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Circles

By Vallancey

Month

January 2016

Setting up a Blog

I started off the Vallancey blog in 2009 with a commentary about corruption in football. Then abandoned it, until now. Vallancey was a kind of attempt to bridge my diverse interests; art, archaeology, anthropology, seasonality, performance, editing, theatre, music. I am interested in performances that bridge theatre and archaeology, music and spoken word. I have a quite a few talks done and articles written, or half written, a book planned. Lots of images scattered through various hard drives. A whole body of music, some which is in the public domain, some not. Yet I would love a simple nicely designed theme. The task involved, the number of choices of templates, some of which are expensive, seems overwhelming. At the moment I am just going through templates, wondering if I am going to change the name of the blog (and decide on a definite focus).

I have seen some amazing sites on Tumblr in the last while, I wonder how they are done. All I know is, I am not planning to get into editing html. Been there, done that, don’t wanna go back. If you visit, hope you can find your way around, please bear with me till the site gets sorted out. And any advice or suggestions are more than welcome.

‘Mercy’ by Petunia (with dancers)

Not saying there’s a direct connection to the new Bowie record, but Mercy by the highly original Petunia and the Vipers has a video featuring excellent ‘possessed’ dancing, too. Apart from its other joys, the song brilliantly rhymes the words ‘bible’ and ‘liable’! The patterns on the dresses worn by some of the women in Blackstar also reminded a bit of this video, which is about a year old, I think. In this verse Petunia, like Bowie in parts of Blackstar, adopts the position of the judge on judgement day…

Like a blackjack dealer, I’m-a dealin’ out the cards,
you fumble with your soul and you gamble with your lard,
but you can’t get to heaven, if it’s where you wanna go,
You can’t use fat, you gotta gamble with your soul…

Spookier and spookier

Thanks to Glenn William Brooks from the Official Bowie Facebook page for pointing me to this extraordinary Tumblr site. A lively discussion regarding its authorshipGlenn tells me it was only posted in Novemberhas ensued. I won’t add anything to that here, except to say that the connection to the world of Gaelic mythology is emphasised in some of the posts, and that ifas some have supposedthe work is not that of a very prescient fan, but Bowie or someone from his team, then my push towards a more optimistic reading of the lyrical and video content may be pushing ahead of the dame! But my argument for cyclicality, and perhaps reincarnation still works, I think.

One of the most provocative images is the one involving the closet. Is this the female ‘guide’, perhaps Nut, making her entrance? Its point of origin is a post dated Saturday 31 October 2015, by a talented artist and photographer Michalina Woźniak

A number of the images on Villa of Ormen Tumblr site come from Michalina, another is the work of artist Amber Vaks and/or photographer/artist Ben Hopper. Basically its a whole series of images pulled together from various sources, by a blogger who does not conceal her identity.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Turquoise Field

My contemplation on the album Blackstar by David Bowie unambiguously places the central character, the fallen space alien T. J. Newton in the Underworld of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (BOTD). I started off with a few questions…

  • The figures crucified in Blackstar are also blinded, or at least wear the blindfold and buttons. Is the rough beast that menaces them some kind of Antichrist, as in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming? I now doubt that this is its primary allegorical root.
  • Bowie/Newton communicates with the ‘cat goddess’ by blinking. Why is communication in the world Newton occupies non-verbal?

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day – The Complete Papyrus of Ani /Paperback – June 2, 2008, by Eva Von Dassow (Editor), Raymond Faulkner (Translator), Carol Andrews (Preface), Ogden Goelet (Introduction), James Wasserman (Foreword).

I just bought it on Amazon. As I wait for the hard copy to arrive by post, I have been reading in Google Books. Also there are a number of encyclopaedia/blog/Wiki entries for Duat, Orisiris and the Egyptian Underworld, too many to list here.

The BOTD only became one book in modern times. It is assembled from a fascinating, detailed, sometimes contradictory set of books, of different time periods. The description in these of the Place of the Dead is based on images, it is highly colourful and visual. The landscape there is described as turquoise, just like the final section of the Blackstar video; this then is the ‘Field of Reeds’, at the heart of the Underworld. Reading this leaves me in no doubt that Blackstar describes the journey of Newton after death. What a strange world he has entered. Many gods dwell there, and they control things, more or less. But a soul who enters there after death travels a perilous path. The underworld is a place of ‘caprice and randomness’. They need to avoid being brought to the place of punishment; ‘save me from the whipping posts, the place of punishment’.

