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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reading Godfather Death

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In Godfather Death (full text below), there is a supernatural bond between Death and the living that is established at birth. This link is so strong it is likened to kinship and is based on a pre-Christian tradition. Like the ancient Norns, Death bestows gifts of fortune upon the newborn and then accompanies the young protagonist through key stages of his life. Here, Death is conceived as a benevolent force actively shaping a person's life, creating human happiness and enjoying even more popularity than God himself. The sentence about “not knowing how wisely God distributes riches” was not part of the original version of the story and was added later. In subsequent Christian traditions, the saints took on the function that Death had performed in these earlier stories. We especially see St. Mary, St. Michal and St. John the Baptist filling the role that Death had occupied and acting as intercessors helping the soul navigate its path in the afterlife. This tale, reflecting an obsession with death that was evident in the Middle Ages in Europe, expressed both a longing to cheat death or at least to know the exact hour of one’s death. Last rites were very important to Christians in the Middle Ages. It was believed that if a person was prematurely anointed, he would be doomed to continue life as a walking dead person because the sacrament permanently terminated all human pursuits of the living on earth. As in many pagan traditions, the candle appears in this fairy tale as a symbol of life force. In Christian traditions candles were used to represent life, renewal and power over evil.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 44: Godfather Death


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A man once had twelve children and had to work night and day to earn even the most meager sustenance of mere bread for his children. When the thirteenth child was born, he was filled with overwhelming despair. He ran out to a well-traveled road and decided to ask the first person he met to be the child’s godfather. The first person he met was the Dear God himself. God already knew what was troubling the man and said “Poor man, I pity you. I will raise your child from the baptismal font, will care for it and make it happy on earth.” The man replied: “Who are you?” “I am the dear God.” “I don’t want you to be the child’s godfather,” the man said, “you give to the rich and let the poor hunger.” The man said this because he did not know how wisely God distributed riches and poverty. He turned from the Lord and continued on his way. He soon met the devil, who asked him: “Whom are you looking for? If you desire me to be the godfather of your child, I will bestow gold galore and furthermore, grant every worldly desire.” The man asked “Who are you?” “I am the devil.” “I don’t want you to be the child’s godfather,” the man said, “You lie and tempt people.” He continued on his way. Soon dry-boned Death approached him and said: “Take me as the child’s godfather.” The man asked “Who are you?” “I am Death, who makes everyone equal.” The man replied, “You are the right one. You take the rich and poor without distinguishing between them; you shall be the godfather of my child.” Death responded “I will make your child rich and famous. Whoever has me as friend, shall not want.” The man replied: “This Sunday is the baptism. Come at the given time.” Death appeared as promised and stood as proper godfather.

When the boy grew up, his godfather appeared to him and said he should follow. He led him into the forest, showed him an herb growing there and said “Now you shall receive your gift. I will make you a famous doctor. When you are called to a sickbed, I will also appear next to you each time. If I position myself at the head of the sick person, you can speak boldly. You will bring him back to health and will give him some of this herb. He shall recover. But if I stand at the foot of the ill person, every help is for naught. Take care that you do not give him the herb against my will. Things could go badly for you.”

It was not long until the youth became the most famous doctor in the world. It was said that he only needed to look at a sick person and he immediately knew what would happen, whether he would become healthy again or would die. People came from far and wide, bringing their sick loved ones and gave him so much gold that he was soon a rich man. Now it happened that the king became ill. The doctor was called and was to say whether recover was possible. But as he approached the bed, Death stood at the foot of the patient. No herb could help anymore. “If I could just trick Death,” the doctor thought, “he will of course be angry, but because I am his godchild, he will probably look the other way. I’m going to try.” He grabbed hold of the ill man and turned him around in bed so that Death now stood at the man’s head. Then he gave him some of the herb and the king recovered. But Death came to the doctor and made an angry and dark grimace. He threatened him by poking his bony finger in the air and said “You pulled the light from my eyes. This time I will ignore it because you are my godchild, but if you dare disobey again, you’ll be in for it and I shall carry you off myself.”

