It's All Souls' Day, and almost the full moon, and I'm proud to be the latest guest on my new favorite podcast, Bespoken Bones: Ancestors at the Crossroads of Sex, Magick and Science!
In this interview, host Pavini Moray and I talk about the role of ancestors in Italian folk magic, adopting souls in Purgatory, and why Italian-Americans need to dump Columbus. Listen on the Bespoken Bones website! And, if you use the Apple Podcast app, make sure to subscribe to Bespoken Bones. :)
As a quick note... the online course that Pavini and I discuss has already sold out. However, you can add your email to be notified when the course runs again here.
Today I’ll be sharing with you twelve books about our traditions which are available online for free. These books touch on a variety of topics, from Italian and Sicilian folklore, to the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, to official Catholic liturgy. Each of these is a thread in the tapestry of Italian folk magic. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have.
Mille grazie to the organizations which devoted the time and money to preserve, scan, retype, and host these books. Bravissimi!
- Magic: A Theory from the South by Ernesto de Martino
First published in 1959, Magic: A Theory from the South (originally Sud e magia) is a classic from Neapolitan anthropologist Ernesto de Martino. The psychoanalytic framework de Martino uses to explain the magical beliefs he encountered in Basilicata has fallen out of favor with most academics. However, his worth as an ethnographer, documenting beliefs ranging from the evil eye to magical binding, has withstood the test of time. Only translated into English for the first time in the past two years, Magic: A Theory from the South has been made available online for free courtesy of the publisher, HAU Books.
- Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane by Giuseppe Pitrè
Giuseppe Pitrè stands beside Ernesto de Martino as one of the greatest ethnographers from the Mezzogiorno. His opus, Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane (Library of Sicilian Popular Traditions) spans twenty-five (!!) volumes of Sicilian language and culture. It covers topics ranging from folk songs, to saints’ feasts, to proverbs. An absolute must for those who read Italian.
- Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John James Blunt
Some books, ironically, preserve traditions better by condemning them than we ever could through celebration alone. Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John James Blunt is one such book. Thought it was meant to be an attack on the decadence of papacy, you get the feeling that Rev. Blunt was enjoying every second of his journeys through Southern Italy. He reports back to his patrons in England on the cults of the saints and the Madonnas, the sacred dramas, the charms, and many more facets of Southern Italian life, comparing them to the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Greek and Roman paganism.
- Canti e tradizioni popolari in Campania by Roberto de Simone
If you love Neapolitan folk music or if you were inspired by our series on the Seven Sisters, Canti e tradizioni popolari in Campania by Roberto de Simone is a must-read. De Simone, a founding member of Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, is a legend in Neapolitan folk music. In this book, he shares the lyrics to many classic folk songs and several versions of the tammurriata devoted to each of the Seven Sisters, the famous Madonnas of Campania. Translations into Italian are given for the songs, which are captured in their original Neapolitan.
- Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile
Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, also called Lo Cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) is a collection of fairy tales recorded in Neapolitan, all of which are set in Basilicata and Campania. As spiritually-inclined folks from around the world have noted, the fairy tales of a region encode instructions for dealing with that region's spirits. For this reason, the Pentamerone is well worth reading. The full text of the original Neapolitan is available here. The English translations of several of the stories are available here.
- Nuova Smorfia del giuoco del lotto by Giustino Rumeo
Are you feeling lucky? If you like to play the numbers, try using this old-school dictionary of la smorfia napoletana to translate your dreams into a winning lottery ticket. (And, if you don’t speak Italian or don’t have the patience to wade through hundreds of pages of entries, don’t worry. There’s an electronic dictionary in English here.)
- Rituale Romanum
If you're nostalgic for the beauty of the pre-Vatican II Church, this copy of the 1962 Rituale Romanum will… probably make you more nostalgic. It includes detailed descriptions of how the sacraments, blessings, and exorcisms were once performed.
- Missale Romanum
Of course, don’t forget this copy of the 1962 Missale Romanum to go with it! This Missal records the prayers which made up the Latin Mass before the reforms of Vatican II ushered in an era of Mass performed in vernacular. (Make sure to take a copy with you if/when you attend your first Latin Mass, ideally one with illustrations so you can follow along easily!)