Ogden Goelet remarks that Osiris is strongly connected with kingship, particularly the exercise of kingship in the realm of the dead. The afterlife was predominantly celestial, with an important subterranean complement represented by the Duat. This text in its original form in the third millennium BC was aimed specifically at the royalty of Egypt. In these ‘Pyramid Texts’, the solar/stellar aspect dominates.

‘Many of these texts are concerned with the methods of getting up to the heavens and becoming an akh-soul there. The king hoped that he would eventually join the heavenly retinue of the supreme deity, the sun-god Re. The preferred method was to fly up to the sky, but more down to earth methods like ramps, steps and ladders might also help. … the purpose of the pyramid texts was to aid the king in the many difficulties that he would face, notwithstanding his godlike status, in the afterlife. Whatever gods could possibly help him were called to his aid, even if it meant threatening them or using magic’.

There is at least one ladder in the Blackstar video.

The BOTD contains a Chapter for Raising up a Spirit, and Causing a Soul to Live in the God’s Domain. Certain formulae of words must be spoken; the dying spirit is meant to say:

O, Nut, I have cast my father to the earth with Horus behind me;  my wings have grown into those of a falcon, my plumes are those of a sacred falcon, my soul has brought me and its words have equipped me.

Nut answers the soul:

You have opened up your place among the stars of the sky, for you are the Lone Star of the sky … the Ennead raise you up with their hands… Be strong at the door of the Kas of the horizon-dwellers, for their doors shall be opened to you… You shall neitheer persish or be destroyed, but you shall act among men and gods.

There is a section (I initially thought for mourners or makers of funerary ritual; now the penny is dropping that this must be a task for the dead spirit) in the Chapter for Raising the Corpse, which advises the dead on sort of re-assembling themselves, ‘having power in the eyes and ears and for making the head firm when it has been set in its proper place.’ I love the names of some of the chapters, one of the best is; The Chapter for Leaving Yesterday and Coming into Today

My demise was granted yesterday; I have returned today, I have gone forth in my own shape: I am the heir of Osiris, I have received his Nemes Headdress in the Duat; look at me for I have appeared in glory after coming forth from your body. I have become his father and he applauds. Look at me, rejoice over me, for behold, I am on high…Open your paths, draw back your bolts. O Re who guides this land, you are the guide of souls, you are the leader of the gods.

It seems unnecessary to labour over the parallels with the visual and lyrical content of Lazarus in the foregoing texts.

The Coffin Texts

According to Goelet, The book of the dead can be broken into 4 sections.

  1. Chapters 1-16: The deceased enters the tomb and descends to the underworld. the corpse of the deceased must regain the physical capabilities it had on earth.
  2. Chapters 17-63: the deceased is made to live again so that he or she might arise as the reborn morning sun
  3. Chapters 64-129. The deceased travels across the sky in the sun-bark as one of the blessed dead. In the evening the deceased continues to travel through the sky in the underworld, eventually appearing before Osiris and the judges of the dead as one already judged worthy. (Being born every morning from the body of Nut; might explain ‘we were born upside down’. Also everything is reversed in the afterlife, (time and space are reversed, too) there is even a Chapter for Preventing a Man from Going Upside Down and Eating Excrement…
  4. Chapters 130-189: These chapters are about travelling in the sun-bark with Re and advice on protective amulets, food and important places.

The Coffin Texts, a later (c.2000 BC) condensation/revision of the pyramid texts, were written on the inside walls of wooden coffins of private individuals. At this point in history there is a change of emphasis, mostly because now (mostly middle class) non-royals can enter the Osirian afterlife. There is more emphasis on the Duat, which has become even more dangerous, and Osiris spends more of his time in the underworld. it is in the Coffin Texts that the idea of a judgement, based on your deeds in the living world, is most clearly enunciated.

The cosmology of Ancient Egypt put Earth at the centre of the universe, a flat oval shaped expanse bordered by the oceans. This was the Land of the Living, the place to which the deceased hoped to return in order that he might ‘go forth by day’.  Goelet says that each chapter of the BOTD armed the dead with verbal weapons, and these in turn would be signalled by the phrase‘words spoken.’ Everything must be re-assembled, so perhaps at the beginning point he cannot speak, as he has yet to get a mouth? Hopefully I will understand this more once I have read the book.

