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Armpitting September 8, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Armpitting is something that you would not wish on your worse enemy. Well, no actually that is not quite true. It is something that, in antiquity, you reserved specifically for your worst enemy, but only when he was lying on the floor belching blood. The one extensive reference to armpitting comes in the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encylopedia in which Beachcombing has spent several happy hours. The Suda isn’t actually much shakes as an encylopedia. But in tenth-century Greece there were texts that have long since been lost and so the Suda acts as a museum of burning libraries with quotations and snippets from authors and works that no longer exist. Here, in any case, is the entry on maschalismos (armpitting).

Men typically wipe a sword on the fallen’s heads to prevent pollution from the killing. Or, to be pure, they would cut off the extremities of the slain man and hang them around his armpits, so that, it was said, he would be too weak to revenge himself for his murder. This in Apollonius ‘you cut off pieces from dead men’. This was said of Jason. Those engaged in civil war would cut off the extremities of the fallen, taking them from all parts of the bodies and fastening pieces around them, stringing them there together, so depriving the dead of their strength, thus the dead could not terrorise the living. The extremities were worn by the dead in their armpits. The process was known as being ‘armpitted’. Sophocles writes [in Electra], ‘Ask whether the dead in his grave seems or not to receive such gifts from the woman who killed him, dishonoured him, and put him through armpitting like an enemy, and who cleaned the blood from her sword with his hair.’

There are two things going on here. First the ritual abuse of the corpse of a foe: though note there is no collecting as with, say, head hunting cultures or modern serial killers. And second the abuse of a corpse to prevent its ghost from seeking revenge on its killer. The Suda has neglected to tell us what ‘the extremities’ here are. We are presumably to think of soft tissue: ears, nose, testicles… Or is there other material: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com This is the kind of thing that would, incidentally, leave no trace in the archaeological record. Let’s just hope that no one from an LA street gang reads this blog because Beach can imagine painful contemporary possibilities… And a final thought. If you had to choose between head hunting and armpitting, it sounds as if head hunting would be a lot less time consuming: just a second, Leonidas, can’t get the nose and ear to hang properly, you start on the second cohort of dead Persians etc etc

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13 Sept 2012: CS writes: I find it sad to tell you that such things are being done in Mexico by drug gangs and it’s spilling across the border. These post-mortem mutilations are done more as a promise of violence to any who oppose the cartels yet considering the storied history of mesoamerica, I’m certain there are other metaphysical elements behind these horrors. RR gets into specifics: A modern equivalent of armpitting could/would be the Colombian practice of slitting your victim’s throat very low down and pulling the tongue (your ‘soft tissue’ reference) out of the throat cavity and down through the knife’s slit.  The tongue then sits on the upper chest hanging vertically and is referred to a a ‘Colombian necktie’.  Similar in tone and effect as your ancient warriors’ practice.  It is gettting increasingly difficult to be shocked at mankind’s depravity.  At least, it is for me. And KMH offers the mystic’s perspective: The question is what was hacked off the body. I would take it literally and say the hands, feet, forearms, forelegs and even complete arms or legs. What is surprising to me is that they didn’t bother to separate the head from the body. Unfortunately, the ancients seem to know more about the soul than moderns do. They were aware that the soul, more specifically the lower part of the soul concerned with animal functions, can be injured and disoriented after death. The separation of soul from body isn’t instantaneous or risk free. Any tragic death, such as being eaten by an animal, for instance, can  be detrimental to the soul and might lead to prolonged life as a ghost. To aid in the separation process the body  will experience rigor mortis to  provide a framework  for the separation and take about three days for full separation. Cremating bodies prematurely can also detract  from the soul’s potential and, of course, the very high heat of a  thermonuclear blast is the worst for the soul, destroying the lower and even  adversely affecting the higher functions. What should be understood is that each religion operates differently as to exactly how much of the soul separates and how much is left behind. This may be one of the reasons  not  much attention is paid to soul separation by Christianity. The ancient religions from voodoo to the Hellenic were all aware of potential difficulties, but on the other hand didn’t hold much promise for a meaningful  life after death for the common man. Thanks to CS, RR and KMH!