The Folklore of Bone Structures

 

bone church 2Structures made of bones have been a topic of fascination for as long as they have been around.  From catacombs to religious structures to homes, bones have become a part of contstruction that we rarely hear about anymore, but still exist.

The idea that a church can be filled with folklore seems to be something overlooked and not commonly spoken of.  But, of course, there are always some interesting things to be found within.  In Poland, it is called Kaplica Czaszek.  However, this macabre place was originally based on Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins in Rome.  The one thing these, and several other churches around the world, have in common, of course, are that they are decorated in bones.

One of the most striking aspects of these bone churches are, of course their decor.  And, to look into the reasoning as to why, we can start with one of the first of them: Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins.  Of course, on the surface the church is quite normal, almost plain, however beneath the church lie five alcoves in which the skeletons of over 4,000 friars rest to this day.  What makes it even more interesting is that some of these bones are laid out still wearing their vestments.

bone churchIn 1631 the Capuchin Friars arrived in Rome with the remains of their deceased.  They interred their brethren beneath the church and, as time went on, others were brought via pilgrimage and laid to rest within as well.  Of course, that’s when they exhumed the remains of their earlier-buried brethren in order to place them on display within the five alcoves.  While this may seem a bit morbid to some, it actually makes sense within Christianity to become fascinated by what we have left behind, especially since the belief in the Resurrection shows that our time on Earth is fleeting.  In fact, a sign now greets visitors who flock to the church doors to this day, reading, “As you are, we once were.  As we are, you shall one day be.”  Though this was supposed to be a reminder as to what we leave behind, it is quite a sight to see the monks still in their habits, their skeletal faces gleaming beneath their hoods.

Similar churches and catacombs have been built much like this one, such as the Capella dos Ossos in Portugal — which is actually based on a church in Italy that was constructed back in the thirteenth century.  Here, the cemeteries were filling with their dead — a common theme amongst the beginnings of these structures — and, instead of condemning the older bones, the monks brought them within the chapel.

The monks then decided that, rather than inter the bones, they would place them on display in order to give the people of the society at this time a place to reflect on their values; a reminder that material objects do not transcend death.  And, since the town of Évora was known for its wealth during this time, it was inscribed above the chapel door, as a reminder to those who came to meditate: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” or: “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.”

Death seems to be a touchy subject with most, which is why many turn towards religion to look for answers or guidance.  Though, as we can see from these bone churches, death is also revered and respected, and should be talked about amongst the living rather than in hushed conversations and behind closed doors.  Whatever your beliefs, these places of death have been sought out by the living and are still open to the public to this day.

mammoth bone hut.jpgSome other places made of bones — though not necessarily human — include the catacombs in Paris (which houses the remains of over six million bodies), the prehistoric mammoth bone huts that were discovered near the Ukrainian village of Mezhyrich, cattle bone houses in Texas that have been constructed over the last fifteen years and are still being made (though not fully made of bones, they are used in the construction of homes), and the dinosaur bone house in Wyoming that was constructed in 1933 and made of 5,796 dinosaur bones (mortared together) in order to draw in business to the family’s gas station.

Bone structures in popular culture: We see many different ways in which structures are built using bones, from the movie As Above, So Below in which a group travels through the catacombs beneath Paris, all the way to the poem by Stephen King The Bone Church (which has actually just been picked up by Netflix for a mini-series).

For more about bone structures (sources):

https://inhabitat.com/6-creepy-churches-made-of-bones/

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/san-bernardino-alle-ossa

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/portugals-chapel-bones

http://mentalfloss.com/article/55222/10-buildings-made-bones

The Myth of the Siren

Siren 2The siren is a mythical creature who has taken many forms throughout history, but how has that image changed?  How did we go from the sirens of old to the mermaid-like creatures we see portrayed today? And — most importantly — where did they come from?

Originally, and according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sirens were the human companions of the chthonic goddess Persephone — or, at this point, just the daughter of Demeter.  However, when Hades comes to take her away, the sirens are blamed for her kidnapping, and Demeter punishes them by turning them into winged women.  In some versions of the myth, the sirens pray for wings in order to search for their lost charge and the gods grant their prayers. However, one thing is for certain: they were winged creatures, NOT mermaids.

Sirens were originally an amalgamation of birds and women, starting — in early Greek art — as simply birds with the heads of women.  Later, they became more like the centaurs with their human torsos (of a woman), though with the legs of a bird and giant wings. Sirens were known to have singing voices that were so beautiful, so alluring, that sailors were known to jump overboard their vessels and drown — which is how we get the story of Odysseus in the Odyssey, telling his crew to stopper their ears with wax while he himself was tied to the mast of the ship to listen to their voices.  Not only were these winged women gifted singers, but they were also said to be adept with the lyre, even going so far as to challenge the Muses to a competition.  Which, of course, the sirens lost.

So how did we go from winged women to the mermaids we see today?  As the siren myth travelled through Europe, and their name was translated through multiple languages, they began to be viewed exclusively as water creatures — though still remaining quite hostile, capable of wreaking havoc wherever they turned up.  However, the truth might lie in, what Emily Wilson — a classicist from the University of Pennsylvania who became known for her new English translation of Homer’s Odyssey — concludes is, faulty translations.  She believes that many translators have allowed themselves to be influenced by modern culture, which has led them to depict the siren as being a water-dwelling creature rather than the winged women they were.

As well as being possibly mistranslated, the word “Sirenia” in Latin today is a term used to describe the order of fully aquatic and herbivorous mammals such as the manatee, which has been mistaken in the past as being a mermaid itself.

Whether the siren be winged creatures or mermaids, there seems to be the common thread that they are considered fierce, destructive creatures who are musically gifted.  And though their image has shifted, their place in myth will forever be solidified.

 

The siren in popular culture: We of course have seen sirens in movies and television shows, from the show Siren all the way to the movie Sinbad (though we mostly just see their mermaid counterpart).  However, in literature, we have seen a wide variety of sirens from Amanda Hocking’s Wake series in which the sirens can shift from mermaids to winged women to humans, to Jes Dory’s take on sirens in Isle in which they are connected to the Lamia, all the way to The Siren in which Kiera Cass has combined both myths of sirens and mermaids together in this Little Mermaid retelling.

Siren 1

For more information about Sirens and their mythology (sources):

https://www.audubon.org/news/sirens-greek-myth-were-bird-women-not-mermaids

http://www.realmermaids.net/mermaid-history/siren-history/

https://www.ancient.eu/Siren/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Siren-Greek-mythology