Symbolism, Freemasonry, and the Tarot

Symbolism, Freemasonry, and the Tarot

Is a picture worth a thousand words? In our modern society, most are acquainted with Tarot cards as a form of divination or fortune telling. However, there is a deeper, more esoteric meaning attached to the Tarot. A legend exists related to the Tarot which tells of a group of adepts traveling through an enchanted forest. Along the way, these individuals lost their voices and were only able to communicate with each other by displaying Tarot cards to one another. Through the exercise of relation via symbols, the adepts were able to navigate out of the forest and into the light. What is the Tarot, and what relationship does the Tarot have with Freemasonry?

The Tarot System

On a surface level, the Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, each with its own distinct image and meaning. While many have used the cards as a divination tool, Tarot cards can also represent a mysterious oracle of hidden knowledge. The Tarot cards are divided into two separate groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards divided into 4 suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, and 4 court cards: Page, Knight, King, and Queen.

MinorArcana

The meaning of the Arcana represents “what is necessary to know, to discover, to anticipate, so as to be fruitful and creative in one’s possible endeavors.” Arcana is derived from the Latin words “Arca,” meaning “Chest” and “Arcere” meaning “To shut or to close.” Thus, Arcanum symbolically represents a tightly-closed treasure chest which holds a secret meaning.

Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon provides this illuminating sentiment related to the Tarot:  “a symbol is simply the pattern, made of any substance whatsoever that is used to denote, or point to, some other symbol, or object or relation between objects. The thing it points to is called its meaning.” By reading Tarot cards symbolically, each person is able to divine their own meaning and truth.

Historical Origins of the Tarot

Mystery shrouds the historical origination of the Tarot. The French scholar, Court de Gebélin, wrote that the Tarot was the one book of the ancient Egyptians that escaped the burning of the great Library of Alexandria Library.

This book was said to contain “the purest knowledge of profound matters” possessed by the wise men of Egypt. After the library was destroyed, a group of sages met in Fez, Morocco and decided to preserve the secrets of this ancient text into pictorial form on the cards of the Tarot.

There is general consensus that the pictures on the cards represented the visual retelling of the secrets of ancient mysteries, with different accounts of the wisdom being Egyptian, Zoroastrianism, or Gnostic in tradition. The symbols depicted on the cards provided a manner to keep the secrets safe except for those prepared to receive them. The cards were brought to Europe, purportedly as a result of the Crusades, but were suppressed during the inquisition of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.  

treeoflifekabbalahTarot and the Kabbalah

Many esoteric scholars have sought to understand the Tarot through the Kabbalah, the mystic teachings of Judaism. Kabbalah has been translated to mean “receiving,” from God, the Eternal One. Referred to as one, the deity is actually twofold in nature including the male aspect, Adonai, and the female aspect, the Holy Shechinah. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, displayed above, is particularly useful in understanding and interpreting the Tarot. The Tree of Life consists of ten spheres, referred to as Sefirot, which are connected by 22 different paths, expressing different interactions between the Sefirot: Kingdom, Foundation, Victory, Splendor, Victory, Beauty, Mercy, Severity, Wisdom, Understanding, and Crown. Each path corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which contains 22 letters. Similarly, the Tarot deck contains ten numbered cards in each Minor Arcana suit and 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

Freemasonry and The Tarot

What is the relationship between The Tarot and Freemasonry? To begin, there is the existence of a Masonic themed Tarot Cards: The Square and Compass Tarot Card Deck, which is displayed above. Deeper connections exist as well, including the symbolic journey of the initiate into Freemasonry. The Tarot has been described as symbolizing the path of initiation or a journey towards reintegration with one’s true self. “Know Thyself” is a motto of the Craft and the twenty-two cards of Tarot’s Major Arcana provide useful tools for reflection for those interested in doing the work. The cards reveal stages of an archetypal journey of man with each card representing a stage to be encountered by each individual on their life path.

