The Spartacus Monster and The Golem


Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus

(If you aren’t familiar with the legend of the golem, read my previous post on this creature here:  The Golem of Prague)

Spartacus the Revolutionary Hero

The gladiator Spartacus lived around 100 BC; Roman historians record that he was a leader in a slave revolt against Rome. Spartacus himself was a mercenary taken prisoner by the Romans, but the slave revolt that he helped to lead secured his place in modern times as a symbol of the power of the people and a warrior against injustice and slavery.

Most Americans know Spartacus only through the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name, starring Kirk Douglas.  The film came out in 1960, right at the end of the era of McCarthyism, and was presumed to be making a statement about the persecution of communists and suspected communists. Anti-communist protesters picketed theaters that were showing the film.

It may be surprising to hear that the mythic ideal of Spartacus, allied with such pro-American values as the fight against oppression and slavery and the support of liberty, should also be a strong symbol of Marxism, but this idea is older than 1950’s American anti-communist paranoia.

Karl Marx praised Spartacus as a symbol of the proletariat, and in Germany the Spartacus League was a Marxist  revolutionary movement organized during World War I that agitated for a communist revolution in Germany along the lines of the Soviet revolution in Russia. They even organized massive protests called the “Sparticist Uprising” in 1918.

Spartacus the Monster

The Spartacus Monster
The Spartacus Monster

The German government crushed the Spartacus League, and wealthy right-wing Germans formed the “Anti-Bolshevist League.” This group produced a number of bizarre propaganda posters, such as the one above, depicting Spartacus as a giant, golem-like monster threatening Berlin. The German Historical Museum in Berlin explains it this way:

In the revolutionary period the image of Spartacus as a demon bringing death and calamity was used often. The Anti-Bolshevist League, which was supported by leading industrialists, also used the image often.

Spartacus and the Golem

It seems to me that this “Spartacus demon” is a political variation on the golem of Jewish folklore. Whoever designed the Anti-Bolshevist League’s Spartacus poster was likely very familiar with the golem as an occult monster of Jewish creation who attacked Prague several times in folkloric accounts, in order to protect the Jewish community. This depiction of the golem on a poster sold in the Jewish quarter of Prague makes the parallel pretty obvious.

The Golem of Prague
The Golem of Prague

People in power fear an uprising from people who are less powerful. When communist-led revolts threatened the government of Germany in the early 20th century, the symbol of Spartacus was used by both sides of the struggle. On the one hand Spartacus was a freedom-fighting hero; on the other, a threat to order and civilization. Likewise, the golem of Prague was a monster created to protect the powerless against the powerful. The golem was a helper for the Jews, an attacking monster to the non-Jewish people in Prague.

Once the National Socialist (Nazi) party had taken contol of the German government, they scapegoated both communists and Jews as a threat to the rebuilding of German society. Ultimately, these two characters of folklore merged under the suspicion that they were secretly corrupting the world.

The Saga Continues

darth vader grotesque

The Darth Side

Gothic cathedrals provoke mystery and awe. The best and biggest in Europe are places where you could spend hours, reading the art and architecture as if it were an ancient grimoire.

When the church was busy building these enormous cathedrals, Christianity was only just taking hold in the farther reaches of Europe, and people were skeptical and not completely willing to abandon their old gods. One of the church’s tactics to win over the populace was to place icons or symbols of pagan deities in and around the church grounds, so people would still be willing to come and make the area a place of worship (most churches are built on pre-Christian sacred sites anyway). Over time, the gods were depicted in a less positive manner, and placed outside the church, to serve as gutters and waterspouts. These are what we now know as gargoyles and grotesques. The idea being, these are no longer gods to be admired, but evil spirits who cannot pass inside the holy place, and represent all that is dangerous and bad about the secular world.

I was reminded recently that this idea is still with us, after watching part of Judge Scalia’s funeral on TV which took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The Cathedral is neo-Gothic, and as such, it has all the typical characteristics of Gothic constructions, including gargoyles and grotesques.

The National Cathedral’s most interesting grotesque by far is Darth Vader. It’s no secret that the mythology of Star Wars was based on world folklore and religion, so it’s not surprising that the franchise has been adapted as a form of pseudo-religion and modern mythology for the American population, but Darth Vader as a grotesque on the National Cathedral takes this to a whole new level.

If the sacred space inside the cathedral represents balance in the Force, then we would expect Darth Vader to represent the dangerous extreme of lust for power and violent domination. Of course, another general characteristic of grotesques is that they depict duality, which makes sense, since Christian theology has always associated duality with strife, discord, and the devil. And Darth Vader has a dual nature, which is Anakin/Vader.

