The Hope of Evil: Faustian Themes in Modern Cinema

Faust has returned to the movies. He is no prop or backdrop character, but has taken center stage in a cornucopia of images, versions, and mediums. In Jan Svankmajer’s award winning Czech rendition of Faust (1994), the menacing and mysterious figure is portrayed by actors, puppets, and animation, all in a surreal universe crafted in darkness and shadow.


Jan Svankmajer’s Faust (1994)

Darkness and shadow become the wardrobe of Faust in modern cinema, as seen in the central motif of the most famous hero of the night: Batman. In Christopher Nolan’s much popular Batman Begins (2005) the life changing scene for young Bruce Wayne is the opera house where Boito’s Mefestofele is being performed. Bat-winged creatures swarm the stage in one scene disturbing young Wayne to the point where he must leave the theater. This decision becomes the catalyst ending in the murder of his parents and the deal Wayne himself has to make with the Devil. This is no idle set up. Batman becomes Faust in a cape, incorporating secret knowledge and even forbidden arts in his arsenal and identity.


Batman Begins (2004) Batman is a version of Faust

Faust even shows up on Saturday morning cartoons, where a bold and nearly unstoppable Felix Faust appears in an episode Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002). The caped crusaders rarely find an opponent they cannot easily overcome, until an ancient magician sacks the home island of Wonder Woman and puts all the League in a spell. Indeed, the only being who can overpower Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene allowing the League to escape with their lives.


Felix Faust, Justice League (2002)

The story of Faust touches on something in the human psyche which makes the tale both repugnant and endlessly alluring. Perhaps this is so because the Faust tale addresses humankind’s relationship with evil. Why are we so fascinated by the forbidden? Why do we cling to evil when there are other choices? Why do we show more cunning than compassion? And what tips the scale in human consciousness allowing for a quest for the good and beautiful over and above evil? These are just some of the questions which haunt the darkness and shadows of the psyche. Questions which we as a species must reflect upon.

In the modern medium of cinema these questions are asked and re-asked through parallel dramas, tragedies, and comedies with the essence of the questions of evil in mind. For example, John Lyden reflects in Film as Religion on the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. Lyden sees why evil can be tempting, even when it is portrayed in its purest form:

Anthony Hopkins essentially plays [Lecter] as Faust’s Mephistopheles, who tempts the heroine with greater knowledge in exchange for participation in his evil. In being able to deal with Lecter, Clarice (like Faust) confronts and deals with evil in order to be better able to contain it–to attempt to stop her private lambs from screaming, even though she knows they will never stop, for evil will always exist. All victories over evil are partial, it is shown, and there is also a recognition that the potential for evil is within us all, […].” (245)

Clarice’s connection with the mass killer Lecter is both repulsive and attractive. Ironically, Lecter is a character who is steeped in knowledge and the world’s wisdom. Indeed, in the movie sequel Red Dragon (2002) Lecter is a much touted professor giving lectures on obscure, ancient rituals and arcana (involving acts of death of course). He is more than just super-smart, filled with eclectic trivia. Lecter is Mephistopheles incarnate. He kills ritualistically, without mercy, and even eats his victims. There is a perverse religiosity to his sins, for Hannibal Lecter shows the hypocrisy and vanity innate in all his victims, and in the world in general. Clarice is also super-intelligent, and she sees through Lecter how is actions, in an inept and topsy turvy world, conform to their own morality. Furthermore, and as Lyden observes, Clarice seeks out Lecter in her own search in understanding evil, not rooted in Lecter, but in herself.


Hannibal Lecter is Mephistopholes

The story of Hannibal Lecter, in many ways, draws upon the nineteenth century, German drama Faust. This was a play where the very question of human identity was posed not in context of the Age of Reason, or the Reformation Movement, or the Industrialization of modern civilizations, but rather in the context of evil, through the character Mephistopheles, whose dominion and power ran through and over Reason, Christianity, and Industrialization.

Goethe’s Faust begins with a discourse between the Devil and the Almighty, not unlike the deal struck between the two in the Book of Job: “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). The figure of Job is an antithesis to the figure of Faust, however. Job is saintly, pure, and dedicated to the Lord from the first flash of sunlight, even declaring in the gall of his bitterness, “Though he [the Lord] slay me, yet will I trust in him […]” (Job 13: 15).

Faust, on the other hand, holds his virtue as the knowledge of the earth and all things above and below, and not in his relationship with God. In fact, Mephistopheles chides God for this very fact, “[Men] would be better off, in life at least, Had you withheld the spark of celestial light; he calls it reason, using it as right to be more animal than any beast” (11). The Devil simply reveals what God already understands: humankind is a flawed creature. Yet the Almighty retorts: “Do you know Faust?” (11). Mephistopheles is surprised the Lord would mention such a creature. But God assures the Devil he has plans for this bent soul, “Although he serves me now bewilderedly, I soon will lead him where the light is clear” (12). Thus, the Lord and Satan strike a deal, “What do you wager?” poses Mephistopheles (12). Nothing but Faust’s soul will do of course, and the Almighty agrees, “As long as he remains on earth–agreed! Nothing is forbidden you contrive; Man errs so long as he will strive” (12).

