Skull. Source: so47/
Skull. Source: so47/

3D printed skulls are popular these days. But why are we so fascinated with skulls? Skulls represent our mortality. We all have it: The fear of death. Whether we admit it or bury it deep within ourselves, our mortality gnaws at us, reminding us that we have limited time on Earth. So why are obsessed with horror movies, Halloween, and the most iconic symbol next to the Grim Reaper: the skull?

Psychologists have found that releasing our fear of death in such celebrations as Halloween and the Day of the Dead, horror movies, and other depictions of death help us to cope with the trauma and loss of our loved ones. When we celebrate Halloween, it is to explore our fears in a way that is socially acceptable. As humans, we need an outlet to reduce our fears, and more importantly, to reduce our fear of death. We confront death on Halloween, and then on November 1st, we are ready to move on; we have explored our fears, gotten them out of our system, and are ready to settle into winter, ironically, the season of death.

Skulls as the Symbol of Mortality

Skulls have been used in ceremonies, rites of passage, as warnings, and even as goblets, among many other uses. Ancient Egyptians used tools that were inserted in the deceased person’s nose and used like a whisk to scramble the brain which was then drained through the nose. They believed that the brain was used as filler so that the skull wouldn’t collapse and that the heart was the seat of thought and emotion. In Mexico, sugar skulls are used to celebrate the Day of the Dead, which is a celebration of loved ones that have gone to the other side. Celebrants of the Day of the Dead visit and honor their ancestors by bringing fruits and favorite foods to their loved ones’ gravesites and spending time telling humorous stories about the one who has passed. In times of old, the nomadic cultures of Europe and Asia used the skulls of their enemies as trophy goblets.

In the 19th Century, Lord Byron used a skull that his gardener found at Newstead Abbey as a goblet. Why would he want to drink wine out of a skull? He states, “There had been found by the gardener, in digging, a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly monk or friar of the Abbey, about the time it was demonasteried. Observing it to be of giant size, and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like a tortoiseshell."

Lord Byron’s poem about the skull cup:

Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull

By George Gordon Byron

Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:

   In me behold the only skull

From which, unlike a living head,

   Whatever flows is never dull.

I lived, I loved, I quaff'd, like thee:

   I died: let earth my bones resign;

Fill up—thou canst not injure me;

   The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape,

   Than nurse the earth-worm's slimy brood;

And circle in the goblet's shape

   The drink of Gods, than reptiles' food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,

   In aid of others' let me shine;

And when, alas! our brains are gone,

   What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst—another race,

   When thou and thine like me are sped,

May rescue thee from earth's embrace,

   And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not? since through life's little day

   Our heads such sad effects produce;

Redeem'd from worms and wasting clay,

This chance is theirs, to be of use. §

Throughout history, humans have struggled with the concept of mortality and death. This struggle continues today as we come to terms with our frailties. To celebrate life, we must confront death. 

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