A Subliminal Message?
While reading the Wiki article, I was strangely reminded of a childhood experience. On my first visit to Tamil Nadu and to the hill temple of Palani, I encountered a strange symbol - it was painted all over the place and at night neonlighted garishly and very prominently at several strategic points on the hill and elsewhere. Here it is.
I did not know what the symbol meant but found it unsettling - it looked uncannily like a 'death's head' (in some representations, the resemblance is even stronger than in the above Wiki figure ) .
Somewhat later in life, I came to know it was the sacred syllable 'Om' in Tamil script - it is more of a symbol or glyph - in proper Tamil script, the 'm' letter (it forms the 'teeth' of the skull in my interpretation) is not written within the loop of the 'O' but outside, following the 'O'.
With the new Wiki-induced knowledge, I am tempted to read a subliminal 'memento mori' into the way this symbol is written in Tamil. But one can't rush to such a conclusion; for the Om glyph in Tamil is also said to be designed to mimic an elephant's head, coiled trunk and all - and so, it represents Ganapati(*)!
Yesterday, I conducted an inkblot-like test with the symbol showing it to several non-Tamilians and asking for reactions - including "no reaction". A robust majority of the subjects saw a skull with no prompting at all. And exactly one chap saw elephant-ness.
But I doubt if the skull was ever used as a popular symbol of mortality in India (before the Europeans came that is). Moreover, there is no apparent need to point at death or mortality in a symbol for 'Om', at least in the context of Indian religious expression. So, a subliminal encoding of any such thing is unlikely to have been attempted in the Tamil glyph and the resemblance I (and many others) saw is maybe just an uncanny coincidence.
Tailpiece: While working on this post, I spent some time looking at the Wikipedia articles on Skull and its symbolism and saw this: "An old Yoruba folktale tells of a man who encountered a skull mounted on a post by the wayside. To his astonishment, the skull spoke. The man asked the skull why it was mounted there. The skull said that it was mounted there for talking. The man then went to the king, and told the king of the marvel he had found, a talking skull. The king and the man returned to the place where the skull was mounted; the skull remained silent. The king then commanded that the man be beheaded, and ordered that his head be mounted in place of the skull."
And that vaguely reminds me of a story I read many years ago in a Malayalam children's(yes!) magazine. Lengthily titled: "The skull that brought death to four people and the laughing fish", this allegedly 'Babylonian' story, full of scary prophesies and creepy events, had given me nightmares for quite a long time. And far more scary than the portentous skull itself (the focus of the story) was the mysterious fish that laughed!
Note: Once upon a time, 'Balarama' was the only major Malayalam children's magazine; and it used to regularly feature articles and stories which could easily shake and/or depress (most) adults. And I am pretty sure the minds of many children were scarred by them; mine certainly was. I will record some examples in a future post.
(*) - The 'Om' symbol from Bali, Indonesia (see Wikipedia) does look like Ganapati.