It is an interesting deal struck between these two antipodes of the cosmos. Unlike the case of Job, whose virtue and valiance is placed in the scales of judgement, Faust has his “celestial light” of reason placed in the scales. Faust in no Job. He is a worldly man of letters. “I’ve studied all Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence too, Also, to my grief, Theology […]. I’m cleverer than all that tribe–Doctor, Lawyer, Parson, Scribe; All doubts and scruples I dispel, I have no fear of devil or hell […]” (14). Doctor Faust has no fear of evil or superstitions. Perhaps this is why the Almighty allows Mephistopheles the wager. In the case of Job, God knew his virtue would win out. In the case of Faust, God foresees that Faust’s uncompromising will of reason will eventually lead him to virtue. This is an irony of ironies, for Faust has ascended all earthly ranks of intellectual honor and station, yet recognizes the insignificance of it all, “I’m Master, Doctor, and I’ve found for ten long years, that as I chose I’ve led my students by the nose. First up, then down, then all around, to see that nothing can be known” (14).

Faust’s seemingly unlimited knowledge has brought him to the revelation that human understanding has its limits, and apparently those limits are rather short. Perhaps this is why the theme of Faust in modern movies and television is recurrent. Maike Oergel, in Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815, interprets Faust clearly in the context of the failures of human reason, even in the ultra-rational world of the Scientific Revolution. “The primary focus [in Faust] is not, as has often been claimed, on a universal human identity, but on the emergence of a modern identity” (225).

For Oergel, the character Faust is not so much an intermediary figure as he is an introductory figure of modernity. He is a character who has surpassed the initial fascination with modern technology and science to find that on the other end of it all is, still, an endless and even answer-less quest for meaning in life. Modernity has not brought paradise, but only has exasperated the realization of its absence. Faust is a man fully caught up in this realization, and thus is a primal character for our times. Christopher Falzon writes about this paradox in Philosophy Goes to the Movies:

The catastrophic events of the twentieth century, including the technologically efficient carnage of two world wars, Nazi atrocities committed in the heart of an “enlightened” Europe and a nuclear arms race that at one stage threatened the very existence of humanity, have brought this faith in reason and science into question. The impact of technology and industrialization on everyday life has by no means been unequivocally positive; […]. Overall, it is no longer so clear that there is a necessary link between science and progress. Instead a range of concerns and anxieties have emerged about the role and effects of science and technology on human existence, along with more pessimistic, dystopian visions of the future. (158)

As Falzon notes, “early expressions of this anxiety” are introduced in two literary works: Goethe’s Faust and Shelley’s Frankenstein (158). Faust, disgusted with the disappointments and anxieties of modernity, turns to magic, “No dog would stand this any more! Therefore I’ve turned to magic lore, so that, through supernatural force, I’ll trace many a secret to its source” (15). This theme is picked up in a recent film release, The Prestige (2006), where two magicians (illusionists) vie for power and control over each other in 19th century Europe. Both Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) have an engineer contriving their tricks. This person is the model of modern Europe, using science and mathematics to create unending illusions. Of course, this is Faust’s complaint of the scientific revolution, modern reasoning has brought nothing but eye wash and special effects. Modernity is a magic show where the true questions of life are still pushed into the back of consciousness.


Angier as Faust, The Prestige (2006)

So it is, that the film begins with Angier on a quest for answers to see what is behind science. “Cypher. Engima. A search. A search for answers,” writes Angier in his notebook as he travels towards Colorado (07:50). In Colorado Springs works a man who has built a machine for each magician. His name is Tesla, the inventor, or rather technocrat of AC electrical current. Tesla plays the role of Mephistopheles, the grand, worldly wise, true magician who can fabricate things beyond science and technology. However, for Borden Tesla fabricates an electric device that simply provides special effects to his already planned illusions. Angier wants something more: “Magic. Real Magic!” he exclaims when seeing Tesla light up a field of electric light bulbs with no wires (44:30).

Indeed, Angier pays Tesla an enormous amount of money to build a machine that is real sorcery. “I need something impossible,” Angier tells Tesla, who responds, “Have you heard the phrase, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’ It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. Society can only tolerate one change at a time” (50:42). Tesla, true to his Mephistophelean morality, inquires “Have you considered the cost of such a machine” (51:30)? Angier replies that price is no object, but Mephistopheles understands what he is asking, “Perhaps not, but have you considered the cost” (51:38)?

Ultimately, when any character who represents Mephistopheles asks such a question there can be no doubt that the true cost is one’s own soul. Money is irrelevant; it is nothing but a cog in the clockwork of the world. One’s soul, on the other hand, is beyond cogs and gears and all the modern estimations of life. Thus here is the central theme and question beyond the reach of any mundane approach in any age of history, regardless of the sophistication of one’s science and technology: what is the soul? And how does one fulfill its natural desire to transcend the mundane? And what will one exchange for his soul? The answers to the latter question is why evil is no illusion, for there is an endless list of obsessions for which humankind will always pursue at the cost of soul and with the engagement of evil.

