Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Quick and the Dead

Reports that the body of recently deceased Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, will be embalmed and placed on "permanent" display at the Museum of the Revolution have brought to mind other examples of this phenomenon. Other revered Communist leaders, such as Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh, received the same treatment after their deaths. And, of course, there are many examples of Christian saints whose bodies remain on display (or are brought out periodically). 

Placing the bodies of particularly revered or heroic figures on display has a long history. In medieval historical writing (including historical chronicle and epic poems), heroic warriors from Troy and Carthage were embalmed (sometimes with magical fluids) and preserved for eternity. Hector, the prince of Troy, was placed in the open, where his subjects could see him. In one account, the embalming fluid went in at the top of his skull, and then flowed through his veins into his extremities. 
Hector's embalmed body.
Cod. Bodmer 78, fol, 58r

According to many natural philosophers, a person could not be considered fully dead until decay or putrefaction occurred. So keeping Hector perfectly "fresh" actually meant keeping him partially alive. Kind of like Han Solo in carbonite, or Wesley in "The Princess Bride."

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