I have constant 24-hour, chronic headaches. When I receive my Bachelor of Arts in Classical Studies and my Bachelor of Science in Anthropology in May 2021, I will not only commemorate four wildly successful years at Tulane University, but I will commemorate four years of headaches. I will commemorate every painful second of every day of class, research, and exploration; where my head became my own clock ticking away in pain as well as marking the deadlines to reach and the goals to achieve. I will commemorate every A and 100% on a test, as well as every 9/10 headache. I will receive a diploma with extensive high honors but my brain scans and doctors will yield no solutions.
I find it highly ironic that the seat of my knowledge and my intellect, all my thoughts that enabled me to receive such prestige, sit in the very place where pain reverberates every day. It is comical honestly to see my life mapped out. My brother—not I— sustained multiple head injuries as a child, I almost chose to study neuroscience, my very confirmation saint is the patron of headaches, and my worst fear is exactly what happened to me. And surprisingly out of all the pain, doctors, medicines, and treatments, I have learned more about headaches and personal acceptance from people who lived millennium before us.
People have always revered heads. In Jericho, one of the oldest Neolithic cities in the Levant (and the world), the inhabitants reconstructed human skulls with plaster. Both South American and African tribes have practiced elongation of heads at birth. Likewise, trepanning, the earliest form of brain surgery, existed simultaneously throughout the prehistoric world. The Nazca people of Peru even hunted heads for trophies from their enemies. The great goddess Athena was born from Zeus’ head. Ossuaries and crypts full of skulls survive even from the Medieval periods to attest for our fascination with heads.
The Bronze Age inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans, have taught me the most about my head. You see, I plan to devote my life to the study of their civilization and I am endlessly fascinated by their burial customs with skulls. From 3000-2000 BCE they widely created monumental tombs filled with skulls. I ask myself: did they, like me, believe the head is the seat of knowledge and intellect? Why is it so important that of all the bones, they heaped up skulls for preservation? Did one of those skulls sitting on the dirt floor of the tomb also experience headaches?
For the longest time, I have pushed down my pain. I have given myself in self-sacrifice to others, ignoring the throbbing pain of even a hospital-level headache. I made my pain invisible to others and most importantly to myself. But as I study archaeology and Minoan skull practices, I realize that the Minoans were proud to display their skulls. They valued the visual (and possibly spiritual) effect that this physical container of the mind inspires. I believe that their arrangement of skulls reflects a sacred conception of the mind and its passage through life. Although just the shell of the individual is left, the Minoans nod to the temporality of life and pain by simply giving the skulls space to still exist. They teach me, their very passionate researcher, that my head, and my pain deserves visibility.
It is extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with physical, chronic pain, but it is apart of my experience in life. When I look at old skulls, I do not see just bone, but a whole individual with past emotions, creativity, and relationships. I need to give myself that same credit and value my whole lived experience, including the physical pain. It is odd that I must learn and share this lesson from ancient communities, but it is a fundamental human lesson. We must strive to allow ourselves the grace to accept our pain as a part of us, but not the limiting factor. We are visible and deserve to be heard! Don’t be afraid to share and make yourself visible, just like the old Minoan skulls.