The Raccolta is a collection of prayers and devotional acts which once carried an official indulgence. I’m fond of this elegant reprint of the 1959 version (the large type face makes it easy to read by candlelight), but if you are low on funds, a free PDF of the 1898 version is available in English here. And, if you would rather read the original Italian, the 1849 version is available here.
- An Introduction to Roman Religion by John Scheid
Available to borrow from a digital library, John Scheid's An Introduction to Roman Religion covers all the major concepts in Roman religion, including the ritual calendar, temple usage, and rituals of sacrifice and divination.
- Cults of Campania by Roy Peterson
Roy Peterson's Cults of Campania discusses Greek and Roman religion particularly as they developed in the region of Campania, home to Cumae, Naples, and Pompeii.
- Incubation, or The cure of disease in pagan temples and Christian churches by Mary Hamilton
Incubation was a pagan ritual wherein a sick person would fall asleep in a sacred location, such as a temple to the healing god Aesclepius, and be cured through a dream. The practice is an important one to study if we are to fully understand the roots of Southern Italian belief concerning the power of dreams.
As an Italian-American woman, I am a huge fan of the work that Dolores Alfieri and Anthony Fasano are doing through their website, The Italian American Experience. The podcast, the blog, the videos--everything these two put out into the world is such a beautiful representation of our unique cultural heritage. So when Dolores reached out and asked me to be a guest on their podcast, how could I say no?
I was not disappointed. The conversation we had was intimate, personal, and ground-breaking for both of us. I felt vulnerable speaking so openly about my family history for the first time. A million thanks to Dolores for making this happen. May this conversation spark a light of remembrance for others!
Full show and links are available on the Italian American Experience, which is well worth checking out. (If you liked this episode, you will love their interview with Robert Orsi, scholar of religious studies and author of The Madonna of 115th Street.)
Don't miss out on future episodes of The Italian American Podcast! Make sure you subscribe and leave a review on iTunes.
A fresco from the thermopolium of Lucius Vetutius Placidus in the city of Pompeii, depicting the spirit (genius) of the house central, flanked by Lares and Penates with Mercury on far left, Bacchus far right.
I love hearing from readers who have Italian roots and are interested in developing a personal ancestral veneration practice which reflects their cultural heritage. I’ve put together a list of advice I often give to these folks, in the hope that it may be of help to anyone on their journey.
I’ve laid this out roughly in a progression from simple workings intended to cool and strengthen the dead towards more complex workings which bring in entities that are not a part of the ancestral line, but whose Mysteries can be experienced with and through that line. However, please don’t feel like you need to work through this list in order. Allow dream and inspiration to inform you as much as text.
Above all else, go with your gut. You’re a part of this line. If something feels pleasant to you, it probably feels pleasant to them. And likewise if something feels unpleasant. Learning to pay attention to that gut feeling when you look at your ancestral altar lays the foundation for more advanced mediumship.
Don’t force it. Don’t go into the work with preconceived notions of what magical “results” should look like. Allow your personal lingua franca with the ancestors to develop organically. The effects of these practices are cumulative, so aim to do something small every day.
Look at the structure of your living family. During your childhood, did you spend more time with one side than the other? Did you have a particular affinity for one of your grandparents? These can offer clues as two which of your many lineages are most active right now in your lifetime.
Official Catholic devotions. These include paying for a Mass to be said for them, or doing indulgences for them on your own. The Raccolta is a good source for official prayers. Indulgences and Masses are especially important for the recently deceased.
If you only have the stomach for so much churchy business right now, I recommend you learn the Requiem Aeternam. It’s short, sweet, and carries an indulgence for the dead. It’s written in the singular, but you can swap for the bits in parenthesis to make it plural:
Requiem aeternam dona ei (eis), Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei (eis). Requiescat (-ant) in pace. Amen.
If Latin isn’t your thing, here’s an English version:
Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her (them). May he/she (they) rest in peace. Amen.
Traditional folk offerings. These include candles (usually white wax in red glass) or olive oil lamps, water, fresh flowers, holy cards (santini), rosary beads.
