The idea of birthdays is a profound thing, especially if you do not believe in reincarnation. We celebrate our birth and the births of others annually, as if in a strange way we are reborn each year. Renewed with a new year of life. Birthdays are often taken to be a celebration of life, and if this is the case why do we not celebrate death. Is it not true that we are closer to the grave each year. The idea of celebrating death in western cultures is frowned upon. Death is not a particular subject people wish to discuss, it conjures up terror, a mystery and a faith of some kind. We celebrate life without any thought given to death, we receive gifts – as we are given the gift of life. We these gifts material and metaphysical are only to be taken away.
I find it amusing that funerals are a celebration of the dead for the living. At the same time they are a celebration of a complete life having been lived. Graveyards are the same, they are built by the living for the living as a way of celebrating the dead.
In Glasgow there is a large graveyard that sites on a hill overlooking part of the city, its known as the necropolis – Latin for city of the dead. If you ever get the chance to see it it is definitely worth a look. The site is covered in very large tombstones with glamorous monuments piercing the sky in a grandiose style. As if to declare look at how important I am how wealthy I am. And yet, they are dead. You can see there large names engraved on marble, there elegant statues and crypts and yet they crumble. They have long been forgotten, no flowers have been found here. What use has wealth for the dead. Glasgow’s necropolis is not only a beautiful place to visit but a philosophical adventure, were you learn about what death means to our past culture.
I woke up this morning and started singing Happy Birthday, and then I thought well why should we have a birthday instead of a death day. We do its called a funeral but we don’t sing ‘sad death day, sad death day, sad death day dear granny, sad death day to you’. Perhaps this just highlights the absurdity of birthdays or questions why funerals be sad and birthdays be happy, why birth over death.
There is a great irony behind the peace symbol. Its history is one of conflict and bloodshed. The modern use of this symbol was used by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. It was commissioned by Bertrand Russell and designed by Gerald Holtom. According to Wikipedia ( or inaccuratedia ) It consisted of the semaphore sign for ‘N’ and ‘D’. Its popularity caught on in the 1960s with the hippie movement and has remained popular ever since.
Semaphore ‘N’ and ‘D’
The cross as we know it today is at least 2000 years old. It’s numerous names are the Teutonic cross, Nero’s cross and St Peters cross (the latter has been used to symbolise Satanism in recent years). The peace symbol is based on the broken arms of a crucifix. when a fire destroyed Rome in 64 AD, (the official account of this can be found in Tacitus’s The Annals of Imperial Rome). At the time there was speculation that Nero caused the fire, which lead Nero to blame the Christians as the scapegoat for the fire. Nero used the peace symbol on his coins, with a eagle. The result of this persecution lead to many Christians being tortured, I suspect mainly with crucifixion.
Nero’s cross on his coin
It is interesting to note that the Pythagorean’s used the reverse of this symbol as a sign of life. It has also been used as a Teutonic rune to mean death. The death rune can be seen to mirror that of the life rune. The life rune looking like that of a tree branching out. While the death rune is like the roots of a tree with no branches. This could be interpreted as the dualities between life and death, death the underworld where the roots of the tree of life (kabbalha) are kept.
Kabbalah tree of life
Perhaps this is a combination of heaven (father sky) and the underworld (mother earth). And perhaps humanity is the bridge between these two worlds, as this is also often protrayed in symbolic forms of the kabbalah.
Humanity – the bridge between heaven and the underworld
The teutonic runes of life and death make sense as a symbol of a tree when we take into account Yggdrasil, the world tree in Norse mythology. ‘This ash tree’s trunk reached up to the heavens, and its boughs spread out over all the countries of the Earth. Its roots reached down into the Underworld’ (http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/ash.html).
Yggdrasil – the branches of heaven, the roots of the underworld
In this light we are able to understand the symbolic significance of trees used to depict life and death in runes, but more importantly we can understand why the Peace symbol is one that has a history linked with death.