Skulls: Beyond Memento Mori

Skulls: Beyond Memento Mori May 19, 2016

May 22nd is World Goth Day, so in light (or should that be dark?) of this, I’d like to talk about that most Goth of things…skulls.

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Skull and bones at Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, Italy. By author.

As someone into Gothic fashion, I’ve loved skull designs for a long time, but I do remember being very bemused when skulls exploded in popularity in mainstream fashion about 10 years ago (where they seemed to have remained to this very day). Nowadays most people won’t bat an eyelid if you’re wearing some kind of skull accessory, but I remember that it was quite a statement when I was a young gothling – it was an instant identifier for someone into Goth lifestyle to some extent (it isn’t necessarily today). Even now, when skulls are pretty common fashion items, some people still can’t get over the “morbid” symbolism of the skull.

It’s certainly true that skulls have symbolised death for thousands of years across many cultures. It’s one of the most common symbols used as a memento mori – a reminder that one day we will all die. Gods of Death (and there may well be more deities connected with death than any other concept) are often depicted with just a skull for a face, as entirely skeletal, or as wearing a skull – the Celtic Ankou, the Mexican Catholic Santa Muerte, the Aztec Mictlantecuhtli, and of course the familiar Grim Reaper, to name a few. Skulls also came to symbolise things that cause death, such as pirates, plague and, in the modern world, toxins.

I believe the skull as a symbol of death and mortality is significant, and as both a Pagan and a Goth, I think it is important to reflect on death and view it as a natural part of life, as one of the things that unites us all – even though it is the saddest and most devastating thing we have to deal with.

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Public domain

But I’d also like people to consider a slightly more hopeful meaning to the skull.

The skull is the vessel that carries what makes us, us – our brain. The human brain truly is one of the most remarkable things in existence. It has been called the most complex system in the known universe. It’s more powerful than a supercomputer. When you think about it, the human brain is cutting-edge; it’s only been around for 200,000 years, so it’s taken the vast majority of the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years?) to develop! And as we are part of the Universe, it has been said that our brains are the way the Universe thinks about itself. Yes, we are all indeed a part of Gaia! The cranium also houses our main receptors for our senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste – and so represents the way in which we experience the Universe around us. As a representation of the source of our human emotions and intellect, I think the skull is a very affirmative symbol of the best of humanity. So go and enjoy revelling in skull symbols!

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