Monday, October 31, 2005


Modern "Goth" culture echoes, in some ways, the fascination in past centuries with the imagery of death, although the meaning is now rather different.

In the Middle Ages, skulls and skeletons were gruesome and frightening, but they were also seen as symbols of the intent to live a good and holy life and attain heaven in the limited time available (or perhaps through Purgatory later).

But in modern times, skulls and skeletons lack these positive associations, and are seen solely as symbols of fear, despair, suffering and evil.

Some modern "Goths" do embrace not only the black clothing and pale makeup, but a "Goth" attitude. For them, the skull-and-blood imagery, and the mockery of religious symbols such as crucifixes and rosaries, expresses their genuine feeling of alienation, sadness and hopelessness.

More often, though -- and this is why I'm writing this on Hallowe'en -- the "Goths" and "pirates" I encounter are tongue-in-cheek. They enjoy wearing the clothes as an outrageous fashion statement, and get a kick out of pretending to be evil and out of making fun of those who take life too seriously. They are not out to actually hurt anyone, and in fact, many of the ones I've met are extraordinarily kind and helpful people behind the silly or outré masks.

Unfortunately this playful sort of "Goth" is sometimes mistaken for someone genuinely interested in evil. As Joe Sinasac comments at Catholic Online, it's easy to focus on "Gothic beasties and so-called black magic", when real evil is much more mundane. "As Hannah Arendt observed," he adds, "evil is often banal, not exciting... Such fears are echoes of past alarms over the Halloween custom of dressing up the kids as goblins and witches. They make just as little sense. Real evil can be much more difficult to detect – and is far more widespread. Also much more difficult to eradicate; a simple exorcism just won’t do."

So the imagery doesn't scare me. I'm more amused than horrified by the "goth" rosaries I've encountered. (Though I can understand how others might see hostility where I see humor, and if so, they're certainly entitled to that opinion.)

Just as with real rosaries, there are tacky and flimsy goth rosaries and there are nicely-constructed ones. Also, just as with real rosaries, there are examples that stick fairly closely to the "canonical" construction of modern rosaries, and there are also variations that don't. I expect most of those (like the one below) are due to an artistic impulse to interpret the design loosely, though I suspect there are a few out there whose makers are simply unclear on the concept. :)

The site that keeps coming up in a Google search for "goth" and "rosary" (and source of the above images) is, unsurprisingly, Goth Rosary, which does have some interesting merchandise, including not only rosaries named after blood types (Type A, Type O, Type AB negative) but "coffin" purses and fragrances with names like "Graveyard" ("The smell of rich loamy soil, fresh green grass with a note of floral..") and "Mayhem" ("The smell of smoke mixed with woods & spice...."). I think my favorite is the bone-colored skull comb.

(By the way, my research also turned up an interesting online article on the history and anthropology of modern "goth" culture (originally someone's term paper) that I found well worth reading.)

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color



Blogger Sabrina said...

I am always fascinated by the bits you come up with. I learn a bit of history and a learn a bit of insight into both our world and the medieval world. Good job. I will continue to look forward to your posts.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Photographer Leia said...

I would also like to offer up the idea to your readers that there is a good portion of the Gothic subculture that is religious. While Goths come from all different backgrounds (Islamic, Jewish, Agnostic, Pagan, etc) there is a substantial sect within the Gothic subculture that is aptly referred to as Christian Goth. The members of this sect enjoy the same iconography as the rest of the movement (bats, skulls, bones, crosses, rosaries, and other misc religious symbolry) but they view it from within a Christian context. Much of the Goth aesthetic is rooted in finding beauty places that others don't see it. There is also a romantic reverence for the sublime (especially as it refers to a greatness that can be compared to nothing else 'and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.'. Therefore cemeteries and ruins (if they are crumbling and overgrown so much the better) are a common point of reference for many. There is also a deep connection aesthetically to the Gothic architectural and artistic movement. With Cathedrals being some of the most exceptional examples of fine Gothic architecture, and considering how steeped in religious iconography cemeteries are (a great place for a picnic)I find it no stretch that the subculture has adapted both the cross and rosary to be part of its own personal iconography. Granted, as with any group of people, you will find those who find joy in profaning that which has obvious sacred meaning (shock rockers come to mind ... though it is often debated as to whether they are actually Goth or not). On the whole, however, I think that you will find that most will have attached some type of deeply personal spiritual connotation (theologically correct or not) to items such as the rosary. For all it might not be the correct use of such items (i.e. the intended use) but I think people can rest assured that it is at least being valued with care and some element of reverence in most cases.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I read through this post and want to let you know that these so-called "goth rosaries" are not a new thing. In fact, I found an image of a rosary from 16th century Spain or Austria (they were at the time ruled by the same imperial dynasty, the Habsburgs) that was composed of either silver or silver-gilt skull beads. It is true that people were obsessed with death and mortality in the so-called 'old days' and I argue that the mindset is the same as those you label "goth"--obsession or focus on death and dark imagery were just as much a part of everyday life at the time as it is with some people today. Moreover, many people who assert that video game violence encourage real-life violence among so-called "goth" types as in the Columbine Shootings. Well, 500 years ago, people flocked to see live executions (beheadings, quarterings, hangings, etc) were exposed to actual killing and people constantly cite the 'good ol' days' as being more moral and upright. This is a myth just as much as your argument that goths are corrupting the rosary.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

I'd very much like to see photos or references on the 16th century Spanish piece. What's your source?

Any direct video-games/Columbine connection has been pretty well disproved. The influence of video games on society is considerably more complicated than that, and it's not necessarily a "corrupting" influence. And of course you're quite right, the common exposure to death and violence in past ages had an influence too, though here too it's hard to say exactly what. Historians debate this constantly.

9:52 AM  

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