Will The Real People Please Stand Up?

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. – Morpeus, in The Matrix

My mother was a very pragmatic woman who was often displeased with my imaginative pursuits. She would frown and say, “You’ve got to live in the real world.” As a child I assumed she meant I had to grow up and learn adult conformities. But once I did grow up I became very insecure about the “real world.”


The word real, curiously, means royal. That is, it originally meant that an elite class who lived in a magnificent court in a capital city and were appointed by the gods to dynastic rule forever, decided “reality” and were the only “real” people. Commoners and foreigners, etc. were more like the walking dead, or phantoms wandering about. So when people would ask, “Is this real?” what they were really asking was, “Is this associated with the way of the kings?” If not, they ignored it as nonexistent.

That sounds terrible to us today, but for a few thousand years this was considered logical and necessary. The “real” people, for example, the pharoahs of Egypt or the heroes of Greece, would have eternal life after death since they were gods, after all. The gods ruled the celestial heavens and the stars, which the astrologers knew determined the fate of all the people on the earth. So heaven was “real” or “royal” or “ruling” over the earth. This is why the ancient kingdoms worldwide were such fanatics about recording the history and exploits of their kings and heroes on freizes, statues, paintings, pottery scenes, and of course stone tablets and papyrus scrolls. All other people did not need to be remembered because they were only mortal and therefore not “real.”

Nowadays we have this whole notion backwards and think that material things, and the physical sciences that study the material world are “real” and the things of heaven (myths, religion) are fantasy or illusion. Of course we no longer believe our kings or leaders are “royalty” in the old sense; we no longer think they are representatives of celestial events. We have lost our connection with the ancient  “real” altogether, because we no longer have emissaries from that realm among our elite.

The Matrix is a Gnostic film and a whole lot has been written on that already so I will just note that, for the Gnostics, coming to the “realization” that this world is an illusion and perhaps a more celestial world is “real” but we have forgotten it, is the process of acquiring gnosis (knowing). Nowadays, we are so confused about the real that we even call our ridiculous television shows “reality.” The giant media is constantly churning out new versions of the real and it seems on any given day anything could be real that was impossible yesterday.

With no true voice, with nothing to trust, we are now building a new Tower of Babel to reconnect us to the “real.” But just like the tower of legend, this one can only be built if we all work together.

How the Map Becomes the Territory: The Power of Story

“Research suggests that story archetypes – encoded in powerful, culturally pervasive myths – may play a crucial role in how people process new information. In their studies of jury verdicts, for instance, psychologists Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie found that jurors made decisions, in part, by fitting the evidence into previously defined narrative structures.

The persuasive power of these structures has led Rutgers law professor Ruth Anne Robbins to argue that attorneys should represent their clients as “archetypal heroes” (her example of choice is from another modern myth, Harry Potter). Heroes are more likely to be perceived sympathetically, while villains – Dr Frankenstein and Dr Steptoe alike – will be perceived as criminals, independent of the evidence.”

via The curse of Frankenstein: how archetypal myths shape the way people think about science.

Church of the Walkers







Season Five of The Walking Dead  is more gruesome and imaginative than ever. But what is the preacher man up to, what secrets is he hiding? He’s up to no good, I’m sure of that.

In more than one episode the camera lingers on the church’s scripture listing from its last service:

The Verses

These are the associated Bible passages:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. – Romans 6:4 New International Version

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. – Ezekiel 37:7 New International Version

And the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. – Matthew 27:52 New International Version

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them. – Revelation 9:6 New International Version

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” – Luke 24:5 New International Version

Father Gabriel

Of course we expect these verses to have some reference to zombies, right? But I wonder if they also are telling a story about the Episcopal priest.  His name is Gabriel, after the archangel who blows his trumpet in the end times to raise the dead. By legend Gabriel is also the angel of judgement and other not-so-nice things. He is also a messenger of God’s will.

These particular bible verses seem to indicate a special elect of walking dead (the resurrection of Israel, of the saints, of Christ), and so perhaps Gabriel has a mission for these “holy” walkers, as he must see them. The living, as seen in these passages, are just sinners awaiting judgement.

Do they hint to an unfolding of the plot? Thoughts, zombie fans?

Dead Ahead


A New Saint in town

I remember a Fall day in 1997 when two friends of mine showed me a candle they had just bought at the local Fry’s grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. They were intrigued by what was obviously a white novena candle with a picture of a Grim Reaper on it, or so they thought. The prayer on the back of the candle was all in Spanish so they asked me to translate. We had no idea what we were in for (and yes, this sounds exactly like the first scene of a horror film, doesn’t it?)

