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Children of the Moon, Dancing to Death

By Amanda Wasielewski.

The lonely colossus standing guard over New York gazes southeast toward the mouth of the harbor, sternly eyeing any ships approaching the city. This eccentric gift of friendship between two Enlightenment countries, an ostentatious neoclassical statement piece, is an unequaled symbol of the values laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Hollywood science fiction, exercising a particular brand of American exceptionalism, has raised its symbolic stature to include all of human civilization during and after our demise in a variety of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It is an allegory of individualism and liberty that earned its lasting pop culture cred amongst the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who set their sights upon it after long Atlantic voyages.

The dark and intractable impulses toward conspiracy and superstition, thriving on the internet, will whisper that this statue bears a strange likeness to the Greco-Roman goddess Hekate. The conclusions these conspirators reach about freemasons, the illuminati, and 9/11 are miraculous revelation, impervious to ridicule and scientism. The game they play is a dusty old one from the art history toolbox: iconography. The impatient iconography of internet conspiracy lists drunkenly toward pseudomorphism. That being said, Lady Liberty does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a Roman statue of the three-fold goddess Hekate at the Chiaramonte Museum at the Vatican as well as several nineteenth-century drawings of the goddess. Like Liberty, Hekate is often depicted with one or two torches in her hands in addition to other implements of her powers, and she, like Liberty, wears a crown with pointed rays. Unlike Liberty, who, according to her French title, is “enlightening the world,” Hekate performs a plethora of nefarious activities including witchcraft and necromancy. She governs over decision-making, the crossroads of life, and the moon. The conspiracy theory unmasks Liberty as the vile witch Hekate, cursing what once seemed blessed. Despite furtive YouTube mumblings, the allegorical colossus in the harbor remains a monument to the apotheosis of the modern subject, the declaration that it is “self-evident” that a man [sic] is a delimited individual, complete with inalienable rights. Hekate, Liberty’s terrifying doppelganger, sits on the other side of human existence: multiple, lunar, animal, and governed by forces we cannot explain.

André Breton claimed, in the Surrealist Manifesto, that madness is a self-evidently American trait: only a ship of fools would have agreed to sail off with Columbus in 1492 into a seemingly endless ocean. In Book VI of Republic, Plato introduced the “ship of fools” parable in order to argue against Athenian democracy. If everyone claims the right to steer the ship, regardless of skill or aptitude in navigation, the ship will surely flounder and fail. During the religious crises in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the metaphor was extended to the excesses of the Catholic Church and its clergy. Sebastian Brant, a syndic of Strasbourg, popularized the parable in his 1494 work of satire, Ship of Fools. The fact that such a seething critique of the Church and anti-humanist foolishness arose in the context of late medieval Strasbourg is fitting. During this period, Strasbourg was a hotbed of strife and rebellion. The severe economic hardships of the time drove Joss Fritz, one of the most active agitators of the Upper Rhine, to lead a series of peasant uprisings during the Bundschuh movement. The peasants’ suffering was compounded by high taxes and punishing debt policies, and they demanded relief.

Brant bore witness to the events of this period and wrote extensively on them. None of these myriad uprisings or concurrent ecclesiastical scandals were quite as troubling, however, as the bizarre incident that took place in the city in the summer of 1518: the infamous dancing plague. For approximately a month that summer, people of Strasbourg began to dance uncontrollably, in trance-like states, day and night with little food or water, until many fell down dead from exhaustion, their feet bloody and bodies ravaged. It reportedly started when one woman stepped out of her house and began to dance uncontrollably. It quickly spread to others in the city. Panicked and bewildered city officials exacerbated the group hysteria by setting up the dancers in the main square of the town, allowing more and more citizens to see and “catch” the dancing disease.

Oddly, this is not the first time a dancing plague had befallen northern Europeans living along the Rhine during the Middle Ages. To us moderns, the thought that dancing could be both uncontrollable and contagious is patently ridiculous. In modern society, madness is an individual affliction, lodged within the confines of an individual’s body. In a dancing plague, Hekate replaces Liberty. She emerges as a collective human organism unexplainable within the confines of Cartesian rationalism. For the group of mad dancers, state of mind is a condition uncontained by the confines of the body. It is matter that not only mingles but telegraphs quickly between bodies as they come within range (or in the age of rapid global communications mediated by electricity). It is an interaction that defies the principles of individual autonomy. Wary of the sin and corruption that had taken hold of God’s Church on Earth, observers of the dancing plague were sure that the Apocalypse had finally arrived.