For Faust, the obsession is ultimate knowledge. Already admitting that nothing can be known, there must be some ultimate reality beyond the world that can be obtained, even perhaps dominated? What is beyond this life? Ultimately, what is life’s purpose? In the Age of Reason human beings find only disappointment in the answers to these questions. The modern philosopher of disappointment–Nietzsche–quotes Schopenhauer, “What gives to everything tragic […] the characteristic tendency to the sublime, is the dawning of the knowledge that the world and life can afford us no true satisfaction, and are therefore not worth our attachment to them. In this the tragic spirit consists; accordingly it leads to resignation” (10, italics his).

Modern disillusionment retraces the Faust story in daily life. Individuals seeing that all their technologies, degrees, cable channels, and entertainments do not solve their most pressing problems within, simply give up trying to resolve the questions of interiority, thus making the deal with the Devil simple: give me whatever this life can afford and you take care of the rest! This certainly is the theme of the most recent Academy Award winning film The Departed (2006). Costello (Jack Nicholson) plays the part of Mephistopheles, whose first line and the first words of the film represent the movies entire theme which is the hope of the disillusioned:

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying – we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you. You have to take it.

Jarring. Violent. Gritty. Intolerant. These are the values of Costello’s world that work. Not unlike Enron executives who are Lords of the Corporation. Or scandal ridden board rooms of the stock houses who are Lords of Wall Street. Or the corruption engulfed conspirators of the mortgage markets who are Lords of Suburbia. Our modern world is full of Costellos whose prime motivation in life is completing the Devil’s deal by “taking it.” In The Departed Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Collin Sullivan (Matt Damon) play the fated Faust character in duo fashion. Each make a deal with a devil. Costigan makes his deal with the cops to live and work for Costello. Like Clarice in Silence, Costigan is immersed in a world of evil where he must tenuously walk a rigid line between life and death, evil and more evil. Sullivan is a cop who makes a deal with Costello, a spy for the Italian maffia who ascends to the highest levels of law enforcement. In the world of “You have to take it!” everyone dies. In the ending of this film there are only funerals, showing that not even the Mephistopheles’ of this world come out ahead.

Curiously, the modern psyche forewarns humanity that no amount of modernity can change this scenario. Indeed, in the special effects ridden and futuristic techno-tale of Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith (2005), George Lucas retells the Faust story in full as a message for our day. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) is the ultimate in Faustian roles, for he is a Jedi Knight not only versed in the learning of the universe, but trained in the magical arts. In Revenge of the Sith Anakin makes a deal with Mephistopheles who posits: “If one is to understand the great mystery one must study all the subtleties of the force, even the dark side. […] Only through me can you achieve a power greater than any Jedi” (1:03:30). Anakin betrays the noble priesthood of the Jedi and destroys their temple all in an exchange for knowledge of the “mysteries” underneath his new tutor, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who promises to reveal to him the knowledge of eternal life. This is a ruse of course, as Palpatine does not know it. In a twist of fate at the end of the film, with the Jedi completely undone, Yoda trains Kenobi in the ways of eternal life!


Anakin Skywalker is Faust, Revenge of the Sith (2005)

In any case, Lucas’s film is a foreshadowing that no amount of technology in his futuristic world can replace probing the true questions of life dealing with evil. It’s as if to say, the soul, no matter where it is found, in whatever era or cosmos, must find its own relationship with evil. We all must turn into Faust. But how to make it through? Certainly not as the Devil (Costello) or as one obsessed with power (Angier) or personal demons (Clarice) or vengeance (Bruce Wayne) or even forbidden knowledge (Anakin). But then how?

Interestingly, the answer to this question is revealed in all the works mentioned. In The Prestige Angier and Borden begin their journey not with Tesla, but in and through the presence of the feminine. Indeed, when Angier’s wife dies in a magic trick gone awry, and most likely caused by the wrong knot tied by Borden, Angier’s soul is permanently scarred. After his wife’s death, Angier is obsessed with outdoing every part of Borden’s life, and eventually to seek it. Ironically, Angier is the far more talented magician between the two, and when another assistant named Olivia (Scarlet Johansson) comes to Angier’s aid and offers him her love, he rejects it, blinded by his obsession to outdo Borden, or in other words, blinded by his flawed relationship with evil as revealed in his relationship with the feminine. In fact, the moment Angier dismisses Olivia, sending her to Borden as a spy, is the moment Angier loses what is left of his soul. Borden, on the other hand, takes Olivia in and falls in love with her. But Borden has a secret–a twin brother–who is the basis of his most spectacular magic tricks; for no one knows of Borden’s other half. So it is that Borden’s other brother also plays Borden, and he is married and very much loves his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). The brothers never reveal their identities to their lovers, and Sarah suspects her husband is having an affair with Olivia. In short, this lack of honesty by both Bordens and Angier shown to the women who love them is the poison which causes the loss of soul in each of them.