Soon thereafter the daughter of the king became seriously ill. She was the king’s only child . He cried day and night until he was blinded by tears. He let it be known that whoever would save his child, would become her husband and inherit the crown. The doctor came to the bed of the patient and saw Death at her feet. He should have remembered the warning of his godfather, but the tremendous beauty of the princess and the thought of becoming her husband filled him with joy and so he turned a deaf ear on all the warnings. He did not notice Death giving him angry looks, raising his hands in anger or threatening him with his bony fist. He raised the ill girl and placed her head were her feet had been. Then he gave her the herb and her life’s force returned immediately.
When Death saw that he had been robbed of what rightfully belonged to him, he lunged toward the doctor in long strides and said “It’s over for you! Now it’s your turn.” He grabbed him with his ice-cold hand. His grip was so firm that he could not put up a struggle but had to follow him to his underground cavern. There he saw how thousands upon thousands of lights burned in immense rows. Some of the lights were large, others half the size and still others small. Every moment several went out and others started up again, so that the flames appeared to be in a steady state of change. “You see,” Death said, “these are the life lights of men. The large candles belong to children, the half-size candles belong to married couples in the best years of their life. The small candles belong to old people. But sometimes children and young people also have a very small light.” “Show me my life light,” the doctor said, and thought his must still be quite large. Death pointed to a small stub, that was about to go out. Death said “See, there is your light.” “Oh, dear godfather,” the frightened doctor pleaded, “Light a new candle for me, do it for my sake, so that I can become king and marry the beautiful princess.” “That I cannot do,” Death replied. “First a candle must go out before a new one is lit.” “So take the old one and start a new one immediately so that it starts to burn when the other goes out,” the doctor begged. Death acted as if he wanted to fulfill his wish. He took a long, fresh candle in his bony hands. But because he wanted to take revenge, he slipped while lighting the new candle, the little stub fell over and went out. The doctor immediately fell to the floor and had now fallen into the hands of Death himself.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Death and the Afterlife in Fairy Tales and Saga; Near-Death Experiences

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(Please read, enjoy, link to or pass this article on to friends. Please do not plagiarize, copy or pilfer. Thanks!)
The Raising of Lazurus, Vincent van Gogh

Fairy tales and saga are keenly interested in every day themes of human existence and so it is not surprising that death and mortality figure prominently in these stories. Humans have probably always had a powerful urge to explain what happens after death and many of the earliest myths do just that. Many ancient traditions describe death as a physical journey or crossing to the afterlife. A complex geography of the netherworld was created with the dead traveling to either Britannia, Jutland or Scandinavia. The idea of a soul living on after the body has died is ancient. But in the early Middle Ages a type of story was introduced whose sole purpose was to provide proof of the afterlife. Based on accounts of near-death experiences, a new genre of story arose, sometimes referred to as medieval vision literature. After reading these early near-death narratives, some striking similarities with earlier pagan traditions are evident. Notions of death in fairy tales and saga seem to blend heathen folk beliefs and Christian attitudes. These stories provide us with a picture of both enduring and changing beliefs about death and the afterlife.

