I wrapped up part one by noting the duel gnosticism of Conan. One strand could have been lifted directly from William Cooper's Mystery Babylon broadcasts. It plays into the Soldier-of-the-Apocalypse meme running rampant throughout conspiracy culture right now, with Conan as a lone warrior pitted against a Nimrod-like sorcerer spreading a Hashshashin-esque cult bent on world domination. But there is another, more subtle strand beneath all the Mystery Babylon paranoia that makes for quite a fascinating study in the occult.
The film delves into it early on. Both the opening and ending sequences of the film are marked by highly symbolic decapitations. In the opening sequence, it is Conan's mother who is beheaded after his village is raided and his father murdered. The beheader is of course Thulsa Doom, spurring the film's plotline of Conan's lifelong search for the man that murdered his family and people. Thus, it is especially noteworthy that decapitation is used in such a key sequence. Decapitation is highly significant in the occult, as I've chronicled before here. In brief, I concluded that the ancient significance attached to decapitation can be traced back to the Sirius tradition. Noted occultist Kenneth Grant writes:
"The Dog-Star. In the Arcane Tradition, the vast star, Sirius, symbolizes the sun behind the sun; i.e. the true father of our Universe. Sirius was the primordial star of all time, as the duplicator or renewer (of time cycles). He was known in Egypt as the Doubling One, therefore a Creator or reflector of the Image. Sirius, or Set, was the original 'headless one' --the light of the lower region (the South) who was known (in Egypt) as An (the dog), hence Set-an (Satan), Lord of the infernal regions, the places of heat, later interpreted in a moral sense as 'hell'."
(The Magical Revival, pgs. 226-227)
The concept of a hidden sun is especially apt for Conan, which has a kind of hidden gnosis beneath the Mystery Babylon jive. The Sirius connection is further cemented by Doom being described as a priest of Set. As noted above, Set was another named used by the ancients for Sirius. Interestingly, the character that Thulsa Doom is said to most closely resemble from Howard's fiction is a figure known as Thoth-Amon. This character's name derives from Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic. Thoth has also been closely linked with the Sirius tradition.
"This body was ascribed to the most ancient Star god, Set, who was also a god of Fire. To Horus, his twin, was ascribed the spiritual body represented by the Sun. The link between star- or fire-gods and the Sun is the lunar current typified by Thoth, Lord of Magick and Scribe of the Gods. Thoth is sacred to the youthful god Khonsu, of whom Crowley as a Magus claimed to be an avatar, thus identifying himself as the link between the Beast (Set, Lord of the Stars) and the Angel (Horus, Lord of the Sun)."This gnosis continues with the early, and frequent, appearances of mounds. Conan first stumbles upon one shortly after he has been freed from slavery. While fleeing a pack of dogs he climbs atop the mound and eventually falls down inside in a bid to escape the beasts. Here Conan finds himself in a kind of burial chamber for a king who appears to be a giant.
(ibid, pgs. 31-32)
|the inside of the burial mound|
I can't help but be reminded of the mysterious Adena (who may themselves have been a race of giants) and other mound-building cultures present in pre-Columbian America. I've written much more on this topic before here. Some researchers have noted the similarities between the burial mounds of Native American tribes such as the Adena and the Hopewell and those of ancient European peoples and have speculated that there may be some linkages.
"As demonstrated in previous chapters, there is a distinct possibility that some of these mounds were either constructed by Europeans or by people using the same technology as the Europeans, and even the same (or similar) belief systems. The Tumulus ('mound') culture of Central Europe, for instance, was prevalent in the second millennium B.C. and was probably trading with cultures in the Middle East at the time, such as Egypt and what was left of the vanishing Sumerian civilization. This culture was known, obviously, for their use of burial mounds and for their practice of burying valuable commodities with their dead, as was the case in the Adena and Hopewell cultures in America. Neolithic burial mounds are to be found all over Northern Europe and the British Isles, and later, in Ireland, these burial mounds were known as sidh and were believed to be centers of supernatural power and otherworldly beings. The concept of sidh is famous in Irish folklore, and has come to represent the Celtic underworld in general, the domain of ghosts, fairies other supernatural beings. According to poet and novelist Robert Graves in his infamous study of Celtic mythology, The White Goddess, the mounds were known as Caer Sidi or the 'Fortress of the Sidi' who were ancient magicians of Ireland. The Caer Sidi was also known as the Castle of Ariadne and linked to the Corona Borealis. To be buried there meant that the body was returned to the earth, but the spirit had gone to Ariadne's Castle or, equally, to the Corona Borealis. There was even a British occult society based on Druidic lore which had, as its inner and most secret circle, The Mound Builders. Members of this group would figure prominently in the 19th century creation of the legendary British occult lodge the Hermatic Order of the Golden Dawn, and would include MacGregor Mathers, Allan Bennett and others famous from the Golden Dawn days, thus reinforcing the link (at least in the eyes of occultists) between the mound-builder culture and secret, supernatural forces."There's a lot to take in here. Keep in mind that the Golden Dawn was the occult society which Aleister Crowley, one of the chief proponents of the Sirius tradition in the twentieth century, originally belonged to before attempting to create his own secret order. Crowley would eventually leave the Golden Dawn on bad terms and would engage in a self described 'magical war' with MacGregor Mathers all the way up to the death of the later (which Crowley took credit for).