Like the Tarot, Freemasonry’s origins are difficult to trace and veiled in mystery, and both systems have evolved through history, HolyGrailyet their essential substance remains unchanged. The Masonic scholar, A.E. Waite, posits that the Tarot and Freemasonry are both connected to the Legend of the Holy Grail. In his book The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal, Waite presents his conclusive belief that the Tarot is the “canonical Hallows of the Graal legend,” linking the character Percival, the Fool in the Tarot deck, to the Mason in search of light.

Alternatively, the Masonic writer, Manly P. Hall argued that the Major Arcana represent the 22 chapters of the Book of Revelations: a spiritual road map to achieve oneness with God.

It has been said that individuals come to Masonry to remember what has been forgotten; that all knowledge already exists with us. Through the signs, symbols and images in Tarot, the seeker is directed to recollect the universal teaching that we are all the same in essence, each traveling the same road despite perceived differences in form.

Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

When the Norse arrived in Greenland, in the mid 10th Century, they found a land that was experiencing a global warming trend with green fields, retreating ice floes, and oceans teaming with fish and mammals. They built settlements, farms, and began hunting walrus for the ivory trade and beach-dwelling seals for food. They imported most of their day to day goods: iron, grains, wool, and livestock.

By the end of the 13th Century, the Norse had begun struggling with soil erosion and trade shortfalls.  At this time, the Inuit had arrived, migrating from Canada through Nova Scotia to Greenland, as their drifting whale population and food supply moved through the melting ice. The Inuit enjoyed a thriving culture in Greenland yet had little positive contact with the Norse. The Norse viewed the Inuit as “skaelings” or “wretches.” The Inuit did perform some raids on the Norse and vice versa; however, for the most part they kept apart from each other.

Within a few decades, in the 14th Century, a minor ice age began again, the globe cooled once more due to a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Grass began to be harder to grow and the continued erosion of the land was impossible to abate. It was more difficult to raise livestock or farm the land and using soil for sod buildings became tougher to gather. The Black Plague had ravaged mainland Europe and while it didn’t hit Greenland, it decimated the population with whom the Greenland Norse traded, particularly Norway. Ivory prices also plummeted due to the more elephant ivory being imported from sub-Saharan Africa. With sources of income drying up, the Norse had no real way to continue to import the goods they felt they needed to survive, primarily iron and livestock.

By the end of the 14th Century, the Greenland Norse had disappeared. The Inuit continued to thrive on the island and thrive there to this day.

What happened?

Dogma happened.

We typically hear dogma in relation to religion and religious teaching, but it is anything which limits our scope of possibilities. Dogma is some principle or set of principles which some authority has set as being unquestionably true. That is the key word: unquestioning. People who are enslaved by dogma rarely realize that they should question what they are doing. Dogma may, or as typical, may not depend on facts. Dogma is that which enslaves us to a belief, not a fact. It also crystallizes our world view and leaves us shut off from possibility.

The Norse could have adapted wholly to their new surroundings. They were not traditional hunters but the climate forced them to learn adapt or die. Yet, they could not bring themselves to become whalers and learn how to navigate the waters in kayaks, which were for the heathen Inuit. They found it impossible to move toward a very different society, one which could have helped them survive and thrive in the changing world conditions. Rather than learn from the Inuit, they chose to remain separate, slaves to their “old ways.”

hvalsey_church_greenland_-_creative_comonsAs we know, “growth and comfort cannot coexist (Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM).” Adaptation is dynamic and evolutionary. It involves shedding skin, ideas, thoughts, language, and sometime rules, mores, and laws. Adaptation and change require a flexible personal philosophy, agile thinking, and the ability to not take change personally. Had the Norse embraced the ways they felt as wretched, they might have created a new culture which encompassed the ideals of both the Inuit and Norse, thereby creating something greater than each was individually. The Roman Empire adapted and changed to the pulse of Christianity, thereby creating one of the most potent theological forces in history; by adaptation, the essence of both survived.

