By: Jay Dyer
Roman Polanksi’s 1999 The Ninth Gate is not his best film, but it does contain a high level of esoteric symbology and twilight references pertinent to researchers. Based on the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the film follows an antiquarian book dealer named Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) who is hired by a wealthy collector to track down the authentic copy of The Nine Gates which legend holds the Devil himself penned. An obscure 17th century Spanish mystic, Aristide Torchia, authored the 1666 copy of Lucifer’s original, which properly decoded grants adventurers the ability to ritually summon Satan. I’ve viewed it several times and the devil didn’t appear, but as I wandered about online I decided my notes contained the great esoteric secret! (I am joking.) What other analyses often missed is the film’s similarity to Eyes Wide Shut, both of which give clues and revelations concerning the nefarious practices of many of our real world “elite.” Littered with masonic and alchemical imagery, The Ninth Gate is a film about occult initiation as much as (I argued) Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is.
It is worth mentioning that Polanski’s fleeing the United States due to his decades-old rape accusation was also surrounded by accusations of the practice of witchcraft in the same Hollywood circles connected to the Manson killings. I am of the opinion these rituals and killings were actually the work of a higher network of dark forces, and not primarily that of the actors and directors commonly named. Author Peter Levenda provides evidence of this contention in his volume of Sinister Forces on The Nine, which invites legitimate speculation surrounding synchromistic associations of “9,” as nine is also the Ennead, as well as the 9 major gods of Egypt. It is also important to consider the date Polanski released the film, 1999, as “999” is an upside down “666,” and Eyes Wide Shut was released the same year. Such triplicities also factor into witchcraft and Satanism, as witchcraft holds to a “law of threefold return,” where good or evil intentions are returned threefold in a kind of karmic way, and in Satanism, where tripling things is seen as a way of inverting the Trinity. Nine is therefore a tripled triple, and holds heavy significance for esotericism.
With the principle of the Ennead in mind, as derived from the nine gods worshipped in the Heliopolis of ancient Egypt, we can extrapolate the process of Corso’s awakening, as he opens the “gates” as the film progresses (though the Egyptian pedigree of the Ennead is up for debate). The gates are not literal gates, of course, but symbolic synchronistic events that occur, leading Corso down a specific path. Like an actor in play, Corso is led, step by step, through each of the pictured engravings in the book, and it is to these images we will now turn. Croso’s rapacious aptitude for scamming clients out of valuable, rare works catches the attention of the wealthy collector, Boris Balkan. Balkan takes an interest in Corso’s reputation, as he scams an unwitting couple out of a priceless copy of Don Quixote, which ironically presages his own coming adventure. In Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote is driven mad by reading endless works of chivalry, erecting in his mind a fantastical world where he is a knight sent forth on a deluded crusade. The film’s usage of the novel serves as a warning to those who embark on a perilous quest for power through occult means, leading ultimately to the demise of all involved (but one in this case).
Balkan recruits Corso to hunt down the other two copies of the Nine Gates after his presentation on witchcraft, wherein he offers to show him his private collection of ancient books on the Devil and the occult. As the reluctant Corso accepts Balkan’s invite, we notice the elevator code to reach Balkan’s secret floor atop the skyscraper is (of course) “666.” The next clue that emerges is the painting on Balkan’s wall of the castle that figures later in the film. A symbolic foreshadowing, the castle is the locale of the final ritual in the film, as will be elaborated below, but here it is important to point out that background and symbolic imagery play throughout the film, leading the viewer down Corso’s path. Balkan explains the legend of the mythical Devil’s book, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows which he claims to possess. Balkan shows his copy to Corso and the first engraving we see is that a knight on a quest (recalling Quixote) heading toward a castle with the inscription, “Silence is Golden.” As Corso agrees to hunt down the other two copies for a hefty price to compare them, we can see that twice the castle has appeared with the knight giving the Sign of Harpocrates. Thus, the first step is that of seeking gnosis, or hidden knowledge – the esoteric.
As Corso embarks on his quest, he encounters femme fatale Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), the wife of “suicided” collector, Andrew Telfer who opened the film’s beginning. Liana seduces Corso with intention of exchanging sex for the return of her copy Balkan obtained, and in the midst of sex and scuffle, Corso notices a entwined serpent tattoo on Liana’s thigh. Liana is unsuccessful in obtaining the copy, but the following day in the library as Corso researches the gates deeper, he spots an engraving of a serpent around a tree, biting its own tail, which matches Liana’s tattoo. The inscription is “Sic Luceat Lux,” meaning let the light shine, and we are given another clue regarding film’s meaning. The ourobouros is symbolic of several things, but principally it is the Platonic and Egyptian symbol of the universe as a whole. The light is that of Lucifer, and the tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil from Genesis 1-3. St. Paul comes to mind, who wrote: “…Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:4). In other words, the gnosis of the serpent, known for his wisdom, is the chief meaning the film is going to convey, but this gnosis comes at a great price, as we shall see.