The Edda describes a bridge over which the souls of the dead must tread. This bridge is thatched or covered in bright gold and it trembles and groans underfoot as the dead cross over. There is a bridge leading down into Hel as well as one leading upward into the realm of the gods (for more about these themes, see the link in this website concerning the Rainbow or Bifrost). According to Jacob Grimm, the ancients believed that a person had three souls, two were tied to the body and were lost at death but the third survived. Abandoning its decaying body, this soul proceeded on to the afterlife. Death does not kill in ancient traditions, but rather, is a messenger that announces the end of life and accompanies the soul to its new realm. Souls were both received and drawn to Wuotan, Frouwa, Ran and Hel, water spirits, angels, elves and the devil. Dying warriors were taken to the abode of the gods but descriptions of this place are few. Some accounts mention that it glitters with precious gems, gold and silver; others that the roof is made from tilted spears. Often, the dead had to arrange their own passage and cross a body of water, as described in Crossing to Remagen (see below for full text). In other tales, the dead joined a huge throng, processing a great distance on foot (Gratzug). The living were crucial to the well-being of the dead in that they supplied the departed loved one with the clothing, equipment, money or even boat to make the difficult journey. The sound of dead souls disembarking from the shallop in Crossing to Remagen is reminiscent of the footfalls heard when the dead crossed the rainbow in the Edda. That a specific or unusual sound should be equated with death is also a core element in modern near-death experiences (or NED). According to R. Moody in Life after Life, noise or sound is often the first sensory impression of a near-death experience.

In the story of Adalbert the Compatriot (full text below), we find many of the key elements of a modern day near-death experience. According to Dr. Carol Zaleski in Medieval Otherworld Journeys, near death experiences were essential to the early church for proving the existence of life after death and the soul’s immortality. In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great uses near-death experiences to underscore the veracity of church teachings: the afterlife is a real construct, you will be punished for your sins, masses and good works on behalf of the dead are important and each person is called to live a more holy life. (To find out more, read the full web article by Dr. Zaleski Medieval Otherworld Journeys).

As described in many modern accounts of near-death, Adalbert the Compatriot seems to grasp immediately that he is dead. His first experience is described as moving through the air being guided by angels. He is aware of a tunnel or shaft in the center of the earth and he meets spiritual beings who accompany him on his journey. He is given a life review and confronted with the deeds of his life time. He reaches a physical boundary defined by a stinking river and must cross a bridge to enter into the heavenly realm. A guardian angel or messenger of death appears as guide and plays an authoritative role in Adalbert’s new existence. He determines that Adalbert must return to the realm of the living. Adalbert is terrified and does not wish to return. A similar reluctance is often mentioned by survivors of near-death experiences. And like modern-day accounts of near-death, Adalbert’s ordeal transforms him and causes him to make profound changes in his life.

By contrast, the Swiss folktale Path to Paradise is not concerned with proving the notion of an afterlife. Rather, the narrative reads more like a service manual outlining the different stages of death. Unlike a typical near-death experience, the narrator does not seem to know exactly when he dies. But his soul, or something like it, continues to exist even after he has relinquished his body. In this story the Rhone River seems to represent a natural boundary of sorts and crossing it might be understood as a metaphor for dying. The tinsmith's initial guide in the afterlife is a frightening figure with green, bulging frog-eyes but later in the narrative, angelic beings appear. This tale includes elements that are common in many traditions concerning death: attraction to a distant light; the aerial bridge; a crossing; a wild and raging sea/body of water; ultimate calm and serenity in death; a beautiful and joyous garden of paradise; distinct sounds; and perhaps most interestingly, sensory perception including smelling fragances and tasting food. The sensations of eating and smelling described in this tale might suggest that the tinsmith has experienced a physical resurrection. And like Adalbert, there is a sorting out of souls into those deserving and not deserving paradise. Similar to the Grimm’s fairy tale The Shroud, death does not sever the attachment between the dead and their loved ones. The tinsmith wonders how his family is faring and whether they will ever be rejoined in paradise. An ongoing concern of the dead for the living might have provided comfort to the audience of these tales. But The Shroud also includes an ancient pagan notion that likens death to sleep. Only when survivors abandon their grief and release the dead, can their sleep be peaceful The child also carries a candle and like the candles on a birthday cake, fire and light are often used as metaphors for a human being’s life force.

In fairy tales and saga we see changing views about the responsibility of the living toward the dead: instead of conferring practical utensils that will be needed in the afterworld, survivors in medieval literature are encouraged to say masses and perform good works here on earth. And in later tales the living are instructed that the best thing for a survivor is to more or less get on with life. This may have something to do with changing attitudes toward death: from physical journey to spiritual transformation.