It should not be surprising that skin has been a drawing surface ever since it has wrapped humans. The emergence of human thought and perception begins with the idea of skin —the skin of the sky, the skin of the god whose voice is thunder;the skin of the earth, which could be marked with a plow and fed with blood. These two cosmic membranes gave rise to culture itself.The writing on the sky was the object of divination, the basis of subsequent laws. The marks on the earth became the walls of cities and the sacrificial troughs of altars.

Tattoos found on the mummified remains of ancestors from the era of hunter-gatherers most probably combined religion with medicine, bringing relief to wounds and ailments such as arthritis. The idea was, as the Navajo developed in the use of sand mandalas for healing, to make the body a microcosm through a process of drawing that could be adjusted and refined,brought in tune with its original model, the macrocosm. The relationship was guaranteed because, in effect, both were skins.

The skin bolagram considers the skin as a torus divided into two symbolically significant segments: a"wet line" connecting the humors of blood and phlegm(authority and prudence) corresponding to the digestive tract;and a "dry line" beginning with a blush, that connects the head (caloric/psyche) with the genitals (the melancholic home of the manes, the ancestral dead). For an elaboration of this, see the article "Mapskin:The Body as a Map."

Commentary (from "Mapskin:The Body as Map")

Curiously — very curiously — the body’s symbolic division of the skin-torus correlates to the ancient system of the "four humors," the bodily qualities corresponding to the traditional Greek elements, air,earth, fire, and water. The "interior" oral-anal region connects the "wet" humors, blood and phlegm, not in any literal sense but through the associations with the cultural networks that facilitate symbolic exchange in the satisfaction of human need. Blood is the humor of the "sanguine"relationships that are the essence of family and culture. Phlegm is the humor of caution and prudence. This is the key to the chaining of Prometheus to the mountain in punishment for stealing fire.The myth could be translated: "the practice of divination ends feral wandering of early humans by making permanent locations essential to the authority of the auspices." Sanguinity (hot-wet)and prudence (cold-wet) establish a "wet line" that forms the basis of cultural life: systems of exchange for the satisfaction of need, centering on food, security, and wealth.

It may sound somewhat Nietzschean to assert a "phallic," or Dionysian, element apart from culture’s main, "Apollonian" concerns. There is no simple way,however, to form stable categories to cover the complex of practices and meanings that have evolved from the division of the skin-torus.The close correspondence of the "wet line" to the matrix of symbolic relationships (oral-anal, in Freudian terms) is paralleled by an equally close correspondence of a "dry line" (the humors of choler and melancholy, elements of fire and earth) to the "phallic" pursuit of desire which resists incorporation into the symbolic systems of exchange.

Needless to say, psychology, culture, biology,and cosmology all intersect in this question of the skin’s phallic mapability. It is not enough to assert the importance of "Dionysian" traditions. It is necessary to demonstrate common regulative structures that work "in any and all media."Skin is only one aspect of this issue, but it is able to demonstrate— more clearly than other aspects, perhaps — the way the "Groucho fractal" works at all levels and modes of personal experience and cultural life.

The "dry line" connecting fire and earth (or light and dark; or Eros with death as Hades,which means "the invisible") is both the surface oft he exterior skin but also the "line of sight" offering a skewed angle of view on the "anamorphic" aspect of appearances. The phallic aspect of the anamorphic image is its ability to appear suddenly and then disappear. The phallic quality of the exterior skin — and a key to its relation to maps and signs — is related to the blush as a temporary change of color due to the dilation of capillaries and swelling of tissue with blood. Blushing is conventionally associated with embarrassment and modesty. Beneath lies the use of the head, or even the whole body, as a medium of erection.

Who stands up, who appears and disappears,who is the phallic representative? Tradition assigns this role to the hero, a word that originally referred to any dead person but came to be applied to the mythical character granted the privilege of visiting Hades and returning — in effect, the power of life over death.

The hero is the personification of skin and the "dry line" connecting fire with earth. The hero not only steals fire and is himself "caloric," but he visits Hades, the location of the dark fourth element. Aristotle famously compiled the lore of melancholia in a short work that asked why those with great wit, ability, and heroism were always afflicted with melancholy. Hercules’ melancholy was legendary. The relationship here is not just with the etymology of hero or the trial of descent (katabasis) undertaken by all heroes of antiquity, but with an obligation, enacted by the hero, of recovering the genius of the ancestor.

The dry line is not just an imaginary diagrammatic device but the logic of the ritual whereby the corpse, in traditional cultures, must be desiccated in order to serve future generations with prophecy. Cultures vary in the method they use. Cremation is common; sometimes animals (dogs, vultures, worms) are assignedthe role of reducing the body from flesh to bone.

The dry line serves the wet line by guaranteeing the continuance of the psyche, but it must do so outside of the system of conventionalized meanings. It, like the skin,must be a map of itself.

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved