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Posts tagged “Symbolism

Space: A Social Anthropological Study of Greyfriars Graveyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

 

[Taken from one of my dissertations a couple of decades ago, hence the abysmal copies of analogue photos! All Rights Reserved.]

My choice to study a graveyard was initially influenced by my impression that a graveyard would be distinctive from the usual choice of public places, in that it would be a contained unit with most visitors united by a common purpose, distinguished by a focus on the graves, the history of the site, the kirk or by using the grass-covered area as a place of retreat and leisure. During my study of Greyfriars, I discovered that the graveyard was very much a focal point for the living rather than for the dead, and that the boundaries between the graveyard and the outside world were not solid but mutable.

During my examination of Greyfriars graveyard, I found that I could not rely much on the work of other anthropologists specific to death and ‘graveyard culture’. My ethnography relies instead on theorists such as Levi-Strauss (1962, 1963), Auge (1995) and Douglas (1966). It is particularly Douglas’ idea of purity and danger which underlies the behavioural codes associated with many graveyards; certain behaviour is considered inappropriate such as the frequenting of Greyfriars by “down-and-outs, drunks and drug addicts” (quoting the assistant organist). See Figure 1 for an example of “matter out of place” – material transgressing the accepted values of what is appropriate to the place. Consider also people playing games, who, we were told, would do better to play on the Meadows which was deemed a more appropriate place, and whose behaviour was considered “obstreperous” within the graveyard although appropriate on the Meadows. The concept of “appropriateness” and “inappropriateness” here is important as this qualifies those activities which are thought to be acceptable or unacceptable as defined by generally agreed social rules and values. The same critique of inappropriateness was also applied to the “problem of begging” within the graveyard which was seen as an “abuse of the graveyard” (ibid), disturbing those who are looking for some peace and quiet. Another factor which was disturbing to some people was the Council’s use of the graveyard as a car park (see Figure 2). In our interviews, we found that locals avoided the graveyard in the morning when there were more cars. The graveyard has belonged to the Council since the sixteenth century; it is solely responsible for the maintenance of that area. The Church appreciates the fact that the Council meets this responsibility as the Church would not otherwise be able to afford its upkeep, yet unlike the Church, the Council views this space as a facility to be used as it requires.

I found that a common approach to graveyards was illustrated by Levi-Strauss’ notion of binary oppositions, which I have identified with reference to Greyfriars as pollution/purity, male/female, death/renewal, taboo/not taboo. The graveyard is a place of death contrasted with the need for renewal within the living community, which consequently perceives the dead as a threat to social structure, necessitating the removal of the dead to a place peripheral to that used by the living. For instance, in Madagascar the awareness of the importance of social cohesion is so strong that the dead are not even allowed to be buried alone but must be laid to rest in communal tombs, so that even beyond death social cohesion is maintained (Bloch 1971). In this sense the graveyard is a place of transition away from society where the individual relinquishes her/his living social role. So we can see that graveyards are often perceived as places for the individual, yet also for the community where social boundaries are reinforced through rituals associated with  graveyard culture.

In an interview with the secretary for the Friends of Greyfriars Kirk, who was also author of various guide books to the church and graveyard, I noticed a similar dichotomy between the individual and community, that is the private and the public. However, in the case of Greyfriars this dichotomy has developed since the graveyard ceased to be used for burials. The last burial took place about 120 years ago, from which time the graveyard has acquired a further role within the context of Edinburgh City. Originally a garden belonging to the friars, it was taken over by Mary, Queen of Scots, and presented to the Town Council in the 1560s to accommodate the overspill from St Giles graveyard. The church was built only later and officially opened in 1620. Through its history it was used as both burial ground and communal area, providing an open space apart from the city, used for activities ranging from picnicking to musket practice. After the cessation of burials, the area began to develop a role as a tourist location. The resultant demands on the graveyard gave rise to different levels of perception. I identified three specific perceptions of the graveyard which apparently influenced the approach of visitors and church members.

The three perceptions I found were based on a public/private view of history: firstly, there is a Subjective History based on a personal, therefore private association with the place; for example, a plaque has recently been placed to commemorate the life of Colin McWilliam, a well-known Scottish architect who died in the late 1980s, although he is not actually buried in the graveyard (see Figure 2). Those who knew Colin McWilliam and those with connections to the people buried there relate on a much more personal level than tourists who would view the graveyard as commemorating impersonal figures of history. And yet the Church admits a possible trend in the future use of the graveyard as a place for commemorative plaques to the men and women who are generally acknowledged as having contributed to Scottish culture. In this sense the personal element of such commemorations is minimal, as the campaigners for the erection of those plaques mean to elevate the personal life to a level of historical importance to be shared by all visitors and tourists.

In the seventeenth century, people were encouraged to visit the graveyard for moral edification. The epitaphs and imagery are a constant reminder of human mortality. For illustration of this see Figure 4, noting in particular the cherub leaning on a skull, the angel with an hourglass and the skeleton presiding over all, also take note of Figures 5 – 7. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the graveyard relinquished its didactic role to other civil authorities. Changes in burial forms saw a move towards privacy with enclosed burial areas and mausolea, see Figure 5 (Bury, 1995). But with the cessation of burials in the nineteenth century it would be fair to say that, through the twentieth century, the graveyard has taken on a new didactic and monumental role as portrayer of Scottish pride and history. This second perception, or the Objective Historical view of the graveyard, covers events occurring there as well as the life histories of the people buried there.

However, historical accounts can never be entirely objective but are influenced by the personal perspective of the author(s). This perception of history is expressed on the level of, what I have called, Mythic History. The story of Greyfriars Bobby contains a mixture of objective historical facts and subjective interpretation which enables the foreign tourist, with no direct connection to Scotland or Edinburgh, to identify with the story’s location and, on an artificial level, with the history of Scotland (see Figures 8 and 9). In this way, Mythic History contributes markedly to the construction of the graveyard space as a Monumental Space; a monument to Scottish history. The church itself does not actively contribute to this monumental space. It tries to maintain the image of a religious building rather than an historical building by focusing the historical interest of the visitors on the graveyard while emphasizing the ongoing religious activities within the church. One example would be the event of the signing of the National Covenant which actually took place within the church, but which is mistakenly placed within the graveyard by history books and tourist guides alike. The helpers in the church are ready to explain this misconception, however the literature and postcards continue this tradition of romanticising the graveyard as a monument to Scottish history (see Figure 10). The literature within the church is also proud to illustrate that many well-known people have been buried in the graveyard, as the assistant organist told me, “Anybody who’s anybody is buried here.”

In the early days, the graveyard was situated on the periphery of Edinburgh, but as the city grew it came to be seen as a central part of the city. In our interviews with church members and locals I formed a picture of the graveyard as a place of quiet, a place to get away from the city. Alternatively, tourists saw it very much as part of the city, as part of the tourist package. One account of the tourist bus tour around Edinburgh detailed the graveyard as only part of a list of features making up the City of Edinburgh. One Spanish couple spoke of how they were introduced to the graveyard by a friend who was showing them the tourist spots. They compared this graveyard to the ones in Spain which were also characterised by their morbidity, but now they live in Edinburgh they have come to see it very much as the locals do, as a place of retreat from the hussle and bussle of the city.

In looking at Greyfriars graveyard I found it impossible to confine myself to contemporary perceptions of this space because of the predominant approach of placing the graveyard in an historical context. By taking the history of the graveyard into account, my results lent a diachronic perspective which enriched my study and helped me to appreciate the influences felt today. The graveyard developed through many roles and yet in certain ways still fulfills those roles synchronically by preserving and reproducing its history among visitors and tourists. The innocent tourist may arrive at the graveyard with a perception of that space as another element in forming the tourist landscape of Edinburgh. If short on time, the tourist might leave with no other image except that of a part (the graveyard) making up a whole (the city). However, additional information in books, from guides, or for example, on epitaphs, will, explicitly or implicitly, create a space clothed in Mythic History, bringing together both Objective and Subjective History, as well as the many historical and contemporary roles of this graveyard. History is then relived through the spatial form of Greyfriars Graveyard, parallel to contemporary experiences of the graveyard in its manifold roles as car park, leisure spot, social centre and burial ground.

©MKuhn/StarofSeshat 1995-2020

Bibliography:

Auge, M. – Non-Place: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, 1995)
Bloch, M. – Placing the Dead (Seminar Press, 1971)
Douglas, M. – Purity and Danger (Routledge & K. Paul, 1970)
Durkheim, E. & Mauss, M. – Primitive Classification (London, 1969)
Herzfeld, M. – A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town (Princeton University Press, c. 1991)
Levi-Strauss, C. – The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966); Totemism (Beacon Press, 1963)
Malinowski, B. – Sex, Culture and Myth (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963)
Mathieson, P. – The Greyfriars Story: A Celebration (Friends of Greyfriars Kirk, 1989)
Milis, L.J.R. – Angelic Monks and Earthly Men (c. 1989)
Relph, E. – Place and Placelessness (Pion, 1976)
Steiner, F. – Taboo (Penguin, 1967)

Map of Kirk and Graveyard

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The meaning of the Seshat symbol

Abdur Rahman asked recently about the meaning of my Avatar symbol. I started to write a reply to his comment, but then it ran away with me, so I thought I would answer in a separate post.

seshat-symbol2

The symbol is representative of the Egyptian goddess, Seshat. There are differing opinions over the exact meaning of the symbol, which is made up of two elements: the star form and the over-arching “bow”. The star is unusual in having seven points, whereas the stars painted on walls in Egyptian art are five-pointed. So it is unlikely that it is just a star. Sometimes it is said to represent the papyrus flower, as the papyrus plant was used for making scrolls which are one of the materials used in record keeping and Seshat is goddess of record-keeping and scribal arts. She is often depicted marking off the years on a palm leaf stalk:

seshat2

Others say it is representative of the hemp leaf, as hemp was used to make rope and ropes were used as measuring cords. Seshat is one of the few goddesses to have never had a temple dedicated specifically to her and yet, she is at the core of each temple as it was her powers of mathematics and geometry that were called upon to measure out the ground plans for every stone building. This was expressed in a ritual “pedj shes” (stretching the cord) which was conducted during the laying of foundations. Apart from her association with scribal arts, it was this aspect that appealed to me in taking her name. In my profession as translator, we are the invisible workers integral to communication and industry and yet we never get the recognition we deserve. We are invisible tongues, shadow speakers clothing other people’s words, just as Seshat was hidden in the foundations of every temple and her skills were used to the glory of the other gods. Some people say that the symbol actually represents the tools of geometry, and that the over-arching bow is not a bow, or horns or feathers (as has been suggested) but that it represents the number 10. I like the idea of that, but don’t quite understand how they came to that conclusion.

Seshat was identified variously as daughter, sister and wife of Thoth, or even as the female aspect of Thoth. In this context she was said to wear a crescent moon (as representative of Thoth). Typically the crescent moon was shown with the tips pointing up, so this is unusual in Egyptian art for the tips to point down. Some suggest that this is just the way that symbols change and morph from their original meanings over time. She was sometimes known as Safekh-Abwy, which means She Who Wears the Two Horns. In some images the horns resemble cobras. There is no evidence to suggest that the interpretation of the arch as a bow is correct. Horns were often associated with the crescent moon, and so there would be no contradiction in seeing the “arch” as representative of both of these.