He needs to acquire the facility of speech fast, though. He has a lot of stuff to say and to remember. In a much later era than the Egyptian BOTD, The Petelia Tablet, from Orphic Greece (c. 300 BC) recommends a formula of words to the dead:

You will find a spring on your left in Hades’ halls,
and by it the cypress with its luminous sheen. Do not
go near this spring or drink its water. You will find
another, cold water flowing from Memory’s lake; its
guardians stand before it.
Say: “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven, But
descended from Heaven; you yourselves know this. I am
parched with thirst and dying: quickly, give me the
cool water flowing from Memory’s lake.” And they will
give you water from the sacred spring…

The idea of a gatekeeper is invoked in many ancient texts. There is a great book by Bruce Lincoln called Death, War and Sacrifice which touches on this. William Butler Yeats’ At the Hawks Well is an example of a modern era riff on this theme. In the Egyptian afterlife, using names or even threatening to do so, was often enough to gain power in the afterlife. Again quoting Goelet: “A particularly common sort of word-play occurs in addresses to the gods in the BOTD. The deceased can sometimes get by the most fearsome of gatekeepers simply saying ‘I know you, I know your name’. In Lazarus, of course, Bowie sings ‘everybody knows my name’”.

The Width of a Circle

Circles or spheres are hugely important motifs in the Irish passage tombs. The kerbs are often circular. Cursus or prescribed routes follow curving paths. As in the Petelia Tablet, there is a preference for right-handed progress over left, following the path of the sun. Processions played an important part in the Egyptian religion as a public demonstration of devotion to a deity, particularly at festivals.

There was often an additional magical aspect of such rituals, for any Egyptian processions would go around an area several times with the intent of rendering malevolent beings and forces harmless by encircling (pekher) them. The most important encircling of all occurred daily when the sun god Re traversed the firmament above the world, then continued through the night sky beneath the earth. This daily journey, particularly the nocturnal component, was the central theme of most of the royal underworld books. One of the prime objectives of several chapters of the BOTD was to assist the deceased in joining Re in the his bark as he established his power over the entire universe daily.

Images in the BOTD are more important than texts. The texts are not just words or formulations in the descriptive, narrative or scientific sense; they are actually draft scripts for performances.

I want to return to the Bowie video for Blackstar and the line about only women kneel and smile, which I don’t believe has been fully explained. The role of women in the Egyptian funerary ceremonies was different to that of men. They play instruments like the menat and sistrum ‘two instruments which make a rattling, rustling sound’ and were used to accompany the ritual singing and recitations done by the women. Perhaps Bowie means that only female goddess are guides and protectors?

My favourite excerpt from Goelet’s excellent introduction to the BOTD concerns the Ani papyrus manuscript. Ani was a Theban scribe who died around 1250 BC. The scribe was stolen from Egypt in 1888 by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, assistant Keeper of the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum, and cut up for ‘ease of handling’. The original papyrus was disfigured by the effects of sunlight and glue. Fortunately Budge also made a colour lithograph facsimile, which allowed later curators the possibility to reconstruct this precious work of art.

Osiris

An elongated and arched form of the sign pet “sky” stretches across the top of the entire vignette. The same blue-green sign is found in several other parts of the papyrus – for example, above the two lions in Chapter 17 (Plate 7) and underneath the solar barks throughout the papyrus. Directly beneath this is a personified sign for ‘life,’ the well-known unkh, whose two arms seem to be lifting the large red disk of the sun into the sky above. The ankh stands upon a djed-pillar.

The Osiris-Re motifs are combined into a motif, whose origin and meaning have not been satisfactorily explained, associated with the god Osiris. As a word the motif means ‘endurance,’ and therefore was extensively used as an allegorical figure, especially on amulets. In effect, the tripartite motif is a form of Osiris-Re, the syncretized deity who combines the chthonic and celestial aspects of the afterlife. Significantly, the text to the right of this vignette is a hymn to Osiris Wennefer, so that the scene is enclosed by praises to Osiris-Re’s components. Flanking the Osiris-Re motif are the goddesses Isis (left) and Nephthys (right), who are both shown in the posture of adoration and squatting upon the sign nub “gold”. Like most Egyptian goddesses, they are distinguishable only by the attributes (really their names in hieroglyphs) that they wear on their heads. The ‘gold’ signs are themselves resting upon a reed mat. Beneath the mat and flanking it is a form of the sign for ‘mountain’ (dju). Thus, while showing the temporary dissolution of the syncretized Osiris-Re into his component deities, the scene illustrates the beginning of the sun’s daily journey through the sky, when it emerges out of the desert horizon after its nighttime journey underneath the earth and through the Duat. The entire vignette is framed by the image of the rolling desert on which stand six baboons worshipping the sun. Other variants of the same vignette show the complete cycle in one scene, with the sun being received into the arms of a goddess representing the underworld.