Our current times are rife with chaos and while the banners of Freemasonry proclaim, “Ordo ab Chao,” the final piece of this saying is “Chao ab Ordo.” Change and strife and chaos are necessary to be able to form new order and new ways of thought. A forest fire destroys the substantial, old trees but also brings life to new growth.  Freemasonry as an institution requires both order and chaos to survive. There are those, especially in malecraft Freemasonry, who state that Freemasonry is a dying institution, membership is down, it’s difficult to get interest, or the education of Freemasonry is antiquated. Freemasonry as an entity isn’t and won’t be dying. What is dying is the Freemasonry as they knew of it. And this is good.

I was recently asked, “why do we need all this change? Why do we need a new ritual? Why should we think about how we change our world?” Someone commented recently on another article regarding Freemasonry in Africa, “why would we be in a place where there is so much corruption and hatred?” I say, who better to lead the way in change than those of us who should, could, or would be most able to do it? Isn’t it Freemasons, warriors of Truth, Freedom, and Knowledge, who should set the example?

This isn’t the first time Freemasonry, regardless of the Order or Obedience, has faced change.

During the Morgan Affair, membership in Freemasonry in America dwindled and nearly went extinct in the fires of the Anti-Masonic Political Party. In 1994, Le Droit Humain’s American Federation changed dramatically, with a new name, new structure, and new purpose. Even now, there are conspiracy theories about Freemasons taking over the world or specific governments.

“Over the centuries, masons have gathered in conclaves, meetings, lodges, and congresses–all to debate the changes they faced and the direction they should move. In an earlier period, a rough conglomeration of stand-alone lodges in England organized themselves in a tavern to become the United Grand Lodge of England and the progenitor of American Freemasonry,” states a 2018 malecraft Freemason’s article.

Change comes generally in an era of upheaval, of chaos, on the waves of a stormy ocean. This kind of change requires a different way of thinking than current paradigms. It requires the death of dogma.

Humanity in the 21st Century is at this same cusp of dynamic evolution. In a technologically-vibrant era of #metoo, LGBTQ rights, globalization, world resource constraints, and materialism, humanity hungers for something more than holding fast to outdated and antiquated modes of thinking. Freemasonry must stand at the precipice of that change and be willing to jump. We cannot hold onto rigid words, thoughts, and actions without tolerance and service to the ever-changing needs of humanity. Freemasons are the Chaos and the Order. Freemasons understand that without one there is not the other. They need to understand what chaos and destruction are before they can form new paradigms and thought patterns, thus changing society.

Freemasons represent the totality of possibilities, not simply what we deem “the best” by our own personal standards. Freemasons embody adaptability as well as honor and tradition; they follow a framework of ideals that are the unchanging Truth of Nature as well as variation that is Nature. Changing for change’s sake is ridiculous; change to adapt to the needs of humanity is true evolution. Thoughtful and conscious change moves us all toward the goal of perfecting humanity.

Ordo Ab ChaoWhat happens when you adapt? The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry recently changed its name to The Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, adding United Federation of Lodges. Inboxes and voicemails have overflowed with contacts from around the world, interested in Freemasonry – India, China, Hong Kong, Serbia, Sweden, Greece, Romania and the Congo to name but a few. Groups in England and Lebanon have sought out the Order. There is explosive activity in Costa Rica and interest is peaking all over Latin America. Study centers of the Masonic Philosophical Society, especially online, are full of seekers of knowledge and Truth. Change in technology and format made this happen. Changing the name opened up the possibilities to those who are seeking global comraderies and led them to the Order’s porch. Yet, many were not ready to face this change and raise themselves the possibilities Universal Freemasonry would find. The interaction of these new voices forces Freemasonry’s membership to adapt – to learn new languages, to travel to many places, to challenge their own beliefs about racism, globalism, gender issues, education, family, and morality. Meeting this challenge and change requires tolerance and introspection as well as brotherly love toward all of humanity. Freemasons learn that they are no different from others and that all are sprung from “the same stock.” The Freemason begins to see what the core of his ritual is and learns to exercise his own philosophy applied to that framework. That is growth. That is the shedding of dogma.

