Death becomes us? the skull as symbol of transcendence

“There was a small splash a couple of weeks ago about a new coffee: “Death Wish.” No prizes for guessing that this brew has an extremely high caffeine content. According to the website dedicated to this dark brew, it has about twice the amount of caffeine as regular strong coffee.

What’s perhaps more interesting from a marketing, semiotic, or perhaps even psychological, perspective, is the packaging. The coffee comes in a black bag, with a white label bearing a black skull and crossbones. It might seem counterintuitive to market something you consume by associating it with death. But it’s not the first time that this has happened. In the late 1980s, a brand of cigarette was launched in Britain. Like Death Wish Coffee, the cigarettes came in a black packet with a skull and crossbones. The brand’s name? You got it: “Death.”

Things might have been fine for Death Cigarettes had it not have been for “Death Wish” vodka. This US alcohol brand actually sued the cigarette manufacturer, claiming that it infringed on its trademark. The vodka brand was, it turned out, planning to move into the smoking market. Perhaps surprisingly, Death Wish vodka won their case against the cigarette brand, and the judge ordered the entire stock of Death Cigarettes, on US soil, to be destroyed. And as the cigarettes went up in smoke, so went the brand in total. The founder  and owner — BJ Cunningham — went bust, and that was the last of Death Cigarettes.

Like these British smokes then, Death Wish Coffee now is touting the danger of the product, not just in its logo. The company’s media kit tells us that this is “extreme coffee, not for the weak.” Apparently it won’t be sold at your local “sissy Starbucks” — their words, not ours, so don’t sue us. Like Death Cigarettes — which seemed to revel in the official government warnings about the risks of smoking, plastering them all over the packet — Death Wish Coffee has posted “warnings” all over its site, telling potential consumers that it is an “irresponsible” product. But, also like Death Cigarettes, this coffee is also being presented as a quality product, by a “responsible company.” The sleepless nights — while “warned” about — are also, it’s implied, a sign of quality.

Meaning

But why is “death” such a selling point? Walk through the streets of New York or any other major city and you’ll soon see someone wearing a tee-shirt with the skull and crossbones on it, or perhaps even carrying a bag in the shape of the icon. There’s a cutesy element to it in some cases — girls bags and clothing often feature the skull and crossbones in black and pink or with hearts.

But the main signification appears to be this: that I have transcended the usual, and the ordinary; that I am part of an elite or an exclusive club. This envisioned club might be composed of those who have seen through the crass commercialism of fake smiles and slogans promising “fun in the sun,” and so on. It is a pseudo-initiatic symbol, signifying an ability to see the truth in a world of lies — hence Death Cigarettes’ overuse of government warnings. Notably, Death Cigarettes also ran the legend “The Enlightened Tobacco Company” at the top of each pack, beneath a faux-heraldic crest. There’s something esoteric, intellectual, and even spiritual about it: “Enlightened.”

And there’s an element of luxury, too. Black can be a luxurious, even a decadent, color — we might think of leather clothing, the “little black dress,” the “little black book,” or the interior (especially the dashboard) of a luxury car. White, likewise. We think of cleanliness, “white collar” work, Apple computers. Black and white: pianos, tuxedos, suits. Signifying, in part, crossing over or transcending the mundane world, in the consumer one, the skull is used as a symbol of cutting edge quality. Notably, after his transformation from Rick Genest (through tattooing his entire body, and transforming his face into a tattooed skull), “Zombie Boy” has become fashion’s most noticeable and unlikely catwalk model. Zombie Boy has even appeared in a L’Oreal cosmetics ad and Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way” — which is obviously not true in Zombie Boy’s case, except that the sentiment is meant to refer to an inner, not an outer quality. The appearance of Zombie Boy in Born This Way is meant to signify a going within — finding our true nature — and expressing it without. It’s mysticism.

History of the skull and crossbones

Historically, the skull and crossbones is best known as the “Jolly Roger” flag, flown by pirates. However, this was only one design used by robbers of the sea. Others included a skeleton, scythe, and an hourglass — all white on black. Nor was this the origin of the symbol. A number of writers suggest that the skull and crossbones originated with the Knights Templars — otherwise known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon — a Crusader Order formed to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.

The Order was disbanded in the early 14th century, after its members were arrested by the King Philip IV. The head of the Order was executed, along with other knights, on trumped up charges of devil worship and homosexuality. The real reason seems to have been Philip’s desire to get his hand on the enormous wealth the Templars had acquired.

However, the skull, not surprisingly, has been a symbol of death since antiquity. The skull and crossbones, frequently found on graves is a slighter less ancient version of the symbol of mortality and death. Importantly, the emblem began to enter into the symbolism of fraternities during the 18th century, especially through the various and often competing “Rites” of the Free and Accepted Masons (better known as the Freemasons). It is here that the emblem becomes a part of clothing (if not fashion quite yet).

In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, we read: “And again, glancing at the stranger’s hands, he looked more closely at the ring, with its skull—a masonic sign. ‘Allow me to ask,” he said, “are you a Mason?'” It is the wearing of the skull ring that identifies, to the hero of the story, that the wearer is a member of the fraternity.

The clothing of the Freemason, worn in Masonic Lodges, especially during rituals or “Degrees,” can be elaborate. Different aprons (usually rectangular in shape) are worn for different rituals. The skull and crossbones is frequently depicted on the apron for the Master Mason ritual. Since the fraternity absorbed the legend of the Knights Templar (although it is not, contrary to what some writers claim, related to it), “Knights Templar Freemasons” also wear a triangular apron with a skull and crossbones. The symbol also appears in the semi-Catholic and semi-Rosicrucian Rose Croix Degree.

But what does the skull and crossbones signify in this context? Within Freemasonry it primarily urges the initiate to reflect upon his life, and to face his own mortality, so that he will live in the full knowledge that he will meet his God and will have to account for himself and his behavior in life. This contemplation of mortality is not confined to this fraternity, of course, but can be found in the practices of most if not all religions and authentic spiritual traditions. And it shows up in pop culture and fashion, somewhat less articulately, maybe.

The appearance of the skull and crossbones in fashion and culture suggests that there remains a yearning within the human psyche to transcend not just the ordinary, the restrictions articulated through social disapproval, etc., but to face the condition of the self, and to transcend it; to face death and find meaning and spirituality in the modern age.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.