Cradle to Coffin: A Semiotic Model of Life and Death
A Semiotic Model of Life and Death
The mysteries of life and death are the bookends of our lives; as a result we find their influence through every society and culture.
‘The symbols of death say what life is and those of life define what death must be’ (Warner, 1959: 320).
In my last post, I looked at metaphors for how we conceive our bodies and think through our bodies symbolically. This raised the question of how do we think of our bodies after we die, not just when we are alive. The following analysis revealed some interesting meaning-structures that frame the way we think about our lives through the context of life and death. There are some deep structural-oppositions that are present across many cultures that can be semiotically modeled, providing a way of looking at our journey from birth to death.
“A human burial contains more anthropological information per cubic meter of deposit than any other type of archaeological feature” (Peebles 1977:124).
Whilst I don’t want to get too side-tracked into discussing burial traditions, it’s useful to very briefly and very broadly contextualise this discussion. The archaeological record points to the importance of mortuary rites and inhumations over the last 100,000 years. The ritual importance from the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of artefacts and tools in graves suggests a cross-cultural belief in a life after death. We might be able to revise this even later; recently a 350,000 year old pink stone-axe was found in Northern Spain. It was found in a funeral setting and the archaeologists have hypothesied it could have been ‘the first funeral rite of human beings’.
The roles that burials play in society are complex. Influential here, Robert Hertz from an anthropological perspective has suggested that there is a first and second funeral after death. Simply, the first funeral’s role is to get rid of the polluting, decomposition and sorrowful aspects of the death. The second funeral is focused on the initiation of the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ into the realm of the ancestors. As a general structure, many funeral and mortuary practices appear to follow this understanding today.
Death rituals also guide and are guided by social and kin organisation:
Every burial that archaeologists excavate resulted from a complex sequence of practices that were initiated, not with the death of the person or persons who were interred, but long before, as their social identities were shaped and their individual experiences linked them to others through webs of kin and non-kin relationships. Burials are thus complex intersections of processes of formation of social identities.
It is likely that social identities that were maintained in life, suggest the same status in the afterlife: ‘People who are treated differently in life will be treated differently in death’ (Peebles 1977). This suggests that there is a correspondence between the complexity of societies and the form that burials take. As a result, it’s also believed that the types of grave artifacts are then representative of the authority and status of the living. Although, funerals and graves are mainly for the living, Lloyd Warner, has defined their role as
‘The cemetery is an enduring physical emblem, a substantial and visible symbol of the agreement among individuals that they will not let each other die’.
The anthropology of death and burials is fascinating and the scope of its research is impressive. The brief outline above serves to illustrate that while in modern society funerals and burials can sometimes feel less central to our ‘secular’ beliefs, they have been an integral part of how society and cultures have evolved. From a symbolic perspective, the key themes here are the idea of the first and second funeral: the end of the mortal body and the belief in an afterlife. This provides a structural symbolic-opposition that enables a more semiotic conception to be revealed.
While I have titled this post Cradle to Coffin, there is a more elementary step that I really could have started with, which was was womb to grave.
And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither
Anyone who has studied archaeology or anthropology would be well versed in the cross-cultural symbolic connection of the womb and the grave. Mircea Eliade has written of the human mother as a symbolic surrogate for the telluric Great Earth Mother.
The mythical birth of Sun Wukong or ‘the Monkey King’ in Chinese and Indian traditions evokes this symbolism. Wu Cheng’en’s story tells us of a magic stone on top of a mountain, influenced by the heaven, earth and sun: ‘It developed a magic womb, which burst open one day to produce a stone egg about the size of a ball.” The story of his birth is continued: ‘Like animals, the earth produces an egg, which is fertilized by the semen of the blowing wind. In giving the stone life, the wind makes Wukong immortal because he always has wind, or breath, within him’.
While Peebles warns of the ‘naive interpretations’ …of innumerable ‘explanations’ of burial customs by authors trying to practise palaeopsychology … [in reference to]…’foetal’ positions in graves [and other artefacts]. The cross-cultural consistency of foetal positions in burials does point to some shared and clear symbolism, e.g. as can be seen in this Aztec burial, of the Tepanec, from about 700 years ago.
