12-24-18 - "Death and the Maiden"

Dear Sweet Babe,

Today I want to talk to you about death.

Did you know that in Medieval Europe there was a great plague? It swept over the countrysides and cities alike, killing people in about three days. It killed rich people and poor people, nobility and serfs, children and adults. Death became so prevalent that some estimate about twenty-five million people died. Whole villages would be left empty from the sheer amount of death.
Now, this medical disaster was seen by many to be a punishment from the Christian god, and this view lead to a lot of people turning to new faiths, while others grew stronger in their devotion to their dogmatic practices, and some even scapegoated and blamed others of different faiths for displeasing their god. The latter course of action was not particularly good for those who practiced faiths outside of Christianity, especially not for Jewish people. In the fear that people had of death, the otherness and differentness of the Jews inspired persecution. Eventually this fear was so persistent that it lead to the Catholic Church sanctioning the burning alive of Jewish populations of whole villages and cities.

Take a moment to think on how afraid someone has to be to think that the immolation of another type of person will save them from death.

Well, sweet babe, that’s what the fear of death can do. It is well known that what is most fearful is the unknown. That’s why good scary movies always wait to show you the monster until the second act, or why people are so afraid of the dark, or why flying in an airplane really freaks some people out. What we don’t understand strikes us with fear, because, before human beings were capable of rational thought, we had no way of discerning between the good unknown and the bad unknown; the benevolent mysteries and the mysteries that would kill us. So, when we came across something that we didn’t understand, it struck fear in us… and what, I ask you, is more misunderstood and unknown than death? What mystery is more unsolvable than what happens on the unknowable journey that we all take after our lives have ended?

But now, I want to tell you about a popular artistic trope that emerged from the post-plagued Europe. It’s called “Death and the Maiden.” This is an artistic expression that depicts an incarnation of death (usually a skeleton) in the embrace of, or dancing with, a beautiful (often nude) young woman. This trope propped up all over Europe in the years after the Black Death plague. It could be found in paintings, in sculptures, in music, in plays, and even in literature (in the sense that the very few people who knew how to write and read at this time, would write about it). 
This trope’s prevalence signified a different understanding of death. With a beautiful healthy person deciding to embrace or even dance with death, the idea of accepting the unknown is shown. Instead of giving into our base impulses, and fearing what we do not know, certain people had found a new way of understanding the misunderstood; not by naming it in fear and fighting it with violence, but by understanding the unknowableness of death, embracing it’s inevitability, and accepting the beauty of such a universal mystery.
Now, this artistic trope and the mindset it represented didn’t  all of a sudden solve the fear of death. People still continued, and continue, to fear the unknown. People still allow that fear to inspire them to commit immoral and insane acts. People still scapegoat those who they do not understand and who they’ve allow themselves to fear. For many, the instinctual impulse of the fear of the unknown is too strong to overcome.

But, we, as individuals, can embrace a different mindset; the mindset of “Death and the Maiden.” We can take a moment to ask ourselves: what do I fear? And…why do I fear what I fear?

If we can look at our fear with rationality, understanding that what is unknown is not always the mystery that will kill us, we can find a more positive and healthy way of understanding our emotions.
The unknowability of death can be very scary, but the inevitability of death can also be very comforting. It is in this glimpsing of this unknowable journey, that we will all embark on, that we, as people, can band together. It is with this common thread of unknowable death that we can bind together as human beings, with a shared understanding of our fear. Who knows…we may even find a type of dance that we all can take part in; a dance with death, with the unknown; a dance with fear.

So, sweet babe, what do you fear?


Erik SchneiderComment