Martyrs, Memories, Mourning

Martyrdom is inseparably linked to the forms of memory-making and memory dissemination — how the dead are remembered defines communities and nations

By   |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 2nd Aug 2020  12:18 amUpdated: 1st Aug 2020  11:36 pm
ILLUSTRATION: GURU G

The subject of “martyrdom” of soldiers in the recent past has stirred up much debate. The reason for the debate is: the very specific connotations of the term, which when used in a different context or appropriated for a different purpose, can induce not just confusion of categories of meaning but also a whole new politics of identity and identification. Are soldiers killed in the line of duty “martyrs”? But then terrorist outfits claim their suicide bombers are “martyrs” too, thus adding another layer to the already chaotic mix.

“Martyr” comes from the Middle English martiren, from Old French martiriier and in part from Old English gemartyrian, meaning “put to death as punishment for adherence to some religious belief (especially Christianity)”. But there are related etymological meanings too: “one who bears testimony [witness] to faith,” and from the Doric Greek martyr and earlier martys, which in Christian use becomes “martyr,” literally meaning “witness.”

A third angle to the etymology is the Greek “martyr”, which scholars argue,  is related to mermera meaning “care, trouble,” from mermairein, meaning “be anxious or thoughtful,” and to (s)mrtu which is also the source of the Sanskrit smarati “remember”. Yet another angle to the meaning comes from the Norse: the word pislarvattr means “torture-witness”, specifically, “one who suffers death or grievous loss in defense or behalf of any belief or cause” dates to the late 14th century, thus broadening out the connotation a bit more.

The etymological debate has not been resolved one way or the other. But we can assume that the term “martyr” carries the following key meanings: religious faith, suffering and pain, spectacle, memorialisation and mourning. Whether the last three are seen and represented as proceeding from the individual’s religious faith is a political point. For instance, studies have shown that the victims of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in England – the subject of Shelley’s “England in 1819” – were termed martyrs, although their deaths were due to their political (not religious) beliefs.

How martyrdom is constructed around individual tortures, suffering and death is a political subject, in all cultures.

“Martyr” means both, one who died for her or his religious beliefs and a witness. This religious connotation of the word has changed over the centuries of use

Beliefs Kill

The cult of St Agnes is an exemplary case of the construction of martyrdom. Agnes of Rome was very young when she died (maybe 12/13). She refused to marry, although she came from a wealthy family and had wealthy suitors. She was accused, by the thwarted suitors, of being Christian and prosecuted. It is said she was executed by being stabbed in the throat (AD 304). Here are Quentin Outram and Keith Laybourn outlining the history of the construction of Agnes as a martyr:

“A few decades later St Ambrose dwelt first on her virginity, then on her youth, then on her fearlessness and interpreted her refusal to marry as the consequence of a spiritual marriage to Christ. By the time of Caxton’s Golden Legend (1483) the emphasis has shifted almost entirely to her marriage to Christ, her consequent refusal to take any earthly husband and the miracles attendant on her final conflicts with the local authorities; of her youth little is said, of her courage nothing. Nothing in St Ambrose’s account is denied but some things are ignored and others mentioned only briefly.”

Their conclusion effectively captures the construction of martyrdom:

“The characteristics of the martyr’s cult depended on the extent of the Church’s control over the martyr’s image… The Church was able to transform the most unlikely deaths into martyrdoms…”

Thus, the attribution of dying-for-their-belief to the executed and subsequent morphing into first martyrs and then saints (which marks the making of the Agnes cult) is the process of martyrdom.

In similar fashion, those protestors who were killed at Peterloo, Joseph Cozens shows, “The Making of the Peterloo Martyrs, 1819 to the Present,” slowly became absorbed into the pantheon of political martyrs.  Bobby Sands, the Irish rebellion’s icon, starved himself to death in prison in 1981. The cult of Bobby Sands grew incrementally, notes political scientist Stephen Hopkins. It built upon the culture of self-sacrifice. Hopkins says:

“Bobby Sands has not only become associated with just such an ‘exemplary life’, but his approach to the hunger strike was explicitly based upon his understanding of and emotional attachment to those who had travelled a similar route before him.”

Hopkins points to a conscious exercise in constructing a certain meaning around physical suffering. The linkage between political beliefs and individual trauma generates the image of the political martyr.  Like religious martyrdom, political martyrdom is a synchronised effect produced through a series of collective and individual actions.

