Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Star Wars Symbol Cycle: Empire, or the Hanged Man

Note prominent Solar Cross looming over the action

On the surface of it, The Empire Strikes Back is a old-time pulp adventure story and as such is the favorite of many Star Wars fans. The interesting thing about the film is how the story itself-- a middle piece with no dramatic resolution or climax-- is overshadowed by a stirring spiritual homily delivered by a badly-animated puppet (of all things). It's an all-too brief moment in time, but one that gives the original trilogy its center of gravity and may well have spawned a new religious movement.

In Empire, the rebels have regrouped on the ice planet Hoth. Here we see the symbolic death of Luke Skywalker in the ice cave, when he is pictured as the Hanging Man, identified with dying-rising godmen like Attis and Adonis (we also see a replay of the Hanging Man in I Am Legend).

Han, Luke's symbolic father, finds the dying Luke and facilitates his rebirth by placing him inside the womb of the dead Tauntaun. Unsubtle, to say the least.

Note the sequence here- Luke's spiritual father appears before Luke, who looks quite dead. As Obi-Wan's image fades Luke's symbolic father rides in and re-inseminates the Tauntaun by placing Luke back into the womb. Luke is commanded by Obi-Wan to travel to the planet Dagobah, where he will continue his Jedi training under the tutelage of the Jedi master Yoda. This is Luke's trip to the underworld of the Unconscious, his spiritual womb of rebirth.

Yoda ultimately trains Luke in the arts of telekinesis, one of the most important paranormal arts in spi-fi dramas. The swampy environs of Dagobah are filled with hidden monsters and The symbolism here is lmost orthodox in its traditionalism.

Lucas presents us with a great archetypal drama -- the young errant knight who seeks enlightenment and travels to the corners of world to seek out a great teacher. Given Lucas's yen for Marvel Comics it's also highly reminiscent of Doctor Strange's voyage to Tibet to seek out the Ancient One. And of course it's talk of a universal Force and the use of it to perform acts of magic is taken from Carlos Castaneda's wildly-successful Don Juan novels.

Yoda's speech strongly recalls Castaneda, as well as any number of warrior monks and sensei in martial arts films. Nevertheless, it struck a very deep chord in a generation of children, accompanied as it was by high-tech visuals and universe-hopping adventure. These simple words may well have inspired the new religion of the Jedi, seeing as how it's paraphrased on Jedi Church websites.
Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.

Then there's this sequence, which I only recently realized is Luke's bad trip. The monitor lizard is an important clue. Lizards are associated with shamanism in Castaneda's books and most prominently in Jessup's life-changing mushroom ritual in Paddy Chayefsky's novel Altered States. Note that a similar revelatory cave experience involving a lizard is part of the film adaptation of States, which was released 6 months after Empire Strikes Back.

Another fine example of psilo-fi

Note the progression here- Hoth is a dead, cold world in which the still-young, still-naive hero is hanged and symbolically dies. Does this represent dying in the intellect (Thoth, thought) and subsequently the ego? In any case, Luke then undergoes his descent into the unconscious in the hot, wet swamp-lands (replicating the womb environment) and then will be reborn towards the end of the film into the world of the gods (ie., the clouds). For what it's worth we are seeing the three stages of water: solid, liquid and gas.

Clockwise from left: Anubis, Thoth, Isis, Osiris

Meanwhile, Han Solo and Leia travel to Cloud City on the gas giant Bespin to meet with Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams). Han needs Calrissian’s help to repair the Millennium Falcon, which was damaged in a battle. But Calrissian betrays Leia to Darth Vader and Solo to a bounty hunter named Boba Fett.

Set/Sutekh from Doctor Who and Boba Sett

Solo is frozen into suspended animation in a tomb of carbonite, an act which recalls the murder of Osiris in the sarcophagus presented to him by Set. The fact that the betrayal takes place in what looks like a dining room, and that “Fett” rhymes with “Set” merely drives the Osirian analogy home.