So too, ritual adaptations and reinstatements, not innovations, reinvigorate the ideals that Freemasonry preserves and puts them in tune with a modern mind. If Freemason’s primary care is to keep the mysteries, they need to be able to do that with a mindset of being present and current, not reenacting the dogma of what we’ve done in the past.

People leave Freemasonry for one main reason: disappointment. Freemasonry either doesn’t seem relevant, inviting, or current. Perhaps their expectations were not met. Perhaps their expectations were not properly set. While Freemasonry should not adapt to individual preferences and needs, it can and should adapt to the changes in humanity whilst never forgetting its true purpose: keeping the mysteries for the generations to come. What does our world need? What does humanity need? Can we, in keeping with our ideals, assist in that Work?

Freemasonry, and Freemasons, need to focus on the perfecting of all we do – ritual work, service, brotherly relief and agape, as well as maintaining the material aspects of Freemasonry – clothing, regalia, our temples. This doesn’t mean, however, that these outward trappings – clothing, ritual, regalia – will always be the same. It is in how Freemasons go about employing the Craft that should stand the test of time, while adapting to the change without. This adaptation keeps us all flexible and malleable, able to weather the strong tides of hatred, fanaticism, bigotry, and falsehood. It enables us to withstand the fear of chaos and the boredom of order.

darwinartistinresidence“Organisms that possess heritable traits that enable them to better adapt to their environment compared with other members of their species will be more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass more of their genes on to the next generation,” said Darwin.  It should the the focus of Freemasons to be able to pass on that “genetic material” of Freemasonry to the next generation and the one after that by learning to adapt, to think differently and celebrate the change that undoubtedly will come to us all, willingly or not.

Hidden Mysteries of Nature

Hidden Mysteries of Nature

Recently, I was with a group of Freemasons having a passionate discussion about the word “magic.” Some of the members of the discussion group felt that Freemasonry is “magic,” while others disregarded the word as superstition and illusion. Still others were exploring different meanings, trying to find within themselves how the word made them feel, what it made them think, and what was their own relationship to magic. As Freemasons, we regularly discuss religion, or rather, being religious. We sometimes specifically compare religious symbols to one another and generally explore spiritual diversity and messages. Often corrupted by men, we lose site of what being religious truly is. We almost never talk about magic, even in free-thinking circles and in public, you only hear “magic” discussed, generally, with humor, disgust, or fear.

Most humans may lose sight of what being “magical” is. Our current world is corrupted by the thoughts of the fearful in so many ways, it’s often hard to tell that we’ve been conditioned by it, by ourselves, by our family, media, and friends. For example, when we use the word magic, it tend to conjure up thoughts of either something horrific, like ritual sacrifice or Voldemort (Yes, I said his name). It might bring to mind witches, burned at the stake, or witches doing strange things in forests at night. Yet, the word magical also tends to bring us to Disney artifacts (Tinkerbell, anyone?), gigantic film special effects, or even dreamy, personal experiences – think, Christmas at Rockefeller Center. The point is, we have not explored the word magic as much as we’ve explored the word religion. However, both may be important to humanity and the Freemason as well. Our ingrained fears stop us from talking about the word and stick it in a cave, hidden from the rest of the world. It’s time to do a little word spelunking.

img_0249The word magic is presumably derived from Old Persian and possibly from the proto-Indo-European language as meh-gh, which means “to help, power, to be able to.” It’s taken many forms over the years, from everything to indicate the workings of scholars, sages, Zoroastrian priests, rituals, spells, and eventually related to something or someone not of your religion. If you didn’t understand it as part of your personal religious upbringing, it was considered magic, especially by both Judaism and Christianity (13/14c C.E) . In Frazer’s The Golden Bough, he illustrates a very thorough journey from folklore, myth, magic, and religion, to the science of modernity. From what I have so far deduced and experienced, the knowledge and wonder of discovering how the natural world works is what magic has been for thousands of years. It’s learning, understanding, exploring, and working in conjunction with the natural world. Forget the word’s baggage and take it back to its origins: the wonder of the natural world that brings us awe and teaches us reverence and respect.