In a film with so many doubles, the machine Tesla builds Angier clones any object that is placed within it. Angier uses this machine in an act of vengeance, setting up Borden for a false murder charge by both cloning himself and then murdering his clone with Borden as the fall guy. Here at least is the difference between the two magicians: Angier kills his clones as part of his magic trick while Borden uses the other Borden as the magic trick. In the end however, one Borden hangs for the crime of killing Angier (who is just a clone mind you). The other Borden kills the real Angier in the final act of vengeance.

All this death and at its root one’s relationship with the feminine. It’s as if the twin brother of Borden and the clones of Angier are really the images of the psyche, the true individuality of each of them–their souls–each trying to grasp at the powers of the world while blinded to the feminine who would authentically empower them.

This relationship is consistent throughout all the works discussed. The turning point in Goethe’s Faust is when the great Doctor meets Gretchen. Up until this point Mephistopheles has provided anything Faust desired, but none of it impressed him in the least. Yet, what does the world of a cold, calculating man of learning know of the world of woman? When Faust meets Gretchen for the first time he feels his soul lost, and can only confess, “Fetch me something the angel wears! Take me to her place of rest! Fetch me her garter as a token–fetch me the kerchief from her breast!” (96). But Faust’s first relationship with Gretchen is not authentic. He wants her for passion’s sake. And in truth, with Mephistopheles’ aid, he eventually takes Gretchen to his bed. Once lovers, and parted from the counterfeit world of culture and science, Faust comes to his primal revelation: “Now fully do I realize that man can never possess perfection! With this ecstasy which brings me near and nearer to the gods […]” (123).

This revelation comes with a terrible price. The good Doctor impregnates Gretchen , then is forced to leave her. Her honor despoiled, her brother Valentine seeks revenge, but to no avail, for in a duel he is slain by Faust. In sheer torment Gretchen holds her dying brother exclaiming, “My brother! This is the agony of Hell!” (146). His response is cold, “Dry those useless tears, I say! You dealt my heart a fatal blow when you flung your honor away” (146). In his dying breath he accuses Gretchen of slaying his real self, his inner soul, by the loss of her honor. This realization overcomes the poor girl, who at this point is alone and pregnant. Eventually, imprisoned for killing her own illegitimate child, Gretchen can find no peace, “Dear God! Dear God! They’re coming! O bitter death!” (176).

Only these turn of events can change the heart of Faust. And, as the Almighty knew all along, it is Faust’s heart (his compassion) that needs changed before his mind (reason) can do him any good. When Faust realizes what he has done to his lover, when he sees his true relationship with the feminine, he finally understands his relationship with evil, as he confesses to his trusted companion Mephistopheles: “Imprisoned! Lost in hopeless misery! Delivered over to evil spirits and to the pitiless judgment of men! And meanwhile you lulled me with insipid distraction, you concealed from me her increasing misfortune and allowed her so slide hopelessly into ruin!” (171). This is the changing point for Faust, who now seeks a completely different course in his life and has a fundamentally changed relationship with his tutor the Devil, who can only acquiesce, “It is the way of a tyrant to destroy the innocent opponent who crosses his path when he seeks a way out of his dilemma” (173).

So it is that Bruce Wayne’s own inability to deal with the death of his mother and the loss of his boyhood girlfriend provides the real grist for his vengeance. It is not evil that turns Wayne into Batman, it is the loss of the feminine. Castigan and Sullivan both vie for the same woman in The Departed, neither with great success. But it is the more authentic relationship of Castigan with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) which provides his impulse to overcome all the temptations of Costello and Costello’s world. In the end, it is Castigan who is awarded the highest medal of honor for maintaining his appropriate relationship with evil through his relationship with the feminine. And of course, it is Anakin’s illegitimate relationship to Padme (Natalie Portman) which seals his decision to join the dark side of the force, just as it is his legitimate relationship with his own daughter Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Return of the Jedi (1983) where he finds the courage to defeat Palpatine and vanquish the sinister side of the force permanently.

In simple terms, what the movie goer learns is what Goethe’s Faust learns: without the authentic feminine in one’s life one is lost. Furthermore, no science, no technology, no amount of money, fame, privilege, or property, and especially not even real sorcery, can heal the soul. The soul’s quest is the quest for authentic individuality, which, ironically, must be done with the proper balance with the “ultimate other” that takes the identity of the divine feminine. Thus, one’s relationship with evil is one’s relationship with the authentic feminine. How these relationships play out is how we find our hope or our doom.

 Works Cited

The Departed. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Falzon, Christopher. Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2002.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Trans. by Alice Raphael. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1980.

Holy Bible. KJV. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1998.

Lyden, John. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, Rituals. New York: New York UP, 2003.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 3-116.

Oergel, Maike. Culture and Identity: Historicity in German Literature and Thought 1770-1815. Hawthorne, NY: Walter De Gruyter Inc., 2006.

The Prestige. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perfo. Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Scarlet Johansson. Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald. Orion Pictures Corp., 1991.

Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee. Lucasfilm Ltd., 2005.