Note trident/triune form of Vader's shuttle

Luke (in his role as Horus the Avenger) arrives in Cloud City and does battle with Darth Vader, who severs Luke’s right hand (echoing the loss of Horus’ right eye in battle with Set). It is here also that Vader reveals to Luke he is his father. Luke then escapes from Vader and the film ends somewhat ambiguously. Luke was essentially defeated in battle and had to flee. Han Solo has been taken away, presumably to his death. The only good news is that Lando switched his allegiance back to the Rebels and helped Luke and Leia escape Vader.


We also finally meet the Emperor Palpatine (played by Ian MacDiarmid). He is concerned by the emergence of Luke Skywalker as a presence in the Force and as a danger to the Sith ("Seth"). Darth Vader tells the Emperor of his plan to convert Luke to the Dark Side, just as Palpatine did with Vader.

Note that Palpatine wears a monk's habit.

Palpatine’s name is extremely revealing. It's like a corruption of ‘Palatine,’ one of the ‘Seven Hills’ of Rome referred to in the Book of Revelation. ‘Palatine’ itself comes from the root word palatin, which is Latin for ‘of the imperial house.’ The Palatine Hill is where the Roman Emperors held their palace (which is where that word springs from).

In the Star Wars prequels, Palpatine is ostensibly a Julius Caesar, the first Roman Emperor and destroyer of the Republic. But Palpatine also seems like a crypto-etymological contraction of Philip V, the nemesis of the Knights Templar; and Constantine, who used a one world religion to shore up a global empire.

More death/resurrection symbolism: Echoing Jonah in the belly of the whale, bringing us back to Oannes, connecting again back to Osiris. None of this bodes well for Han, who's about to enter into his own dying/rising drama.

More foreshadowing: there's an inexplicable sequence in which C3p0 is abducted and dismembered. Or inexplicable until we get to this sequence, in which we see C3p0's gathered body parts just prior to Han's invitation to dinner. Here we enter a kind of dream logic realm in which one figure acts as a substitute/prophecy for another's sacrifice.

It goes without saying that Osiris was killed during a dinner party. And again, Han's encasement in the carbonite is an almost shocking parallel to the encasement of Osiris in the custom made coffin. Note the appearance of Boba Sett, just to put the icing on the cake.


One man betrayed with a kiss. Lando acts as Han's Judas. As mentioned before, things get a bit garbled in the Star Wars Universe. The slash writers appreciated it either way.

The narrative connections are only helped by Chewbacca lugging around C3p0's body parts, just as Anubis assembled those of Osiris.

Father and son battle atop the Black Sun. The Star Trek film First Contact used the same motif, in a similar struggle with the Borg.

Note the cleverly-hidden Templar cross. Longtime Secret Sun readers realize that the Templar cross is merely a borrowing of the cross of Shamash, the Assyrian ("Sirius") sun god. Given the Templars' obsessive archaeological work, it's quite possible they knew that.

And then we see Luke flung through the window, ultimately leading to his symbolic rebirth as the newly born "Son of the Suns."

After the battle with Vader, Luke undergoes his symbolic rebirth. Here he descends down a model of the birth canal.

And right on schedule we see him again in the Hanging Man pose -- on a cross, no less. Make note of the ominous sunset lurks in the clouds. Did I mention that the Hanging Man is identified with dying-rising gods from antiquity?

Why is Lando wearing Han's clothes? Because he represents Han's first resurrection. Like Osiris, Han will resurrect again in Return of the Jedi.

Just as we saw Han juxtaposed with C3p0 to signal that the Droid's dismemberment is a foreshadowing of Han's Osiris death role, so too is Lando juxtaposed with C3Po in the next shot. Is this intentional? Possibly, but a better question is always "was this a conscious decision?" Note again Chewbacca trying to reassemble C3p0, exactly as Anubis did with Osiris.


Remember that the only piece missing was the phallus. Then look again at Boba Sett's ship as Han (in his carbonite coffin) is loaded aboard.

Leia is piloting the Falcon? How did she learn to do that? I don't know, but it reminds us that Isis took the form of a hawk to impregnate herself with Horus. Makes sense in light of the next image here...