Offerings from other traditions. Especially if you are interested in the ATRs, you may want to experiment with sharing a small portion of whatever you are eating, coffee, liquors, tobacco. Heavily perfumed waters, such as florida water and kananga water, are great to have on hand, either to add to glasses of cool water or to cleanse yourself with. When the dead are present, you may experience physical sensations, some of which can be uncomfortable. Perfumes like this can take the edge off of those feelings. If florida water and such are too strong for you, you can get rosewater (the type for cooking) from many Indian and Middle Eastern grocers and use it in much the same way.
Keep your home clean. In Naples, this practice is more commonly associated with ‘a bella ‘mbriana, the gecko-shaped house spirit, who is not explicitly related to the dead in modern thought. However, ‘a bella ‘mbriana may be an evolution of the ancient tradition of the Lares, who were both house spirits and ancestral spirits and were often depicted as snakes. You can play around with this imagery and see what speaks to you. Maybe find a toy gecko, or use statues of Saints Cosmas and Damien to represent the Lares, who were also depicted as twins.
Drink some amaro. Bitter herbs such as those used to produce amaro (which means “bitter”, after all) often have reputations for increasing psychic ability and contact with the dead.
If you like cannabis, smoke some cannabis. Less is usually more. In Santo Daime, a syncretic ayahuasca tradition, cannabis is called “Santa Maria” and syncretized with the Madonna. Working with Santa Maria is often said to result in contact with spirits of the dead.
Learn the comune (or comuni) that your family came from. It might have a website. At the very least, it should have a Wikipedia page, and the town’s patron saint(s) will be listed there. In some comuni the main festa is devoted to a different saint than the official patron. You may find that saint to be more accessible. Look for sections of text labeled “Tradizioni” (traditions).
If you don’t know the specific commune, look at the region they came from. What wine is made there? What bread to they bake there? Share some of that wine and bread with them. Remember: this is the body and blood of a god that they knew and worshipped which you are now consuming together. There’s a lot to unpack there. Don’t cut the bread with a knife; rip it up with your hands.
Look into saints and Madonne who specialize in matters of the dead. For example: San Nicola da Tolentino, Madonna del Carmine, Santa Rosalia, San Padre Pio, Santa Caterina da Genova. These can be appealed to for help deepening your personal connection, or settling restless spirits in your line.
If you have any other ideas or experiences you would like to share, please leave them in the comments!
The brilliant Gordon White of Rune Soup invited me on his podcast to talk about the origin of the saints, the Italian American diaspora experience, the Black Madonna, necromancy, sacred dances and a whole lot more. You can listen below, or via your favorite podcast app.
In a previous post, we examined several accounts of the cult of the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples. Fontanelle Cemetery is an ossuary occupied Anime Pezzentelle, that is, “lost” souls, or souls without living descendents to perform official indulgences on their behalf. Many of them lost their lives during the great plagues of the 17th century, a time during which the city struggled to keep up with the task of burying large numbers of recently deceased citizens. The Anime Pezzentelle are said to suffer from the heat and pains of Purgatory, where their only solace are the prayers and refreshment provided by the living. Refreshment or refrische can take many forms: cool water, sacramentals such as rosary beads or saint cards, and oil lamps or candles are all common forms of refreshment. The goal of these devotional practices is to establish a bond through which soul can establish contact through dreams. Once this intimate relationship is in place, the soul may reveal more details about who they were in life, divine the future (including lottery numbers), or be petitioned to perform miracles.
The prayer below, originally in Neapolitan and translated into English, may be said by groups or individuals who wish to gain the favor of Anime Pezzentelle, specifically the souls of plague victims. It is traditionally said while in the ossuary, although we might speculate that all cemeteries belongs to the same kingdom. The opening prayer is repeated for the names of all the deceased being invoked. (Anime Pezzentelle are usually said to reveal their names in dream early in the relationship, and often some details about who they were in life such as their gender and occupation.) The closing prayer is said before departing from the ossuary or cemetery.
There are a few traditional elements worth noting. For one, we see mentions of the beatings and nails of the Crucifixion which were also present in the Sicilian rosary for the dead we saw previously. Furthermore, in addition to invocations to Jesus and the Holy Trinity, we also see a powerful image of the female divine in this prayer: an entreaty to “come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria”; a request vindicated “by the tears of the Sorrowful Mother”; and the line “pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna)”, where the word “redeemer” is unmistakbly feminine in the original text. It is worth noting that in Naples, work with the lost souls is predominantly, perhaps exclusively, considered to be “women’s work”. The gendering is reinforced in the language of the work, which speaks of “adopting” skulls, as well as the objects commonly used in these devotions, which include handmade embroidery and rosary beads. The practitioner quite literally becomes the mother of a lost soul.