(Sinister Forces Book One, Peter Levenda, pgs. 90-91)
It is clear that Conan is using an occult interpretation of the Mound Builders upon the introduction of the character known as the 'Wizard of the Mounds' (played by the great Mako) about midway through the film. The Wizard lives at a place of great and terrible supernatural power, featuring numerous burial mounds of warriors and kings across the landscape. Eventually he harnesses the power of this place to resurrect Conan from the dead, but more on that later.
|the Wizard of the Mounds|
|the Battle of the Mounds, as fans call Conan's final confrontation with Doom's forces|
Conan's first exposure to burial mounds (after escaping slavery) also marks an important thematic point in the film. It is the first symbolic journey into the Underworld that Conan experiences. This is part of the reoccurring theme of initiation present throughout the film. Initiation into most Mystery schools and secret societies is supposed to mimic death and resurrection, sometimes with a journey into the Underworld in between the two.
"The essence of initiation... is death and rebirth. In puberty rites, the childish self dies that the adult self may live; the shaman is dismembered and resurrected, dying to his old bodily perspective and rising again with a new daimonic perspective. Many tribal peoples sanction 'secret societies' whose purpose is to initiate adults into the mystery of death and rebirth via rites which are the same in kind as, but less extreme in degree than, shamanic initiations. This was the norm also in ancient Greece, where everyone who was anyone was initiated into the Mysteries which took place at Eleusis. The wisdom of Socrates and the philosophy of his pupil, Plato, cannot rightly be understood without taking into account their initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Since it was forbidden to speak of these, we know little about them; but, significantly, they were thought to revolve around a re-enactment of the Demeter-Kore-Hades myth --the classic myth, in other words, of death and rebirth.
"In his treatise On the Soul, Plutarch specifically compares initiation into the Mysteries with the experience of death. For the soul at the point of death, he tell us, 'has the same experience as those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.' At first one wanders to and fro in the dark; then one encounters terrors which induce 'shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement,' until at last 'one is struck by a marvelous light' and received into 'pure regions and meadows, with voices and dances and the majesty of holy sounds and shapes.'"Freemasons also speak of 'receiving the light' at the end of certain stages on initiation. Many ancient Mystery schools, such as those revolving around the god Mithras, performed their rites in caves or other types of underground chambers to imitate a descent into the Underworld. Conan undergoes three such initiatory descents during the course of the film, the first of those into the long-dead king's burial chamber. When Conan emerges from the burial chamber with the king's sword he is reborn as freeman, cementing his new found status by cutting the ankle chain from his leg.
(Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur, pgs. 234-235)
The second occurs in the city of Shadizar, when Conan and his companions, Subotai and Valeria, raid the Tower of Serpents. Before heading to the Tower Conan and Subotai consume black lotus, presumably based upon the narcotic lotus plant of Greek myth. Many researchers believe this plant was an opiate. Drugs are frequently consumed before an initiation ritual. Opiates have an especially curious association with the Sirius tradition, as I've chronicled before here.
Afterwards, Conan and his companions descend into the Tower, where they are confronted with bizarre rituals, fabulous wealth, and a giant serpent which Conan battles. This is symbolic of Conan's struggle with his lower nature. To complete initiation a candidate must be purified, which Conan is not at this point. His life is still aimless at this point beyond vague notions of revenge, hence the reason he easily drifts into thievery. Thus, Conan cannot over come the serpent without Subotai's help, and thus fails this step of initiation.