...in which we see the sunrise -- identified with the birth of Harpocrates -- linked to the Falcon as it speeds off with the symbolically-reborn Skywalker. This will lead us straight into the next film for reasons that soon be made clear. Fasten your seatbelts.



  1. Thank you Chris, some more brilliant work, but the thing that has blown me away was pointing out the Templar Cross Window from the bowels of the Cloud City segment, I can't recall how many times I've seen the film, and that has never registered with me before.

  2. C-Knowles wrote:
    "But Calrissian betrays Leia to Darth Vader and Solo to a bounty hunter named Boba Fett."

    Boba Fett sounds curiously like Baba Fats, the mythical shaman in a funny poem.

    The Perfect High
    by Shel Silverstein

    Synopsis: A guru on a mountain named Baba Fats tells a stoner kid about the perfect high.

    "Well, that is that," says Baba Fats, sitting back down on his stone, Facing another thousand years of talking to God, alone. "Yes, Lord, it's always the same...old men or bright-eyed youth... It's always easier to sell 'em some shit than it is to tell them the truth."


    The poem has oodles of heavy-handed mythic images. Well worth reading.

  3. Yes brilliant. I look forward to the next part because rotj is a film which seemed to have a little less going on upstairs.

    -Jon Spring

  4. "Note the progression here- Hoth is a dead, cold world in which the still-young, still-naive hero is hanged and symbolically dies. Does this represent dying in the intellect (Thoth, thought) and subsequently the ego?"

    Excellent observations--but there is a very important scene at the start of Empire where Luke enters the body of the Tauntaun for warmth. This refers to the Incarnation of Spirit in the body of an animal--Christ born in the manger. In the first film, Luke is similarly "born" in a desert; both refer to the Wasteland of the Grail mythos.

    As I mentioned, Yoda is the Hermit card, Hebrew letter Yod. There is perhaps a phallic undermeaning here (the "little green man"), as elsewhere. The Charioteer's (who seems to resemble Boba Fett) phallus is likewise "encased in carbonite"--i.e., a stone block. The Devil, Jabba the Hutt, is sitting on a block of "carbonite" and holds the Fire captive.

    Luke loses his hand at the same time that he loses "Han(d)" Solo. Luke's replacement hand is mechanical, and thus, like the "carbon-ite," represents the imprisonment of Spirit by Matter. More could be said on the alchemical implications of all this.

  5. Chris,
    I haven't read this post yet,but I will,soon.
    I just wanted to thank you for the heads up on the "Public Image Ltd." CD "Flowers of Romance"
    After reading your post from a couple of years ago
    (I've been slowly catching up from starting right back at the beginning of your blog,as well as keeping up with the current posts) ,I decided to go to Amazon and listen to sample tracks.I thought it sounded worth a shot,so I purchased a copy from them.
    Love it.I played it about seven times in a row,when I first got it.
    It wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea...but I like the shamanic drumming and the lead singer's weird,but mystical voice.

    Cheers / Daz

  6. A stellar peice of work, Chris. The connections you've made are brilliant, satisfying and make a lot of sense. I've never read such an esoterically deep analysis of the Star Wars movies before.

    You've got eyes like a hawk ;-)

  7. Matt- Why would it, right? It's just a pretty design that flits by. Looking at it on a computer with freeze frame changes everything.

    C!- Everything else in SW is borrowed, so why not that?

    JS- Quite intentionally, perhaps.

    Eleleth- Ah! Thanks for reminding me of the Tauntaun- I see it a bit differently, in that it's Luke's conception, not his birth. Jabba is also the king of Tyre, who kept Osiris' coffin as a centerpiece in his palace.

    Briz- Oh yes, quite an experience that album is. (Yodaspeak)

    Raj- And we're just getting started!

  8. Connections between Amadeus and Empire? I don't doubt it. In Mozart's Don Giovanni, another infamous dinner scene with a menacing father figure. Later on in the film, Mozart attends a parody performance of the same opera, with a "Mini Me" Commandantore. Intriguing to see who played him.