Guida: Guè, pè l’anema ‘e (name of deceased). Coro: Requia materna. (repeat as needed)
(prayer for the plague victims) Io ve chiammo aneme tutte, Aneme appestate cchiù de tutte; Mò che nnante a Dio state A me mischinu scunzulatu E nun ve ne scurdate. Pregate alla nostra divina clemenza, Arapitece ‘e porte de la santa divina clemenza pruverenza: Pregate alla vostra divina Redentora, Ce favorite il nostro ‘ntenzione; Mille e tanta vote Reque, refrische, repuose, sullievo e pace A chest’ aneme appestate mie rilette; Venite a casa mia ca v’aspetto; E paura nun me ne metto. Venite co lu nomme ‘e Giesù Cristo, Sant’Anna e Maria; ‘E case noste cuntente e cunzulate sia. Pe lu nomme de la Santissima Ternità Tutt’e ppene, tutte ‘e turmiente Tutt’e guaie nc’adda acquietà. Pe li voste battitore Fance grazia vosto Signore; Pe tre chiove trapassate Refrische e sullievo a chell’aneme sante appestate.
Gesù mio misericordia; Gesù mio misericordia; P’e lacreme ‘e Mamm’ Addulurata Refrische all’aneme de l’appestate.
Requia materna, erona romine, sparpetua lucia ‘nterna schiatte in pace. Amen.
Guide: Hail to the soul of (name of deceased). Chorus: Eternal peace. (repeat as needed)
(prayer for the plague victims)
I call you, all souls, Plague victims above all other souls, I pray that near to God you be. Do not forget me, I, a disconsolate wretch. Pray to our divine mercy, Open the doors of holy, divine, merciful providence: Pray to your divine redeemer (the Madonna), That she favor our intentions; Thousands of times Calm, refreshment, rest, solace, and peace To these plague victims’ souls, my beloveds; Come to my home where I await you; Because I have no fear. Come in the name of Jesus Christ, Saint Anne, and Maria; And let our homes be content and consoling. By the name of the Divine Trinity All troubles must be calmed. By your beatings Do us grace, oh Lord. By the three nails, Refreshment and solace to the holy souls of plague victims.
My Jesus, mercy; My Jesus, mercy; By the tears of the Sorrowful Mother, Refreshment to the souls of the plague victims.
Eternal peace give them O Lord, shine eternal light, may they rest in peace. Amen.
(Source: Luciano Sola – “Il Camposanto delle Fontanelle. Storia e costumi di Napoli”)
This rosary is typically prayed every day during the octave of the festa dei morti (feast of the dead), known more officially in Italian as the Commemorazione di Tutti i Fideli Defunti (Commemoration of All Deceased Faithful), and among English-speaking countries as All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic countries, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a time for remembering the dead. It can be celebrated by praying, visiting and cleaning up loved ones’ graves, making offerings of food or flowers, or paying for masses to be said in honor of the departed.
The octave lasts from November 2 to November 10. If you wish to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as is done in Sicilian folk tradition, you can use the words below. Sicilian rosaries can be prayed on standard rosary beads, reciting one posta for each of the large beads, and one grani for each of the small beads. (More official prayers for the dead can be found in the Raccolta, the pre-Vatican II guide to indulgences. A free PDF is available online here.) I have included an English translation, but the Sicilian is pronounced very similar to Italian if you feel comfortable with that language.
This rosary from Sicilian oral tradition was originally transcribed and published by Sara Favarò in A Cruna: Antologia di Rosari Siciliani. I have chosen to translate “arrifriscati” (lit. “refresh yourselves”) as “be cooled”. “Refreshment” in Southern Italian and Sicilian magico-religious thought is relief from the heat and suffering of Purgatory. Souls grateful for refreshment are disposed to work miracles on behalf of those who pray for them. The concept is similar to the idea of cooling heated spirits in spiritism and African Diasporic Traditions.
