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Skulls and Magic: Ancestors, Trances, Dancing and Tea

25 October 2023

Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash
Image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Did you know that ninety per cent of our vocabulary is encountered in reading and not in everyday speech? Books can introduce us to some spectacular ideas and gruesome knowledge at Halloween. Folk tales and myths in particular can induct us to knowledge about our world and rituals that date back many thousands of years. Although the origins of Halloween are attributed to the Celtic tradition, many of its themes as we know them today have rich and ancient origins. dating back to the beginnings of the Neolithic period. Humans have preserved, decorated and celebrated their ancestors’ skulls for thousands of years.

Here, I review two new Halloween books ‘Where’s my Boo!?’ by Nicholas Daniel, and ‘The Skull’ by Jan Klassen. “Where’s My Boo!?” is superficially an adorable story that actually deals with fear - the type of fear that steals your voice, that leaves a person feeling frozen and silenced. A ghost goes on a quest to ‘reclaim’ its ‘Boo!’ and even borrows the voices of others. This book delights in three ways. First, it uses a predictable pattern of rhyming couplets that is consistent and make it fun to guess the final word. Also, there’s a persuasive feeling of buoyancy in the illustrations and a font that pretty much mirrors the lilting feel of the language. Lastly, a huge sense of relief is palpable when the ghost stops searching and listens to the voice within. The encouraging message of this book is that our ‘true Boo!’ is the one that everyone loves and needs to hear.

‘The Skull’ is a retelling of a Tyrolean folktale. It’s a fascinating blend of folklore and symbols, reworked through a contemporary lens. Skulls have been polished and cherished for millennia, and in Halloween season, surrounded as we are by skeletons and carved pumpkins, I was curious to dive deeply into the underpinnings of this story.

The original version of this folk tale is deeply symbolic. The most mysterious and magical elements of the story, to my mind, have been ‘cleansed’ during Klassen’s retelling. However, the relationship between the main character, ‘Otilla’ and the ‘Skull’ remains the same across three different versions - and I’ll unpack a few points for the sake of comparison. The character of ‘The Skull’ is best described as a cherished ancestor, perhaps as a once precious elder of the community. There’s evidence that ten thousand years ago, people polished and decorated skulls, perhaps as a token of respect for deceased loved ones, or as a way to maintain a ‘connection’ with them. In each version of the story there is also a ‘Skeleton’ character, which wants possession of the ‘Skull’. The child ‘Otilla’ confronts the ‘Skeleton’ in the climax of the story and after this point, each reworking retells the folk tale in a different way.

In the original, according to Klassen, once the curse of the ‘Skeleton’ has been broken, it vanishes. At that moment, the ‘Skull’ turns into a beautiful lady dressed in white and the castle is filled with children and lovely things to play with. This lady gives everything in the castle to ‘Otilla’ before disappearing into the sky.

Another earlier version, written by Busk and edited by Rachel Harriette dates from the nineteenth century, entitled, “Otilia and the Death’s Head’ or, ‘Put your trust in providence’. It was published in London in 1871 and resonated strongly with the opening section of the well known tale ‘Cinderella’, as the young Otilla was both orphaned and resentful of her stepmother.

Overwhelmed by grief and her own vulnerability, Otilla runs away from home into the Tyrolean forest, all the while hearing her deceased father’s voice guiding her and urging her to trust in God. Hungry, cold and close to death herself, she discovers a castle and is welcomed by a speaking ‘Death Head’.

She undertakes specific tasks for the ‘Death Head’. She cooks in the kitchen, sleeps in a strange bedroom and faces her fear of the ‘Skelton’ that rattles its bones at her. However, guided by her father and trusting in God, she is resolute and fearless. The next morning, the ‘Skeleton’ is transformed into a beautiful lady dressed in white, who, having shown a lack of appreciation for all the wonderful things that life had given her, had been trapped in the castle. She turns into a dove before flying away.

Otilla displayed no fear when confronted by the ‘Skeleton’ and had broken the spell through the strength of her faith. Having inherited the castle from the lady in white, she invites her stepmother to enjoy it with her, and domestic peace and harmony are restored.

In a wonderful book called, ‘Decoding Fairytales’ by Chris Knight, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, the reader is guided through a system of symbols and signs based on the division of lived experiences as either ‘Other World’ (the world of trance, near death experiences, ceremonial masks and rebellion) or ‘This World’ (the orderly world of compliance, harmonious living and surrender). ‘Halloween’ of course is a celebration of the ‘Other World’.

To appreciate the contrast between each ‘world’ we need to think about life before the internet, telecommunications, and even the use of electricity, when moonlight was the most important source of light after sunset. The phase of the moon was believed to control not only the tides and peoples’ physical safety, but also to influence their emotions.

In this list I’ve summarised Knight’s observations of the two ‘Worlds’.

‘This World’ versus ‘Other World’

  • Moon Waning versus Moon Waxing
  • Midday Sun versus Eclipse
  • Silence / calm versus Thunder
  • Day versus Night
  • Life versus Death
  • Dry versus Wet
  • Cooked versus Raw / Blood
  • Feasting versus Hunger / Being eaten
  • Emergence versus Seclusion
  • Harmony versus Noise / Chaos
  • Surrender versus Rebellion
  • Available versus Taboo
  • Human Identity versus Animal Mask

‘The Skull’ is not a story about ‘This World’. In all three versions of the tale, Otilla leaves the mundane world of her old life behind and journeys into the ‘Other World’ - the liminal world where she encounters the transition between life and death, enchantment and rebellion.

