An anonymous commenter says, “Things, objects, places, even people can feel tangibly holy. And the reverse is true, things, places, etc. can feel unholy. Not profane merely, but malignant.”
I have a pretty good idea who this commenter is: someone who is powerless. But the person is provocative. There’s not much in the scholarly literature about artifacts that are UNholy, but there is a huge thrashing wilderness of materials about the “dark” side, explained by people who claim to know and control them. We tend to see Euro culture as well-lighted, even blonde, but the most powerful Madonna statues are the ones of dark women, and one of the most evil-identified symbols is the Nazi swastika, imposed by a man who valued genetic blondness, though his other secret preoccupation was excrement. Aside from genocide.
So far as I know, no one has done fMRI studies to see whether malignant consciousness shows up in different parts of the brain than salvific consciousness. I suspect both are regulated in the forebrain over the eyebrows, since the difference is mostly a matter of moral judgment.
The need for concepts of evil comes from fear, loss, guilt, shame and so on. Being out of control. Coveting something inaccessible. Deserving punishment. These would light up different parts of the brain. I would argue that there are not three categories: sacred, profane and malignant, but rather two main ones: empowered and ordinary, each with subsets of good v. evil. That is, if one stays in the profane or secular world, the issues don’t come up. It is science, but we know that science without morality can go evil, so maybe I’m wrong.
There are two big watersheds of “evil” artifacts: one comes from Africa, esp after it had mixed in the Caribbean with local authochthonous elements and another one that comes from reversing Christian concepts -- Satanism and so on. Santeria or voodoo we think of in terms of finding a witch fetish -- chicken foot, toad skin, bat wings -- or maybe an effigy with pins stuck in it. The other we think of in terms of the old cultures of Europe bursting up through Christian ideas, the Cross reversed to become Thor’s hammer, the Madonna pushed over by witches. And Satan, who seems to slither in from the Middle East. Both bags of evil are anthropocentric. But that may be true of all evil: what without a human victim is evil?
Among Native Americans, the terrifying rip-out-hearts obsidian knives of Incas, the ghostly weird faces of Inuit masks, and the distorted hunger masks of the woodlands peoples go directly to one’s nightmares and fever dreams. The masks, in particular, seem to echo distortions of people’s faces, which can be the source of our most beloved images OR the source of fear.
What I’ve become conscious of in the last few months is how Native Americans, esp. those who live in places where survival is always in doubt, may not have used alcohol or other toxins to alter their consciousness, but were well-aware of the consciousness-altering forces of starvation, dehydration, fever, hypothermia, and pain. Many ritual ordeals were acts that invited loss of control, hallucination, and wavering identity so as not to fear them. Artifacts connected to these ordeals signify transformation and courage, not evil.
Scalps carry whatever ascription the observer can muster. Dripping with fresh blood and severed from a loved one, it’s hard to think of anything more evil. Dried in a hoop, hundreds of years old, hanging in a display case, the same object becomes a source of curiosity, a prompt for collecting. The evil then becomes a matter of attaching the practice of scalping to a culture: Indians claiming they were paid by white people to bring in scalps of enemies. Whites claiming it was an atavistic urge like that of American soldiers in Vietnam collecting indigenous ears. But this discussion is carrying us too close to the regard for human bodies, which is a whole different shelf in the library.
To recapitulate, malign artifacts are generally powerful -- why would anyone want to violate propriety and virtue otherwise? They associate to shame, guilt, rage, yearning (which might or might not be venal), and whatever is “other,” outside “us” and therefore stigmatized. In England such matters are often described as “French.” In Blackfeet country they are often ascribed to the “Cree.” Cree Medicine is witchy.
Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine” is the same as Cree Medicine. She and Ray Young Bear have been the writers most willing to look at the evil supernatural. For Louise such matters often haunt the Catholic assumptions. For Young Bear there’s more of a willingness to think about ghosts, the supernatural. For him such matters are more benignly supernatural, though no one in their right mind would go into the swamp at night to contact the strange moving lights they glimpse. In movies evil is often incarnated in such mysteries, which we label “sci-fi,” or horror or thrillers and -- for some reason -- pay to see. The scariest feature evil coming right out of our bodies: Alien spawn and Rosemary’s baby. They mess with our identity.
For indigenous cultures the “trickster” walks both sides, about as much ridiculous as evil. So that the atrocity of death hinges on whether a turd will float (in the Blackfeet foundation myth Old Man and Old Woman bet each other on a buffalo chip thrown into the river) and painful wounds are interpreted by talking anuses. Propriety, proper behavior, is meant to help people to survive and scaring them into it as children is a necessary social control. But there is always the amelioration of humor, deception, jokes. Maybe now we’re talking about “clowns” in SW tribal ceremonies.
White Euros use North American icons of both virtue and evil in the same as they did the indigenous cultures of Europe/Africa, along a continuum from scary stories to consuming horror. I don’t know enough about the material cultures of Asia to comment, but the Vietnam was deeply embedded in the American consciousness as evil because of the experience of soldiers there. Quite interesting to consider is the American consciousness of Euro culture as both “good” and “evil.” The Holocaust never loses its brutal force. The Inquisition is a little out of fashion, but images of rich, dissipated corruption spring up, alongside it the reacting Puritanical winnowing of the guillotine and the gibbet. Maybe the images of someone like Pasolini, excessive wealth, much sex and excrement, echo old fears of plague.
For the prairie people life was mostly good, so long as they cooperated with each other. The buffalo were such a generous and nourishing source of life that they never wanted to go back to the starvation scarcity of brush and ice farther north and east. Taken as a whole, the band of semi-related and compatible people became a creature in itself that could protect against most things except ghosts of wronged people, grizzlies and lightning. Much of it has been forgotten or overlaid with modern ideas. But when the skeletons of Blackfeet that had been collected by museums and then lay for centuries in drawers, waiting for some undefined purpose, were returned to the rez as a gesture of good will and restoration, there were some among the oldest people who would have nothing to do with it. They were afraid that the bone people would be angry for their treatment and exact some kind of vengeance.
This is the most incoherent of my posts about artifacts because I don't think about this side of them very much. Chicken feet and toadskins on my doorstep only get broomed off. Of course, to those who are devoted to the power of being "bad," this is a wicked attitude.