Heart, Fire, and Sky: Creation and Renewal within the Cosmic Soul

The New Fire Ritual of the Mexica was a re-enactment of their creation myth. According to this myth the previous world age had ended in a cataclysmic flood: “there was water for 52 years and then the sky collapsed” (Hancock 16). In the midst of this desolation the Mexica gods gathered to reignite the fires of life and begin a new age. Two gods, Tecciztecal and Nanahuatzin stood before the sacred fire, Tecciztecal retreated before the scouring heat of the flames, but Nanahuatzin “made an effort and closed his eyes, and rushed forward and cast himself into the fire” (Hancock, qtd. 16-17). Nanahuatzin was consumed but also transformed through self-sacrifice into the Fifth Sun, which restored light and harmony to the world below.

According to the Mexica cosmovision, every 52 years human sacrifices were made in similar fashion to re-ignite the cosmic fire and stave off world cataclysm. The sacrificial victims were often 52 years old (Read 125). The time leading up to the 52 year mark was filled with insecurity and fear (Read 125). In preparation for the New Fire ritual, “all fires were extinguished, all wood and stone statues of gods kept in people’s homes cast into the water, and all cooking utensils and fire implements thrown away. Everything was swept clean and all rubbish disposed of” (Read 125). All things of the previous order were discarded. Darkness descended upon Mexica civilization in cosmic re-enactment of the end of the previous age: “Everywhere people perched on rooftops in the darkened valley; no one was touching the ground. All watched for the fire to be sparked above on an isolated mountaintop called Uixachtlan” (Read 125).

This mountain was known as the Hill of the Star (Jenkins 82). The star in question is actually a star cluster known as the Pleiades. The priests performing the ritual did so only when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight. Were the Pleiades to reach the zenith before or after midnight all believed the world would end (Jenkins 83). At the moment of the Pleiades zenith a sacrificial victim was laid upon an altar on the Hill of the Star and his heart was cut out (see figure 1). In his gaping chest a new fire was built that consumed his flesh. The new fire was started by a fire drill which image is the Mexica representation for the ceremony itself. The victim’s heart was fed back into the flames and once his entire body was consumed a faggot from this fire was taken and distributed throughout “all the regions of Mexica dominion” to rekindle the fire of civilization and to birth a new age (Read 126). The ritual ended with feasting and celebrating, and more human sacrifices, as the communal fires were rekindled from the sacrificial heart bathed in the starlight of the Pleiades.

Aztec Sacrifice

Fig. 1 Aztec Heart Sacrifice

The New Fire ritual is complex and subject to diverse interpretations; according to Read, no theory is sufficient to explain adequately the phenomenon (Read 128). Read herself explains the ritual in terms of a cosmic meal: “Death necessarily is accentuated in an eating environment such as the Mexica’s, because for one thing to eat, another must die” (Read 136). As the Mexica must eat from the resources of nature so also nature required sustenance from the Mexica, allowing a “dynamic exchange to occur in what is an ecological balancing act” (Read 136). In this view, the idea of human sacrifice is an ecological exchange: the cosmos feeds the community and therefore the community must feed the cosmos.

Read’s thesis focuses on the biological cycle of eating a meal: harvesting, eating, excrement. Read compares this cycle with the human sacrifice of the Mexica where the victim is harvested, eaten (by the cosmos) and whose remains are consumed leaving the ash of sustenance. It is an intriguing idea, but it clearly de-emphasizes the essential elements of the ritual: the heart, the new fire, and the Pleiades. All three of these features correspond not only to a Mexica cosmovision about creation and renewal, but to an entire, world-wide body of myth and ritual which also share these three key features. While space does not allow for an in-depth examination of these world-wide “coincidences”, a brief synopsis of some of them will show that the heart, the fire, and astral alignment, in this case with the Pleiades, are all synonymous images reinforcing an idea basic to ancient ritual–not an ecological exchange or biological meal–but a grand cosmology dealing with properties that can only be termed “soul.”

The whole complexity of the New Fire ritual can be symbolized by one salient image: the heart. In the ancient view, the heart was the nexus of all physiological processes, and it appears that ancient cultures understood it’s function of circulating and oxygenating the blood (Young 4-6). The heart creates life, not from ex-nihilo, out of nothing, but from a pumping action that causes the blood to flow throughout the four corners of the body. Blood whose nutriment has been used is renewed with the flame of life by cyclically reentering the chambers of the heart. The heart therefore, was the sacred center which both created and renewed the life of man.

The heart as symbol, however, was not a metaphor for tissue and blood. The heart was a referent for the processes and relationships which existed above (macrocosm) and below (microcosm). Furthermore, these vast realms of above and below were not divided, but as shall be seen, intrinsically connected. The New Fire ritual must be understood in these terms.

Heart as Macrocosm
The grand scope of the cosmos was often represented by the image of a heart (see figure 2). This is so because the human heart had a celestial correlation–an astral heart that served the exact same purposes. This astral heart was generally thought to be the sun. Like the human heart, the sun pumped a celestial blood (universally symbolized as fire) throughout the four corners of the world. It pumped this life-giving fluid through its four revitalizing chambers or cardinal points (equinoxes and solstices) or by its circulatory ascent to the apex of the grand arch of the sky (zenith). Thus the astral heart also created and renewed life over cycles of time. Indeed, its heartbeat was time: days, years, and world ages.


