Window – Roof – House – Soul

23 09 2009


Michael Carroll in his book, Veiled Threats, tells of the following:

Gian Matteo Gilberti, bishop of Verona… instructed his priests to root out superstition, and singled out in particular “the practice of uncovering the roof so that the soul [of the dead] can get out, something that suggests the soul could be held back by a roof.” In fact, Italians have long believed that the human soul has a physical substance and so can be blocked by physical barriers like a roof. This is why those present at a death leave an exit for the soul of the dead person by removing a slat from the roof or opening a window. The fact that diocesan synods throughout Italy continued to condemn these practices into the modern era… is an indication of just how rooted and widespread this view was.

“A quaint superstition”, you might think. Mircea Eliade, however, further elaborates:

the soul of the dead person departs though the chimney or the roof and especially through the part of the roof that lies above the “sacred area”. In cases of prolonged death agony, one or more boards are removed from the roof, or the roof is even broken. The meaning of the custom is patent: the soul will more easily quit the body if the other image of the body-cosmos, the house, is broken open above. Obviously all these experiences are inaccessible to nonreligious man, not only because, for him, death has become desacralized, but also because he no longer lives in a cosmos in the proper sense of the word and is no longer aware that having a body and taking up residence in a house are equivalent to assuming an existential situation in the cosmos.

The Sacred and the Profane

If we are to give any creedence to Eliade, institutional spiritual institutions are not always the best apparatus in preserving the ancient religious ethos. It is probably not to be doubted that such an Italian practice originated with paganism, but the reasoning behind it (again, if we give Eliade creedence) transcends even the tired pagan/Christian divide.

For Eliade, reality only has meaning insofar as it conforms to the symbols of the divine. Once the language of these symbols breaks down, even the spiritual gatekeepers begin to conceive of the universe in increasingly desacralized terms. That is perhaps behind the sectoralized and atomized character of religion today, “orthodox” or not. In a place where even basic religious paradigms are separated from everyday life, any sense of continuity with the past becomes boderline farcical. Quomodo sedet sola civitas