In many fairytales, a young girl finds herself lost in a forest or has been secluded in a forest (by someone in her matrilineal line). Although the forest was familiar to Otillla, as she lay in the wet snow crying, she confronted her fear of the dark, of danger and of being alone at night. Klassen allows the reader to decide whether or not it was the wind calling Otilla’s name, whereas Harriette and Busk were unequivocal that Otilla could hear her late father’s voice guiding her onwards through the darkness. The forest is both a psychological and physical barrier, carrying the risk of death and cutting her off from the safety of her domestic mundane life.

In the Harriette and Busk version of the story, Otilla is given tasks to perform. The first is to carry the ‘Death Head’. The second is to take it into the kitchen and to make a pancake. To do this she uses eggs - a universal symbol of rebirth. In Klassen’s version however, she eats a pear (carrying connotations of fertility) with ‘The Skull’, makes a fire for them both and they ‘drink tea’ (we must imagine the type of tea) by the fire. Both versions feature the fire, and in fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel or the Gingerbread Man, a kitchen fire, in a cottage in the middle of a forest traditionally cues an opportunity for children to be cooked alive.

In the Klassen version of the story, the ‘Skull’ shows Otilla a wall where ceremonial animal masks hang, explaining that they were not to be worn (i.e. taboo). However, they walk down the steps to the dungeon and look at the ‘bottomless pit’ (a familiar theme in many myths and legends, perhaps representing an ‘underworld’ or the subconscious mind). In the accompanying illustration Klassen depicts both characters wearing the animal masks, which signals that they have crossed the threshold into the ‘Other World,’ the space between life and death where it is appropriate to wear animal masks and where taboos may be broken without consequences.

Otilla has spent the first night drinking ‘tea’ and exploring the dungeon with the ‘Skull’ and now trusts sufficiently to be taken to the top of the turret. The turret, like the dungeon was traditionally a place of seclusion for girls in many fairytales. As they climb the steps from the dungeon to the balcony and move from darkness into light, we may assume that a new day, the second day of the adventure has dawned.

They remove their masks as they reach the daylight and emerge into fresh air, but then the ‘Skull’ immediately takes Otilla into the ballroom, where the sun streams in through the window. The adventure continues as they wear the ceremonial masks and dance until evening. Traditionally, wearing an animal mask simply meant acknowledging the ‘animal side’ of the self, (the side that was inhibited by social norms during domestic day-to-day life). Having danced the second day away with the ‘Skull’, Otilla makes another fire and they ‘drink tea’ in the evening. She looks into the fire, it becomes a source of inspiration and cerebral power while the ‘Skull’ tells her about the threat of the ‘Skeleton’. Otilla sleeps with the ‘Skull’ on the second night and falls into a ‘deep sleep’.

In the middle of the night, the ‘Skeleton’ appears just as predicted and tries to steal the ‘Skull’ from Otilla. The girl prevails and shows the ‘Skeleton’ that she is stronger and smarter in Klassen’s secular version (and spiritually disciplined and protected in the Harriette - Busk version).

According to Klassen, the ‘Skeleton’ chases the girl, who clutching the ‘Skull,’ leads it up to the top of the turret, throws it over the edge, and hears it shatter upon impact with the ground.

Later in the story, while the ‘Skull’ sleeps, Otilia cremates the ‘Skeleton’s’ fragmented bones. [According to Knight, fire is a traditional symbol of marriage and stands in opposition to blood, a traditional symbol of kinship.] In Klassen’s contemporary narrative, Otilla accepts an invitation to cohabit with the ‘Skull’, having made the ‘Skeleton’ disappear, and thus she emerges on day three of her adventure into a new domestic life.

In the original version and Busk’s retelling of it, the ‘Skeleton’ transforms into a beautiful lady at the end of the story, reminiscent of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. In both fables, the young girls have a strong affinity with the tempering and purifying power of fire, and both have lost their mothers. It would also seem that bereavement, extreme anxiety, fear and stress in a pubescent child, particularly after drinking a herbal brew such as tea, might induce such visions. But, in Klassen’s telling of the tale, these magical ‘other worldly’ elements have been removed. Instead, the ‘Skull’ offers Otilla companionship and a new home.

If the underlying elements of this story resonated, you might enjoy reading more about trance, rhyme, rhythm and language in these posts:

Rhythm, Flow, Reading Fluency and Comprehension: In extant societies, traditional life ways include hunting and gathering. For sheer survival, loud communal singing and drumming are also essential for deterring the big cats that may predate infants on the darkest of nights.

Rhythm, attention and rapid learning: Boredom and repetition generate trance-like states of attention, whereas novelty and a switch in stimulus create a rapid reset. Ultimately the attention span plays a role in predicting where and when the next reward or threat is likely to occur.

Practising poetry - The importance of rhythm for detecting grammatical structures: Rhythmical patterns in language cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to anticipate and enjoy the likely flow of sound and colour in the atmosphere of the poem.

Tags: rhythm , language , rhyme

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