Fig. 2 In the Kabbalah, the heart was the connection between the macrocosm and microcosm.

Curiously, the Mexica performed their New Fire rite in conjunction with the Pleiades and not the sun, and this is unique amongst so many ritual cosmologies. Perhaps, however, there is another understanding to be had, and as John Jenkins ingeniously observes, by performing the New Fire ritual in November when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight, the Mexica could track the true astral alignment they were supposedly reckoning: the sun-Pleiades conjunction which occurred exactly six months after the New Fire ritual (Jenkins 82-84). This conjunction cannot be seen because the light of the sun obscures the entire stellar background, yet it occurs like clockwork nevertheless, and was central to the Mexica zenith-cosmology (Jenkins 83).

Whatever the solar connection, it is clearly seen that the Pleiades zenith and/or its solar conjunction symbolized the heart of the sky continuously pumping the fecundating solar fire into the world, renewing its spin or energy around its center. The New Fire ceremony, therefore, is a rite completely transfixed upon the image of the zenith heart. We cannot ignore the importance that zenith cosmology has in ancient ritual. On the subject Mircea Eliade writes:

Let us dwell for a moment upon this mythological image of the zenith which is at the same time the Summit of the World and the ‘Center’ par excellence, the infinitesimal point through which passes the Cosmic Axis (Axis Mundi)…. A ‘Center’ represents an ideal point which belongs not to profane geometrical space, but to sacred space; a point in which communication with Heaven or Hell may be realized: in other words, a ‘Center’… where the planes intersect, the point at which the sensuous world can be transcended. (Eliade 75)

Many rituals around the world coincided with the New Fire ritual at least in this fact: they were performed on days of equinox, solstice, or zenith, and represented a ritualized renewal of life utilizing the solar fluids (symbolized by fire) which were produced by a pole or fire drill (symbolizing the Center). James Frazer in his Golden Bough records numerous such rituals throughout Europe where cosmic orientation, the extinguishing of lights and fires in the community, re-lighting those lights with a sacred flame, and starting that flame in many cases by a fire drill, or upon a pole or tree around which a wheel was turned letting friction ignite the flames, were performed to renew earth and sky (Frazer 246-293). These ritual elements can be seen across cultures (see figures 3-5).

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill


Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill

Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill


Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

By comparison, the Mexica fire drill can be nothing but an image of this axis-mundi, the cosmic pole or tree around which the universe flows and beats. It cannot be coincidence that the Mexica priests placed the fire drill in the place where the human heart had been. What better representation of connecting earth and sky by placing a pole between the hearts of each? The literal fire drill the priests used to rekindle the earthly flame was therefore a representation of the “Center”, above and below, around which the cosmic flames were produced.

Heart as Microcosm
Wherever we see zenith-solar cosmology we could say it is heart-cosmology. As Aristotle observed, the heart is the first organ to form in the embryo. It is the “prime mover of life” from which all things flow (Young 15). The heart is a cosmic center. This notion is to be understood literally. If the heavens have a heart, then the heart of man must contain the heavens.

We are dealing here with a highly metaphysical and mythological paradigm. It begins with the notion that man and the universe are intrinsically bound, especially through the heart of each. Paracelsus, writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. The heart is the sun; and as the sun acts upon the earth and upon itself, so also acts the heart upon the body and upon itself. (Young 12)

This poetic idea is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. The heart of man was the seat of life which produced a fire that revealed the gods and the cosmos within him. The heart of man was analogous to the sun, that orb which brings light, heat, and fecundation to the earth. Without the sun there is no life; therefore no firmament. Likewise, without the heart there is no life, no vital spark, no soul. Thus it is the human heart that brings the cosmos into view. The one does not feed upon the other, they in fact form a symbiotic relationship comparable to the covalent bond between atoms that share electrons. The cosmos is the hydrogen producing firmament, man is the oxygen breathing heart, together they form the waters of life.

Jacob Needleman remarks upon the same idea using different terms:

In this understanding [of the ancient cosmos], the earth is inextricably enmeshed in a network of purposes, a ladder or hierarchy of intentions. To the ancient mind, this is the very meaning of the concept of organization and order. A cosmos–and, of course, the cosmos–is an organism, not in the sense of an unusually complicated industrial machine, but in the sense of a hierarchy of purposeful energies. (Needleman 18)

This is a strange metaphysics to the modern mind, primarily because we view the cosmos differently than ancient man. The modern view sees the universe as interactions between torrential, impersonal powers through vast, profane space. This cosmovision holds no room for man; in this scheme of things he is viewed as a speck of dust with no purpose nor participation in cosmos at all. He is nothing. But this understanding is a recent invention, not accepted by the cultures of antiquity. Ancient man was a prime participant of the cosmos. He was a fulcrum point of “purposeful energies” placing him in the center of creation. Why? Because the anthropomorphic cosmos pumped its celestial fluids throughout all space until it too filled the heart of man. Man knew his encounter with cosmos when he felt a “burning” in the heart.

