Start not nor deem my spirit fled;
In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head
Whatever flows is never dull
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! Our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?
Two excerpts from Lord Byron’s “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull”
Imagine your postmortem skeletal remains being used for something as fine and lavish as a container for wine! As Lord Byron remarks, the alcoholic substitution for the natural anatomical content of brains seems like a worthy one.
Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) poem revolves around the kapala, Sanskrit for ”skull”, and the practice of using human calvarias as drinking vessels in Nepalese tantric Buddhism. As part of ceremonial ritual, an overcoming of ignorance, greed and delusion is attempted by meeting the “hungry spirits” with the charity of wine and cakes through a joint sharing of luxuries served in human skullcaps. The kapala symbolises the absolute, pointing towards the eternal and imperishable, and by this ritual act morals and taboos are challenged in order to drive out the negative energy deriving from the sorrows and joys of earthly life, from which the Nepalese Buddhists seek to release themselves.
Having noticed this practice, Lord Byron’s poem portrays the kapala from the point of view of the deceased whose skull is now used in ritual connection rather than rotting away in the ground, thus meeting the mouths of people before those of worms. By this, Lord Byron turns the apparent morbidity of dining and wining from the craniums of fellow deceased into a funerary upgrade, pertaining only to the lucky few.
We wonder if he himself would have preferred this “afterlife”… would you?
The kapala skull is currently on display in the exhibition “The Lives of the Dead” at Moesgaard Museum.
// Ciara Coogan
Lord Byron’s full poem: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/lbyron/bl-lbyron-linesinscribed.htm
Tubbs, Loukas, Shoja, Apaydin, Salter & Oakes (2007): The intriguing history of the human calvaria: sinister and religious
Photo: © 2014 Jacob Due, Photo/Media Department of Moesgaard Museum.
Byline portrait: © 2015 Line Beck, lbmfotografi.wix.com