Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A spearmaster's way of death

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966) 178-179:
Another example of death being softened by welcome, if we can put it that way, is the ritual murder by which the Dinka put to death their aged spearmasters. This is the central rite in Dinka religion. All their other rites and bloodily expressive sacrifices pale in significance besides this one which is not a sacrifice. The spearmasters are a hereditary clan of priests. Their divinity, Flesh, is a symbol of life, light and truth. Spearmasters may be possessed by the divinity; the sacrifices they perform and blessings they give are more efficacious than other men’s. They mediate between their tribe and divinity. The doctrine underlying the ritual of their death is that the spearmaster’s life should not be allowed to escape with his last breath from his dying body. By keeping his life in his body his life is preserved; and the spirit of the spearmaster is thus transmitted to his successor for the good of the community. The community can live on as a rational order because of the unafraid self-sacrifice of its priest.

By reputation among foreign travellers this rite was a brutal suffocation of a helpless old man. An intimate study of Dinka religious ideas reveals the central theme to be the old man’s voluntary choosing of the time, manner and place of his death. The old man himself asks for the death to be prepared for him, he asks for it from his people and on their behalf. He is reverently carried to his grave, and lying in it says his last words to his grieving sons before his natural death is anticipated. By his free, deliberate decision he robs death of the uncertainty of its time and place of coming. His own willing death, ritually framed by the grave itself, is a communal victory for all his people (Lienhardt). By confronting death and grasping it firmly he has said something to his people about the nature of life. [...]

The old spearmaster giving the sign for his own slaying makes a stiffly ritual act. It has none of the exuberance of St. Francis of Assisi rolling naked in the filth and welcoming his Sister Death. But his act touches the same mystery. If anyone held the idea that death and suffering are not an integral part of nature, the delusion is corrected. If there was a temptation to treat ritual as a magic lamp to be rubbed for gaining unlimited riches and power, ritual shows its other side. If the hierarchy of values was crudely material, it is dramatically undermined by paradox and contradiction. In painting such dark themes, pollution symbols are as necessary as the use of black in any depiction whatsoever. Therefore we find corruption enshrined in sacred places and times.

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