Indeed, “we start dying from the moment we are born,” wrote Augustine of Hippo; “Only in death are we not strangers,” concludes the Portuguese poet José Fontinhas. Death is one of our biggest worries and, simultaneously the main characteristic that distinguishes us from the gods. Many legends refer to an age when men and gods had not yet been separated and were all immortal. The allegory of Adam and Eve, the Eskimo cosmogony or some Greek and Latin myths have a common core: they argue that the loss of immortality was a result of our sins. One of the most interesting explanations is provided by the natives of Tuma. An old woman lived with her granddaughter in the village. One day they went to the river for a swim. The grandmother stepped aside and took off her skin becoming, therefore, a young girl. Unexpectedly, the currents took the skin down the river, and it was caught by a tree branch. Upon her arrival, the granddaughter did not recognise her grandmother. Furious, the woman returned to the river, searched for her old skin and put it on. Complaining about her bad luck, she said: “I will never slip off this skin, we will all grow old, we will all die.”
Stories similar to this one are very frequent, and they show how the human being rebels against the condition of being mortal. Hence, the reason why so many religions promise an immortal life. Some of them, like Christianity or Islamism, express their belief in the resurrection of the dead. According to the Apocalypse “there shall be no more pain, there shall be no more death.” Therefore, death is seen just as a temporary sleep. As a matter of fact, in Judaism as well as in the Greek mythology, the connection between death and sleep is a very ancient one: “Sleep is the brother of death,” says Homer; “Death is a sleep,” states a bushmen maxim.
Another trans-cultural way of defeating death is provided by the myth. It consists of believing that anyone can continuously return to the past. Several rites of passage involve a symbolic voyage to our childhood. There are many tribes in which a young person has to pass a test in order to be accepted in the circle of the adults, for example; to cross a tunnel, a cave or a tree trunk. In the United Republic of Cameroon, for instance, young people have to go through a frightening gallery where masks of their deceased ancestors are displayed. It is just as if the initiated had died and been reborn, afterwards. In fact, it is quite common to see childhood as a reflection of an Edenic age. When adolescence begins, the child will be expelled from that heaven of security and comfort.
Deep inside, every single human being believes in life after death. Even those who commit suicide usually choose a river or ocean as a theatre for their final act. It is not a random choice since water has been traditionally seen as a symbol of life and rebirth. One could mention the redemptive water of baptism, the purifying pilgrimages and plunges into the Ganges, or the Greek and Egyptian legends in which the protagonist has to cross a river to reach eternity. There is a reason for this relationship between water and life. On the one hand, our phylogenetic roots lay in the sea; on the other hand, ontogenetically, the foetus is developed in an aqueous environment. There is a line by Walter Whitman which reflects this idea, as the poet calls the sea “fierce and old mother.”
Many authors have also linked to two other concepts: land and mother. It is essential to reflect upon the reasons of this, to understand the real dimension of a woman’s death in myth and literature. The first mystical experience of humankind was a result of the contact with nature. Frightening, unpredictable in its storms, regular in its cycles, the survival of the tribe depended on the environment. Therefore, it was common to worship a particular tree, stone or a river. Nowadays, when the Pope arrives in a foreign country and kisses the land, he is continuing a meaningful rite: the tribute to the land which is simultaneously a goddess and a mother. The connection between land and women may seem evident to the layman since they both have the capability to procreate — a fertile analogy between children and fruit. However, there is a deeper connection. In prehistoric times it was commonly believed that mothers were just a passage, a means for a child to be born. In fact, what impregnated them was the land — fountains, rocks, trees. There lies the explanation that certain places were holy areas where the birth could occur.