Shai, Meskhenet and Renenuted are the three aspects of Fate in the BOTD. They watch over the weighting of the scales (in this case of Ani). Ani’s ba perches on a shrine, watching the event on which his future literally balances. Ani thus appears twice, once in human form, and once in spiritual form. Both are different aspects of the same deceased Ani. These characters have equivalents as the Fates of ancient Greece, the Norns of Scandanavia, and the triple goddesses of ancient Gaelic legend.

As for the Scary Monster with the dreadlock (or animal tail) headdress in Blackstar, Goelet informs us that ‘souls found wanting are fed to an almost humorously grotesque, composite beast waiting with a dog-like eagerness on a reed mat behind Thoth’. But the Scary Lad is brandishing a pike or scythe, or some class of yoke. It reminded me a bit of the weapon of choice by the occupants of the Moon in The First Men in the Moon, a 1960’s take on H.G. Wells. Some of the sets of this movie are very reminiscent of those of the Blackstar video, too. Even the idea of the guy abandoned on the alien planet is there. Wonder if that was another inspiration?

first-men-in-the-moon

The Red Hot Chilli Peppers play Warzawa

Head still in Bowie land/Underworld. On a lighter note, bit of a (pleasant) surprise to see TRHCP tackle this track from Low, and actually manage a fairly decent guitar version. Respect.

★, Bowie, Elvis & Black Star/Flaming Star

The Internet can’t resist a good conspiracy, and boy are people having a ball over Blackstar. Not sure about the Blade Runner suggestions, but I think this blog by Paula Young Lee deserves at least a second read. Interesting item here regarding the possible Elvis references in Bowie’s Blackstar. As you might have seen from my earlier post, I feel the ‘utter despair’ reading has to be reined in a little; Bowie was a master of ambiguity and nuance, and always left wriggle room as regards meaning.

On the other hand, the Bowie/Elvis affinity is undeniable, as people have observed for a long time. I remember that Elvis/Ziggy magazine cover. I kept it for ages! When you consider the referencesboth subtext and directto things kingly in the imagery of Lazarus and Blackstar; as both pop stars share a birthday, you have to give some credence to the Elvis layer of meaning.  In her book Stardust Angie Bowie writes that David could do a ‘devastating’ impersonation of Elvis; and there is a Christmas greeting from Bowie (which I am not sure is genuine) doing the rounds in a decent Elvis voice. There is some song in his catalogue too, I can’t remember which, where he does a passable Elvis for a few lines, I think it is on Young Americans. Is it too far to imagine that the white space suit in the Blackstar video, much repaired, has faint echoes of Elvis’ big elaborate white suit of his final era?

When I ride I feel that black star
That black star over my shoulder
So I ride in front of that black star
Never lookin’ around, never lookin’ around

Interesting that Bowie/Newton enters the closet at the end without looking around.

A FEW LATE NOTES REGARDING THE BOWIE FINAL MESSAGE POST:

By the way, the original inhabitant of the closet, the girl who ends up under the bed, has a special part in the earlier ritual. She is the one who carries the jewelled skull of the astronaut on her back. She seems to have a special role in transportation or guiding between worlds.  Is she Hathor/Nut, the celestial cow goddess who bears Ra in his solar barque across the heavens? This goddess is traditionally depicted as naked, with her body covered with stars; she is the Milky Way, who in Ancient Egypt lined up with the direction of sunrise and sunset at seasonal turning points. In the video she has been clothed in a flowery (or starry dress). I suspect a reference here to Bowie’s own mother, as well as to Newton’s protector in the afterlife.

The figures crucified are also blinded, or at least wear the blindfold and buttons. The creature that menaces them (carrying not a sickle, but horn, possibly a goat horn, and wearing a headdress not of dreadlocks, but tails) makes me think of W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming, as the rough beast ‘slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’.

