09 June 2007

The Skull as Memento Mori

Memento Mori: Latin, "Remember that you are mortal" or "Remember your death"

In ancient Roman times this phrase was so important that, during the celebration of a military victory known as a triumph, a slave would follow the winning general repeating it in his ear. During purely Christian times the memento mori, whether a skull, skeleton or other image, was a reminder to followers that the pleasures of the flesh are fleeting. Throughout the last 2000 years it has gone through various incarnations, from early Christian tombs to Renaissance art. Everyone can benefit from a small reminder that they are just as fragile as the next person.

The crosses one sees on highways and interstates that serve as memorials for victims of fatal car accidents are a perfect example of a modern memento mori. One glimpse of a flowered cross next to the road can lighten the foot of any driver. I think that even though it's primarily known as a Christian idea there is still wisdom to be found within the practice by this pagan. For that reason I keep a small plastic skull on my permanent altar. A skull and a quote from a mosaic from the ancient city of Pompeii go hand in hand: Death plucks my ear and says "Live! for I come". Even though I believe in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul I still feel it's advisable to remember that life is precious. Life is wondrous but it is also fragile and its light can be snuffed out quickly and with no warning. The memento mori, and especially the skull, encourages us to make the most out of every day.

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