Still, Conan, Valeria, and Subotai make off well from the Tower of Serpents. They have wealth, but as the Wizard wisely states in the narration, "Wealth can be wonderful, but you know, success can test one's mettle as surely as the strongest adversary." Thus, Conan and his companions are captured by King Osric (played by the legendary Max von Sydow)'s men in a drunken stupor. Luckily, all the king wants from them is to rescue his daughter, who has become a fanatical disciple of Thulsa Doom's. Valeria and Subotai get bad vibes over the whole deal (but not after taking Osric's jewels), leading Conan to foolishly pursue Doom on his own. After a pitiful attempt at infiltrating Doom's cult goes wrong, Conan finds himself crucified on the Tree of Woe.
It is here that Conan undergoes his literal death and rebirth, and thus purification. Despite the superficial Christian symbolism of the crucifixion it's clear that Conan's ordeal is meant to represent the Norse god Odin's hanging from the world tree known as Yggdrasil for nine days in order to receive wisdom, or illumination. In this case, however, Conan's illumination began in the scene prior to the crucifixion, when he and Thulsa Doom discussed the Riddle of Steel. For now I do not wish to delve into the crucial Riddle of Steel sequence, so I will simply say that it totally transforms Conan's outlook on the world that he's had since the time that he was a child.
|Conan crucified upon the Tree of Woe (top) and Odin hanging from Yggdrasil (below)|
Conan languished on the Tree of Woe for a time, but eventually his companions find him. After Conan is cut down from the Tree of Woe by Subotai, he is near death and taken to the Wizard of the Mounds. It is at the mounds that Conan is brought back from the dead, but not without Valeria offering up her life in exchange for his.
After Conan's purification, he is ready for his third descent into the Underworld. This one occurs at the Temple of Set, Doom's base of operations. Conan and his companions venture into the temple and down into its caverns where they encounter Doom and his followers involved in a cannibalistic orgy. Confronted with the total corruption of Doom's religion, Conan is able to overcome the fear and rescue the princess. Up until this point Conan had only approached Doom as a thief, an infiltrator, or a like stealth fashion. It is only after this point that he confronts Doom out in the open, in battle. As a consequence, Valeria meets her death at the tip of one of Doom's serpent arrows.
|the Temple of Set's version of paradise|
And yet Conan emerges from his third descent as the illuminated man of the Mysteries. When Doom and his followers come after Conan, the barbarian almost single-handily defeats them and it is ultimately Doom that flees from Conan. When Conan finally confronts Doom again face to face at the end of the film and beheads him before thousands of his followers, it's almost a formality. Doom makes one final attempt at hypnotizing Conan, but with illuminated eyes Conan easily overcomes Doom's sorcery and fulfills the killing of the divine king ritual that they are now playing out.
"...by slaying him his worshippers could, in the first place, make sure of catching his soul as it escaped and transferring it to a suitable successor; and, in the second place, by putting him to death before his natural force was abated, they would secure that the world should not fall into decay with the decay of the man-god. Every purpose, therefore, was answered, and all dangers averted by thus killing the man-god and transferring his soul, while yet at its prime, to a vigorous successor."This interpretation is further backed up by Doom's death by decapitation. The act of decapitation can also been seen as a transference of spirit as several ancient cultures such as the Celts believed that the head contained the spirit. Conan, after overcoming three descents into the Underworld, has emerged as the illuminated man, and thus, the master. After defeating Doom's forces in battle and then defeating Doom's sorcery with sheer will, the writing was on the wall: the Stygian was washed-up and in need of a replacement. That is why Conan is seen wearing the crown in the film's final sequence. Interestingly, writer/director John Milius' other highly esoteric work, Apocalypse Now (which he co-wrote), also ended with a killing-of-the-divine-king rite sealed with a decapitation.
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 229)
|Conan brandishing Doom's head to complete the killing of the king rite|
Doom's death sequence is a scene frequently sited as a blatant display of fascist ideology running throughout the film. Obviously the image of an Aryan superman cutting off the head of a black man with a broken sword and then contemptuously tossing it down a staircase is a big part of this thinking. That this sequence is also meant to represent a triumph of will is just fuel for the fire. Still, this is a much different triumph of will than what is commonly assumed.
A theme frequently evoked by critics when discussing Conan is the Cold War. Several critics have described Conan's struggle against Doom as an allusion to America's conflict against the Soviet Union. Conan's staunch individuality echoes the isolation of the American cowboy archetype while the zombie-like followers of Doom are supposed to invoke the hive-esque nature of communism.
Recluse does not think bringing the Cold War into Conan is much of a stretch. In fact, the film can be seen as a metaphor for a major American Cold War endeavor: Mind control. In 1979 former State Department official John Marks released his landmark study of CIA mind control experiments entitled The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate'. The book, which was based off of declassified CIA records and interviews with former staff members, derives it's title from the legendary film The Manchurian Candidate. Candidate concerns a Korean War veteran who has been unwittingly brainwashed by the communist and turned into a kind of unaware sleeper agent capable of killing anyone without question if a certain trigger is used --A programmed assassin, in other words.