Newton/Bowie communicates with the ‘cat goddess’ (if it is she), by blinking, too. Only last week I watched a TV programme called the Secret Life of Cats which explained that staring cats are showing you aggression, but that blinking cats are being friendly. (If you don’t know the film, Newton, the alien, when he takes his contact lenses out, has cat eyes).

Wink

I need to learn more about the Goddess Bast!

Bowie’s final message in ★

I have been making annotations while listening to ★ (Blackstar), David Bowie’s latest, and possibly last, album (who knows about other material, unfinished songs, etc?), in light of his too-early death, aged 69, on 10/01/2016. He was one of my most beloved writers and performers. I fished, as I did forty years ago, for meaning or at least context in his lyrics. Additional clues may inhabit the videos accompanying the current songs. Neither the Blackstar or the Lazarus videos make for particularly comfortable viewing. In Lazarus, Bowie sings from a generic-looking hospital bed, blindfolded and frail; in Blackstar, the shaking, trembling dancers, or writhing figures strapped to timber crosses, evoke living scarecrows. The crucified trio are threatened by a sinister entity sporting what looks like an out-of-control dreadlock hairdo and brandishing some form of a sickle.

In both the Blackstar and Lazarus videos (which can be read as a piece: indeed you might describe Blackstar as a loose concept album), Bowie’s character is seen blindfolded, with small black buttons for eyes. This connects to Newton, The Man Who Fell to Earth (the subject of Bowie’s new stage-play, Lazarus); a powerful metaphor in the original Walter Tevis (1963) novel was the inadvertent blinding of Newton in a physical examination conducted by government agencies. The play, which I have not seen yet, opens at the last act, the denouement of the book.

In the last pages of the book, Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien—played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film version—now blind and addicted, has finally accepted defeat in his mission. He had travelled to Earth looking for water to alleviate the drought threatening his planet, Anthea, and with the intention of saving the Earth from Anthean-type environmental catastrophe, by promoting wiser political decision making and more advanced alien technology. Bryce, his cynical ex-manager, now discovers the alien as a barfly, living on myths and stories and the last of the fortune he made from alien ‘inventions.’ Newton has recorded an album though; called The Visitor, labelled “poems from outer space . . . we guarantee you won’t know the language, but you’ll wish you did! Seven out-of-this-world poems by a man we call the ‘visitor’.” It sounds even more impenetrable than a Bowie album! But the fallen alien confesses to Bryce that the recording is not of Anthean poems at all. It’s a kind of letter home, to his wife and the wise people who trained him for his mission.

‘I’ve hoped it might be played on FM radio sometime. You know only FM goes between planets. But as far as I know, it hasn’t been played’.

‘What does it say?’

‘Oh, goodbye, go to hell. Things of that sort’.

For a moment (Bryce) wished he had brought Betty Jo with him. Betty Jo would be marvellous for restoring sanity, for making things understandable, even bearable. But then Betty Jo happened to believe that she was in love with T.J. Newton, and that might even be more awkward than this. He remained silent, not knowing what in the world to say.

‘Well Nathan – I suppose you won’t mind if I call you Nathan. Now that you’ve found me, what do you want of me?’ He smiled beneath the glasses and ridiculous hat. His smile seemed as old as the moon…’.

FM radio waves, short of some form of entanglement technology, take time, a lot of time, to reach extraterrestrial planets. But while you can spot many anachronistic plot holes, the book was amazingly prescient considering it was written in the 1960’s; despite books like Rachel Carsons Silent Spring (1962), ‘ecology’ was a term yet to enter the mainstream vocabulary.

It is interesting that, in common with The Visitor, there are seven songs on Blackstar.

‘He who has no Eyes’

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all … Your eyes

The reference to eyes here is more, it seems, than a memory of the eyes of a loved one. The buttons-for-eyes and the diamond-encrusted skull seen in both videos provide compelling oppositions. Buttons-diamonds might be a statement about value (The space traveller has accumulated material wealth, but has lost his crystal clear vision). Although he was the bearer of information and technology that could have benefited and maybe even saved the earth, Newton would never be understood, trusted or appreciated by Earthling authority. Newton (Bowie seems to suggest) is likely to be valued more in death than in life. Like all ‘saviours’, his power can then be turned to the will of followers or living interpreters. Even with his (un) earthly skeleton lost in space, Lazarus may rise again, but no one can predict the form he will assume (or the text of the ‘Blackstar Bible’ which crystallises his supposed doctrine). In the meantime, someone else will take his place, but again, no one will listen to the saviour/Blackstar until it is too late. This was my early reading, my original take on the song.

The dead astronaut in the Blackstar video wears a ‘flame’ logo on his visor, like a logo for a petroleum or gas company. A reference to the diminishing resources of the earth, the future exploitation of the moon and planets? Ormen is a town in Norway, and the word has various associations with the petroleum business. He also wears a smile sticker. I thought again of Newton, and his suggestions for the management of resources and warfare. (Bryce asked, ‘doesn’t mankind have a right to choose its own form of destruction?)

Passport and Shoes

‘On the day of execution … only women kneel and smile’.

I found this line troubling. I had no idea what it meant. It was a horrible, ominous line. Who is being executed? Women? Strongly redolent, I thought, of the ‘New Normal’, and recent horrors, such as in Paris. Perhaps it was a comment on organised religion, guilt as currency, the treatment of women in various human societies? But why was there a mysterious woman trailing a leopard-like tail from under her skirt? Why was she carrying the spaceman‘s jewel-encrusted skull? The tail reminded me of Future Shock by Alvin Toffler which Father Tonra brought to our school and advised us to read in the early seventies. One of the beneficial mutations recommended by Toffler for space flight was a prehensile tail to better facilitate life in weightless conditions.

Then it occurred to me that ‘the day of execution’ could be judgement day, in the Ancient Egyptian/Gnostic/Kabbalistic sense. Perhaps the women knelt and smiled because they knew that the ritual they performed was cyclical, to be performed again and again, that there was a bigger picture.

Gerald Massey in 1909 wrote Ancient Egypt, the Light of the World. His work influenced and impacted on Alastair Crowley and others such as Dion Fortune, who wrote The Mystical Qabalah (1935). Massey reinterpreted ancient Egyptian and Judaic writings. He showed Horus and his father, Osiris, as facets of a dualistic deity. ‘After his (sacrificial) death, a representative of the Osiris rises again triumphant as the maker of justice visible … As the divine avenger of the suffering Osiris (the human Horus), he arises in the person of the Red God, who is thus addressed: “O fearsome one, thou who art over the two earths, Red God who orderest the block of execution, to whom the double crown is given.” Is this transition, the replacement of the old king by the new, the ‘execution’ to which Bowie refers?

The button blindfold intimates that stranded, decrepit and blinded, the alien Newton becomes An-Maati. ‘On nights where there is no moon, we find Horus worshipped as ‘he who on his brow has no eyes’. Horus—who as a child was a Sun God—assumes this form as the winter God of the Blind.

“Now the annual cycle in the Kamite (African/Egyptian) mythos was divided into nine months and three. The elder Horus was born about the time of the winter solstice, answering to the birth of Christ at Christmas. This is a form of the victim who was slain or blinded by Sut, the prince of darkness. Three months afterwards the risen Horus was revealed upon the Mount of Glory as the vanquisher of Sut. And after his reincarnation it was nine months before the next rebirth at Christmas. Thus the circle was completed both in time and space according to the facts in nature upon which the myth was founded”.  (Massey, 534).

The Gnostic view of the saviour was as a kind of Deified Man, dormant in every human soul, which (mystics following Massey contended) lay at the heart of Egyptian Book of the Dead, ‘more properly called the Book of the Coming Forth by Day’. This is the territory being visited by Bowie in Blackstar.

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a Blackstar

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
I’m a Blackstar, I’m not a gangster’

I can’t answer why (I’m a Blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a Blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a Blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a Marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a Blackstar)

Newton is one kind of fallen angel. He is not the first. As he is dragged offstage, off the sacred ground, he protests and asserts his credentials (in backing vocals, unseen; the one who deposes him is played by Bowie wearing no blindfold and full of mockery); the themes of time, of repetition, are overt. Integrity and being believed is another lyrical subtext. At 6.30 and 7.05 in the Blackstar video, the idea of a character ‘eclipsed’ is hinted at. The blinded old sun conjures up the passing on of the mantle, the turning of the great cycles. The shot of a headless skeleton drifting through space, overlooked by an eclipsed sun, suggests the discarded corpse of a dead king, a sort of Space Age bog body.  Only the astronaut’s decorated skull is retained by his cult, stored perhaps in his empty space suit. Brought out for special rituals, it still possesses special powers.