We’ve all learned that humans put their own connotation on the words we use, and shared and agreed-upon usage are how they become “fact.” We should do our best discard dogma; if something imparts an emotional response, it seems to be time to explore it, not shun it or parrot someone else’s belief. Understanding the words we use, like understanding ourselves, gives us authenticity and gives the words power.

Understanding the truth of what magic is seems to be related to how we are in relationship with our natural world. I understand magic to be the physical laws of nature and the universe that I do not currently comprehend thoroughly, and and magic is the process of continually learning how to “be” and be in harmony with our universe. This is not so far from what we perceive herbalists do when they understand plant lore and heal the sick, or weirdly enough, the gymnast who understands the laws of gravity and motion in his body, and can execute the most incredible flips and jumps. Have you ever had someone throw a ball in your direction and you reached up your hand to grab it at the perfect time, even if you might not have been looking at it coming toward you? How did you do that? Magic? Perhaps you understand the laws of motion and the physics of gravity well enough to make the catch. Others may not. To them, it appears as magical.

img_0250The “magical” feelings evoked are the impetus for the process of discovery. We first see something that entices us, intrigues us, gives us a certain spark of interest and imagination. What did we just see? What happened there? Then, we may try to recreate it, seek its origin, find out how to do what it is we saw. “To be able to” means we’re learning magic. From the learning how to do, we wonder and our interest continues. We start dissecting, breaking apart the machine of nature to figure out its meaning, its purpose, and its origin. We might take a path through religion to get there, or we may jump right to science – either is an option. Once we find the how, we seek the why.

There is a quote from a book by Arthur E. Powell, The Magic of Freemasonry, which takes me toward the part Freemasonry plays. It is this:

“Why do men love Masonry? What lure leads them to it? What spell holds them through the long years? What strand is it that tugs at our hearts, taut when so many threads are broken by the rough ways of the world? And what is it in the wild that calls to the little wild things? What sacred secret things do the mountains whisper to the hillman, so silently yet so surely that they can be heard above the din and clatter of the world? What mystery does the sea tell the sailor; the desert to the Arab; the arctic ice to the explorer; the stars to the astronomer? When we have answered these questions mayhap we may divine the magic of Masonry. Who knows what it is, or how or why, unless it be the long cable tow of God, running from heart to heart.”

So, is Freemasonry magical? Not in the way that Disney or Satanists or even fundamentalists of any religion would have the world think. That is fear and ignorance asserting themselves.

img_0253I believe it’s the discovery of the world around us that is magical. It persuades us to keep seeking and searching for the mysteries of nature and science. It speaks to us of understanding our world – not just the laws of men but also the laws of nature and whatever source it is that keeps us all “together.” Some may call it God, The Force, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Diana, Odin, the Tao, Krishna, and a host of other names. Perhaps they are just human mirrors of the same “thing” that ties us together. Perhaps that is the thing I am truly seeking: smashing the mirrors to understand what lies on the other side.

I would say that Freemasonry encourages magic and magical behavior, magical thought, and a magical mind. Ritual of any sort has a purpose and the structure, words, ritual, and trappings of Freemasonry are not as simple as to call them purely “magic.” Freemasonry requires a curious mind to work on its initiates. If one is not curious about Freemasonry and about the world in general, they will see Freemasonry as an institution, made for charity work, a fraternity in which to socialize, and a series of rituals that just encourage the participant to gain degrees. Maybe, for those masons, that is a first step, and maybe if there are more lives than this, we keep Freemasonry going for theirs, and our, future selves.  I see it as the Freemason’s duty to continue to keep our minds open and test our theories, test the world, be inquisitive; thus, perhaps Freemasons are magical scientists.

I do not think that magic is the antithesis of science. I think it is a step in the process of discovery, of which science is another. Science, which is “such knowledge, general truths, or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena” is another charged word, especially in the information and technology age. Is Freemasonry scientific? Take your own voyage and let me know what you think. This is your journey, too.