After catching a glimpse of the mysterious “Girl” who is tailing him, Corso returns to the book to find the next engraving to be that of a woman riding the beast/dragon, with the aforementioned castle in flames. Somewhat shocked by this synchronicity, Corso put the homework on pause. The harlot riding the beast is well-known imagery from St. John’s Apocalypse, which reads as follows:
“So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written:
MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT,
THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS
AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS
OF THE EARTH.
I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And have when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.” (Apoc. 17:3-6)
Since The Ninth Gate has a clearly Crowleyan/sex cultish element to it, it should be noted wizards, sorcerers and gnostics generally make terrible exegetes. Never allowing for any sensible historic principles of hermeneutics and exegesis, occultic interpreters find fertile ground for speculation and deception in prophetic biblical texts, with St. John’s Apocalypse occupying the choice place. Having nothing to do with anyone’s personal speculations and finding their principal fulfillment in the first century destruction of Jerusalem and in Roman paganism, cults for centuries have borrowed these texts for all manner of gibberish. In this case, the Crowleyan strands have tended to see the Apocalpyse as a gnostic means by which the “beast” and its attendant powers might be ritually conjured. For the purposes of analyzing the film, the references are instantiated in the cast of characters Corso encounters, with the “Girl” filling the role of the Harlot of Mystery Babalon. It’s also a reveal in that the woman in the engraving is holding the book – it’s her book, showing the Nine Gates book in the film is the Girl’s book. It also brings to mind the “Babalon working” Kenneth Grant wrote about, as one of Crowley and rocket scientist Jack Parson’s attempts to bring about the birth of the “Antichrist.” Grant’s book The Ninth Arch also may be what is referenced here.
As Corso returns to work after finding his apartment ransacked, a bust of Dante is visible, hearkening to the Inferno. Like a dark version of Dante, Corso’s Vergil will be the Girl, also functioning as an inverted Beatrice. Corso’s journey is actually a ritual and spiritual quest, all coalescing to a summation. As mentioned earlier, Liana seduces Corso, and knocks him unconscious. When Corso returns to his book store, he finds his partner Bernie ritually murdered. Hung upside down, the next engraving matches the “hanged man” image familiar to masonry and tarot. Sensing he’s in over his head, Corso tries to give up the quest, but Balkan insists he continue, coaxing him with more cash.
The hanged man is a warning not to venture into mysteries presumptuously or with importunity. This is explained in the next scene, when the next engraving is also a warning about danger descending from above, the Ceniza bothers explain. The cherub in the picture even has a mustache like the Ceniza brothers, and the significance of them being twins also relates to Tarot, as the “Lovers” card is sometimes Gemini, or the twins. You can see here the resemblance between the two. The “lovers” symbology picks up the sex magick theme again, as Corso will attain concourse, intercourse and union, with his angelic partner, the whore of Babalon. Corso also discovers here the engravings differ, with LCF (Lucifer) signing some copies, and not others.
The fist copy compared is the Fargas manuscript, where Corso notices the image of the old man with keys knocking on a door. The old man in the engraving resembles Fargas himself. Corso sees LCF again, and turns the page to reveal a fool or jester entering a labyrinth (Corso). The old man is a reference to the Hermit in the tarot deck, which signifies withdrawal, philosophical reflection and wisdom, and in some cases gives the wisdom to overcome some obstacle or puzzle. For the film’s narrative, Corso stumbles upon the divergence in the manuscripts at this point, which is the key to decoding the message: Lucifer penned the original, and the engravings in each differ to reveal a specific clue. Corso also discovers his Girl guardian seems to possess supernatural powers, yet reluctantly followers her lead, while she appears and disappears as the situation dictates. At this juncture, it becomes evident the events as a whole are being organized by higher forces: Corso laments he is a pawn in a larger game.