    And who played Mozart himself in a stage production of Amadeus, before the film version.

    Just found this weird bit as well, purely by accident...

    And this...

    Find the mushroom.


  9. Hey again Chris,

    I just wanted to represent a few thoughts I’ve cribbed from my ‘Into the Underworld’ essay on fairytales, just because I think it might be useful in this different context. Feel free to delete this if you find it overly off-topic, but I hope you find it engaging. I’ve re-edited the old prose for easier comprehension within the context of your own essay:

    There is wisdom to be found in fairytales and fantastical fiction, wisdom that is concerned with self-responsibility and the acknowledgement of our shadows. Rather than a dry intellectual treatise of underworld motifs, such fiction is all the more powerful (or actively ‘magical’) when it is constellated into a unique hall of mirrors or Chinese boxes arrangement. Thus the fiction takes on the quality of an initiation rite, or a descent into an underworld of images where egoist consciousness is not always in control.

    It is a willing oblation, akin to the tarot card called ‘The Hanged Man’; a willingness to experience a measure of melancholy and uncleanliness as a toll for entering the netherworld and gaining valuable insight. We could draw parallels with the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman who must be paid with silver for safe passage across the River Styx. Simple ‘fantastical’ or ‘rational’ idiom is not enough to successfully traverse this realm of the dead. In fact, those initiated into the place below the world must attempt to unite or transgress binary systems, to perceive the artificiality and co-dependence of opposites.

    Perhaps it makes selfhood a unique and vibrant thing if we can achieve some kind of synthesis or androgyny at the level of storytelling, if we can face our shadows, for it is this level of perception from which our mythologies and social interrelationships must arise.

    In an underworld scenario the uncertain persona, or mask of ego, must eventually comprehend why certain things are simultaneously seductive and controlling to the psyche. The persona can then return to the over-world with a liberating insight. The author James Hillman encapsulates this kind of decentred, non-oppositional perception, and sees it as a way towards healing or re-imagining the self. He argues insightfully:

    "If we do speak in terms of opposites, then there is only one absolute material opponent to any position in life, and that is its death. If we deliteralize that statement, we are saying that ‘death’ is the way through the opposites, that is, it is the self-regulation of any position by psyche, by non-literal, metaphorical perception. In this sense, conjunction and the identity of opposites mean the simultaneous perception by the perspectives of life and death, the natural and the psychic. […] We see the hidden connection between what had hitherto been oppositions."

  10. CONTINUED...

    This newly remade self is, in this context, a consciousness that has traversed the underworld successfully. It understands the ways it colludes with or subverts the roles and relationships thrust upon it by phallocentric or religious mystification (or any of the myriad repressions of an Empire), and it crucially acknowledges such an ideology as a constellation of illusions.

    It is a crucial step in the experience of the initiate. We might argue that through the vehicle of such powerful fictions, the initiate is offered their own dying-resurrection experience.

    But once an initiate has traversed the underworld and has found insight, what then becomes of them when they return to the over-world?

    We might figure this idea in another way; as the limits and dissatisfactions of an underworld transgression, or of an indeterminate ‘postmodern’ sensibility.

    Perhaps we might briefly discuss Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque, and its limits in figuring the underworld. Once the world has been turned topsy-turvy by transgression into the carnivalesque, we might return to find that the controlling paradigm remains much the same as when we left it. How do we then apply the insights gained during our time in such a realm?

    In connection to this we might also argue that the Feast of Fools was an authorised Dionysian revelry, a way of relieving social tensions, and is perhaps more closely aligned to the controlling paradigm than it might appear at first glance.

    Is the concept of the underworld as figured by authors like James Hillman simply a version of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque? Is it an authoritarian sleight-of-hand that ultimately denies the individual subject? Can it be explained away as an Empire’s sanctioning of occasional transgressions to defuse political discontent and to edify its power-base?

    While such arguments have a strong political resonance, I would suggest that Hillman’s concept of non-oppositional perception is something far greater.

