Trick or Treat? Torture, Death, and a Chilling Poem

Halloween 2014 is near. As every year, people around the globe will celebrate this occasion. Children and grown-ups alike will indulge themselves in the pleasurable thrill that arises from this day’s spooky combination of the fantastic with the morbid.

Halloween derives its peculiar dynamics from this haunting combination, blurring and blending  otherwise absolutely certain and irrevocable distinctions between ‘our’ world and the other – a netherworld full of rot, decay, and frightening creatures.

Despite its Christian name Hallow e’en, denoting the eve of All Saints’ day, the roots of Halloween appear to go back to an earlier stage. It may well be related to pagan rites and one of the many festivals that existed (and continue to exist) everywhere, in every civilisation, and at all times, that invoke the presence of netherworldly spirits and imagine a contact with the dead.

Nowadays, Halloween is, or rather: can be, a day of fantastic story-telling (or even story-enacting). These stories bring about a haunted fantasy world, spooky and scary, of course, yet irresistably appealing, impossible to ignore – especially as there are sweets aplenty on offer as well (presumably in a sustained effort to extend the prevailing rot-and-decay theme to children’s teeth).

A haunted world provides entertainment and fascination only for as long as we can securely rely on the knowledge that all of this is, in fact, a game, a staged performance. We would like to , and we must, be reassured that there are not any actual monsters, zombies, and spectres around, walking about in our streets and inhabiting our neighbours’ houses.

But what if gory horror were to become part of the real world, the world that we encounter? What if such gruesomeness that we playfully invoke on occasion of Halloween were to be part of the world as we can experience it? (Not that this is, in fact, particularly hard to imagine in times in which the radical propagators of the Islamic State celebrate staged and choreographed public violence for propaganda purposes just as much as for the advancement of their cause.)

A deeply unsettling, chilling thought – stuff that nightmares are made of, and stuff that requires healing powers of coping mechanisms.

Such desire to dispel the spectres of a gory, gruesome other world  and to transform haunted spaces into a safe harbour appears to have been the underlying motivation for the creation (and use) of a most remarkable Latin poem, which has been incorporated in  the rich and diverse corpus of Latin verse inscriptions, the Carmina Latina Epigraphica – the collection of poems that is at the heart of my current British-Academy-funded research project ‘Poetry of the People’.

Conveniently for a blog post  on occasion of the celebrations of the eve of All Saints’ day, our poem also appears to relate to a Christian martyr and saint, viz. Saint Engratia.

The inscription in question appears to have read as follows (CLE 1448 = ICUR II 46; substantially emended by J. Gil, CFC 14, 1978, 113–9):

Hic inhumata pridem cadabera lapsa iacebant

tabidaq(ue) omentis, frustris et artris atris

huc cernebamus amplis cuneis fluitare catervas,

rorare caducum fuso Falerno limum:

stolida per eresi litabant vota favillis;     5

(i)staque femineo iam pars funesta stupro

mancipatur Avernis umbrisq(ue) truditur imis.

quo funus squalebat <at> ara sacra micat,

hanc tibi stirps edem parat, Engra(tia), Prisci

quam vulneris guttis abluas, alma, rubris.     10

Eusebius invexit huc te, beata, sacerdos,

aeterni martir currens ad arce poli.

culmine mira vota que quisquis prespicis intrans,

hec ope levite Mileti dedicat.

In translation:

Here used to lie, in times past, uninterred, corpses, fallen,
with their bowels putrid and body parts and limbs blackened.
Hither we used to see streaming crowds, in huge droves,
to soak the sliding mud with spilled Falernian wine:
on account of their foolish heresy, they consecrate their promises to the ashes;
and this place, netherworldly already due to feminine sin,
is transformed into an Underworld and shoved down to the deepest shades.
The place is filthy with death, but a holy altar stands out in splendour:
an offspring of Priscus made this temple for you, Engratia,
a temple which you cleansed with the red drops of your wound.
Eusebius, the priest, has moved you in here, blessed,
a martyr, on your way to the summit of the eternal heaven.
The amazing decoration (?) above that you see upon entering,
those are dedicated to you courtesy of Miletus, the deacon.

The (lost) inscribed monument, introduced by a chi-rho symbol an followed by the line amen. deo gratias  (‘Amen. Thank be to God’), appears to have been once created to commemorate the construction of the Basilica of Santa Engrácia in Zaragoza.

It survives reported in a Parisian manuscript of the 9th century, and, while it refers to proceedings of the early 4th century A. D., there are reasons to believe that it has been inscribed at some point in the 6th century or later.

Bodies, uninterred and festering, a place polluted by murder, putrefaction – stained even further by the way in which the masses derived their perverted pleasure from celebrating such acts: how can a place like this ever be cleansed?

The writer of the poem chooses a simple model: he (presumably a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’, anyway) builds up a contrast between the hellish environment of a place ‘filthy with death’ and the clean, shiny shrine, and then reinterprets the previously disgusting fluids that resulted from a murder – the ‘red drops of your wound’ – into the pure, cleansing substance that gives the place its special (religious) meaning.

Most of all, however, this poem, too, is a great example of gruesome story-telling: it brings to life the author’s vision of an horrendous past, offering a vivid imagination of cruelties past, only to provide a soothing turn and to draw attention to the structure for which this poem was originally intended.

The poet demonstrates his control over the demons of the past and asserts his prerogative of (re-)interpretation, when he invites that haunted past to take centre stage at the beginning of his poem, only to subject it to his (narrative) rule, leaving behind a place that is not only cleansed, but – according to the poem’s final distich – even neatly adorned.

What the author chooses to suppress, however, is that, without the grim tale that preceded the foundation of the shrine, heavenly order was not only (relatively) meaningless, but impossible.

In that respect: spooky Halloween, everyone! (Just don’t forget to restore order afterwards…)

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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