Skulls: Some we know + some we don’t

Calgary Herald, Oct 7, 2017: Plastic skulls will start appearing on lawns throughout the city any day now. If you think it’s too early for Halloween stuff, consider the skulls have been peering out from store shelves since about Canada Day. Instead of tsk-tsking, I say we applaud Halloween-loving homeowners for their patience. And let’s hope the skulls and gravestones attract more kids to the streets Oct. 31 instead of driving to the mall with their parents to go store-to-store looking for candy. That’s about marketing. Halloween should be about getting to know your neighbours, rocking your skeleton costume over snow pants and developing negotiating skills — that is, how to acquire all of your little brother’s Crispy Crunches without giving up a single Mars Bar.

In Canada, skulls on the street are generally Halloween kitsch. In Mexico, they have a deeper meaning.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is actually several days of activities at the end of October and start of November that celebrate the notion that our dearly departed come back for a visit. The most famous skeleton of all is La Catrina, the grand old dame of Day of the Dead. You’ve seen her around: She’s the skull with the fancy wide-brimmed hat who reminds us that no matter how much money or fancy hats you may have, you still end up dead. La Catrina was born around 1910 as La Calavera Garbancera, an etching by a political cartoonist and printmaker, Jose Guadalupe Posada. He was making fun of rich Mexicans who dressed up in European fashions and tried to hide their Indigenous roots and darker skin with light makeup. Fast forward 100 years and plenty of Europeans, half of North America and most of Instagram paint their faces like La Catrina. I’ve lost track of who is appropriating what.

A Mexican skull encrusted in turquoise and encased in the British Museum inspired British artist Damien Hirst to create his famous diamond skull sculpture in 2007. For the Love of God (because that’s what his mom said) cost Hirst about $28 million for the 8,601 diamonds and a few bucks more for the human teeth he plunked in. Hirst claims to have sold the piece for $100 million cash to an anonymous consortium that, interestingly, includes the artist himself. Seems the diamond skull was either meant to garner Hirst gobs of free publicity or remind us all of our mortality. The latter seems redundant.

Another British artist, Alexander McQueen, introduced a skull scarf on the runway in 2003. In 2010, just days after his mom died, McQueen hung himself in his home in London. To commemorate the iconic scarf’s 10th anniversary, the company McQueen left behind collaborated with Hirst to add butterflies and assorted other bugs to the skull scarf and make a ton more money.  I hope Hirst gave one to his mom. I prefer the simplicity of McQueen’s original scarf. I bought one on a whim, second-hand from a friend who got it half-price, because as if I’d spend $500 on a scarf. The cream-coloured skulls are quite pleasing — like edgy polka dots.

When it comes to real human skulls most of us think ghoulish, not gorgeous. But most of us aren’t physical anthropologists. Back in the 1700s, the father of the field, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, spent decades studying skulls from all over the world and joining the frenzy of the taxonomy of the times, the Enlightenment. The physician, scientist and author classified people into different ‘varieties’ (not races, that ever-divisive thought came along a little later). After 20 years and a little hemming and hawing, Blumenbach landed on five groups of humans: Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, Malays and Caucasians.

The word “Caucasian” is derived from Caucasus, the region now known as Chechnya. In her book The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter explains that Blumenbach came up with the term after being particularly impressed with the skull of a young woman from the area. “It was a beautiful skull,” Painter told CBC Radio recently. “There were no dents or dings.” Painter dug into the woman’s origin and discovered she been sold into sex slavery in Moscow. “It was a sex slave skull,” she says. “And that was not an accident because the slave trade from the Caucasus, from the Black Sea region, was thriving in the 18th century.” One shudders

One shudders imagining how the young woman’s skull ended up being available for study. And one weeps knowing the sex slave trade still thrives.

This Halloween, as I pull out the campy plastic skulls and wear the cheerful ones on my scarf, I am reminded that whether you’re a disposable and entirely forgotten sex slave or an internationally celebrated bad boy of fashion, everyone ends up dead. Just some of us have a far more wretched time than others.

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