replica of human skull with blood

Thirteen Days of Halloween: Skeletons and such.

The official countdown to Halloween has begin at SCINQ. Arguably, it’s our favorite time of the year. Witches and warlocks. Mummies and zombies. Spiders and skeletons. During the 13 Days of Halloween, we’ll be taking a look at the spooky cliches that you can find everywhere from your Instagram feed to your local Walgreens.

Today, it’s skeleton… no bones about it.

Human fascination with the structural part of the body has gone back for thousands of years. Physicians from antiquity to the Renaissance discussed and debated the form and function of the skeleton. In the Western tradition, key moments in a scientific understanding and portrayal of the skeletal system dates back to Galen. He and his contemporaries primarily focused on the hardness of bone. They believed that it played a singular role in maintaining the structural integrity of the human body. It also served as protection for the inner organs.

“Nature consequently did not merely entrust its defense to the skin, as she did for the parts of the abdomen, but first, before the skin was put on, she invested it with bone like a helmet.”

Their observations didn’t stop there. Physicians of the time deduced the function of many bones based on their size, curvature, and how they were paired with other bones. For example, Galen was able to deduce that the femur, the largest bone in the body, was responsible for sustaining the body’s weight. For quite some time, Renaissance anatomists unnecessarily complicated their understanding of the human skeleton by insisting that similarities between homo sapien skeletons and animal skeletons possessed an exact correspondence. This resulted in over-counting. For example, Galen mistakenly assigned monkey bone structure to humans.

pile of human skulls
Photo by Felipe Hueb on

One aspect of skeletons that particularly interested Renaissance physicians and anatomists was the bones themselves. Too bad, their analysis was pretty far off the mark. Starting with Galen, there was the belief that bone was primarily composed of sperm. Yes, you read that right. Sperm. How might they reach this wonderful conclusion, you ask? Because bones are white and so is semen. Even after the Renaissance drew to a close, there were physicians who believed this to be true.

In 1620, John Moir, a Scottish physician, told his students, “Bone is… generated out of semen, fat, and earth by the power of heat and the innate spirit.” His assessment actually brings together two bone traditions, Galen’s and Avicenna’s. The 11th century physician asserted that bone was mostly made of earth. According to Avicenna, “The bone… is however monster than hair, because bone is derived fromthe blood, and its fume is dry, so that it dries up the humors naturally located in the bones. This accounts for the fact that many animals thrive on bones, whereas no animals thrives on hair.”

Of course, today we know that while bone may be brittle and relatively dry, at least when compared to plasma, it has nothing to do with sperm or earth. It’s all about collagen.

Bones are not completely solid. They are made up of a flexible matrix consisting of collagen connected in a honeycomb form. This accounts for 30% of bone. The remainder is bound by minerals. While bone is undoubtedly hard, it is not as brittle as you’d think. The collagen provides a degree of flexibility to bones so that they don’t snap quickly under pressure. Still, that’s not to say that they are rubber-band-flexible either. The bone matrix is hardened by the binding of inorganic mineral salt and calcium phosphate. The mixture is known as calcium hydroxyapatite. 

To understand how skeletons became a part of Halloween iconography, you’d probably need to start at the beginning. Most likely, it first emerged as another uneasy compromise between the Christian church and older pagan traditions that were still prevalent at the time of the former’s ascendency. Christmas and Easter are the two main examples of a Christian-pagan truce. In particular, it appears that Allhallowtide, the three day festival that comprised of All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day, and All Souls Day — incorporated the timing and certain themes of harvest festivals such as Samhain. It certainly didn’t hurt that a major purpose of Allhallowtide was to commemorate the dead.

Harvest festivals were common around the world. They marked the transition from the bountiful days of summer to the hard, cold, and barren months of winter. In other words, a life giving way to death. It’s in this vein that the skeleton — an undeniable symbol of human mortality — became incorporated into Halloween’s stable of icons. The association most likely deepened after more personifications of death relied on the human skeleton to signify its meaning, good example being the Grim Reaper who combines Christian/harvest festival iconography (skeletons) with Greco-Roman symbolism (Chronos-Saturn’s scyth).

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