It turns out the prayer was a love spell, and a rather manipulative one at that. We were more confused than ever. Why pray to Death for luck in love? But today, nearly twenty years later, most people who have any knowledge of Mexican folklore or any regular contact with pop culture in the American Southwest know Santisima Muerte well.

Santisima Muerte

She is a folk saint who is said to protect the downtrodden and outcast or those in difficult situations, including those engaged in dangerous occupations such as narco-trafficking.  Scholars speculate she is a new manifestation of the Aztec underworld goddess Mictecacihuatl, but she only began to become mainstream in the late 1990’s.

Her real specialty, though,  as me and my friends discovered in Tucson all those years ago, is to be a friend and confidante to women, especially in their relationships with men. Santisima Muerte’s back story according to legend is that she was once a mortal woman who committed suicide after her husband was unfaithful, which is why she’s so hell-bent on helping women manage their men. She’s what I call an Anti-Madonna.

The anti-madonna

The fertility goddess of the Near East, who became the Virgin Mary over time, has become too “nice” to be very useful outside of her role of protecting the weak and vulnerable,  and children. The Madonna generally assists women to take care of their men, most especially their sons.  But her death aspect, known as Mary Magdalene or the Black Madonna in Eastern Europe, is more learned, assertive, and competitive with men. In short, it’s the anti-Madonna most women need nowadays when they have a problem, especially problems with men who have historically had the upper hand.

Santisima Muerte

Since I’m a Jungian, I believe every strong idea is around long before it shows overt manifestations. It stirs in the collective unconscious, guiding the thoughts and behaviors of people before they have full awareness that it is there.

So it is with Santisima Muerte. Her statues, shrines, prayer books, and stories may have begun to explode through Mexico and the American Southwest starting in the late 1990s, but she had begun to stir before then.


The the 1992 film Candyman, a folklorist in graduate school named Helen is doing research on an urban legend about the vengeful spirit of a murdered man called Candyman. She visits a run-down housing project in Chicago where she interviews locals, and soon afterwards has visions of Candyman, who murders people around her and causes Helen to lose conscious awareness of her actions and the passage of time. As the story unfolds, the viewer is left wondering if Helen is the reincarnation of Candyman’s lost love during his life as a historical person, as this is hinted at a few times in the film. Candyman seems determined to reclaim her, and kidnaps the baby of a resident of the housing project, threatening to kill the child if Helen does not agree to die and join Candyman as a folkloric spirit. Although the local residents believe Helen is responsible for the child’s disappearance, she dies saving the boy. After death, she merges with Candyman, becoming the new fearful figure of folklore, killing her estranged and cheating husband after he unwittingly invokes her in a mirror.

Candyman Helen's ReturnIn standard slasher horror films, women are murdered by a male serial killer, with the implication that this is a result of sexual immorality or gender role transgressions by the female victims. Candyman turns this on its head, with a woman serial killer murdering her husband for sexual immorality, and then lingering as a neighborhood boogeyman .

Santisima Muerte is everywhere present in this film, only we never say her name. Yet this film was released nearly a decade before Santisima Muerte supposedly “came out.” Why do I say this?

1 – Helen, the protagonist folklorist of Candyman, is an anti-Madonna. (Her name, first of all, makes you think of Helen of Troy, who left her husband for another guy and started a huge war that destroyed an empire. Helen was believed to have been reincarnated at least twice in historical legend for nefarious purposes – once as the wife of the magician Simon Magus and again as the Satanic wife of Doctor Faust). Helen, in the movie, is very assertive, boldly stating to an established professor of the university that she will “bury him” with her superior research. She boldly ventures into a black housing project infested with drug gangs to collect data for her thesis, and playfully invokes the spirit of Candyman in a mirror, while her best friend is too nervous to do so.

It Was Always You Helen, from Candyman
It Was Always You Helen, from Candyman

2 – The relationship between Candyman and Helen resembles that of Inanna and Dumuzi, ancient Babylonian gods whose story is told in the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Inanna had descended to the underworld to seek wisdom (Helen visits the projects to collect data for her thesis). Inanna is killed by the goddess of the underworld, Erishkigal, and her body is hung on a meat hook (the meat hook is what Candyman has in place of a right hand, an it appears frequently in the film, sometimes as his hand, sometimes as an artifact). Inanna hangs dead in the underworld for an unknown period of time, but is finally rescued by the couriers of another god (Helen has bouts of unconsciousness and the viewer is uncertain how much time has passed or what has really happened and what Helen has only imagined or dreamt, but Candyman finally allows her to escape the mental hospital and return to her home).

