Frankly Over It All Friday Reads: Whistling Past the Graveyard

Skeleton Lord mask, Tibet བོད Tibetan Buddhism,Chitipati ...

Skeleton Lord mask, Tibet, Citipati

Good Day Sky Dancers!

So, today I’m going to explore a few things since I’m down one of my usual rabbit holes. First, the art work today shows human skull/skeleton symbolism which is a form of artwork found in many religious and indigenous folk practices.  The best known skull art in this part of the world are the Mexican “Day of the Dead” skulls and icons like Sainte Muerte. There is also much of the iconography in gravestones. I’m sharing information and links on some of these from all over.

I’m also going to focus on literature, authors, and books to read. So, if you want to join me down my rabbit hole!  Enjoy!!!

So, my first offering of information on  skeleton imagery is from The City of Boston where there are some wonderful imagines and examples of skeletons on grave stones.  There are many examples of “Death’s head” there that date back as early as 1630.

The second type of decorative motif used on Boston’s seventeenth-century gravemarkers was the “death’s head.” A death’s head, often with wings or crossed bones, or both, was a stylized skull. Some have speculated that winged skulls were intended to symbolize a combination of physical death and spiritual regeneration. It is important to note that Boston-based Puritans did not advocate using religious symbols, such as cherubs, Christ figures, or crosses in their meetinghouses, on church silver, or on their gravestones. Puritans were adamantly against attributing human form to spiritual beings such as God, angels, or spirits.

Image for death's head image

Death’s Head from a Boston Cemetary circa 1600s

So, here’s one of my favorite authors discussing the women in his many books and this is an interview with a feminist author who discusses the characters with him.  Really, he’s a wonderful read if you haven’t had the pleasure. Lit Hub: “A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, With Murakami Himself. Mieko Kawakami Interviews the Author of Killing Commendatore.”  This book was gifted me on my birthday by my sister. She’s turned into an avid reader and I frequently get her book club’s selections in the mail after they’re done with them.  I love his 1Q84,

Mieko Kawakami: I’m curious about the character Mariye Akigawa from Killing Commendatore. I could tell how stressed she was by the way that her identity is so connected to her breasts. This hasn’t been the case for the young women in your other novels. I can easily relate to characters like Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, or May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m thinking of the scene where May Kasahara talks about “the lump of death…round and squishy, like a softball.” Discussion of the protagonist aside, May has these incredibly powerful lines throughout the novel, about the murky distinction between hurting yourself and hurting others, or your own death and the death of others. The prose is fantastic. It captures the spirit of exactly what it’s like to be a girl. I love those passages so much. Yuki and May don’t talk much about their breasts or their bodies. But Mariye in Killing Commendatore

Haruki Murakami: She’s really fixated on them. It’s almost an obsession.

MK: Sure, but don’t you think she’s a little too fixated, though? The second she’s alone with the first-person narrator, this guy she’s never met before, the first words out of her mouth are something like, “My breasts are really small, don’t you think?” I found this pretty surprising. Where does this obsession with breasts come from?

HM: I wouldn’t really say it came from anywhere. I just imagine there are girls out there who feel this way.

Chitipati/Shri Shmashana Adhipati (protector) , Tibet, D 1700 – 1799, Sakya

And now, about the Skeleton Lords from Tibetan Lore.  This is from Himalayan Art Resources.

It is important not to confuse the protector deities Shri Shmashana Adhipati, Father & Mother, with the skeleton dancers found in the various systems of Tibetan religious Cham dance. Those skeleton dancers, sometimes categorized as having three types, are unrelated to the Secret Wheel Tantra and the practices of the Shri Shmashana Adhipati. So far all of the iconographic depictions in painting and sculpture of two skeletons dancing as a couple, with appropriate hand attributes, and standing atop a conch and cowrie shell, are Shmashana Adhipati as described in the Secret Wheel Tantra. It should also be understood that Shri Shmashana Adhipati are not worldly deities, but enlightened deities categorized as ‘Wisdom protectors.’ They are emanations of Chakrasamvara.

