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The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead

Hypogeum PurgatoryWhen I first learned about the Neapolitan cult of the dead, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it. Also called the cult of the skull or bone cult, it seemed a strange and mysterious link to my ancestral past. However, the more I learned about it, the more familiar it became, and the more comfortable I became with it. I know now that the concepts that are associated with it are not strange at all, and was surprised to discover their connection to other ideas common in both ancient and modern times.

Information about the practice was not as available as I would have liked, but in response to my inquiries a good friend suggested a book called The Living and The Dead, The Neapolitan Cult of the Skullby Margaret Stratton with an introduction by Tommaso Astarita.

The book is done from an artistic point of view, which is not my forte, but Professor Astarita’s introduction provided me with a good summary of the information that I was looking for. The bulk of the book is a photographic record. For my purposes it would have been easier to have captions under the interesting photographs instead of listing them afterward, but the author was approaching the subject from a different perspective and it made sense after reading what she had to say. Astarita made a good point about some of Stratton’s photos being gloomier than necessary, and reinforcing negative clichés about Naples. Even so, they were fascinating enough to get my attention and Margaret Stratton’s explanation of her work provided me with references that proved to be very important. I also sought a connection between the skull cult and pagan ancestor worship, for which I used other reference material.

The so-called cult of the skull is not a religion, but a religious practice that is connected to the concepts of Christianity and a belief in purgatory. There was a considerable increase in its activity during the 18th century, but forms of the cult of the dead existed long before that time. It is commonly believed to have pagan origins, but when this assumption is questioned, the answers become very vague if you get answers at all. Some aspects of it may be descended from Roman Ancestor worship, with which it shares similarities. Like many other pagan practices too popular to eradicate, it was probably integrated with Christianity when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was common for many ancient Mediterraneans to burn their dead and the Romans were no exception. Partial remains left over from cremation were usually interred outside of the home or village perimeter. These remains were seen as a connection to the dead, but not as a path to seek favor with them. Their ancestors were honored through paintings and death masks. Prayers to their spirits were a normal part of Roman religion and culture. Curiously, one of the more logical explanations to the origins of Neapolitan skull worship was a practice that was undeniably similar, yet did not utilize skulls or bones to achieve its ends.

I understand the predominately Greek influence in ancient Southern Italy, both in culture and in blood ties, but in the centuries immediately preceding the Christianization of the Mezzogiorno, it was under the rule and influence of Rome, and continued to be for centuries afterward. Although Hellenistic culture had indisputable influences on the Roman state religion, and other forms of ancestor worship did exist among the Greeks, the religious practices of the Latin familia seem the most relevant to the Neapolitan cult of the dead if we are to assume its pagan roots. It is certainly not the only possibility, but does have the advantage of time and location. Even in Naples, whose inhabitants retained much of their Greek tradition, the cultural exchange did flow both ways.

catacombs in San Gaudioso NapoliIn early Rome the family, or clan, was referred to as Gens. The familia was the land or lands controlled and cultivated by the Gens, and the resources they controlled. There is some debate to the details of the Lar familiaris, but this spirit and lesser spirits (Lares) were thought to be originally connected to the land, and to the family through the land; not the spirits of the dead. Some scholars (Fustel de Coulanges, for example) claimed that the Lar familiaris was the primal ancestor of a particular Gens, or came to assume that role over time, connecting the concept to ancestor worship. Romans also believed that the spirit, or soul, of the current head of the family (paterfamilias of theGens) was a spirit of the living ancestor (Genius), and the concept eventually evolved into that of a guardian spirit that lived on after his death. The Manes, on the other hand, were the actual spirits of the dead, and could be either benign or malignant depending on the situation. Manes were sometimes referred to as “the kindly ones” but in different contexts were sometimes feared, considered ghosts, and referred to asLemures. Scholars speculate that the Manes were mostly prayed to as a collective, but also state that rituals were necessary to prevent them from returning to their houses except under special circumstances, implying at least some individuality. Consider this excerpt concerning the religion of the household:

