Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Rising Dead (in time for Halloween)

From the Bethune Book of Hours (15th century).

It's that time of year again, when ghouls and ghosts, vampires and zombies, and many other kinds of all-around evil-doers flood our streets in search of a sweet treat or two. While I can understand the desire to gather up candy, the national focus on embodying the gruesome and gory in our youngest and most innocent comes as a bit of a surprise to this graying dad. So I looked back at some of our Library's oldest books--mostly from the fifteenth century--to find images of the walking dead in a somewhat more positive light.

And yes, there is something positive about the walking (or this case, "rising") dead.

Bethune Book of Hours. Note how Jesus' face has been rubbed off--perhaps by an overly zealous owner?
The large initial "D" opens Psalm 6 (see below for text).

In our collections, most images of the dead rising are to be found in Books of Hours, prayer books for lay people that were most popular from the late 14th to early 16th centuries. The prayers are set out for different points in the day, and these are demarcated by miniatures depicting (most commonly) the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Jesus, and other scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus. There may also be pictures of the evangelists or King David, as well as a funeral scene (for the Office of the Dead).

In some Books of Hours there are also depictions of the Last Judgment, with Jesus enthroned in the sky, surrounded by angels. The primary moment in the year to remember this is at the feast of Christ the King, which comes at the end of November (or occasionally in very early December) and marks the end of one liturgical year, so that the next year may start with Advent.

Halloween, the eve of the feast of All Saints, comes just a few weeks before this celebration of the "end of time."  As the name indicates, the feast of All Saints is time set aside to remember all those who have been designated as especially good examples of being a follower of Jesus.

When it became clear that there are more good people who have died beyond the official saints, the Catholic church decided to make the following day, November 2, the feast of All Souls--meaning we should remember and pray for everyone who has died.

Thus, Halloween and the two days following it are intended to be a very positive time in the calendar--not a time of people in hockey masks carrying chainsaws, but a time that we remember those who have gone before us, shaped us, and left us with both the hopes and the despairs of today.

Gavin Ms. 2, a Book of Hours.
Gavin Ms. 2, detail.
When one looks at the dead rising in these pictures, one does not find the gruesome images of anger, but rather hopeful expressions (for the most part), and sometimes even the assistance of angels! These miniatures do not portray a terrible end, but a hopeful one. Sometimes, to add to this sense of hope, there appear the Virgin Mary and the evangelist John to help intercede for the sinful risers.

These are not the images of Hellmouth (which are also pretty common), which show the damned being dragged off by devils. There the ending has already been determined and the sight is (in a word) not pretty--that is perhaps worthy of another blog post on another occasion!

However, I will grant you, the Psalm chosen to accompany the miniature (Psalm 6 (7)) does echo the sound of fear in the voice of the speaker, but ultimately the hope is that God will listen and "rescue my soul."

Gavin Ms. 2.

The Latin text facing the miniature is from Psalm 6:2-6

"O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger, nor upbraid me in thy wrath. Have mercy on me O Lord, for I am weak; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled, and my soul is troubled exceedingly; but thou, O Lord, how long ...?

Return, O Lord, rescue my soul, save me for thy mercy's sake, because there is none in death who remembers thee: who is there that praises thee in the abode of the dead?" (from the Douay translation)

Sometimes the rising is not shown at the Last Judgment, but at the climax of the Passion, with the rending of the temple curtain:
"And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent, and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep arose; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection, they came into the holy city, and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:51-53)
For an example of this, see:

Prayers being offered on All Souls' Day from a book printed in the 15th century.
The dead are rising in the background.

The Day of the Dead -- A Fabulous Alternative

A very different view of what to remember in late October and early November comes in a children's song for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) by singer/composer Tish Hinojosa:
"The moon is full of something on the rise
The other world is opening its eyes
Out in the graveyard
We will sing a stance
Even the dead are rising up to dance
Love songs and flowers and papers, bright colors
Smells of the food that we bring
There we remember the saints and the sinners
This night with them we will sing."
From Hasta Los Muertos Salen a Bailar / Even the Dead Rise Up to Dance by Tish Hinojosa, from her wonderful children's album Cada NiƱo/Every Child. Most of the song is in Spanish--only part of the English is given here. The lyrics are available on the singer's website.

Wow! What a powerfully positive message--we are called to remember our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, and all of the people who have formed us.  In fact, the cemetery is not a place of fear, but a place to have a picnic where we can have our loved ones with us! In this way, Halloween is not a time of "fright" and gore, but a time of hope and promise.

It is this need to remember that comes through for me during the three days from October 31 to November 2 every year.

Fortunately, our child is going out as a Cheerios box this year. 
No ghouls or zombies, thank you.

Kacmarcik Book of Hours

Several more scenes of the dead rising from their tombs can be found at: