We know them well: the dancing skeleton, the prancing bears, the steal your face skull, the happy turtles, and of course, the roses. These and other images have come to be synonymous with the Grateful Dead. But what exactly do these symbols mean? What messages do they convey? Rumors are wide and varied, and it's hard to separate myth from fact in the wide world of Grateful Dead history and legend. It's fun and interesting to see what theories you arrive at yourself after examining the symbols and thinking about them. We're going to take a look at the symbols one by one; I think you'll find that they exemplify not only the Deadhead culture, but the music, and movement, itself. We'll be examining each symbol in turn, but let's start off our series of explorations with one of the best known Grateful Dead symbols: the dancing skeleton. Keep in mind that this is my own best theory and conjecture to give you some food for thought; it's up to you to decide if you agree or disagree, and it's your prerogative to formulate your own analysis. Let's take a look:
The Dancing Skeleton:
This image seems to convey the psychedelic nature of the Grateful Dead and their music. Skeletons are closely associated with death, naturally, and juxtaposed with a life symbol like dancing, the graphic represents the sublime paradox, the hint of death in life, and life in death, the dependency and inner connectedness that exists between alterante planes of reality and our own. The symbol also suggests a way to cope with the hardships of society. Our world might be plagued with death, war, and suffering, but as the band sings in “Throwing Stones,” the kids can still “dance and shake their bones.” It could be argued that the dancing skeleton is the quintesential Dead emblem: a “Dead” figure, dancing in celebration despite its lack of flesh, certainly seems to embody the idea of “Grateful.” There is also the original legend of the grateful dead to consider—originating in Baar, Switzerland, this legend dating back to the sixteenth century and perhaps even earlier, tells of a man who is chased by thieves into a cemetery. As he kneels down and prays for salvation and peace, he is joined by the dead who have risen from the graves surrounding him, liberated by his prayers and grateful. Of course, there are also the dancing skeletons alluded to in Liber Chronicum, published in 1493. The book shows an image of an engraving that depicts dancing skeletons alluding to the folk superstition of skeletons dancing in graveyards either to warm up before going on a victim hunt, or simply to let loose and have a good time with the other dead dancers in the cemetery.
Next time, we'll delve into the mystery of those cute and cuddly prancing bears—just what are they so happy about, anyway?!