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The Big Picture

New Page -- 2 February 2007

The Ninth Gate is a film by the well known director, Roman Polanski. The Big Picture -- this webpage -- is an overview of Laurel Whitney's analysis of the movie and the book on which the movie was based, i.e. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Critical to both plots are the Engravings by Francisco Sole (and the movie's own slightly altered version), thoughtfully provided by An Eclectic Historian.

(6/20/9) Make that Apocalyptic Productions, for the movie version (but you will have to buy the book for the novel's version). (An Eclectic Historian is not currently on the web.)

This is the first section of nine, in which Ms. Whitney relates the contents of the movie and book to the Qabala and The Tree of Life. In the process she makes it clear that the profound truths that seem to be lurking in The Ninth Gate are almost certainly intended by all of the creators of the book and movie.

The nine sections include:

The Big Picture

Deciphering the Engravings

The First Three Gates

Qabalistic Background

The Second Three Gates

The Final Three Gates

John's Apocalyspe

The Polanski Code


IMPORTANT NOTE: The Engravings from the book, The Dumas Club, and the movie, The Ninth Gate, can be found at An Eclectic Historian. It is strongly recommended that you print out these pages (all 18) and use them in the process of reading Ms. Whitney's essay. In addition, version of the Tree of Life used by Ms. Whitney can be viewed at: http://www.thelemapedia.org/index.php/Image:Tree_simple.gif.

A WARNING -- other than "abandon hope all ye who enter here" -- is that you might want to see the movie before reading the essay, inasmuch as the analysis pretty much gives away the plot, like who gets killed and who doesn't.



Roman Polanski's Journey Beyond Evil


Light Shines in Polanski's Darkness

In the first scene of the film "The Ninth Gate", an older, very wealthy and cultured gentleman calmly commits suicide by hanging himself from the chandelier in his tastefully appointed library full of priceless rare books. Once his feet have stopped twitching, the camera pans across the shelves behind him to a vacant spot where one book is missing. As we later discover, that book is "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows", a 17th century grimoire (1666 to be precise), said to have been co-authored by the Devil himself. Over the course of the film, five more people will suffer violent deaths because of their associations with this infamous book.

Three of these victims are self-described Satanists: the first, a crippled German baroness and best-selling author on the subject of the Devil, is strangled in her wheelchair and her famous library of satanic books set ablaze; another, a beautiful, iron-willed, sex-exploiting vamp, nude under her hooded black robe, is choked with her own pentacle necklace while conducting a fire-lit, group Satanic ritual at her secluded French chateau. The final victim, a billionaire business mogul, collector of occult books, and cold-blooded serial murderer, burns himself alive in a deserted Cathar castle while performing a ritual which he is convinced will summon the Devil.

Now, try to imagine for a moment reading this brief outline of the setting for a horror/murder mystery film, and thinking to yourself "Wow! This would be the perfect vehicle to introduce the general public to the principles of one of the world's great traditional spiritual teachings, the Qabalah's Tree of Life!" Personally, I still can't quite imagine how that particular chain of thought ever came together, (even the esteemed author of the book on which the screenplay was based wasn't quite *that* ambitious, although he did start the ball rolling by commissioning the series of nine symbolic engravings which appear in "the Devil's book", whose symbols tell the story of the journey on the Tree). But however far-fetched this idea may seem, the film's co-writer and director, Roman Polanski, didn't just think it, he actually pulled it off.

When it comes to popular films with "spiritual" themes, it's impossible not to think of the most recent, high-profile example, the one in which a zealously pious director presented traditional religious imagery in what many felt was a psychologically disturbing, obsessively sadistic, ugly and dispiriting way to deliver a message which was widely perceived to be controversial, religiously polarizing and divisive. The contrast between this and Polanski's film could hardly be greater or more ironic.

"The Ninth Gate", despite the dark reputation of its director, is a quirky, unassuming but genuinely redemptive, non-denominational morality play in which almost all the parts are played by evil "satanists" and one enigmatic character in particular is widely speculated to be Lucifer "herself". Polanski's surprising twist of using over-the-top, murderous devil-worshippers in an almost tongue-in-cheek way to illustrate a message of genuine, non-sectarian spiritual hope, definitely makes for a refreshing change. In fact, I can't think of a film that more richly deserves to develop a wide-spread, intelligent cult following. The only element missing up to now has been a publicly accessible key to the mysterious, unexplained symbolism of the engravings which appear in the film's infamous book, which is why I decided to write this article.