The symbolism here in terms of the afterlife does suggest a more natural and familiar analogy. Simplistically, many belief-systems lead us to believe that when we die we are reborn again, in another form, in another place. The egg-and-chrysalis are analogous to womb-and-tomb.
Life and Death as a Container Metaphor
As I discussed above, the starting point for this discussion was a previous post on container-metaphors. A more detailed discussion on the role of metaphors for psychology and semiotics is covered across these posts. In brief, ‘metaphor allows us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that no other modes of thought can.” ( Lakoff and Turner 1989: xi). Container-metaphors are a very sticky type of metaphor. We use them cross-culturally to refer to our bodies as vessels for emotions. When we talk of emotions, a person has spirit. More broadly we believe they are also symbolic of vessels for different conceptions of ‘self’ or the ‘soul’.
We start our lives in a container and we end our lives in a container. We all start in a womb and end it today in a coffin or cremation urn. The same symbolism that we find 100,000 years ago is continued today in many different cultural expressions. The one constant through this entire span of time are our mothers’ wombs. If this is taken as the starting point for the creation of a semiotic model, we can provide a structural model that accounts for all types of burial in anthropology, mythology and even science fiction.
There are two parts to explore moving forward.
- The first is the introduction of the semiotic modelling with examples of the key meaning oppositions.
- The second is to think of cultural examples, from antiquity to today that can illustrate and verify this semiotic analysis.
Semiotic Square of Life and Death: Container Metaphors
The model I am going to use is a semiotic square that was developed by Algirdas Julius Greimas, which is a simple way to map out complex underlying structural meanings.
These axes can be defined – recalling the labels used here are from a container-metaphoric perspective:
- Womb – clearly the womb is the starting point of life. It is that which ‘creates life’.
- Cauldron – If we think of witch stories, they ‘eat life’. Hansel and Gretel are fattened up to be boiled in either the Cauldron or Oven, is a symbolic corruption and contriety of the life giving womb.
- Coffins – sarcophagus in translation means ‘flesh eater’. This is the contradiction of the womb which grows new life and flesh. The difference from the Cauldron is that it doesn’t eat living flesh.
- Vessels – there are many pots and jars that are used in burials that preserve body parts for the afterlife. The contradiction: If the cauldron eats life, the funeral vessels preserve bodies. This is the sub-contriety of the coffin.
This model also reveals some deeper structural themes:
- Womb – is about wet growth – the umbilical fluids supporting life
- Cauldron – is wet decay – water is the element of decay
- Coffin – is about dry decay – we desiccate in coffins
- Vessels – about dry growth – moisture is removed from organs in mummification.
The correct challenge to any such modelling is, does this model hold water? To explore this, I’m going to explore each of the four container-metaphors here in turn. I’m also going to be eclectic in my examples, mainly because I’m interested in both ancient and modern expressions of culture and where they align.
Semiotic axis: Womb
This should be self-explanatory. However, if we broaden the discussion to womb-symbolism, in terms of ‘creates life’ it easy to find examples in the ‘cradle’
There are many mythical stories from Moses to Hercules, where the hero is protected by a man made ‘womb’ in the form of a cradle. To more modern versions are the incredible humidicribs which are technological wombs; to the fantastic in the origins of Superman, in a custom space-cradle Kal-el was sent to earth.
The technological womb is not always positive. In the Matrix trilogy, the artificial wombs were a form of enslavement.
Semiotic Axis: Cauldron or Oven
The symbolism of the cauldron, as the favourite vessel for ‘witches’ to eat life, is a consistent theme across folklore and mythology. The Latin origins of the word literally mean ‘hot bath’ which fits with the wet/decay meaning axis.
The associations here of the dark-womb aren’t always supernatural, there are also many examples of being ‘boiled to death’ as a punishment across different cultures. It was a punishment that was legal at the time of Henry VIII, being passed as an act in 1531. There are different cultural examples such in the Sikh example of ‘On the 9th November, 1675 A.D., the Qazis ordered that Bhai Dayal Dass be seated in a cauldron of boiling water’ ends with the description ‘His flesh separated from his bones and his soul merged into the Supreme Being’.