By the seven beatings that our Lord suffered, by the twisted nails, Holy Souls: be cooled. Holy Souls, Holy Souls, I am one, you are many. By our prayer, take away from me this confusion. When you ascend to heaven, pray for us sinners. Soul in heaven and body in earth, eternal peace.
Holy Souls and true saints, merciful Holy Souls, and Maria by her goodness, Holy Souls: be cooled.
Per li setti battitura chi patì nostru Signuri pi li chiova arribuccati Armuzzi Santi, arrifriscati. Armi Santi, Armi Santi iò sugnu sula vui siti tanti pi la nostra orazioni livatimilla ‘sta cunfusioni. Quannu vui ‘n celu acchianati pi nui piccatura priati arma ‘n celu e corpu ‘n terra recam eterna.
Armi Santi e santi veri Armuzzi Santi miserere e Maria pi so buntati Armuzzi Santi arrifriscati.
I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but here brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father's mother. Or her mother's father. There were no grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on... Eliminate your mother, then your two grandmothers, then your four great-grandmothers. Go back more generations and hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish, and the fathers and mothers of those mothers. Ever more lives disappear as if unlived until you have narrowed a forest down to a tree, a web down to a line. This is what it takes to construct a linear narrative of blood or influence or meaning.
Rebecca Solnit, "Grandmother Spider". From Men Explain Things to Me.
I have long associated “Fimmene, Fimmene” with my ancestral practice, and with my female ancestors in particular. I remember the first time I heard it, at a ritual/play performed by Alessandra Belloni and I Giullari di Piazza on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul 2016. I remember hearing Emanuele Licci from CGS play it as a solo during a concert on the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My husband, who was not familiar with the song or its personal importance, turned to me with a tear in his eye and said, “That man is very connected to his female ancestors.”
“Fimmene, Fimmene” is a song for and about women. It is an unabashedly political critique of working conditions and sexual assault. When singing or listening to the song, the heart is moved, the eyes water, the connection to the womb and ancestral memory becomes activated in the body. Women are born with all the ova they will ever produce in their lifetimes, so the ova that became you was alive within your mother, when she was still in your grandmother’s womb! This is a special relationship that we all have with our female ancestors, regardless of our gender.
It’s also an excellent song for people who are new to Southern Italian musical traditions, or who think they can’t incorporate music into their personal devotions because they don’t have formal training. The rhythm is simple and slow enough to tap out even if you’ve never held a tamburello before. The lyrics in the video below are slow and well-articulated, so you can pick them up easily with practice. And, with the invocation at the end to Saint Paul, patron of tarantella, you’ll be singing and dancing in no time!
Fimmene fimmene ca sciati allu tabbaccu, 'nde sciati ddoi e ne turnati quattru!
Ci bbu la dice cu chiantati lu tabbaccu? Lu sule è forte e bbe lu sicca tuttu.
Fimmene fimmene ca sciati a vinnimiare e sutta a lu ceppune bbu la faciti fare.
Ue santu Paulu miu de Galatina famme 'nde cuntentà 'sta signurina
Ue santu Paulu miu de le tarante pizzechi le caruse mmienzu'll'anche!
Ue santu Paulu miu de li scurzuni pizzeche li carusi alli cujuni.
Women, women who go to the tobacco, They walk out at two and return at four.
Who told you to plant the tobacco? The sun is strong and dries you all out!
Women, women who go to harvest And under the vine you have it done to yourselves.
My Saint Paul of Galatina, Work a miracle for this young woman.
My Saint Paul of the spiders, Bite the girls between their thighs.
My Saint Paul of the snakes, Bite the boys on their balls.
This piece was originally written for and performed as an offering to the spirits at an event organized by the inimitable Dr. Vanessa Sinclair on Monday, October 24, 2016.
* * *
Belief in the ponte di San Giacomo, or St. James’ Bridge, has been found historically throughout southern Italy and Sicily. In some places, it persists to this day.
The ponte di San Giacomo is a bridge between this world and the next. It is the barrier the dead must cross in order to reach their final destination in the afterlife. Traditionally, it is said to be sharp, perhaps forged from swords, knives, pins, thorns. And yet, it is believed to have appeared when three drops of the Madonna’s breastmilk fell to earth, a myth which echoes earlier stories about the Roman goddess Juno and the origin of the Milky Way.