“…it was a perfectly natural and organic growth, the result of the Roman farmer’s effective desire to put himself and his in right relations with the spiritual powers at work for good or ill around him…. The spirits of his house and his land and his own Genius were friendly powers, all of them of the greatest importance for his life and his work, and their claims were attended to with regularity and devotion. From Vesta and the Penates, the Lar, the Genius, the Manes, and the spirits of the doorway and the Spring, there was nothing to fear if they were carefully propitiated; and as his daily life and comfort depended on this propitiation, they were really divine members of the familia, and might become, and perhaps did become, the objects of real affection as well as worship.” (From The Religious Experience of the Roman People, by W. Warde Fowler M.A., p.92)

cemetery Fontanelle  Christianity in the Roman Empire changed many things, but just as often simply altered the perspective of rituals and traditions that were already practiced by pagans. What was done with the dead was one of these changes. Certainly other sources influenced Roman burial practices, but none as much as Christianity. When it spread throughout the Empire, the practice of cremation was replaced by burial, but the concept of praying to the dead continued. Instead of pictures and death masks, the very skulls and bones of the deceased became available for association with the ancestral spirits. This made the connection to the dead more focused on their physical remains, and the devotion to the dead acquired a Christian flavor.

Southern Italy has always been a battleground and the unlucky recipient of natural disasters. It has a history of conflict and difficult times. In adverse conditions seeking advantages and opportunities becomes a survival trait. Among the very religious Southern Italians this inevitably influenced the way they practiced Christianity.

“…southern popular beliefs reflect an intense search for the help of divine forces… The cult of the dead was part of this search for supernatural protection in confronting the difficulties of earthly life. Saints, with their images and relics, and the dead, with their corpses (also relics, in a functional sense), were viewed as potential miracle-workers who could aid those who worshipped them or took care of them. This went against the Counter-Reformation vision of the saints as spiritual models, but it remains a popular notion in Naples (witness the Neapolitan expression tenere un santo in paridiso, or to have a saint in paradise, used today to refer to the personal contacts often needed to obtain a job or to secure public service)…” (Tommaso Astarita in his introduction toThe Living and the Dead by Margaret Stratton, p. 6)

Naples Purgatorio a Arco“The final major element that characterized the religious life of southern Italians was (and is) the focus on the dead, which granted full force to the bodily and practical focus of Neapolitan devotions. The dead were endowed by popular belief with at least some of the power that the saintly exercised. The dead also engaged with the living in a contractual exchange relationship similar to the one Neapolitans sought with their saints. The dead needed the support of the living, through masses or visits to cemeteries, and they reciprocated the favor by interceding with their more powerful heavenly neighbors on behalf of the living. To this day southerners offer ex-votos to churches in support of the dead, and many believe that their dead can communicate with them on matters from the mundane (such as what numbers to play in lotteries or whether rain is likely) to the spiritual”… (ibid, p. 10)

“The dead, in a sense, were even better suited to the Neapolitan conception of the relationship between humans and the supernatural than saints. The relationship between humans and the supernatural was essentially a material one based on the practical exchange of worship for protection. Saints had, after all, limited need for the worship humans offered to them; the dead, on the other hand, and especially the souls of purgatory, were themselves very much in need of help. The cult of the dead was also built on the Neapolitan focus on the physical body, which finds its expression so clearly in the cult of relics. Thus, the fundamental Neapolitan concepts of worship as a form of practical exchange and the strong link between the supernatural and the physical found a perfect connection and focus in the behavior towards the dead – both their corpses and their souls.” (ibid, p. 12)

The idea of the souls in purgatory needing prayers and offerings is similar to that of the Manes in Roman paganism. The expectation of getting favors in return for it is another similarity. It might seem Machiavellian to bribe a spiritual middleman to push our agenda in heaven, but as my father used to say, “One hand washes the other and both hands wash the face.” It reflects a practical reality of a type not often seen in modern religion. It also demonstrates that the ideas of Machiavelli existed in Southern Italy and old Rome long before his birth; however, it was certainly bold of the perceptive Florentine native to skillfully write it down in a practical manual. I suppose it is no coincidence that both the cult of the skull and Niccolo Machiavelli’s signature work “The Prince” were both eventually banned by the church, but I’m sure that the Roman Catholic hierarchy and nearly every European politician and businessman is intimately familiar with the concepts therein.

There are a lot of bones buried under Naples, a result of long habitation by humans, war and catastrophe. The bones that are polished, cared for and prayed to by some Neapolitans are not usually those of a direct ancestor, but their ancestors in general. Some of the bones are found by the worshippers, others are located in known places, such as the burial shrines below the church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio (Purgatorio ad Arco), which is said to be the modern locus of the remaining bone cult. The photographs in Stratton’s book show this and some of the other places where the practice continues.

