Archive for February, 2011

Death and Rebirth in Byzantine Sicily

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Death and rebirth is a common theme of many religions, often with a God dying and being reborn at certain times of the year. In shamanic communities, death and rebirth also alludes to the shamanic journey and the physical state of the shaman as he or she enters and returns from the otherworld.

Death and rebirth is also central to the Christian faith, with Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday to be resurrected two days later on Easter Sunday. Within Christianity, such a cycle of death and rebirth seems entirely limited to Jesus, however, with the only hope of rebirth for ordinary mortals being in the afterlife. In fact, having the ability to die and be reborn may even be viewed as heretical and against the natural order determined by God.

It is on this basis that recent discoveries at the Byzantine village of Kaukana, on Sicily, are so interesting. Between AD 580 to cAD 640, a house within Kaukana was built, occupied, and finally abandoned when wind-blown sand engulfed the interior. Within the confines of the house, and probably constructed after the occupants had moved out, is a tomb, built above ground in the style usually reserved for high-status individuals. Inside were a woman and her daughter. Finding such a tomb within a house, at this date, is highly unusual.

Evidence around the tomb – a hearth for cooking and copious food remains – suggests that people were returning to the tomb to feast with the dead spirits that lay within. This was frowned upon by religious authorities, and they would have been horrified to learn that there was also a small hole in the covering of the tomb to allow libations and other choice morsels to be passed to the dead woman inside.

We know that the occupants of the tomb were Christian since there are many symbols with alpha and omega signs; clearly those burying the woman thought that they were important to include. So, the question is: why did people – probably Christian themselves – defy their own tradition and bury a woman in a high-status tomb, in a house (possibly her own), and then continue to visit the site to cook and share food with the deceased? A strange mark on the woman’s cranium might provide the answer.

A small dimple at the back of the skull, as well as signs of water-on-the-brain, suggests meningocele, a condition leading to headaches and frequent fainting fits. It is the fits that are significant. A woman who regularly faints with seizures, only to rise again a few minutes later, may have been thought to be divinely touched, even replicating the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In Renaissance times, St Catherine was venerated for precisely these qualities.

At Kaukana, was the posthumous treatment of the woman because people revered her power or did they fear her reach, even after death? Or did they think that she might possibly rise once again and kept her tended and fed for this possibility?

The dig, led by Professor Roger Wilson of the University of Columbia, returns to Sicily this year and will attempt to uncover more about this remarkable woman and her powers of resurrection.

More information on the University of British Columbia website.