This concept is elegantly portrayed in a Sufi text called The Wisdom of the Throne, where cosmic paradise was termed the qalb, a word meaning heart, and whose earthly correlation was the heart of the faithful man. The text reads: “The heart of the man of true faith is the Throne of the Merciful,” and “…the heart of the man of true faith is the House of God” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 511). Here, the heart of man and the Throne of the Merciful are synonymous terms. It could be written: “The heart of the man of faith is the Heart of the Cosmos.” Again, this is to be taken literally.

An old Muslim tradition about Abraham also illustrates this idea and curiously shares many of the elements of the New Fire myth and ritual. Because Abraham would not submit to the idols of Namrūd he was tied to a pole (the fire drill) and set ablaze. In this story, however, the fire does not consume Abraham. Sarah, the king’s daughter, was curious and went to see if Abraham had burned. Coming to the great pyre she perceived Abraham was alive, sitting in the flames and in the heart of an orchard, which flames sent blossoms to the world below. Wanting to enter into this fiery realm Sarah asked how it could be done? Abraham responded, “Just repeat after me: ‘Whoever has God’s name in his heart and on his tongue will be unhurt.’” Sarah repeated the phrase and entered (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 461-462; see figure 6).


Fig. 6 Abraham in the Cosmic Heart

In the Mexica myth, Nanahuatzin is immolated in a cosmic fire, and like Abraham is not slain, but transformed into the macrocosmic heart, the Fifth Sun, sending life (blossoms) to the world below. Nanahuatzin accomplishes this feat because in fact his heart is humble and saintly, unlike Tecciztecal, who is proud and boastful. There is something of Abraham in Nanahuatzin, and vice versa. Just as in the Sufi text, there is something of the faithful man in Abraham and Nanahuatzin. What is their common link? All have access to the heart of the cosmos, and therefore are enabled to bring about renewal of the cosmos, because their own microcosmic hearts are in tune, purified, saintly, burn with the fluids flowing from the heart above.

Anciently, the images of fire and heart through which man is connected with the cosmos keep showing up no matter where we look. Thus, in ancient China the heart’s element was fire, and it controlled the shên, the spirit or “divinely inspired part” that reveals the knowledge of all things (Young 7). In the Upanishad of the Embryo in India the heart is termed an “inner fire” that is the “seat of breath” (Young 9), and the source of life. In Kabbalah tradition, the heart of cosmos is the “vital sparks” which fill all worlds, nations, and creatures (Matt 31, 152). Paracelsus and the old alchemists all represented the heart as the center of the microcosm, source of life and renewal, and portrayed as a burning sun (Hall 151). Additionally, man’s heart was also shown with the universal tree rooted in it, revealing its relation to the great macrocosm above, (see figure 7). In Judeo-Christian literature, the word of god, or the logos, which procured illumination, is revealed as a burning in the heart (Jeremiah 20:9 & Luke 24:32). In Christian tradition, the logos is felt because of the sacrificial act of Christ, who, like Abraham, was tied to a post (again the fire drill), and who, like the Mexica sacrificial victim, had his heart pierced. Christ’s act of atonement thus allowed for his own energies to burn in the hearts of the believers (See figure 8).

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree


Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Finally, this imagery and symbolism is also found in ancient Egypt, though in reverse terms. According to the Egyptian paradigm the soul of man, upon mortal death, enters the underworld facing challenges which test its very essence. In fact, no soul could endure the challenges unless, like both the Muslim and Christian traditions, it had been ritually purified in mortality by being initiated, and having God’s word written upon the heart. Without such preparation the soul would be outcast into darkness. This drama is portrayed in the Book of Caverns in a curious likeness to the Mexica New Fire ritual. Here, enemies of the sun whose souls cannot endure the cosmic flame have their hearts torn out and blood spouting from their chests (Schoch 106). The Book of Caverns reads: “O you who have fallen, without soul, into the Place of Terror….O you upside down ones, the bloodstained ones, whose hearts have been torn out, in the Place of Terror” (Lubicz 135). Schwaller de Lubicz interprets this passage as a sacred science wherein “the vital organs of the anthropocosmos” are related to “cosmic influences and human organs” (Lubicz 136). In other words, for the soul of man, represented by the Egyptians as the heart, to enter into Paradise, his heart must already be filled with the cosmic fluids, “be pure of heart”, and thereby enabled, like Abraham, to endure the cosmic flame. If he cannot his heart is torn asunder and cast into the “Place of Terror” where darkness and destruction await. This representation is also shown in the Book of the Dead, where the ib was weighed in the scales of cosmic judgement.

In all these traditions the heart of man is a cosmic entity which is the source of life, a place of burning, a receptor for intelligence, the logos, consciousness, and divinity. In other words, a receptor for what Needleman calls a “hierarchy of energies” in which both man and cosmos participate: each share the same heartbeat in an act of cosmic harmony. Simply put, Christ’s atonement is an exchange of soul, just as is Nanahuatzin, Abraham, or the Mexica sacrificial victim.