There are also links that are more literal to the symbolism, suggested here where the unsubstantiated claims that African ‘cannibals’ boiled missionaries in steel pots have flourished in popular culture. Cannibalism is a very literal form of eating life.
This is, of course, referring to the specific ‘evil’ use of the cauldron. There are positive symbolic associations with the cauldron, which position it a direct symbol for the power of the mother’s womb. The Grail in Arthurian Legends, as the cup of life, has a heritage in being known as a cauldron of life. This suggests that cauldrons could be seen as ‘wombs’ in more positive and life giving symbolic frame. Another example is from the welsh text Mabinogi, the second branch tells of a magical cauldron that
‘…the peculiarity of the cauldron is this: a man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, by the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk.’
The cauldron then has two symbolic faces, both of which are linked by the symbolism of being a source of life or something that eats life. The symbolism here continues through different examples that speak across the wet/decay axis of meaning.
Semiotic Axis: Coffin
The coffin is probably the easiest to understand, in the context of symbolism. If the womb is a living and life giving ‘wet’ environment, the coffin is a dead and drying environment. If we think of how we think of aging, it’s a journey from elastic, fresh, subtle skin to dry, wrinkled and cracked skin – it’s a process of desiccation to the bone. I looked at some of the implications of this symbolism in an earlier post. If we recall Robert Hertz definition of the first funeral above, the role of the coffin is to separate and demark the corruption and pollution of the dead.
It is interesting that Dracula myths, in their many tellings, present the inverse of this.
They present the ‘holy’ undead with a refuge from the life giving daylight, which they need to hide from in their coffins. Although, the novel Dracula still ties the life force of the vampire to mother earth:
‘There, in one of the great boxes, of which there were fifty in all, on a pile of newly dug earth, lay the Count! He was either dead or asleep, I could not say which—for the eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death—and the cheeks had the warmth of life through all their pallor; the lips were as red as ever. But there was no sign of movement, no pulse, no breath, no beating of the heart. ‘
We can see the consistency of this symbolism in the etymology of the word coffin, which derives from the Latin cophinus which means basket. The modern French couffin means cradle.
One of the most prominent phobias, speaks to the negation of the coffin – life. Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive, and it is a persistent theme in movies and literature.
Semiotic Axis: Vessel
Of all the four axes, the ‘vessel’ shows the most diversity in culture. The reason for this is that it symbolically evokes the second funeral, the possibility of the afterlife.
From the model, the ‘vessel’ is in meaning-opposition to the cauldron. If the cauldron eats life, the vessel prolongs or regenerates it.
The etymology of the word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion and the Latin coemetrium, both words for sleeping chamber. Framing death as sleep, was common in the Bible, eg. The Old Testament in Daniel 12:2 describes the dead as “those who sleep in the dust of the earth,” who later “shall awake” through being resurrected. Sleep and dreams have long been associated with the spirit or dream world across many cultures. Living on into the next life is a form of resurrection after death.
There are many cultural expressions of this. Perhaps the most famous in antiquity were the Canopic Jars of the Egyptians, from about 700BC, which preserved the organs of the dead for the afterlife.
This is a powerful theme in religion which almost universally speaks to the promise of a life after this one, eg. The Life of Jesus speaks across many of these themes. He was born from Mary, into a manger (a form of cradle). The manger scene prefigures his resurrection from the Cave of Calvary – a womb symbol – transfigured through this rebirth.
From a very different tangent, this is a theme that is a very popular one across science fiction.
The series Stargate follows loosely the myths and religion of ancient Egypt. In their story telling, the sarcophagus of the Goa’uld (evil aliens) regenerate and prolong the lives of their human hosts. The medical bays in Alien perform a similar function. In Star Trek Enterprise the medical bay directly evokes the Christian symbolism – if you look at the entrance, you can see the cut-out of the Ringed-Cross the symbol of Christs resurrection.