The Lady Wearing a Tail

My initial musings looked at various religious and commercial ‘star’ logos for meaning for Blackstar. I came across Bowie fans who were Muslims asking online if he was mocking their religion (the Arabic scales, the star as in the star and crescent, the scenery, broken towns). Some parts of the lyric, I thought, sounded like a messiah of capitalism, innocent but guilty, preparing to be sacrificed. ‘Take your passport and shoes … your sedatives, boo’, sounds like someone passing through customs. Being processed. Being fuelled. Going on a journey. I still think those comparisons and references are valid. Bowie appears to channel Death itself in places. But more likely he is talking about resurrection, about continuity, natural cyclicality and other themes from his meditation on the Kaballah. And I think he has been reading Massey.

So it is not Death alone, but Horus, in the guise of judge, being voiced here. And the lady with the tail? Reading Massey again provided a suggestion as to whence Bowie derived this symbolism. Egyptian kings were men with tails. King Djoser is sculpted wearing a thick animal tail. Often the tail of the king was a cow’s tail. There is a hippo goddess, Taweret, who is equipped with a tail, too.

Bast is the Cat goddess, the lady of the East, who protected Ra, the sun god, from his enemies. She is a goddess, too, of music (she plays the sistrum) and of sensuality. She kills the evil snake. Bast was a goddess of childbirth, and she could be invoked to prevent illness. And her sacred eye could magically see in the dark.

‘The tail or hind part is naturally a Mother-Totem’, Massey wrote. ‘The tail of the lioness is the Mother-Totem of Shu’. The lioness and cow tails worn by the Egyptian kings, were, according to him, two forms of Zootypes of the mythical mother, Neith the Milch-Cow, and Tefnut the Lioness.

Various tribes in the upper Nile are the wearers of artificial tails made of hair straw or fibre of hemp in place of the earlier skin. In Egyptian symbolism the jackal represents the judge; and the tail of horse hair still survives with us as the queue of the judge’s wig. The fox in Europe took the place of the jackal as the zootype of the lawyer, and this preserves the character of Anup the jackal, as the sign of council and of cunning or wiseness on the part of those who “wear fur” or the later silk’.

From Kether to Malkuth

The song Blackstar was, I believe, originally commissioned by director John Renck as theme music for The Last Panthers, a TV crime show about a jewel heist. Renck also directed Bowie’s official video for the song. The song Lazarus was conceived as the ‘title track’ of the stageplay of the same name, now running off Broadway. The play was authored by Bowie in collaboration with Irish author Enda Walsh; Rolling Stone remarked that at its core, Lazarus is a two-hour meditation on grief and lost hope.

Although the songs have roots in diverse theatrical productions, they are thematically intertwined, as the videos suggest. Around the time of filming The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie worked with Paul Buckmaster on an original soundtrack. For reasons of his own, Roeg eventually chose to use different music, and some of Bowie’s unused material seeped into one of his all-time great albums, Low. In between the filming of TMWFTE and Low in 1975, Bowie recorded the album Station to Station. The title track begins the album with the sound of a train; it is reported that one of the songs he offered Roeg for TMWFTE was called Wheels, a song that was never released. Paul Buckmaster described Wheels as having ‘a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it’. He added that ‘the title referred to the alien train from his character Newton’s home world’. We can never be sure if Wheels was reborn as Station to Station or is some distant relative, but the album cover shows Bowie’s Newton getting into his spaceship. The lyric of Station to Station ‘From Kether to Malkuth’ relates to ‘stops’ in the Kabbalah, on the mystical tree of life. On the inner folds of the album, Bowie, wearing a dark coloured jumpsuit with white diagonal stripes, sits on the floor, doing a drawing of the Kabbalah.

That jumpsuit (or a replica of it) would make another appearance forty one years later, in the official video for Lazarus, released only hours before Bowie’s death. Bowie appears in two guises, a blindfolded version who writhes (and levitates) in a hospital bed, and a second who stands and sits; in one scene the out-of-bed Bowie writes furiously at his desk, he seems thrilled when he has a new idea. This character is surely Newton. He wears the same dark jumpsuit with white bars as in Steve Schapiro’s Station to Station publicity photo from 1975.

