The Ancient And The Otherworldly In Lucifer Rising (1970) – Kenneth Anger.

Much has been written about Kenneth Anger’s final counter-culture outpouring, Lucifer Rising.  So often the discussion of its history, its constantly evolving final form, and its links with Charles Manson’s “Family”, overshadow the real thematic content of the short film.  Whilst all of these elements are of great interest, especially in regards to Bobby Beausoleil’s score which seems highly prescient in the context of his imprisonment for the killing of Gary Hinman, there is much in Anger’s film that evokes the powers of the esoteric through more traditional and less obvious means.

Though barely half an hour long, Lucifer Rising is littered with heavy thematic content that is further added to by the film’s participants.  It is this material in its original form and outside of the context of its performers (who include Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithful) that is of interest here.  Anger has of course been interested in the occult and its aesthetics for a lifetime but, and perhaps crucially, this appears to be manifested through a prism of interest in Aleister Crowley.  Rather than being a devotee of Satan, Anger seems more interested in following the practices of Crowley, almost taking pleasure in their supposed, second-hand nature.

The spectre of Crowley looms large over Anger’s entire catalogue but, by being comfortably in his shadow, Anger clearly picks up on Crowley’s own interests; in the writings of Eliphas Levi and James Frazer, in the power of the landscape, and in the rituals to evoke such powers.  Lucifer is concerned with bringing out the elemental from the landscape and the interplay between celestial beings; namely Isis (Myriam Gibril) and Osiris (Donald Cammell) and their son, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins).

It is telling that rather than naming Osiris’ son with the Egyptian equivalent, Horus, Anger moves straight for the more recognisable, evolved Latin name for the film’s title, Lucifer; Horus clearly didn’t have the right ring to chime with the counter-culture flow.  The film sees the coming of their son, named for his bringing of the sunrise and the light of the morning.  Yet visually, the film is more concerned with the character of Osiris and the elemental power he appears to exhibit within the film.  Osiris himself as a figure resembles some form of drug induced higher realm.  Frazer’s own description of him has an easy symbolic likeness to the counter-culture social hierarchy defined by the deification of certain social LSD users and producers:

“Thus according to what seems to have been the general native tradition Osiris was a good and beloved king of Egypt who suffered a violent death but rose from the dead and was henceforth worshipped as a deity.” (Frazer, p.367, 1993)

Osiris’ power lay, amongst other things, in the semblance of keeping natural, elemental order.  The presence of a variety of imagery, from the torn up landscape to volcanic eruptions, suggests that his power is waning and that Lucifer Rising is set after Osiris’ first death at the hands of his brother Set, and that Donald Cammell is playing his reincarnation (brought back to life by Isis, again explaining Anger’s use of several visual moments of Gibril performing some form of ritual herself).

But how do these forces and their representation connect to Crowley?  Apart from in their namesake form in several of his rituals, Crowley has supplied the forms of aesthetics almost by passing them down from older writers.  In Levi’s seminal work, The History Of Magic, he writes extensively about these Gods with particularly useful reference to Lucifer: “Lucifer – Light-bearer- how strange a name, attributed to the spirit of darkness!  Is it he who carries the light and yet blinds feeble souls?” (p.36, 1909). Crowley mentions Levi at various points in his writing, particularly in his weird fiction as often a point of reference to provide some reality to his fantastical settings.  For example, in his short story The Dream Circean, Crowley puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters:

“But magic somewhere must be, and Eliphas Levi was the most famous adept in Paris at the time.” (p.115, 2010).

In the short story, Crowley actively fictionalises Levi into his own narrative and therefore any influence of Crowley upon Anger can also be read as soaking in Levi as well (who Anger has no doubt sought out with his own general interest in magic).

Levi goes further in analysing the figures that Anger would later use in his film.  His treatment of Lucifer in particular perhaps suggests why Anger would use the more science fiction elements to round off his film: “Lucifer is then a fallen star – a meteor which is on fire always, which burns when it enlightens no longer.” (p. 36, 1909).  If Lucifer was a fallen star (which perhaps contradicts the classical variation of his coming into being), then of course the logical step for Anger, forever the mischievous provocateur of the garish, is to link these beings to an atomic age space ship which he does at the climax of his film.  This also contradicts Levi’s assertion of the sacred nature of such images:

“Such is the rock of peril for esoteric science; the truth must be veiled, yet not hidden from the people; symbolism must not be disgraced by a lapse into absurdity; the sacred veil of Isis must be preserved in its beauty and dignity.” (p.84, 1909).

Whilst such debates are pointless in the context of popular culture, they shine a light on the darkness of thematic complexities within Anger’s work.  The ancient worlds bleed through into a time when the mind’s of a generation were being expanded by drugs as to incorporate entire new belief systems and imagery.  The perspective of the counter-culture was backwards looking, to see the old ways and gods connecting with their own modern-day interests.  Within Lucifer Rising, this is at its purest in its evocation of the elemental and its inclusion of the otherworldly, all of course indebted to Crowley; the harbouring sage and dilettante of the old, magical ways.

Adam Scovell

2 thoughts on “The Ancient And The Otherworldly In Lucifer Rising (1970) – Kenneth Anger.

  1. I’ve always wondered about Anger’s films. Recently a friend- a student of the occult- warned me that they’re a form of programming. I wonder if you see this interpretation.

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