The soul’s journey to the next world begins when the dying person loses consciousness. It is a gradual process, a long journey, and consequently must be attended to by the family and wider community. Rituals are performed by laypeople, priests, and folk healers to assure safe passage. These may include opening a window, removing metal chains from the neck, binding and unbinding the legs, washing the corpse, putting food and water nearby so the soul can maintain its strength, and talking to the corpse in a reassuring manner.
But the most important preparations are psychological as much as they are magical. The dying person must prepare themselves spiritually and mentally for the journey. This means the acceptance of death and the relinquishing of attachments to the temporal realm. As a consequence, the people most likely to fail to make the journey successfully--that is, who remain in this world as ghosts either friendly or unfriendly--are those who either die suddenly and unexpectedly, or who have strong ties to the world of the living. Those with unfinished business, with untold stories, or with small children to care for are particularly prone to becoming ghosts.
“Santa Lucia Luntana” was written in 1919 by Giovanni Gaeta, better known as E. A. Mario. It derives its name not from the popular saint, but rather, from the Borgo Santa Lucia, a neighborhood situated on the Port of Naples. After 1903, almost all of the millions of Italian emigrants embarked from either the Port of Naples or that of Palermo. For many emigrants, the last sight of their homeland was the same as the patron saint of eyesight: Santa Lucia.
The song, originally written in Neapolitan, gained immediate popularity and started a national dialog about the diaspora and the plight of impoverished migrants. I would like to share it with you, in English, with a reminder:
Death is a foreign country, and in time we will all be immigrants.
The ships are leaving for faraway lands… They sing on board: they are Neapolitan! They sing while in the sunset the bay disappears, and the moon, above the sea, lets them catch a glimpse of Naples…
Santa Lucia! Far away from you, what sorrow! We travel around the world, we go to seek our fortunes… but, when the moon rises, we cannot stay away from Naples!
And they play music... but their hands tremble on the strings. How many memories, how many memories. And my heart cannot heal not even with those songs; hearing those voices and that music, It begins to cry because it wants to return!
Santa Lucia, you are only a little bit of sea away… But the further away you are, the more beautiful you seem… It is the song of the sirens that is still casting its net! This heart doesn't want riches: if it was born in Naples, it wants to die there!
"Death in Naples" by Michael A. Ledeen
"Il Culto dei Morti a Napoli" di Andrea Romanazzi
"Life causes motion, and motion can give evidence of life. This becomes: 'Life causes motion, hence motion is evidence of life.' Humans can see that the motions of work have a direct purpose, but motion for motion's sake is something else--'dance' broadly taken. (In the languages of eastern Europe, the same word often means both 'dance' and 'play,' and other nondirect motions like swinging, tickling, and laughing may fall in this basket. Medieval western Europeans, too, called the nocturnal dancing and feasting of the spirits the game, its goal being an abundance of crops called luck.) Supernatural powers, of course, need not work to survive; hence divine life simply 'dances' and in this very act of dancing is thought to create life. ... "The spirits that villagers sought to influence were the spirits of the dead. But different categories of dead existed, with different powers and different connections to the living.
"First, one's dead ancestors. Since they had begotten the living, one could reasonably appeal to them to help their offspring survive. And because these ancestors had been buried in the ground (where their spirits were assumed to pass much of their time), presumably they could help the seeds down there--the newly sown crops--to germinate and grow. Basic to this belief is the notion of resurrection: the seed seems dead, it is buried, it rises to produce new seed. The eternal cycle of life.
"Second were the spirits of the dead of other villages. These were particularly dangerous because they would be busy sequestering all the existing abundance for their offspring. So ritual dancers, from the Balkans to Britain, marked out territories and fought intruding bands, to the death if necessary.
"Finally, there existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who had died before having any children--hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they had not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we're especially nice to them, they might bestow that unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together, people inferred by analogy that the spirits of dead girls would likewise band together and spend their time singing, dancing, swimming, laughing, and so on. These Dancing Goddesses inhabited the wilds, controlling the rain and other waters, creating fertility and healing powers people needed. The challenge was to lead, cajole, trap, or entice them into the cultivated areas to shed their fertility here, and one way to do this was to do what they did: dance."