When Inanna emerges from the underworld she is enraged to find her husband, the god Dumuzi, enjoying life without her (Helen escapes from a mental hospital and runs home, to find her husband, far from supporting her or trying to help her in her plight, now has one of his students as a lover and living in their home). Inanna in a jealous and self-righteous sends her minions to chase Dumuzi down and send him to the underworld (Helen as a spirit kills her husband in a similar frame of mind). Dumuzi then becomes an underworld god himself, just as Helen becomes a supernatural legend or underworld goddess, after her death. Inanna and Dumuzi, Helen and Candyman, Persephone and Hades, are the same supernatural couple as the Aztec death god and goddess, of whom Santisima Muerte is a new manifestation.

2 – After Helen’s death, she also becomes a vengeful spirit and a part of local folklore. She can also be invoked in a mirror by saying her name a certain number of times (just like Bloody Mary, a real world folkloric aspect of the Black Madonna). And like the anti-Madonna, she is considered a threat to children. Helen was under suspicion of killing a child, and not just any child, but the son of the Madonna character in the film, the young black woman Anne-Marie who lived in the projects.


The Dark Goddess is in fashion these days, and she even has her own websites, her own social media sites, and so on, which you can discover on your own. She has two publicly known shrines in California.








Something Wolfish This Way Comes

The Hour of the Wolf is the hour between night and dawn. . . when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. . . when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.  – from The Hour of the Wolf, a film by Ingmar Bergman

This is my second Halloween post for this year’s season of the supernatural and the frightening. My last post focused on mental illness and the psychiatric treatment methods of the 19th centuries. This post reflects on how mental disturbance is transformed into myth.

Traditional folklore of humans who became monsters emerged into the cinema of the 1920s and 1930s as everyday people with recognizable shortcomings: the vampire is a rapist, the wolf-man is a drug addict and/or serial killer, the mummy is an obsessive stalker. The Frankenstein monster is an amalgamation of our guilt over how we treat our outcasts: prisoners, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the homeless. The Invisible Man is a sociopathic capitalist in the guise of a mad scientist. And in the 1960s we created a new monster for a new anxiety: the zombie, who represents our fear of alienation in an impersonal, automated, materialistically obsessed world.

Maurice Sand Legendes Rustiques

An American Werewolf

In this post I want to focus on the werewolf in horror films, specifically in An American Werewolf in London which was released in 1981, and the social context of this folkloric monster. The story involves two young American college students backpacking through the UK. They have a strange experience in a pub; the locals warn them not to go hiking out on the moors, but they do and are attacked by a werewolf. One, David, survives but his friend is killed. David, of course, becomes a werewolf.

As tradition dictates, he only assumes wolf form involuntarily during a full moon, when he loses his sense of reason and is driven to kill. The people he kills haunt him, however, during his normal everyday human life, appearing to him in visions where they incessantly beg him to kill himself in order to free their souls from the werewolf’s curse. They cannot be free to move on to the afterlife as long as their werewolf killer lives. Disturbed and guilted by these visions, David attempts to find help but is in the end shot to death while on a werewolf rampage.

The Berserkers

Reports of warriors who wore the skins and furs of bears and wolves and entered a trance like state to increase their aggressiveness in battle were frequently told during the Viking era in Scandinavia. These warriors were called Berserkers ( berserk is an Old Norse word that means one who wears an animal’s pelt as a coat.) To “go berserk” was a reference to a state of battle-frenzy in which such a warrior attacked everything he saw. Norse literature also suggests that a berserker literally changed in physical appearance, or shape-shifted. Berserkers were outlawed by AD 1000, although bands of them persisted for another 200 years. Perhaps as a result of the changing times, the word vargr (meaning wolf or monster) came into use in Icelandic law codes to refer to an outlaw.


Although it may seem obvious that an aggressive trance state could be useful in battle, the Berserkers may beyond that have had a warrior society in which this state was part of initiation and training, and group cohesiveness.

As told in the Saga of the Volsungs, the elder hero Sigmund and his young companion live in a dugout in the woods. They discover a house where werewolves live; they steal their wolf skins and wear them themselves, becoming werewolves and learning the supernatural powers given them through the wolf skins, killing as many as eleven men at one time.

The tale seems to show the transmission of  knowledge and the techniques of the berserker state from the original group of men to Sigmund and his companion, while they are in a probationary training state and living in the woods. (This idea of transmission of spiritual power through initiation seems to be at the root of the folkloric idea that one becomes a werewolf contagiously, by being bitten by a werewolf.)