Despite the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 16th century, the Neapolitan cult of the dead continued and was reluctantly tolerated by the Catholic Church. The practice had existed for centuries without a problem, and I’m sure the fierce loyalty that many Southern Italians had to the Papacy tempered the Church’s response. The Church still allows prayers to its saints, but the official position is that Catholics ask the saints to pray “for” them and intercede with God on their behalf, and this is not much different from what the Neapolitans were doing with the bones of their ancestors.

The church in OtrantoUnfortunately in 1969, the archbishop of Naples, Corrado Ursi, decreed all “expressions of cult addressed to human remains arbitrary, superstitious, and therefore inadmissible.” Previous to this declaration, the Cimitero delle Fontanelle and the Purgatorio ad Arco were the primary examples of the practice, but after the archbishop’s interference the Fontanelle was shut down, although I have heard that it has reopened to visitors as of May 2010. Many of the bones in these places that were cleaned and treated well for generations now gather dust and cobwebs, but there is still some evidence of continued care.

When I spoke of this to a friend he said “Well, the practice wasn’t Catholic.” I responded by stating that it was Catholic for over a thousand years and the human remains of saints and martyrs are still revered as part of Catholic religious practices. The skeletal remains of the martyrs slaughtered by the Turks at Otranto are displayed at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunciata, and were put there by the Catholic Church. Viewing them can be a powerful spiritual experience, and many Catholics continue to visit them to pray. Is this wrong? Should we remove them and pretend it never happened?

In the 1960s the Catholic Church underwent many changes, some of which made it far more tolerant of other belief systems, yet it went out of its way to erase a tradition that has been in practice by devout Catholics since classical civilization. While Americans and Europeans were embracing the most bizarre and ridiculous pseudo-religious practices of the 1960s and 70s, areas of traditional European spirituality were being actively suppressed.

Perhaps instead of rooting out pagan influences in Catholicism, and Christianity in general, it might be better for the various churches to consider embracing them. They were, after all, originally included to the benefit of Christianity at the time. They are also more extensive than most people realize, and they can still be found in most of the churches that claim to have removed them. Students of Theology or even serious amateurs might be able to overcome the removal of every pagan influence from their religion, but for the average layman it is the ritual that is identified with the core of their religious experience, and they are heavily laced with pagan traditions. Cutting them out could leave these people spiritually hollow and their faith vulnerable.

The martyrs of OtrantoDevotion to the dead by caring for bones still survives in Naples, but is less prevalent because of the actions taken against it. What most people today believe is traditional may only be what they are encouraged to think. When I made the extra effort to learn about our past it filled an emptiness I didn’t realize was there, and I gained a new perspective of the world today. We have traditions over a thousand years old that have been recently suppressed as if they never were. Others are portrayed in a negative light simply because they do not fit neatly into the shallow and politically correct culture of a society that praises individualism, but then pressures us all to be the same.

Studying the historical Roman and Neapolitan relationship with the dead has explained the reasons behind some beliefs and behaviors that I experienced throughout my life. As a child one woman told me to pray to the Virgin Mother Mary, because she would speak to Jesus on my behalf and he would never refuse his mother. My own mother would “adopt” an old and neglected grave, usually a child’s, near our family member’s plots. She would clear it and bring flowers as if it were our own, and pray for the child’s soul. I’ve experienced similar behavior by other loved ones, some of whom were not even Italian, but from Central Europe. Perhaps the Neapolitans were not alone in their reasoning. I was happy to help them at the time, and as I reflect on it with my newfound knowledge, I’m proud to have participated in cleaning the gravestones and clearing the weeds around them.

My research into the cult of the skull has shown me that it is no more a cult than other commonly accepted beliefs. Whether or not we believe in the practice may not be as important as understanding and accepting it. It is another part of us that others are trying to take away. Learning about it helps us understand ourselves.



Living and DeadThe Living and the Dead by Margaret Stratton with introduction by Tommaso Astarita, 2010, ISBN 978-1-935195-01-6

Between Salt Water and Holy Water A History of Southern Italy, by Tommaso Astarita, 2005, ISBN 0-393-05864-6

The religious experience of the Roman People, by W. Warde Fowler M.A. published 1911, reprinted 1971. ISBN 0-8154-0372-0.

Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X

Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion, by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7


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