    Therefore, in defence of the underworld perspective as an internal strategy to evade repression and denial of our darker aspects, we might consider that many scholars, including James Hillman and Julia Kristeva, believe the intellectual transgression of all absolutes is a profound and necessary tool in negotiating more inclusive concepts of sexuality, identity and ultimately the ontological nature of ‘reality’ itself.

    I suspect it is a far more dangerous and transformative perception than Bahktin’s concept of the carnivelesque, or Bruno Bettelheim’s view of fairytales as deep unchanging archetypes that are purely positive and safe.

    This concept of the underworld implied by scholars like Hillman and Kristeva is always interrelated with our perceptions, both past and present, and like fairytales themselves it contains both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ polarities (much like The Force).

    It is the active non-oppositional perspective from which we might perceive, rather than a simply unchanging aspect of a text or ourselves, or the universe – and it does not play safe.


  11. I have had similar insights about
    SW/ESB, but you clarify my foggy

    I like your blog because you say
    stuff that is only half formed
    in my mind.

    Once again the collective unconscious is at work, which
    means that some kind of ground
    for all existing forms is
    accessible to all of us.

    We should not be surprised that
    Lucas came up with the stuff he
    did or the Star Wars saga is so

    Even really awful sci-fi and
    fantasy films, and perhaps any
    kind of dramatic film, comes
    from this mysterious collective
    ,"akashic", record.

    Everything is influenced by
    the, " collective unconscious",
    so one should not think Lucas
    is a special genius. I think
    a lot of information streams
    came together for him.

    "right place right time".

    David Lynch's version of Dune
    could have been just as important
    but his personal character was
    a negative for the project and
    though I like his version he
    was not, " in the right place
    at the right time".

    Or in a synchronous node.

    Lucas is more of a ," regular
    guy". compared to Lynch, so
    he was able to translate an
    old old mythological story into
    a modern icon for contemplation
    by the average person.

    I look forward to your next


  12. Chris, we need to come up with a new word to define the incredible work you're doing with the SW saga!

    How about Geekspiritualism?

    Here's another one: Fanboisticism ;)

    To me, the Chewbaca/Anubis connection works pretty well, but here's another way to interpret 3PO re-assembly:

    In the first film we learn that wookies are so strong and savage when they get in "feral" mode, that they often rip a person's arms out of their sockets. In the second film we see exactly the opposite: Chewie assembling 3PO after he has suffered a terrible trauma.

    Most likely it was a nice twist intended to serve as a comic relief to the drama unfolding in the rest of the movie. Although someone like me see a bit of a correlation with the shamanic initiatory path, where the would-be shaman must go alone into the wilderness —just like 3PO does when he gets lost and finds Vader's hidden troopers— to face his animal spirit, who will devour him and afterward put him back together reborn in a new life. Thus the animal spirit becomes his "ally", using Castañeda's lore.

    Now, re. the fact that George Lucas is distancing himself from all the hoopla caused by the rumors of his alleged apocalyptic beliefs. I still find it ironic how this media storm was started by one Seth Rogen --since Seth was the Egyptian god of storms and chaos ;)

    Besides, let's keep in mind that we're dealing with a man FAMOUS for his backtracking and revisionism of his previous ideas:


    I rest my case :P

  13. Jason- My basic attitude with Star Wars is "all of the above." Having read that Lucas bio and seeing how he consciously ransacked everything for ideas he could get his hands on I think anything you might see was put there on purpose.

    Raj- Oh yes- very appropos on many counts. Good stuff.

    Pete- The problem with Dune is that it was taken out of Lynch's hands and sliced and diced. Some fans took all of the deleted footage and the various cuts and did a three-plus hour edit of it. I gotta check that out.

    RedPill- Ha! For me, it's business as usual! There's an interesting theme that you bring up and that's the marriage of the archaic and the technological. Of course we're assuming consciousness on C3P0s part, which is interesting in and of itself. Note that Lucas originally wanted Jedi to take place on the Wookie planet, until I guess the accountants pointed out how the Care Bears were at the time. And yes- "garbled" is the best way to describe Lucas' thinking on a host of issues. But that's OK, he's entitled.