The psychologist Ed Tick, in his fascinating book War and the Soul, tells the story of a war veteran named Keith who found wolf teeth in the Vietnamese jungle and fashioned them into a protective spirit necklace he wore. Quoting Mircea Eliade in his book, Tick writes “the test of courage (was) resistance to physical suffering, followed by magical transformation into a wolf.. . (the initiate) became a wild-beast warrior, irresistible and invulnerable.”

Instinctively, Tick writes, Keith also believed his wolf teeth necklace would protect him and give him the powers needed to succeed in combat. Keith returned home from Vietnam suffering from PTSD, however, and it was years before he was able to find a therapist he thought he could trust to talk to about his war experiences. A few months into his therapy Keith was strangely bitten by a dog. Keith believed the wolf spirit had returned to him through this canine bite, and that his further growth as a warrior would result.

Battle Scars


An interesting theory put forth by Dion Fortune ( a renowned 20th century occultist)  in her book “Psychic Self-Defense” is that soldiers contracted a form of supernatural contagion when fighting the world wars, and brought it home with them. Eastern Europe has long had a reputation as being superstitious and prone to “occult” ideas and practices. The modern concept of the vampire has its origins in the Slavic countries. Fortune claimed that Eastern European soldiers knew how to keep their spirits lingering on after death, long enough to attack and invade the wounded on the battlefield, and so live on as a kind of astral parasite.  She believed this explained emotional disorders in war veterans we would now typically categorize as PTSD.

(Veterans) . . . feel more intimacy with the dead than with the living, as if they themselves were already dead – Ed Tick, War and the Soul

This idea, bizarre as it sounds, has a parallel in the Buddhist traditions of the Vietnamese, who Ed Tick explains believe their war dead wander the land to this day in a state of limbo, unable to rest since they did not receive a traditional burial, and continue to harass the living.

The link to the werewolf legend is here clear to me. Soldiers fight in close combat, those that survive are haunted by the memory of those they killed and of comrades they lost, and soon these traumatized veterans show signs of agitation, hyper-arousal, inability to sleep, nightmares, and an increase in aggressive and violent thoughts and behaviors. Or as we would put it in a folklore context: bitten by a werewolf, a man becomes a werewolf. (I found that someone else has discovered this parallel: Johnathan Shay, psychologist, draws a parallel in his book “Achilles in Vietnam” between the berserker state of frenzy and the emotional chaos of PTSD.


An American Werewolf in London is not a war film, and I don’t think the writers or the producer had any conscious motive to explore war trauma; nonetheless, I think the movie is primarily the story of a war veteran suffering from PTSD. The Vietnam War, which deeply affected the American consciousness, had only ended seven years before the film was released. A few films directly discussing this war were made, but for the most part it was still a very sensitive subject, and I think deep reflection on the effects of the war tended to manifest in indirect ways. The horror genre is a perfect medium for such buried forms of social reflection.

This scene, the first hallucination that David experiences after being attacked by the werewolf (and therefore the first indication that he himself is a werewolf), shows his family attacked and killed by Nazi soldiers with werewolf faces. The scene is a complete non sequitur unless you understand my premise:

My interpretation of the storyline for this film would be this: a young war veteran returns home to find himself alienated. Home is not recognizable anymore, and his community seems afraid of him, and hostile. David remembers his best friend, who died in the war. He thinks of him as a “slaughtered lamb,” an innocent young man sacrificed for a society that will not even honor him. David feels the loss keenly, remembering a time when they were wolf brothers, warriors who participated in a code of identity and behavior. David begins to imagine that he actually turns into a wolf at certain times.

They (veterans) see the dead in their sleep or beckoning to them from roadsides. They hear them calling in the mountains. They see dead children’s faces behind the faces of smiling kids. – Ed Tick, War and the Soul

David is hospitalized after he begins to breakdown. He has visions of his dead friend, and of others who died or were killed by their actions in war, including civilians. These visions accuse David and continuously pressure him to kill himself. David begins to suffer psychotic episodes and attacks people, and threatens his loved ones. He is eventually killed in a confrontation with police.

David’s chronic visions of dead people he has killed, who implore him to kill himself,  is a striking parallel to what many war veterans experience. Ed Tick, who has worked with traumatized veterans for decades, relates that veterans commonly experience visions of the dead who accuse them and beg for the release of their tortured souls through either a reconciliation rite or the death of the soldier who killed them. He relates the story of one Vietnam veteran who was plagued for nearly forty years by the spirit of a Vietnamese boy he had killed.

And so it is that the werewolf, originally an honored initiate of a warrior society, became a social outcast, an outlaw, lost in the violent memories of his past. The werewolf is the symbol of our own transformed and confused attitudes to the meaning of war.