Problematically, the English language gives us only one word for heart, though even brief introspection recalls that this word has multiple meanings. One’s heart is an organ, but the word is also used in terms of a state of being or a state of action: “You have no heart!” or the opposite, “You have such a big heart!” In ancient Egypt there were two words for “heart”: haty was a term meaning the physical heart, and ib, was the word for the spiritual, emotional, heart-soul (Young 112). In all the traditions above, the heart of man is seen as his soul, and it is man’s soul that shares in the vital energies pumped out from the cosmic heart; just as it is man’s soul that shares in the cosmic nature itself: immortal, eternal, the flame of life.

The New Fire ritual is a creation of an axis-mundi linking the points of the axis to the heart of man and to the heart of the sky. The heart of man is not just a pumping, fleshy, organ, but a “microcosmos” analogous to the sun radiating microcosmic energies–energies of life. The Pleiades is not just a star cluster, but when bound with the zenith and solar conjunction, is the cosmic heart from which flow macrocosmic energies–these too are energies of the soul. Thus, the Mexica’s sacrificial heart is an ecological exchange of soul enacted on a cosmic stage.

Principally, man’s participation with cosmos was always displayed through a ritual re-enactment of cosmic processes: creation, renewal, and orientation to the sky and ground. In turn, cosmic processes were symbolized by the actions of the beating heart; it sent out life giving energies and returned them so that it might renew its potency through fire. This is exactly what the New Fire ceremony represents: it is a creation of cosmos through the sacrifice of a heart, the renewal of a cosmic age by the re-igniting of flame, and a re-orientation of cosmos under the light of the Pleiades. But ritual is always a two way street. And where the Mexica performed their ritual as an act of cosmic prolongation, they too saw it as an act of microcosmic creation. By re-enacting the acts of the gods, they were preparing themselves to become like the gods and to enter into their realm (Read 147).

So, like Abraham, the Sufi faithful, the Egyptian initiate, the enlightened Christian, or the Chinese shên, the Mexica were circulating soul, incorporating the cosmic flames into their souls and at the same time extending their vital energies (heart and microcosmos) to the realm above. According to this cosmovision, balance was preserved in both realms.

De Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller. Sacred Science: The King of Pharaonic Theocracy. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Gramercy Books, 1981.

Grof, Stanislav. Books of the Dead: Manuals for Living and Dying. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Hall, Manly P. Man: Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, Thoughts in Occult Anatomy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society, 1972.

Secret Teachings of All Ages: Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic & Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society,

Hancock, Graham and Santha Faiia. Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Jenkins, John Major. Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company Publishing, 1998.

Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995.

Needleman, Jacob. A Sense of the Cosmos: Scientific Knowledge and Spiritual Truth. New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2003.

Read, Kay. “The Cosmic Meal,” Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1998.

Schoch, Robert M. Voyages of the Pyramid Builders: The True Origins of the Pyramids from Lost Egypt to Ancient America. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Tvedtnes, John A., Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, editors. Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham. Provo, UT: BYU, Foundations for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001

Young, Louisa. Book of the Heart. Westminster, MD: Doubleday, 2003.

Bringing the Sky to Earth

I had the opportunity to help a group of young men on a high adventure outing understand the scope and scale of our solar system. While the young men hiked through the rugged and spectacular scenery of Bryce Canyon, Utah, I set up my astronomy gear some 45 minutes away at a Dude Ranch named Rock’n R Ranch. The southern Utah sky is excellent for star gazing, and while the clouds piled up during the day, by about midnight they had dissipated.

One of the things I showed the group was a scale model of our solar system. I followed the same scale that Guy Ottewell had published in The Thousand-Yard Model. Sure enough, the scale takes about one thousand yards to lay out, if each inch represents 100,000 miles of distance, or each step a person takes represents 3.6 million miles.

I placed a basketball representing the sun at the head of a trail, and then walked off the scale. I stepped 10 paces and set down a marker for the planet Mercury. Another 9 paces and I placed a marker for the planet Venus. 7 more paces for Earth and 14 paces for Mars. Then the pacing starts getting quite large. From Mars to Jupiter takes 95 paces. From Jupiter to Saturn another 112 paces. 249 more paces to Uranus, and 281 paces to Neptune, and 242 more paces to Pluto. The total distance is over 10 football fields, or about 1,020 yards.

While I have laid out this system before, this was the first time I did it in lights! My markers were little battery operated LED lights attached to stakes. I knew we would be looking at this in the dark, and fortunately I had a huge field to lay out my ground-plan. Further, I used red lights to represent Mercury, Venus, and Mars; blue lights to represent Earth, Uranus, and Neptune; green lights for Jupiter and Saturn. Because Pluto is so far away I represented it with a white light.

It worked amazingly. The lights were bright and could be seen stretching out into a black landscape whose vastness almost made it look like empty space itself. In the middle of this system was my telescope and equipment. I showed the group the relative distances and make up of each of the planets, and discussed size in space. For example, on the same scale, if we were to walk to the closest star next to our sun, with every inch representing 100,000 miles, we would have to walk over 4,200 miles away.

We then spent the night looking into the sky and viewing Saturn, Mars, and several star clusters and galaxies. With the grandeur of the deep sky overhead, and the twinkling lights of the planets beneath, we seemed suspended in space. It was a very fun night.