  14. I was working inNYC doing toy advertising when ROFTJ came out. The insipid Wookie planet kind of made me sick, as far as I could tell - they went to a planet of licensable teddy-bear toys.

  15. Yeah, well. Endor and the Ewoks were supposed to represent how a backwater tribal civilization could topple an entire galactic empire. Lucas was giving a little homage to Tolkien's hobbits —in a lame & furry kind of way ;)

    Although I always liked the part when they start worshiping 3PO as a god —Lucas was preparing me for Von Däniken, I guess ;)

  16. Red Pill Junkie: I see Star Wars as fundamentally alchemical rather than shamanic. Han Solo (alchemy is a work of the hands) and Chewbacca both pilot the Millennium Falcon (Aeon of Horus). Chewie has obvious reference to the primal, animal impulse (alchemical Sulphur), as seen on the Strength card. Mercury, in alchemy and the Tarot, has a technical meaning relating to Spirit, or sublimated Sulphur. Thus perhaps why Chewbacca, the lowly animal, carries the Mercury--Luke in the Tauntaun, again.

    And clearly, Lucas was giving another hint with the scene on Endor (Moon Tarot card)--as C-3PO is Mercury, he is indeed a "god"! In the end(or), it is the forces of Nature that triumph over the Empire.

  17. @ Eleleth ר ק D,

    That's another very interesting approach. I think that in the end one has to conclude that something as seminal as the Star Wars mythos resonates within a great number of people, because it touches on several different esoteric traditions, which in the end might be all related in ways we are yet to grasp.

    Because for me, that's the core of the matter, if you pardon the pun: Where is the real origin of the ancient mysteries and the occult traditions? Where do our archetypes come from?

    Because right now I'm playing with the wacky idea that these archetypes have a form of "sentience" of their own, and are always mutating and influencing the work of artists, as a way to be preserved inside the minds of human beings —a form of PSImbiosis, if you will ;)

  18. Palpatine also has connotations of Papal as well which fits the same interpretation.

  19. A bit of trivia: in the original theatrical screening of ESB, the Emperor was NOT played by Ian McDiarmid. The Emperor was created by using the face of an elderly woman, with the eyes of a chimpanzee superimposed. The voice was that of another actor altogether. This has its parallel in the Vader character: embodied by weightlifter David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones, and finally his "real" face portrayed by Sebastian Shaw. There has to be some underlying symbolism to this 3-in-1 representation of single beings. Some kind of infernal Trinity?

  20. I expect to see a mash-up of
    the Lynch version of Dune with
    the Sci/fi network version,

  21. You're blowing my mind with these Star Wars posts, Chris! Some of this stuff is so obvious and open that I can't imagine that I nevet noticed them. Of course, in my defense, I was around 15 when the first movie came out. and beyond age 20 I doubt I saw any of them again.

    Why did Lucas tell the whole story in a non-linear way? I've always wondered.

    For some totally extraneous information, which you likely know, that trip to Tibet or a similar Far Eastern place to learn mystic powers also applies to Dr. Doom and Dr. Druid. I know Dr. Druid is hardly worth mentioning, but Doom is as important to the Marvel Universe as Strange is.

  22. Red Pill dude, I concur,most if not all important/existential concepts are Psimbiosis/ an intregal element of Gnosis. We all have psi espically here at the sun of an occulted nature. (btw Red Pill dude your contribution to the TDG is infectious)Dennis from under the rock.

  23. @Dennis,

    Amigo, tonight you have made my horrible 1-1/2 hour commute back home a whole lot easier! Muchas gracias :)

  24. You might have included a "spoiler alert" for us neophytes.

  25. @ ericswan,


    It's like going to the movies to see The Passion, and get angry because somebody tells you Christ dies in the end! ;)

  26. 'And then we see Luke flung through the window'

    The window is the same design as the gate(?) in Stargate infinity.