Centuries later, the holiness of the land was passed on to the woman — and the female body became sacred. The most ancient works of art representing the human body are actually the ones which depict women — the well-known Venus from the western Europe, Greece and Britain. Most women were healers or sorceresses, and they are frequently displayed in wall paintings wearing masks or skins of animals. The myth of the woman, mother, and goddess subsisted. Between 1,500 and 1,000 b.C., the Dravidians, who lived in Southern India, worshipped several goddesses. Amongst them there is Gramavedata and other women whose names bore the suffix “—amma” or “—ai” which meant “mother”: Ellamma, Mariyamma, Mengai, Udulai, etc. Therefore, regarding mythology, to murder a woman is a particularly terrible type of destruction. On the one hand, it eliminates the hypothetical progeny; on the other hand, it stands for the sacrifice of the symbol of life.
Literature, as an essential part of our intellectual and creative activity, displaying our anxiety, worries and subconscious fears, has always dealt with the theme of the death of women. The list of victims is long and well — known since some of them became part of the universal literature: Eurydice, Juliet, Inês, Daisy Miller, Ligeia, etc. In this conference, I intend only to analyse some of the stories written by Edgar Allan Poe in which a young and beautiful woman is killed, directly or indirectly, voluntarily or involuntarily, by a man.
In many of Edgar Allan Poe’s narratives, there appears to be a morbid obsession with the death of women. It is easy to identify these stories since their title corresponds — invariably — to the names of the victims that are the protagonists or deuteronomists of the action: “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” “Eleanora,” “Annabel Lee,” “To Helen,” “Morella,” etc. Uncommon names for stories where the macabre and the improbable play a leading role — and the relationship between the living and the dead is frequently an incestuous one. The author describes the women as if they were already deceased, the results being seraphic and quiet human beings, made out of marble, similar to the academic sculptures of that age. There is a passage from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ that is worth quoting, as an example of this characteristic of Edgar Allan Poe’s style: “[…], there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated figure. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold — then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother […].”
The destruction of beauty produces a moving and appealing effect on the reader. “[…] it is because everything dies that everything is so beautiful,” states Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. Edgar Allan Poe thought the death of a young and beautiful woman to be aesthetically valuable, and therefore he used it frequently in his writing. In his essay Philosophy of Composition, Poe himself explains: “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
However, there might be a biographical reason for this strange taste for death. In 1836, when Edgar Allan Poe became famous, he married Virginia Eliza Clemm, his thirteen-year-old cousin. Soon he discovered his wife’s disease in which she frequently experienced a strange state of catalepsy — she lost the voluntary motion of her limbs as if she were a corpse. This fact might have inspired the characters of Madeline in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ or Berenice in the same-titled short-story.
In the latter, Egaeus falls in love with his cousin Berenice. She seems to be healthy until she starts suffering from epilepsy and she is frequently found in a trance that is easily confused with death. According to Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid taste, Egaeus marries his cousin in a ceremony where the bride already appears to be shrunken and ill. The couple’s happiness was not meant to last as Berenice enters an apparent state of death. Convinced that he had lost his wife, Egaeus pulls out all her teeth, one by one. However, the conclusion of the story is as grotesque as unexpected — a real twist of fate: a servant enters the room and announces that Berenice has not been dead but in a trance.
Egaeus pulled out Berenice’s teeth with two unconscious objectives. Firstly, to have the feeling of still possessing her (in his classic novel ‘Dune,’ Frank Patrick Herbert, Jr. argues that one only owns what one can destroy). Secondly, to have a souvenir of her. In fact, in this tale, teeth have the same role of strands of hair or cut nails in witchcraft: they are a part of the body which stands for the whole body and therefore allow the sorceress to control another person. This is a type of synecdoche, very common in the mythical context, in which, according to Ernst Cassirer, “each part represents the whole, each element of a certain species or class appears to stand for the whole species or class.”
However, this violent masculine domination will not be left unpunished. The simple fact of Berenice being alive is already a cruel penalty for Egaeus, who would feel at ease with his wife dead. It is interesting to notice that, in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, women always appear to reach a surprising and exquisite vengeance upon the men who contributed most to their suffering.