Wednesday, 21 October 2009

stone dead

Rain finally arrived, and cold. It should stay this way, with frequent breaks for blue skies and manure-spreading, right through til January.

October always slips by quick. It´s the month with the shorts in the drawer right next to the hoodies and sweaters, when you´re constantly putting on clothing or taking it off because you just can´t get the temperature right. Not that I am complaining, really. It is only natural.

One fun thing about October is right at the end: Halloween. In America children dress in costumes and go door-to-door through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and collecting great bags of treats... supposedly a bribe to keep the kiddies from vandalizing the place. Some say the custom is a leftover from days long past, when superstitious rustics used food offerings to buy off the Evil Spirits that run loose at the end of October.  I dunno.

I am not sure just what happened to American Halloween in the last twenty years, but I think my generation is responsible. As kids we enjoyed playing dress-up so much we decided to hang onto the custom right on through middle age. Otherwise-responsible adults now dress up like Dracula or Beyoncé or Dick Cheney and go to wild drunken parties. We dress our children as pumpkins and princesses and hover near while they trick-or-treat in carefully selected subdivisions, usually in broad daylight... the danger we so love about Halloween is the very thing we can´t stand to imagine our kids encountering. We keep all the creepy fun stuff for ourselves. The children must settle for a sanitized, über-safe glucose blowout.

Oh, and we dress up pug dogs like bumblebees. Very, very twisted, that.  

But I digress. I said all that to get to this:  One of the highlights of my October visit to the Sierra de Demanda area of Burgos was discovering something really fascinating and morbid and creepy:  medieval necropolises.  (or maybe they are "necropoli"?) In any case, it´s a Greek word for "city of the dead." 

On a sunny Saturday morning Juli and I drove over mountain and plain deep into a forest of oak and pine. And down the long, sandy woodcutters´ lane and ´round a bend there stood what remains of Cuyacabras, a 9th-century village.

It´s a hillock made of sandstone, with a gentle stairway rising up the middle, a flat spot up top where a tiny church once stood. Carved carefully over, alongside, and in between the ancient stones are 183 open graves.

They are chopped into the stone, about knee-deep. Some are bathtub-shaped, some are niches carved into the rock-face. Creepiest of all are the "antropomorfos," the "man-shaped" ones, with a rounded hole for the head and an oblong for the body.  There are trenches for big people, and doll-sized ditches for babies, and every size in between.

We walked among them and thought our own thoughts. The only sound was the breeze in the treetops.

When I think of the medieval period I usually picture a dark city scene, full of people in dirty hose and doublets, bent under loads of wood or riding furry ponies. The occasional knight or lady can read and write. The church reigns supreme.

But out here in the woods, far from anything, the picture looks even darker. The soil is sandy, so few crops could grow here. The altitude means harsh, snowy winters and little outside contact. I imagined the few families who lived here must have been very intimate, living in tiny huts, sharing everything they had, scraping to survive.

I remember being told that death was not so traumatic back when every couple  had nine children and plagues and epidemics thinned their ranks each season. Life was generally short and brutish, and no one could afford to get to attached to anyone else. Families simply chucked away the members who didn´t make it, and set about begetting more babies to keep the hovel filled and the fields tilled.

I don´t buy it. It hurt them, too, to say goodbye. Look how these long-ago folk honored their loved ones.

They could have dug a hole in the sand for burials, but their dead, freed from their hard lives, were laid to rest in the only place that lasted: the stone. With channels cut in the surrounding slates to keep the rain from running too freely into the cracks, and a long, heavy slab laid over the body to keep out the wolves. Or the grave-robbers. Or the neighbors.

Or maybe they wanted to make sure the dead ones stayed dead, and wouldn´t  get up to bother the living any more? 

Brrahahaahaa!  How Halloween is that?!

Anyway, a day´s drive around the area will bring you to at least six of these thousand-year-old graveyards, some with chapels or hermitages also carved into the stone.  Not all are hidden away in the quiet woods. The rather beat-up necropolis in Regumiel is right in the middle of town. The Revenga necropolis has 133 rock-tombs, and some mysterious labyrinth-like carvings in the rock where a church once stood -- all of it smack up against a nice, new kiddie playground!

Of all the elements they could choose, the medieval people liked their stone. Important people merited burial in stone, as the sarcophagus outside Segundino´s house will attest.  One family member told me a long-ago ancestor brought it to Moratinos from the Villa Oreja monastery, over near where our labyrinth now stands. It probably once held the earthly remains of an abbot or a local lord.

It´s thick stone, deep as a bathtub, carved in a faintly human shape. You can´t really tell what it is these days, as it´s full of building debris. But Feliciano says it makes a fine watering trough for cows, once you knock a couple of drainage holes in it. They´ll maybe use it for a flowerbed, once their family house rehab job is finally finished.

I think they ought to plant pumpkins. Reared in a sarcophagus, they´d make fantastic jack-o-lanterns!


Anonymous said...

Good 'un, this one.

See you in Brusselas!!



Libby said...

We're dressing our pug up as a lobster. Creeeepy!

The Solitary Walker said...

Nice post, Rebekah! I always enjoy your writing. Your style always manages to draw me in.

MermaidLilli said...

When I was in Tangier and took a guided tour, we were taken to a stone cliff overlooking the ocean and in that stone were graves not like the ones in your pic, but more rectangular. The guy told us these were made by the Phoenicians who would place the body in these cutouts and allow the animals and elements take care of the body. They had quite the view, those dead. So, not sure if maybe the ones you saw are related in history, but it reminded me of that tour.
I too love your gentle way of writing. LOVE