Spectacle of Suffering

Stories of the tortured, dying martyrs, with visual depictions of the same, have built a spectacle of suffering around their deaths. Giovanni del Biondo’s triptych from 14th century Florence, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and Scenes from His Life are continuing tourist attractions for the splendid artwork, even as they draw the devout. Sculptures depicting the beheading of Denis, eventually St Denis, constitute structures like the basilica around the saint (near Paris). The legend that Denis picked up his head after being decapitated, and walked for miles preaching before eventually dying, also became the subject of paintings and sculptures.

The body in pain is central to the imagining and social acceptance of the martyrdom, from Christ on the cross to the depiction of saints. The body driven by belief, ostensibly, is the testing ground for that belief. Just as pain is indescribable because it is effectively beyond language (acute pain leaves us without language, with just primordial sounds), as Elaine Scarry argues, so is faith. So faith and belief find a material dimension: the body, suffering blows, cuts and annihilation for carrying within it, faith.

The martyr’s body is a witness to both, her/his faith and to the social context of this faith. We, as spectators, witness this witness. Martyrdom is the effect of this double witnessing: by the person who experiences the bodily trauma – shall we say, embodied witnessing or primary witnessing for possessing a certain faith – and the social order which witnesses this suffering body. The spectacle of pain is integral to the making of the martyr, whether it is the saint or the political protestor. In the impaled, crucified, torn and mutilated body – there is a painting of Apollonia having her teeth yanked out, which was how she was martyred (Apollonia, therefore, is the patron saint of dentists) – we read the “signs” of faith, belief and the courage of their convictions. Their faith gets scripted on their bodies, from the emaciated Bobby Sands to the horrifically mutilated saints.

The vulnerable body of the martyr slides towards helplessness in the visual representation. In the sharing of this body-in-pain, pain becomes not the experience of the individual but a shareable condition. As Elizabeth Dauphinee puts it, “It [the visual imagery of pain] asks us to consider the possibility that pain is not an interior, private state, but a shared and shareable phenomenon that is expressible and accessible in a fully social and intersubjective way.”

This social aspect of the individual’s pain is a step in the construction of the martyr.

Collective Act of Recall

The “martyrology of the people”, was subsequently built around those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and hence were viewed as more worthy of the description as “martyr” than others. This kind of martyrology is seen in places like Palestine. Lotte Buch Segal argues that the women’s trauma in Palestine “captur[es] the derivative suffering of the women related to either martyrs or prisoners”. But it also works martyrdom into another dimension, a moral discourse, that is called “sumud”. “Sumud”, she writes, “expresses an ethos of standing tall, of persevering no matter what is inflicted on you and your people”. While they invoked the idea of religious martyrdom, Segal notes, the notion of “sacrifice” itself serves as a powerful cultural trope.

The mother’s despair is a part of the discourse of both sacrifice and martyrdom in the community, and is integral to the process of both, memory and mourning. The anxiety of war-mongers to not leave the dead behind to become enshrined as martyrs is because bodies and remains serve as the points of collective memorialisation and mourning, thus shifting the grief from the private and personal (the mother’s or the family’s) to the community’s. For example, Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, the graphic novel, depicts numerous scenes of this kind of collective mourning and the discourse of martyrdom that results from the collective act of recall.

Mourning and memorialisation bring back the dead. They are revenants, who “begin by coming back,” as a philosopher put it. Martyrdom is the continuing presence of the dead in the lives of the community. When national discourses are in operation, of course, this continuing presence comes to define the identity of the entire nation. Since there is no nationalism without a ghost, as the same philosopher cited above has noted, martyrs enable the making of national memory, national identity and even national futures.

Hagiographies enable the making of religious identity around the stories and legends of martyrs, secular and political martyrdom produce a discourse and rhetoric that links spectacular deaths with a national past, a movement or campaign or a nation’s aspirations. The construction of martyrdom around political leaders, just as in the case of venerated saints, strives to generate and preserve memory as a political act.

When the bodies of the dead, complete with signs of torture, are displayed by a community in mourning, they serve a larger cause. This larger cause drives movements, whether civil rights or separatism, warfare or street protests. The making of martyrs, then, has less to do with the way they died and why, than to do with how the memories of their deaths and the attribution of causes for the death, are constructed, disseminated and assimilated. Dying in the line of duty – defined differently by nations, communities – enables the making of specific memories, for specific purposes.

The older meanings of “martyr” have changed. What has not changed is the consumption of death.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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