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, pp. 3-4.
"The Jews had no nine days' religious celebration or nine days' mourning or feast on the ninth day after the death or burial of relatives and friends. They held the number seven more sacred than any other. On the contrary, we find among the ancient Romans an official nine days' religious celebration whose origin is related in Livy (I, xxxi). After a shower of stones on the Alban Mount, an official sacrifice, whether because of a warning from above or of the augurs' advice, was held on nine days to appease the gods and avert evil. From then on the same novena of sacrifices was made whenever the like wonder was announced (cf. Livy, XXI, lxii; XXV, vii; XXVI, xxiii etc.). "Besides this custom, there also existed among the Greeks and Romans that of a nine days' mourning, with a special feast on the ninth day after death or burial. This, however, was rather of a private or family character (cf. Homer, Iliad, XXIV, 664, 784; Virgil, Aeneid, V, 64; Tacitus, Annals, VI, v.). The Romans also celebrated their parentalia novendialia, a yearly novena (13 to 22 Feb.) of commemoration of all the departed members of their families (cf. Mommsen, "Corp. Inscript. Latin.", I, 386 sq.). The celebration ended on the ninth day with a sacrifice and a joyful banquet. There is a reference to these customs in the laws of the Emperor Justinian ("Corp. Jur. Civil. Justinian.", II, Turin, 1757, 696, tit. xix, "De sepulchro violato"), where creditors are forbidden to trouble the heirs of their debtor for nine days after his death. St. Augustine (P.L., XXXIV, 596) warns Christians not to imitate the pagan custom, as there is no example of it in Holy Writ. Later on, the same was done by the Pseudo-Alcuin (P.L., CI, 1278), invoking the authority of St. Augustine, and still more sharply by John Beleth (P.L., CCII, 160) in the twelfth century. Even Durandus in his "Rationale" (Naples, 1478), writing on the Office of the Dead, remarks that "some did not approve this, to avoid the appearance of aping pagan customs".
"Nevertheless, in Christian mortuary celebrations, one finds that of the ninth day with those of the third and seventh. The "Constitutiones Apostolicae" (VIII, xlii; P.G., I, 1147) already speak of it. The custom existed specially in the East, but is found also among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it was connected with an earlier practice of the pagans, it nevertheless had in itself no vestige of superstition. A nine days' mourning with daily Mass was a distinction, naturally, which could be shared by none but the higher classes. Princes and the rich ordered such a celebration for themselves in their wills; even in the wills of popes and cardinals such orders are found. Already in the Middle Ages the novena of Masses for popes and cardinals was customary. Later on, the mortuary celebration for cardinals became constantly more simple, until finally it was regulated and fixed by the Constitution "Praecipuum" of Benedict XIV (23 Nov., 1741). For deceased sovereign pontiffs the nine days' mourning was retained, and so came to be called simply the "Pope's Novena" (cf. Mabillon, "Museum Italicum", II, Paris, 1689, 530 sqq., "Ordo Roman. XV"; P.L., LXXVIII, 1353; Const. "In eligendis" of Pius IV, 9 Oct., 1562). The usage still continues and consists chiefly in a novena of Masses for the departed. A rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (22 Apr., 1633) informs us that such novenas of mourning, officia novendialia ex testamento, were generally known and allowed in the churches of religious (Decr. Auth. S.R.C., 604). They are no longer in common use, though they have never been forbidden, and indeed, on the contrary, novendiales precum et Missarum devotiones pro defunctis were approved by Gregory XVI (11 July, 1853 [sic]) and indulgenced for a confraternity agonizantium in France (Resc. Auth. S.C. Indulg., 382)."
"Novena." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 20 Feb. 2016<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11141b.htm>. Emphasis mine.
