Sculls have taken over the modern culture in the world. They are everywhere: grinning from the girls’ T-shirts and clutches, appearing on all Iron Maiden’s albums, miraculously healing in the culture of ancient Maya, or being stuck on the shoulders of the Ghost Rider. Skulls have always been one of the most powerful and multiple-meaning symbols used in various cultures that have easily migrated into the modern world and comfortably settled themselves in our art, fashion, music, movies, and esoteric beliefs.
Scull is often used in horror movies as a frightening tool due to its initial meaning of death. In order to make a necessary grim effect on their audience, film directors use the symbolism of skulls. For instance, this symbol in the old horror movie Screaming Skull is constantly scaring the main character, so she goes crazy in the end. In the Scream of 1996, the maniac killer wears the mask of a skeleton, and this adds to its general horror a creepy atmosphere. The main hero of the Ghost Rider of 2007 and 2013 has a death head because he is supposed to dismay the mortals and is closely connected with death.
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The symbol of skull was also popular in the Renaissance culture since it irradiated a philosophy of memento mori, which was a reminder of human mortality. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that is usually interpreted as “remember about death”. With the development of Christianity, this phrase became especially popular within the era of Renaissance, when remembering about death meant to be living a good and decent life (McKay). Thus, this belief was vividly reflected in the art of the Renaissance that referred to this symbol to keep people aware of their existence. Consequently, skulls and skeletons as symbols of death were widely used at that time. Death was depicted on canvases and anthemised in songs by many Renaissance artists. A connection can be traced between popularity of death in art and the plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, that devastated Europe after 1348 (Burkle). Starting from this period and until the late 18th century, a whole new genre of art was being developed. It was known as tombstone or funeral art, where skulls and crossbones were widely used as well. In Renaissance art, skull was to represent the death of the physical body. For example, on the canvas St. Jerome in His Study, the artist Joos Van Cleve depicted a man with his finger on the skull. Here the skull is to represent the depth of thought and perfection of human spirit.
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In ancient cultures such as Mayan and Aztec civilizations, skulls did not represent death but life. The reason of it was that ancient Maya believed that a skull implied transition from life to death and possessed magic healing qualities (Cassaro). There is a legend of thirteen magic skulls that are able to open all the secrets of the universe to the people. In olden times, they were thought to have incredible healing capabilities. Moreover, thirteen crystal skulls are still considered to possess information about the destiny of the entire human civilization. According to the Mayan legend, one of the twin gods violated the rules and was punished by the superior gods. His skull was hanged on the tree as a warning for everyone else, and, once, he talked to a young woman and made her pregnant (Coppens). The Mayan people believed that skulls were magic and could evoke visions. According to the beliefs of Native Americans, crystal skulls were considered to be the brain cells of Mother Earth, which possess powerful healing capacities. Nowadays, these thirteen skulls are being found all over the world with scientists struggling to elucidate their origin and authenticity.
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Skulls have been always endowed with magical extraterrestrial capabilities. Having numerous meanings, skulls were used to represent global knowledge and power for ancient Mayans and Aztecs. Skull and crossbones gained extreme popularity during the Renaissance period to make mortals remember about their impermanence. Yet in the modern culture, skulls are used as a means to awaken fear.
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