In reality the CIA had been researching mind control with the aim of creating a programmed assassin, or 'Manchurian Candidate,' since the early 1950s. To this end a whole slew of techniques were used, such as hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and psychedelic drugs such as LSD. In fact, the spread of acid in the States was almost solely a result of the CIA's experiments with the substance, which I've chronicled in part before here and here. Much of the CIA's early work in the field of mind control was based off of techniques used by various occult orders for centuries.
"All of these techniques --hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis, acts of terrorism, disinformation --share an ontological purpose: to manipulate perceptions, to re-create reality... As the men of the OSS, CIA, and military intelligence developed from the armchair scholars and academics that most of them were before the war years into soldiers fighting the Cold War on fronts all over the world, they became --in a very real sense --magicians... the CIA mind control projects themselves represented an assault on consciousness and reality that has not been seen in history since the age of the philosopher-kings and their court alchemists."In Conan, Thulsa Doom has crafted an entire empire for himself based upon mind control. His flower child-like followers are a clear stand in for the hippie movement that was spawned as a result of the CIA spreading LSD to the general populace. Doom himself echoes several 1960s/70s cult leaders that have long been suspected of having ties to the CIA, namely Charles Manson and especially Jim Jones. I've discussed such theories surrounding Manson and Jones before. The pieces on Manson can be found here and here, while my work on Jones is here and here.
(Sinister Forces Book One, Peter Levenda, pg. 144)
"Assassination is a term thought to be derived from 'Hashish,' a drug similar to marijuana, said to have been used by Hasan-Dan-Sabah to induce motivation in his followers, who were assigned to carry out political and other murders, usually at the cost of their lives."Probably the most striking sequence in the entire film is the conversation between Conan and Thulsa Doom where they discuss the Riddle of Steel. The Riddle of Steel was something that Conan was first introduced to by his father as a young boy. His father informs him that he can trust nothing else in his life but steel, and that he must strive to learn the mystery of steel before his death. Ironically, it is Doom, the man that brought about Conan's father's death, that finally reveals the mystery. Doom tells Conan: "Steel isn't strong, boy. Flesh is stronger."
(A Terrible Mistake, H.P. Albarelli, pg. 720)
To demonstrate this, Doom gestures towards one of his followers standing at the ledge of a cliff above Conan and Doom. Zombie-like, she walks off the ledge and plunges to her death when Doom commands her to do so. Gesturing toward her body, Doom says:
"That is strength boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?"
As noted before, it is this discuss that enables Conan to complete his initiation. Everything that Conan had gained up to that point was not a result of steel, as he had previously thought, but of will. And ultimately, it is Conan's will that enables him to overcome Doom's sorcery. Conan, after his encounter with Doom and his time on the Tree of Woe, reaches a state of illumination that makes his mind invulnerable to hypnosis and other petty mental tricks.
This makes Conan's ending especially ironic when considering the countless Patriot movement types that will see it through the prism of the Soldier-of-the-Apocalypse meme. For them Conan is a call to arms, a testament to what one individual can accomplish against many --With a rifle, a few MREs, and maybe a bunker, we could all be Conan.
And yet it is not Conan's weapons, or training, or his strength that leads to his victory over Doom, but the knowledge that he gained after much toil and suffering. When Conan finally kills Doom, there's barely even a need for a sword. This is the true gnosis of Conan which can easily be lost in the Mystery Babylon jive.
And it is here that I shall wrap things up. In the course of this piece we have seen not only how Conan is a powerful study of initiation, but how it can spur self initiation in the viewer. As I noted in part one, I'm still struck by the similarities between the circumstances I used to watch this film under in my late teens and the rituals of certain ancient Mystery schools. In ancient times, initiates of the Mysteries would frequently gather in caves or other subterranean places, consume entheogens, and watch re-enactments of classical myths centered around death and rebirth to achieve illumination. To my mind Conan certainly constitutes a re-enactment of a death-and-rebirth drama, thus all the elements of the Mysteries were present during my early encounters with the film. It is for this reason the film still inspires something in me to this day that I could never describe in words.
The path I am currently on is impossible to imagine without Conan. Not only did it implant major themes of the Mysteries in my mind, but after I began to study them it served as barometer for separating the truth from the disinformation. It is easy finding occult symbolism in Conan. What is hard is filtering out the bullshit. But no path towards truth can be completed without this crucial process.