance between vulnerability and (a male fantasy of) permanence; Branch is turning herself into remains, but remaining here too as the artist. I can imagine, finally, that she and Elaine Tin Nyo might have something to say to one another.