I recently watched, for the third time, a documentary entitled, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which I rented from Netflix. This enlightening film was made in Tibet and deals with the Tibetan Buddhist views on what happens to someone as they die and days afterwards. Understandably, their views are very different from our Western ways of thinking.
In one scene, there is a funeral procession. The monks are carrying gongs and cymbals and are clanging them quite loudly. When I saw this I was instantly reminded of some things I discovered in one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, Jewish Magic and Superstition.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the creation of cacophonous sounds is done to scare off any demons who might be hanging around the dead body. People who lived in the Middle Ages were incredibly superstitious and fearful! They believed that demons hung around humans at special times of life, such as birth, death, weddings, and even conception. Elaborate procedures were developed to try to scare away these demons or at least to divert their attention for a while.
When someone was dying, they were never left alone, for the reasons previously mentioned. Candles were lit beside the bed. Bedding containing chicken feathers was removed from the room. Because there was a link in their minds, and in their belief system, between demons and fowl, they tried to do all they could to ease the dying person’s agony.
Several points mentioned by the author that are especially interesting to note were: (1) During the funeral procession, it was advised that men should walk apart from women, since the spirits display a marked partiality for females. (2) On the way to the cemetery it was customary to recite the anti-demonic psalm (Psalm 91) a number of times to “drive away the demons.” (3) It was customary to tear up some grass and earth after the rites were concluded and toss them behind one’s back in order to notify the demons that they were being given permission by humans to leave the area. (4) Hand washing after leaving the cemetery and prior to entering the home was customary. (5) Ritual required a candle be kept burning in the death chamber the week after burial.
Many of these customs were enacted to somehow dissuade demonic entities from causing harm to the mourners, as they believed they were somehow especially vulnerable to the demons at this crucial time. Mourners attempted to disguise themselves from the demons, even going as far as letting their hair and beard grow, changing their seat in the synagogue, etc.
As I read this book, I tried to discern what remnants of superstition remain in our “modern” culture and I’ve been able to identify quite a few. For now, it is enough to study the ways and beliefs of a people who seemed to be tormented by fears of the natural world, fears of their bodies and bodily functions, and fears of other people. It seems that these intense fears held them in a slave state, as they were constantly looking over their shoulders for what could harm them next.
P.S. Since writing this article, I have done some reading on the Black Plague, a catastrophic epidemic that literally wiped out about 50% of the population of Europe at a time (between 1347 and 1350) when science and medicine had little to offer victims and families in the area of causation and cure. It seems to me only natural that because of their lack of understanding of how the disease came about and was spread that they would speculate and then create many rituals to empower themselves in the face of awesome devastation.