The skeleton figures, representing worldly spirits, in Tibetan Cham dance are often seen as jesters or servants for other minor worldly gods such as Yama. These Cham dancing skeletons, like the other characters found in dance such as the deer and yak headed servants of Yama, are generally only found in narrative vignettes if found at all in Tibetan paintings. The most common dance represented in painting is generally known descriptively as the Black Hat Dance, and specifically understood to be the Vajrakilaya Cham dance. There will of course be images or random skeletons found in wrathful deity paintings or in the many depictions of the charnal grounds where the relevant Sanskrit and Tibetan texts explicitly state that skeletons are found in cemeteries.

A survey of Vajrayogini paintings in the database finds 16 where Shmashana Adhipati is depicted in the composition as a protector.

Calavera of Francisco Madero by Jose Guadalupe Posada | Etsy

Calavera of Francisco Madero by Jose Guadalupe Posada

So, if you ever wanted to know what a Nobel Prize winning economists reads and what he keeps on his night stand, you may check this out from the NYT Book Review: “Economist Who Wants You to Read More Fiction”.  Even better, the economist is Joseph E. Stiglitz.

What books are on your nightstand?

Like everyone, I have a large and aspirational pile on my nightstand. In fact, my wife recently bought me a bigger nightstand so we’d have more room for the books I want to read. Right now I’ve got “A Moveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway, to remind me of Paris, which I fell even more in love with during my term teaching there. “The Ratline,” because the author, Philippe Sands, is married to my wife’s sister and he sent it to us. Jill Lepore’s “These Truths” and “The Light That Failed,” by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, because everywhere I go people are talking about those two books. Ian McEwan’s “The Cockroach,” because the person who runs the renowned bookstore in Schloss Elmau (Germany) thought I would like this Kafkaesque parable of Brexit, in which a cockroach becomes prime minister. A book that was on my nightstand, but I have since read, is Hannah Lillith Assadi’s beautiful “Sonora,” a novel about the Arizona desert, New York City and the coming-of-age of a young woman whose parents are Palestinian and Israeli Jewish.

Inside Higher Ed has a suggested reading list of information on Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte; The Lady of Love and Death. She is known as Santa Muerte and is considered an idol, female deity or folk saint in Mexican and Mexican-American folk Catholicism.

“Death is a mirror which reflects the vain gesticulations of the living,” wrote Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, his classic interpretation of Mexican history and culture. “The whole motley confusion of acts, omissions, regrets, and hopes which is the life of each of us finds in death, not meaning or explanation, but an end…. A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”

Paz does not explicitly refer to Posada’s work, but he captures its essence too precisely not to have been thinking of it. And both came to mind repeatedly as I read R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press).

Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, set out some years ago to write a book on the Virgin of Guadalupe, only to find his enthusiasm fading after a while. He writes that he was fighting “research malaise” when, by chance, he learned of Santa Muerte, a Mexican “folk saint” known to her devotees by nicknames such as the Bony Lady, the Godmother, and the Angel of Death. She is, in effect the Virgin of Guadalupe’s dark cousin, if not her evil twin.

Santa Muerte’s history and role are complex and, in some ways, distinctly Mexican. But her power — like that of Posada’s artwork – is too great to contain within national borders.

She began to make the news in the 1990s — always (at least in the U.S. media) with reference to the Mexican drug cartels. When the police would raid a gangster’s home, they often found altars to a grim-reaper-like figure, presumably satanic in nature. By 2010, Santa Muerte entered norteamericano popular culture through “Breaking Bad,” a TV series that is about methamphetamine production in roughly the sense that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about having a bug problem.

POMPEII, ITALY~Memento Mori Mosaic (Remember your mortality ...

Memento Mori, Pompeii, Artwork-location: Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Archaeological Museum)

So, another place you may find skull art is from the ruins of Pompeii.  This is from the Pompeii tour guide.

The mosaic represents an allegorical and symbolic philosophical theme of the transience of life and death that eliminates disparities in social class and wealth. The summit of the composition is a level with his plumb line, a tool that was used by masons to control the levelling in construction.

The axis of the lead is the death (the skull), under a butterfly (the soul) balanced on a wheel (Fortune).

Under the arms of the level, and opposed in perfect balance, are the symbols of poverty on the right (a stick a beggar and a cape), and wealth to the left (the sceptre a purple cloth and the ribbon).

Popular belief says the phrase “Memento mori” originated in ancient Rome: as a Roman general was parading through the streets during a victory triumph, standing behind him was his slave, tasked with reminding the general that although at his peak today tomorrow he could fall or be brought down. The servant is thought to have conveyed this with the warning “Memento mori” that means  “Remember that you will die”.


The Chimbu tribe, who live in a remote mountain region of Papua New Guinea, dress up for annual Mount Hagen festival

Remarkable photograph shows the Chimbu Skeleton Tribe of Papua New Guinea and were taken by amateur photographer Pongtharin Tanthasindhu who grew up in Thailand but now lives in Toronto, Canada.

New York Magazine asked 23 authors to recommend books to read during self-isolation.  What are they reading to “escape the present moment?”  I especially liked this suggestion.

“During this time of great uncertainty (and also, at least in my case, great cooking and cleaning) I recommend this book. It’s billed as a memoir with recipes, but Grant’s point of view is uniquely sensual and grounding. Think James Salter meets Ruth Reichl meets Marguerite Duras. Phyllis Grant was a promising ballerina who began her freshman year at Julliard in the 1990s. Lucky for us, she took a detour and discovered cooking with an intensity that rivals Anthony Bourdain. She writes with grace and passion not only about cooking but feasting, family, falling in love and falling apart. She also writes extremely well about healing. When I finished this book, I felt more alive. I can’t think of a better reason to read, in this strange moment and always.” —Joanna Hershon, author of St. Ivo

I found this read about the Skelton Tribue of Papua New Guinea fascinating.  It’s from the Daily Mail.

‘The reason why they paint themselves as skeletons is to intimidate their enemy into believing that they are not human and have some source of supernatural power.’

Only first making contact with the Western world in 1934, the Chimbu tribe have largely remained a mystery-making their skeletal body paint even more fascinating.

Combined with dance, the paint jobs of Papua New Guinea’s Chimbu tribe were originally intended to intimidate enemies.

Go gaze at these amazing photographs and works of body art.


The Very Best of the Grateful Dead by The Grateful Dead on Amazon ...

From the upshot at NYT: “Deaths in New York City Are More Than Double the Usual Total” By Josh Katz and 

Over the 31 days ending April 4, more than twice the typical number of New Yorkers died.

That total for the city includes deaths directly linked to the novel coronavirus as well as those from other causes, like heart attacks and cancer. Even this is only a partial count; we expect this number to rise as more deaths are counted.

These numbers contradict the notion that many people who are dying from the new virus would have died anyway. And they suggest that the current coronavirus death figures understate the real toll of the virus, either because of undercounting of coronavirus deaths, increases in deaths that are normally preventable, or both.

So, I always loved this video with the switching between the band and skeleton puppets.

We will get by
We will get by
We will get by
We will survive


And I thank you for putting up with my very dark side with its even darker humor.  Whistling past the graveyard is a very Buddhist and Brit thing to do of which I have roots in both.

And just so you know that I’m not just being morbid:

Respect Death and the Dead.

So, what’s on your reading and blogging and creating and whistling past the graveyard list today?


21 Comments on “Frankly Over It All Friday Reads: Whistling Past the Graveyard”

  1. dakinikat says:

    A very dear friend of mine was just put in the ICU last night. Fortunately, she’s just getting oxygen and is not on a ventilator. She’s one of the first folks I met when I moved over to the Bywater from the Quarter. Here room even has a window and she’s in a private room so she’s doing okay in terms of care and everything. She somewhat inspired this for me today because she has a second home in Mexico now since retiring as a real estate agent and basically is known as the one who brings the Day of the Dead and its art back up here to us each year. She’s about 10 years older than me but she’s far more active than I am and really hope and pray she pulls through. She has all her Mardi Gras Costumes fabricated in her home town in Mexico and they are the envy of every one.