Another clue to the events being arranged is the recurring rings worn by the major characters, signifying membership in the Satanic cult at the heart of the film. Corso next visits Baroness Kessler who reveals the existence of this cult, the Order of the Silver Serpent, whose membership rosters include old nobility, nuveaux riche, actors and musicians. The Order was created to “preserve the secret of the Devil,” she claims, but had fallen into mere hedonistic pleasure as an outlet for secret orgies. Eyes Wide Shut comes to mind, and strikingly, the mansion used for the orgy scene in both films is Mentmore Towers. Mentmore has long been home to strange activity, from the Beatles engaging in Transcendental Meditation, to it also being the site used for Bruce Wayne’s estate in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Passing from the hands of the Rothschild family to the Maharishi Yogi Foundation, it is now owned by the Rueben brothers. Like Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, Corso is being led down an alchemical path that is opening “gates” in his psyche. Baroness Kessler opines that the members of the Order are deluded their belief power and wealth comes from the Order, when it is the Devil himself that grants the power – the very thing that will occur with Corso. [Correction: the estate is not Mentmore, but Chateau de Ferrieres, a French Rothschild estate built on the pattern of Mentmore. Thanks to a reader. -Jay]
After rescuing Corso from Liana’s goon, the Girl marks Corso’s forehead with her blood like a reverse version of Ash Wednesday. Corso’s being harassed and followed, as well as his interactions with the concierge again bring to mind Eyes Wide Shut, as Balkan organizes another muder: this time, of Baroness Kessler through poison and immolation. Corso reveals to the Baroness the three variations in three manuscripts make 9, thus solving (he thinks) the Devil’s riddle. Nine is, in Western hermeticism, the number of initiation and judgment, and therefore entire thrust of the film is Corso’s initiation process (think of 9/11 as mass ritual as some researchers have posited). As Corso studies the next engraving, it details an initiate being flogged by another knight outside the castle, with others being impaled on a rack. Corso, like the initiate in the picture, is at that moment “flogged” and knocked unconscious, awakening to find the Baroness poisoned as the library catches fire, making her another sacrifice.
The Girl and Corso then tail Liana to her French hometown of St. Martin, where her family owns a palatial estate (Mentmore) discovered to be the site of elite Satanic rituals. The ritual features a bed-altar (for sex magick), with a large image of the serpent entwined around the tree, recalling again the gnosis of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge the serpent illicitly offered “to become like God” (Gen. 3:1-7). “St. Martin” also calls to mind the French mystic Louis Claude de-St. Martin, who participated in a revival of gnostic ideas during the time of the French Revolution. Martinism bears striking resemblances to Freemasonry, and probably borrowed its grades and ranks, as well as elements of cabalism and Jacob Bohme. Later adherents of Martinism would be involved in occult “revivals” elsewhere, such as reportedly Gerard Encausse, or “Papus.” Polanski may have had this in mind when including it in the script, drawing another connection to the occult.
As the ritual commences, Balkan arrives to kill Liana and steal the book, ousting the rest of the cult as cowards and frauds. Corso then follows Balkan to the mysterious castle in the wilderness we’ve seen throughout to find him engaged in his own personal ritual magick ceremony designed to grant him entrance to the ninth gate – apotheosis and immortality. Another potential reference to Dante, Corso falls through the floor as he descends into the bowels of the castle, stuck immobile with his head protruding. In the Inferno, Dante has certain sinners so transfixed. Following this, Balkan immolates himself in the ritual after pronouncing it to be the path to “equality with God,” with the Inferno imagery coming to full fruition. Balkan becomes the final sacrifice while Corso escapes by falling even further and hurriedly collecting the manuscript it’s engulfed. Before leaving however, Corso is seduced by the Girl who has reappeared. Outside the enflamed castle the “woman rides the beast,” and the final engracing is fulfilled as they copulate, leading to a union of fallen angel and man. In some far eastern occultic and ancient practices the goal of sexual union is precisely that of union with a “god,” and here the suggestion is definitely Tantric sex magick.
In the bedeviled afterglow the Girl reveals to Corso that the final engraving is a forgery and that the Ceniza brothers have the real final secret. When Corso returns to Spain to the brothers’ shop, he discovers they too have disappeared and a final page on a shelf is all that’s left, featuring the true engraving, which is an image of the Girl herself “riding” the beast. The final scene is Corso walking into an illuminated castle gate, as he has performed and undergone all the necessary ritual enactments. The explanation of this strange ending is what I have given above – the journey itself was the process of Corso opening the “gates” to gnostic illumination. The final “secret” was his own union with the whore of Babalon, allowing him entrance to immortality. Contrary to what most viewers would’ve suspected, the entire journey was about Corso himself as the initiate on the path to discovery, not the cult or the power-mad elites seeking apotheosis through impossible means. Ultimately, The Ninth Gate is a gnostic allegory of illumination through the union of opposites, where Corso “unites” with his celestial babe guardian (fallen) angel, like Dante with Vergil and Beatrice – a counter-initiatic trek into Dis. The “gates” were not opened through the working of cult rituals, but in the psyche of Corso as synchronistic ritual events were occurring all around him along the way, functioning as a reverse telling of Dante. For millennia, occultic con men have held out promises of immortality and self-salvation, all the way back to the original con of the serpent in the Garden – and all of these cons are built on appeals to man’s vanity and pride. All along the way, that long historical path is littered with the skulls and damaged psyches of duped individuals who fell for the perennial scam, as Dante’s Inferno is littered with the skulls of sinners, priests and popes.