What comes to mind when you hear the word macabre? You probably think of death or something gruesome or something by Edgar Allan Poe. Strangely enough, the source for that word is Hellenistic cultural imperialism. This will take some explaining.
The most immediate source for macabre is the medieval French Danse Macabré, literally “Dance of Death.” The Dance of Death was a late medieval allegory that dramatizes life’s fragility and death’s universality as it warns against the vanity of earthly glories. Often depicted in murals but possibly in plays as well, Death personified summons representatives from various stations in life–a pope, king, child, and laborer, for example–to dance on a path to the grave. Death often has a dialogue with each of the victims. The famines, wars, and outbreaks of the Black Death in 14th century Europe were assimilated into European culture and theDance of Death is considered a representation of those fears. The allegory also has strong elements of social satire.
A possible source for the French term danse macabre is the Latin phrase Chorea Machabæorum, literally “dance of the Maccabees.” Maccabees was the surname given to Judas, the third son of Mattathias the Hasmonean. The name derives from the Hebrew maqqabh, meaning “hammer,” or the Hebrew matzbi, meaning “leader of an army.” Judas was known for being particularly ferocious in battle. In 166 BCE, Judas led a religious revolt against the Seleucid Empire then ruled by Antiochus IV. The Selucids were an offshoot of the empire created by Alexander the Great. From the time of Alexander, Greek (Hellenistic) culture had spread through the near East. Many Jews had become Hellenized and given up Jewish customs and religious practices in favor of Hellenistic traditions. The revolt against the faltering Seleucid Empire succeeded. The Maccabeans ritually cleansed and re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates, and reestablished traditional Jewish worship. The Hasmonean dynasty ruled Israel for over a century (164 BCE to 63 BCE), expanding the nation’s boundaries and slowing the spread of Hellenism.
The dance refers to the martyrdom of a Jewish woman and her seven sons recorded in 2 Maccabees. Before the Maccabean revolt, Antiochus IV ordered the arrest of a mother and her sons and attempted to force them to eat pork. On the grounds of their refusal, the sons were tortured and killed one at a time. The sons put their trust in God and go bravely to their deaths, refusing to break the covenant. After watching her sons die, the mother also dies but the text does not specify if she was executed. Other versions of the story with variations are recorded in the Talmud, Josippon, and 4 Maccabees. The other versions say the mother either committed suicide (leaping from a building or jumping into flames) or simply fell dead on her son’s bodies. The mother and her sons came to be known as the “Holy Machabees” or “Holy Maccabean Martyrs” in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Both traditions celebrate the Maccabean Martyrs on August 1. The Maccabean Martyrs became a popular subject for mystery plays and paintings.