    Also, she really really cares about the neighborhood and the neighbors. She’s a good friend and a wonderful neighbor …

    • Enheduanna says:

      It’s tragic this will hit some of our most outgoing and socially active friends and family. I am hoping for the best for your friend, Dak. She sounds lovely.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. I hope she recovers.

    • NW Luna says:

      I hope she pulls through too. Getting O2 isn’t anywhere as bad as needing a ventilator. She sounds fabulous.

  2. quixote says:

    “in which a cockroach becomes prime minister”

    Could somebody tell these clever writers that when it becomes too realistic all you want to do is withdraw?

    • NW Luna says:

      Yes. I never did like Kafka. And these days it’s the cockroach who becomes president.

  3. bostonboomer says:

    Today Trump tweeted “Happy Good Friday!” and then he held his idiotic briefing between noon and 3 when Christians mark Jesus’ death on the cross.

  4. dakinikat says:

  5. quixote says:

    Have I mentioned recently how much I love Katie Porter?

    (via Adam Smith on twitter:)

    “If you’re full of bullshit, I’m coming for ya. I just don’t have time. I’m a single mom, the dinner is burning, I’m late to something, I have 4,000 emails. My hair is frizzy. NO. BULL. SHIT.”

  6. dakinikat says:

    • quixote says:

      Well, to be fair, she is the only person of even normal intelligence in that family. (I’m excluding Barron, no idea where he’s at, as well as her mother, Ivana, who seemed pretty damn sharp when she was around. Horrible, of course, but sharp.)

  7. NW Luna says:

    Huh. Imagine that!

    Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia faces blowback as he curtails scope of worker relief in unemployment crisis

    The Labor Department is facing growing criticism over its response to the coronavirus pandemic as the agency plays a central role in ensuring that the tens of millions of workers affected by the crisis get assistance. The criticism ranges from direct actions that the agency has taken to limit the scope of worker assistance programs to concerns that it has not been aggressive enough about protecting workers from health risks or supporting states scrambling to deliver billions in new aid.

    In recent days, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous, has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits. The new rules make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits, while making it easier for some companies to avoid paying their workers coronavirus-related sick and family leave.

    • palhart says:

      Can it be more obvious trumpsters, rural midwesterners, and middle and lower class wage-earners that this prez, his cabinet, and the GOP want to strangle and starve you, and throw you and your families to the wolves?

      Now to a quote, eventually: Noel Field was an American Russian spy who was brilliant as he graduated from Harvard in 2 years. He worked in the U.S. State Department in the 30s. He was a “true believer” in Russia’s peace initiatives, and hated the fascists. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said:

      “Field’s simple-mindedness was indestructible.”

      • quixote says:

        Not getting the connection of ideas, palhart. Unless it’s that the capacity for self-delusion is limitless?

        • palhart says:

          Maybe it’s premature for me to be entertaining the idea that Trump could be elected for a second term, which I wasn’t ready to disclose. However, I don’t have much enthusiasm for Biden and his ability to take on Trump in what will surely be the most brutal months leading up to November 3rd, especially in my state with Cal Cunningham running against Tom Tillis for a U.S. Senate seat. Cunningham is an exceptional candidate and will be smeared hour by hour in GOP ads, like Kay Hagan was in 2014. Again, North Carolina democrats have chosen a strong candidate, a winner.

          I’m in a holding pattern where I’ve stopped thinking, until there are many, many compelling assurances, that Trump’s failed handling of the Coronavirus, the huge numbers of deaths, will stop him from winning again. In my first comment, I was highlighting 2 groups, whose simple-mindedness, regardless of class, intelligence, or occupation, seems to be indestructible.

      • dakinikat says:

        Members of cults will drink the koolaide. History is full of those examples.

  8. NW Luna says:

    WTAF? No!

    The stimulus package will cover clergy salaries.

    Pastors, rabbis, imams and other employees of religious groups taking an economic hit from the coronavirus will see their paychecks covered by the federal government, a move some church-state experts say expands government funding of religion.