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl

Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

This is a possible context for the ‘high’ and ‘low’ ideas in the song, i.e. from the top to the bottom Sephiroths; from Kether to Malkuth. On a more mundane level, dropping a cellphone for a bed-ridden sightless patient, until they get assistance, could be equivalent to losing touch with home. Blind Newton sings…

Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen, everybody knows me now

It is possible to see these lines, as many have done, as a description of Bowie’s pride and defiance in the face of his ‘scars that can’t be seen’. But it could also be a song of a dying winter Sun. And of course they summarise Newton’s condition; x-rays have burnt him in invisible ways (He can see x-rays and is blinded by them. Darkly ironic, considering Bowie’s ailment; cancer is sometimes treated by radiation therapy). His secret alien identity has been revealed publicly. As the chords change, the apparently younger, sighted version confesses how he became derailed and distracted in his mission, living in New York ‘like a king’, and using up all his money. As the song comes to a close, sighted Bowie/Newton enters an ominously coffin-like closet. It feels like he is saying goodbye, and it makes almost unbearably bleak viewing. ‘Behind that door’ is a metaphor of death in Jaques Brel’s My Death, a song Bowie performed many times. But it is possible to find notes of some kind of hope, too.

The Lazarus of the New Testament is resurrected; so, in different form, is Horus, like all the sacrificial priest-kings of the ancient world; the traveller in Judaic mysticism travels through different stages of spiritual development (often called ‘doorways’) along the tree of life. Bowie is playing Newton here, maybe two Newtons; the dying sun and the reborn version. Although the project is abandoned, and his rescue craft to his home planet will never fly, is he in some sense, re-entering his spacecraft, when (wearing the suit from Station to Station) he passes through the door?

What becomes of fallen angels, fallen heroes, usurped kings? Who protects them on their journey? I wondered if the female character who emerges from the closet at the start of the video and is seen under the bed in the Lazarus video might be sporting an (unseen) elegant tail? Is she the protector Bast, the Lady of the East? She makes gestures which I cannot decipher, so she may represent someone else. Does she have a hand in Bowie’s bed-levitation trick? Is she Betty Jo, Newton’s lover, who at one point carries the stricken alien in her arms. Or a mixture of both?

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‘When the Wind is still, I’ll come flying through your door’ – P. McCartney

Bluebird is another key idea in the song Lazarus.

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?

The Bluebird may refer to L’oiseau bleu, a children’s play by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlynck written in 1908. The bird, a symbol of happiness, is pursued by two young siblings who want to cage it. The play rails against the hoarding of happiness, advocating that we share it with the world. Its anti-materialistic and antireligious overtones made it popular in the Soviet Union, where it was produced as an animated film. It has continued to generate TV series, stage and film adaptations up to the present time, worldwide, but particularly in Japan. It was referenced by artists in the 60’s and 70’s, notably the Beatles (In the film Yellow Submarine and McCartney’s song Bluebird) and by Charles Bukowski who wrote a poem called L’oiseau bleu in 1992.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him;
I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke
And the whores and bartenders and grocery clerks
never know he’s in there.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay down, do you want to mess me up?
You want to screw up the works?
You want to blow my book sales in Europe?
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too clever, I only let him out
At night sometimes, when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there, so don’t be sad.
Then I put him back, but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him die
And we sleep together like that, with our secret pact
and it’s nice enough to make a man weep
But I don’t weep, do you?

This is the consolation contained in David Bowie’s final message. Newton, corrupted and cruelly imprisoned, has been set free; perhaps Bowie speaks through him as an artist who has worked the constraints of the music industry, through—in his terms—varying degrees of compromise, while all the while harbouring a bluebird. Whether this is true or not, Blackstar is a collection of songs expressed with freedom, joy and without compromise. It blithely ignores any ‘rules’ regarding content, song length and structure. It bypasses the conventions of marketing and what makes for commercial success in the MTV/music biz world.

If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me; it’s nothing to see …
I’m dying to push their backs against the grain
And fool them all, again and again.
I’m trying, too
Don’t believe for just one second, I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to, I’m dying too…

(Dollar Days, from Blackstar, David Bowie 2016)

Yes, Bowie was describing directly the experience of his illness and mortality, while developing and extending the story of Newton. But it is worth remembering too that Blackstar is not just about Bowies demise, its about more than a final goodbye. After all, the theme of death (among many others) has been a central one in his work from the early days. Just like him, there are always a number of levels, much to win from re-reading and re-listening.

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