Monday, May 25, 2009

Cult of the Dead in Memorial Day

As memorial weekend rolled by, I wanted to find some way of honoring the veterans in a more traditional manner. To those few who know me, find out very quickly that I have an interest in war history, particular that of WWII. Most people seem perplexed at this, but the level of heroism in contrast with the amount of inhumanity is outstanding. The are also other wars - the Fall of Nineveh, the Thirty Years War, Civil War, WWI, Vietnam, the Punic Wars - that are just as compelling.

When he was small, when he would fall,
on sand or carpet he would lie
quite flat and still until he knew
what he would do: get up or cry

After the battle, flat and still
upon a hillside now he lies --
but there is nothing to decide
for can neither cry nor rise

Vladimir Nabokov

Now I am accustomed to lighting candles, offering fragrant incense and keeping mindful of the soldiers who have perished, whether they are Americans, Europeans or from late antiquity; whether Generals, foot soldiers, forgotten in the dirt or forever remembered by epic songs. The pouring of liquids, primarily alcohol, into the ground as a form of offering for the dead is nothing new to me. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I experienced this often at parties, and at a young aged I asked my mother what people were doing (as it happened every time someone opened a drink) and I was told it was for the dead. Where this tradition came from I am unsure, but it probably has something to do with the island's deep Catholic roots knotted by ones of Santeria.

From Burket (p. 194)
Thereafter the honouring of the deceased is incorporated into the general celebrations with which the city honours its dead every year: days of the dead, nekysia, or days of the forefathers, genesia. On such days the graves are adorned, offerings are made, special food is eaten, and it is said that the dead come up and go about in the city. The offerings for the dead are pourings, choai: barley broth, milk, honey, frequently wine, and especially oil, as well as the blood of sacrificed animals, there are simple libations of water, which is why there is talk of the bath of the dead.

The pouring of these libations is thought to go down through the soil and reach the dead, feeding them. I find that adding poetry, or songs to remember the fallen is important to keep alive their sacrifices - whether we agree with them or not politically. Essentially, it is just as important to keep in mind those that are still alive; I have family and friends in the service, and we must remember those who have survived. I am an avid admirer of the hardships and heroism found in WWII, as well as modern wars - my grandfather serving in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War.

"The cult of the dead remains the foundation and expression of family identity: the honour accorded to forebears is expected from descendants: from the remembrance of the dead grows the will to continue." (194)

Praise the fallen; remember them.



Hermes, draw near, and to my pray'r incline, angel of Jove, and Maia's son divine; Studious of contests, ruler of mankind, with heart almighty, and a prudent mind. Celestial messenger, of various skill, whose pow'rful arts could watchful Argus kill: With winged feet, 'tis thine thro' air to course, O friend of man, and prophet of discourse: Great life-supporter, to rejoice is thine, in arts gymnastic, and in fraud divine: With pow'r endu'd all language to explain, of

care the loos'ner, and the source of gain. Whose hand contains of blameless peace the rod, Kerukeion, blessed, profitable God; Of various speech, whose aid in works we find, and in necessities to mortals kind: Dire weapon of the tongue, which men revere, be present, Hermes, and thy suppliant hear; Assist my works, conclude my life with peace, give graceful speech, and me memory's increase.

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