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.

Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead

Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead

Six million people beneath your feet. Meticulously arranged and organized. Hundreds and hundreds of years of history. The Paris Catacombs are famous for being one of the most ominous and interesting sites below the city’s streets. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Catacombs and experiencing its allure, and I found myself curious about the nuances of the former mining tunnels.

Into the Past

The Catacombs of Paris came out of necessity. The Les Innocents cemetery was rancid and overflowing. The cemetery, which since the mid-12th century had been Paris’s primary burial site, was a home to remains dating back hundreds of years. To account for all the city’s dead, the church began to place the bones of the deceased within the cemetery walls. Galleries, they were called. It became a mass grave.

Things became complicated when the basement of the church began to collapse under the weight of the cemetery. This was in the late 18th century. Consider the amount of bodies that must have been amassed by then, as burials with the Les Innocents cemetery did not stop despite the overwhelming conditions. Mines and other subterranean areas within the city were put up for consideration as the situation became more and more desperate.

FullSizeRender(1).jpgThus began the moving of millions of bones into tunnels beneath the surface of the city. The transfer took two years. The cemetery at Les Innocents was not the only burial ground emptied, it was only the largest and most problematic. Bones from at least five cemeteries were exhumed and moved.

The Catacombs Today

When you walk through the Catacombs of Paris, you are experiencing the bones of revolutionaries and soldiers. The bones of the elite, of the peasants and workers. The bones of the sick and the bones of the deprived. All of them together, connected. Where else might you see such a gathering? A true city, and community, of the dead.

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The arrangement of bones is fascinating. In the early 19th century, an effort was headed by the Paris Mine Inspection Service to transform the catacombs from a mere collection of the deceased into a mausoleum of sorts. Walls of femurs and skulls were constructed to contain the bones. Various patterns were used to compliment the dead. Traditional cemetery trappings were added to various sections of the tunnels, too: these included arches and inscriptions, as well as displays and memorials. It is truly a wonder seeing bones transformed into such beauty.

Since its renovation, the Catacombs have been open to the public. People have been witnessing the site for nearly two hundred years. Though it has been closed a few times due to vandalism, the Catacombs have endured through revolution, upheaval, and war. Of late, it has become an extremely popular tourist site, with lines stretching far away from its entrance in Montparnasse.

Through My Eyes

My experience in the Catacombs was hair-raising. Never before had I witnessed so much history in one compact space. “Stop! This is the Empire of the FullSizeRender(2).jpgDead” reads the entrance. And an empire it is, truly. There I was, walking through the lives of six million people. The empty eye sockets of skull atop skull staring me down. As an American, I almost felt out of place, like I was interrupting something profound. But there was nothing, only silence. The air in the cavern chilled me to my bones.

The attention to detail is astounding, almost haunting, as one display contained a heart shaped out of skulls, another a small diorama of buildings and other structures. Clever and beautiful, and quite utilitarian. You almost forget that you are underground, that there is an entire city bustling above your head. It almost humbles Paris: not only is it unique above the ground, but below as well. In a very different way, of course. It is quite literally a testament to the depth of such a city.

You may say that there are bones beneath every settlement, below every forest, every plain, every step, wherever you walk, but it’s nothing compared to the feeling of stacks and patterns of visible history: bodies of bones, an empire of the dead.

Posthumous Remorse

When you will sleep, O dusky beauty mine,
Beneath a monument fashioned of black marble,
When you will have for bedroom and mansion
Only a rain-swept vault and a hollow grave,

When the slab of stone, oppressing your frightened breast
And your flanks now supple with charming nonchalance,
Will keep your heart from beating, from wishing,
And your feet from running their adventurous course,

The tomb, confidant of my infinite dreams
(For the tomb will always understand the poet)
Through those long nights from which all sleep is banned, will say:

“What does it profit you, imperfect courtesan,
Not to have known why the dead weep?”
— And like remorse the worm will gnaw your skin.

 -Charles Baudelaire (translated by William Aggeler)