In the text of the biblical book of Revelation, the end times are signaled by the arrival of the Apocalyptic Woman who is “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” She faces off against an adversary, a seven-headed dragon, who is multiple and sea-serpent-like. Stephen S. Smalley, in his eschatological exegesis, claims, “Mythic sea-serpent imagery, presented in biblical poetry as the activity of Leviathan or Rahab, may also have informed the composition of this scene.” The Woman Clothed in the Sun stands in contrast to the Whore of Babylon described in Revelation 17. The moon is at her feet and she has conquered the heavens with light. Like Liberty, the Apocalyptic Woman conquers darkness. In iconographic representations, she is shown with a crescent moon at her feet: a celestial ship she navigates over darkness.

The moon is a potent symbol of madness. After all, the word lunatic derives from the Latin word for the moon: luna. Its gravitational forces control the tidal waters, allowing it to rule over the terrifying vastness of the oceans. For the post-Enlightenment westerner, the belief that a full moon will transform a man into a wolf, unleashing his latent animal nature, is no more than a myth or a fairy tale leftover from less civilized times. Serious scientific research has investigated phenomena traditionally linked to lunar effects such as elevated birth rates, incidences of crime and deviant behavior, and sleep quality. While most of these studies have seen little to no effect of lunar activity in modern times, the belief in the lunar effect persists.

Hieronymous Bosch’s painting Ship of Fools (c.1500), inspired by Brant’s book, is steeped in lunar imagery. The crescent shape can be found in various guises, from the shape of the boat to the flag of the ship’s mast. Scholar Anna Boczkowska concludes that the boat in Bosch’s painting, given the historical ties between lunar imagery and sea navigation, is “first and foremost a lunar boat and the wanderers in the boat are ‘children of the moon’.” The moon and the sea were both, in turn, symbolically tied to wandering. Bosch’s painting was identified in earlier iconographic interpretations as a commentary on lust and gluttony and May Day or Carnival celebrations. The boundary between madness and excess is, evidently, quite fluid within the rigid society and hardship-filled existence of the medieval period.

The Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg was also said to resemble the chaotic excesses of Carnival, one of the few times per year when peasants could let passions loose. The loss of personal control, the melding and touching of bodies, and the intoxicating social bonds that played out in the Carnival could be seen as a form of madness. These kinds of communal or ritual activities, chaotic as they may seem to the rational individual, are larger bodies/collectivities unto themselves, formed in the interactions and mixings of many human bodies. As Dominick LaCapra writes, “Madness in Bosch is not purely human or dissociated from the world: it emerges as an image of the world itself, an imago mundi that unsettles the cosmos and disperses man… The ship of fools might be seen as the embarkation of the mad in search of their reason.” Thus, the ship of fools sets off across the sea, like Columbus’ men had a few years earlier, in search of their sanity, their individuality, and the gift of reason it promised.

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes, “Apocalyptic dreams are not new, it is true, in the fifteenth century; they are, however, very different in nature from what they had been earlier…. The end has no value as passage and promise; it is the advent of a night in which the world’s old reason is engulfed.” The competing powers of light and darkness, God and Satan, are cast aside in the early modern era in favor of a new battle between reason and madness. Liberty raises her torch and the organic body of an interconnected humanity is splintered into a fragmented collection of individuals.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim published his famous study of suicide in 1897, not long after the New Colossus had been dedicated in New York Harbor. Durkheim’s revolutionary findings in this study correlated rates of suicide with various demographic categories: gender, religion, nationality, occupation, etc. One would think that there could be no more individual, no more personal act than killing oneself. Durkheim found, however, that patterns could be statistically charted, raising the question of whether suicide was really a personal choice at all or somehow a socially prophesied eventuality. Durkheim’s suicide victims are, in this way, not too distant from their cousins, the victims of the Dancing Plague, propelled to meet their demise in relation to social and material ties around them. Their bodies were not isolated fortresses of total freedom but a series of human and non-human conglomerations, forming networks of interrelated matter, pushing and pulling in an infinite number of directions. These pushes and pulls – of the moon, other bodies, the sea – awaken, once more, the image of Hekate. Gazing off in all directions, Hekate stands at a crossroads, marking the chaos and irrationality of human existence on this planet. From her multiple gazes, the madness of matter floats off together in a million directions, like ships of fools.

Amanda Wasielewski  is an American artist based in Stockholm and has exhibited internationally. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Recent published writing has appeared in the journal History of Photography.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 28th, 2015.