"Following death, the body was washed and laid out by the women of the family (prothesis). A passage from Aristophanes indicates that vine branches and the herb origanos were strewn under the body as part of this process. In antiquity, this bitterly pungent herb was believed to repel harmful animals; in later European folklore, we hear of it being used to avert ghosts and demons. Together these observations suggest that its use in funerary rites reflects a fear that even in death, evil forces of some kind were waiting to attack the departing soul or the body. An attack on either would be disastrous: the soul might be diverted by a manipulative magician for his own purposes, and thus be prevented from reaching the haven of the Underworld, and damage to the body could affect the postmortem functioning and thus the happiness of the soul, as the practice of maschalismos [ritual mutilation of corpses by severing extremities] perhaps attests. It was the duty of the survivors to provide protection against such attacks until the body was safely in the ground and the soul had begun its journey to the Underworld.... Perhaps amulets against such attacks were buried with the dead as well; we have some late examples of what seem to be amulets for postmortem protection made out of metal, and it is possible that earlier types of perishable materials once existed, too. "The traditional length of prothesis was one day; this would fit with the fact it was on the third day after death (counting inclusively) that the body was carried out to the place of burial (ekphora). The swiftness of burial reflects not only the obvious need to remove a decomposing corpse quickly but the perception that the individual no longer belonged amongst the living. As many anthropological studies have discussed, in ancient Greece and elsewhere death initiates a rite of passage for both the deceased and those left behind; the passage begins to approach completion only when the corpse has been removed from the company of the living.
"The deceased was accompanied to the grave by family members and perhaps by other mourners, too, although funerary legislation of the late archaic and classical periods sometimes restricted the number of people who might participate, as well as the places at which they might sing their laments. In Athens, for example, Solon passed laws to the effect that only women over the age of sixty or women closely related to the deceased might take part in the ekphora and lament. Solon's laws curbed the most extreme forms of lamentation, such as self-laceration, mourning for anyone other than the person immediately dead, and excessive funeral gifts as well. He also ordered that the prothesis take place inside a house, and that the ekphora take place before sunrise on the day after the prothesis. Plato's laws for funerary conduct in his ideal city take all of these ideas a bit further; real laws in some other places similarly aimed to restrict the ostentation of the funeral, the number of people lamenting or otherwise participating, and the degree to which it was public.
"Offerings were made at the grave at the time of the funeral. These always included choai, libations made of honey, milk, water, wine, or oil mixed in varying amounts. There was also a 'supper' (deipnon or dais) of various foods; the dead who partook of these sometimes where described as eudeipnoi, which we best can translate, perhaps, as 'those who are content with their meal.' The word, a euphemism, seems to reflect the hope that, once nourished, the dead would realize that they had nothing to complain about. There is some evidence that water was also given to the dead person so that he could wash, just [as] a host would give a living guest water in which to wash before a meal. Offerings to the dead might also include jewelry, flowers, and small objects used in everyday life such as swords, strigils, toys, and mirrors (although gifts, like lamentation, were sometimes restricted by funerary laws). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these gifts were expected to be useful in the afterlife, particularly when ghost stories tell of the dead demanding objects that were forgotten or omitted at the time of burial.
"A grave marker (sema or stele) often was set up at some time after burial; according to Cicero, post-Solonian Athenian funerary laws attempted to restrict the size or grandeur of these markers. The stele or sema subsequently might be decorated with ribbons, myrtle branches, or fillets of colored wool; it was also common for survivors to cut off and offer some of their hair. Several theories have been proposed to explain the latter practice. One argues that offerings of hair were symbolic human sacrifices--pars pro toto--and another that cropped hair marked the survivors as being 'different,' as being in a marginal period of mourning. Either idea could be supported by interpreting funerary offerings of hair within the context of other occasions when the Greeks made offerings of hair, which tended to be associated with marginal periods as well....
"The separation process continued to move the living and the dead further apart, but the link was not completely broken. On certain days after the funeral (the third, ninth, thirtieth, and possible also after a year), additional offerings were made at the grave. Some evidence suggests that, as nowadays, offerings were also made on the anniversary of the deceased's birth, death, or both, and that survivors made additional offerings whenever they wanted the help of the dead person, or whenever they wanted him or her to participate, albeit distantly, in a family occasion such as a wedding....the Greeks themselves so often describe these rites as fulfilling the needs and desires of the deceased that we must accept this as a serious motivation. Funerary rites were believed to benefit the dead, and deprivation of them meant an unhappy afterlife for the disembodied soul. In other words, Greek funerary rites attest to the expectation that the deceased had some sentience in the afterlife and some of the same desires that he or she had had while alive, and to the idea that the living could--and should--gratify those desires."
Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, pp. 39-43