In the film Cocoon, the role of the ‘vessel’ is more multi-faceted.
Here we see aliens returning for lost comrades. They have preserved their lives by remaining dormant in vessels – that look more like organic eggs (wombs). When they are in their natural forms they look like souls, suggesting they have already made the journey to the otherside.
Of course, one of the most unique variations on these themes is that of Dr Who.
The Tardis is a regeneration chamber for the Doctor, a Time Lord. The story integrally links the Tardis to his life; the Tardis is his source of regeneration…currently rebooted Dr Who to the impossible number 13.
It seems easy to find examples of the ‘magical’ or ‘science fiction’ expressions of this meaning axis. So, I’ll finish on an archaeological example that can illustrate many of these themes. Amongst the finds of the Neolithic settlements in the Republic of Macedonia, there are some amazing figurines with a very specific symbolism. These come in a wide and diverse range of design but all share the same characteristics of very feminine torsos, where the house represents the part of the body where the reproductive organs are.
Goce Naumov, believes that:
‘On one of the example, the belly is represented in the state of pregnancy, suggesting the figurine symbolically bears the embryo where the house is placed…It can be concluded that in the Neolithic, the house was conceived as a space with exclusively feminine features and symbolic functions – conception, incubation, birth and growth. Consequently, we can interpret the burial of the deceased (in foetal position) inside the house as a metaphor for the fetus in the womb’
Furthermore, it appears that the oven (cauldron) and woman’s body were perceived as being analogous
In that context, the hearth and oven had symbolic meaning with the same metaphoric function as those organs of a women’s abdomen which stimulate the conception and development of the embryo. Food was prepared near these structures, created, and afterwards through the cooking, baking or roasting process, was transformed into sustenance in a changed form and character. The shape of the Neolithic ovens, their power to modify and also their radiant heat, can also suggest a semantic relationship to the key features of the women’s abdomen. Some anthropomorphic models of ovens indicate that during the rites, they were perceived as human body or as mythic figures with human features
Naumov notes that more broadly: ‘Placing dead infants in symbolic ‘wombs’ occurred not only in the case of houses, ovens and bags, but also in vessels’. There does appear to be a symbolic equivalence between pots and wombs across different cultures e.g. Similar practices can be found across eastern, western and southern Africa.
What is interesting about the anthropomorphic / architectonic vessels is the use of the house as a symbol here. There are close parallels of these house-vessels from Hungary to modern Israel. Nikos Čausidis suggests that the house symbol itself is a type of container-metaphor that is analogous to the womb:
‘The uterus represents the first-prenatal spatial experience of human beings. Even after birth, humans experience the house as a womb in which they are enclosed, protected, warm, nourished and safe. The house, in the same way as the mother, protects them from the unpleasant and uncomprehending outer world. The house becomes a model for understanding the universe
In the creation of the semiotic model of this thinking, I’ve chosen a couple of meaning axis names that some might challenge. For the ‘cauldron’, the way that I got there was by thinking through the archetypal psychology of the mother. We find that in myths and folklore, her shadow is the witch. Amongst many other characteristics, witches eat babies and children. If mothers create and nurture life, then the anti-womb must be about eating or destroying life.
One of my favourite witch stories comes from this region, are the stories of Baba Yaga the witch.
Now deep in this forest, as the stepmother well knew, there was a green lawn and on the lawn stood a miserable little hut on hens’ legs, where a certain Baba Yaga, an old witch grandmother lived.
If the house can be seen as a metaphor for a womb; then this symbolism, like the cauldron, should have an evil version that is about eating life. A hut that walks on chicken legs as the home of an infamous witch, might foot the bill. It also provides a further insight to how the model can be challenged and evolved
For something that is as quintessential to the human experience as ‘the power of life and death’, it is not surprising that we have developed some complex symbolism and semiotic structures for expressing it. What is interesting when we consider the diversity of thought in in the vessel-axis, is that as secular and de-religioned as man has become, we are still fascinated with the idea of prolonging life or challenging ourselves to whether there is an afterlife.