(This is the continuation and conclusion of last week’s post.)
What do we know about talking skulls?
First, that it’s a motif found in traditions from many different parts of the world. Naturally. We all want to know what happens beyond the grave, don’t we? And what better source of that information than a skull, whose possessor has already crossed over? If only that skull could be made to talk.
I’ve already referred to the Egyptian story of St. Macarius and the talking skull. African-American artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s powerful 1937 sculpture, “Talking Skull,” was inspired by a folk tale, presumably African, in which “a skull warned a young man that ‘Tongue brought me here and if you are not careful, Tongue will bring you here.’ Excited by his discovery, the youth told his village about the discovery, only to be beheaded just before the skull reiterated its warning.”
From medieval Japan comes the “abominable Tachikawa skull ritual” of Tantric Buddhism. My former colleague, Professor James H. Sanford of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–my recently deceased, sorely missed friend Jim–published an article on this in the 1991 volume of the journal Monumenta Nipponica. The would-be magician–for now we’re in the realm of magic–must find a skull of one of a number of specified types. When he’s found it–
“he adds a chin, puts in a tongue and teeth, and covers the bone with hard lacquer so that it looks just like the unblemished flesh of a living person. When the skull has been completely formed, he places it in a box. Then he must have sexual intercourse with a beautiful and willing woman, and must repeatedly wipe the liquid product of this act onto the skull until it reaches 120 layers. Each night at midnight he must burn ‘spirit-returning incense’, pass the skull through the fragrant smoke, and chant a spirit-returning mantra fully one thousand times.”
This is just the beginning. “Charms and talismans,” their nature left vague, must be added to the skull; layer after layer of gold and silver leaf must be applied to it. “The face is painted white and rouge patted in to create the appearance of a beautiful woman. (It can also be made to resemble a young boy.) The image must look prosperous and have a face that smiles without the slightest hint of reproach.”
The skull is installed on an altar, exotic sacrifices made to it. The magician puts it in an elaborately woven bag and sleeps with it at night. After seven years (!!!) it becomes a full-fledged oracle, which “will inform him of all the events of the world” so that he will “become as someone with divine powers.”
Jim Sanford found himself skeptical whether anybody actually went through this rigamarole. But the ritual reminds us that, unlike St. Macarius and (apparently) the young man from the African tale, most of us don’t just stumble upon talking skulls when we go for a stroll. The skull has to be made to talk.
Magic is the way to go about that.
In the Mediterranean world in which Jesus moved, that magic could sometimes be sophisticated fakery. The magician makes a fake skull out of Etruscan wax and “an ox’s abdominal membrane.” His accomplice attaches a tube to the skull and speaks through it, so that “this skull appears to everyone to chatter.” At the end of the performance, the magician piles coals around the skull and “makes a show of burning incense. When the heat of the coals reaches the wax, it melts, and in this way the skull is believed to become invisible.”
But sometimes the magic was real, or believed to be real. The second-century (CE) Roman Apuleius casually referred to the practice of using skulls “for the evocation of the dead.” A fourth-century Greek magical text claims to detail a genuine technique for “inquiry into skulls.” “Take an ass’s skin, dry it in the shade, and draw on it the figure that will be revealed,” plus a long string of magic words. Then write: “I conjure you, demon of a dead man by the strong and implacable god and by his holy names, to stand yourself at my side in the coming night, in the form you used to have, and tell me whether you are able to perform the (fill in blank) task.”
Apparently some Palestinian Jews also dabbled in this kind of thing. A Hebrew text from the second or early third century CE, quoted in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b), speaks of a certain kind of necromancer who “inquires of a skull.” Which is pretty much what Jesus does in the Muslim folk legend with which we began–except that his “inquiry” takes the form of prayer to Almighty Allah.
But would the real, historical Jesus have done such a thing?
Several people have posted to my Fan Page to tell me: NO WAY!!! I respect their convictions, and will freely admit that my suggestion that the Muslim legend preserves an ancient story embedded deep in the Gospel traditions–the original nexus between the Lazarus of Luke and the Lazarus of John–involves a hefty dose of speculation.
Yet I can’t shake the sense there’s something to it, some reminiscence that the Gospel writers were uncomfortable with and preferred not to look at too closely.
Compare Matthew 26:60-61 and Mark 14:57-58 with John 2:19. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying something like, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.” We’re assured that this is the testimony of false witnesses. But in John, Jesus actually speaks words very much like these–only there we’re told he was really speaking of “the temple of his body.”
It sounds very much as if the Gospel writers were troubled by a nagging, persistent rumor that Jesus had made this strange boast, and found different ways to dispose of it: Matthew and Mark by attributing it to false witnesses, John by explaining it away as symbolic.
In other words, that there were aspects of this powerful, protean figure–the Galilean preacher whose brief life changed the course of history–that those who transmitted his faith were less than happy to remember. That he was a charismatic wonder-worker, a comforting and healing presence, a teacher of Torah in ways that left the official Torah experts stunned and gaping–all this could be said openly. Other facets may have needed to remain in the shadows.
In a book published in 1978, the maverick New Testament scholar Morton Smith took the unprecedented step of reading the Gospels in the light of ancient magical practice. His Jesus the Magician is an eye-opening, often disturbing read. Take, for example, his interpretation of the strange Mark 6:14, which quotes certain unnamed people (or Herod Antipas? the manuscripts vary) as saying of Jesus:
“John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him [Jesus].”
Smith takes this to mean: John the Baptist has been raised from the dead by Jesus’s necromancy; Jesus now has him. He reads a lot into the Biblical text. But it’s not easy to make sense of the passage without supposing that, in some occult way, the living powers of the (formerly?) dead John are at work within Jesus.
Which raises for me the question: What was done with John the Baptist’s head?
I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked that before. Two Gospel writers tell essentially the same story of the Baptist’s execution (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29). Herod Antipas has put John in prison, because John told him his marriage to his wife Herodias was in violation of the Torah. Herodias wants John executed. Antipas won’t do that, either because he respects John (according to Mark) or because he fears the people’s reaction (according to Matthew).
“But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias”–the Gospels never give her name as “Salome”–“danced before the company, and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter'” (Matthew 14:6-8).
Antipas, bound by his oath, has John beheaded. “His head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And [John’s] disciples took the body and buried it …”
His body was buried. But what was done with the head?
Did Herodias get bored with it and throw it in the garbage? Or did she know to make other uses of it?
Does this question have something to do with the story of the skull?
I wish I knew.
by David Halperin
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