Two Hidden Keys to 'The Nine Gates'

I saw the film 'The Ninth Gate' the first time mostly because Johnny Depp was in it and he can usually be relied on to pick interesting projects. The engravings intrigued me, but until I began to look seriously at their symbolism, I had no idea of how highly unusual the film actually is. In my opinion it's one of a kind because it has done something that no other movie that I'm aware of has attempted. Although the Tarot's Hanged Man, Hermit, Death and the Fool were easy to recognize, other symbols in the series of engravings were more elusive and as I began the process of interpreting them, I wasn't sure how deep the symbolism would go or how internally consistent it would be. What I discovered went far beyond anything I had expected.

What the designer of the engravings has actually done is to use a mixture of symbols taken from the Tarot and the Qabalah's Tree of Life to describe key transition points on the journey of spiritual evolution 'up' the Tree, beginning at the bottom with ego consciousness, making the crossing at the middle of the Tree into the realm of Soul to achieve the union of ego with Soul, and culminating at the top of the Tree with the wedding of Soul to Spirit and the opening of the 'Ninth Gate'. In order to understand the meaning of the engravings, we must begin to become familiar with the two occult "keys" to their symbolism: the diagram of the Qabalah's great teaching of spiritual synthesis, the Tree of Life, and the meaning of a half dozen or so symbolic figures taken from the Greater Trumps [the Major Arcana] of the Tarot which are traditionally assigned to describe the nature of certain "paths" on the Tree.

Two Sets of Gates, The Choice: Light or Fire?

The film tells us there are three copies of the book "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows", and that each book contains nine engravings, each engraving representing one of the nine gates. But as Johnny Depp's character Corso discovers, the engravings which appear in the three books are not all identical. In each book, six engravings are initialed "AT" for the book's author, Aristide Torchia, and three engravings are initialed "LCF" for "Lucifer", widely speculated to be the "co-author" of the book. All of the AT engravings are identical, but the LCF engravings contain small variations in the symbolism which greatly change the meaning of the scenes depicted. And because the engravings which are initialed LCF vary from book to book, all three books are necessary to obtain a full set of LCF engravings describing all nine gates.

In order to illustrate the meaning of the variations in the symbolism of the engravings, the film has us follow along on the adventures of two main characters. The first, rare book dealer Corso, starts out as a paid agent of his employer, Balkan, but with the help of an enigmatic character known only as "the girl", Corso manages to make the true journey which is depicted in the LCF engravings -- a journey from ordinary ego consciousness all the way to ultimate enlightenment and an experience of the world in the form which is symbolized in the Book of Revelation as 'The New Jerusalem'. This ultimate destination which the traveler through the LCF gates reaches is symbolically represented in the film's final scene in which Corso walks into a castle blazing with Light.

There is a clear correlation between the order in which we see the engravings in the course of the film and the progress which Corso is making on his journey up the Tree (through the gates). The modifications which Roman Polanski and his fellow screenwriters made to the plot taken from the book are completely consistent with the symbolism of the journey depicted in the engravings, so much so that it can only have been intentional.

The second main character, Boris Balkan, is a business tycoon and lecturer on occult subjects who has dedicated his life to pursuing wealth and power and has assembled the world's largest collection of books on satanism and the Devil. After managing to gain possession of one of the three copies of "The Nine Gates", he tries to use it to perform a ritual which he believes will "summon the Devil" and who will then grant him unlimited wealth and power. When his ritual doesn't work, he suspects forgery and hires Corso to track down the other two copies of the book.

When Balkan finds out from Corso about the LCF variations, he begins secretly shadowing Corso, ruthlessly murders the other books' owners and steals the remaining six LCF engravings from their books which he believes will allow him to conduct a successful ritual. Finally in possession of all nine of the LCF engravings, Balkan travels to an abandoned castle apparently identical to the one depicted in the engraving for the Ninth Gate, surrounds himself with a circle of fire, lays out the nine engravings in an order of his own devising and conducts a ritual in which he recites his interpretation of the meaning of the engravings.

Confident of his success, he sets himself on fire to demonstrate his invincibility and instead burns to death (or he would have if Corso hadn't finally shot him as an act of mercy). When Corso later asks the girl why Balkan didn't succeed, she says it was because his LCF engraving of the Ninth Gate (depicting the castle in flames) was a forgery. But is it really as simple as that? As we will see, the journey which Balkan made *in real life* followed the path described in the AT version of the engravings, and the path through the nine AT gates leads inevitably not to Light but to fire.

'Mumbo-Jumbo', Ritual, or Walking the Walk

Judging from ongoing comments to the boards for this film at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website, there seem to be two different opinions about exactly what was necessary in order to 'pass through' the nine gates. Some, like Balkan, believe that all that was required was to possess the original nine engravings initialed by LCF, to place them in a particular order, and recite some words. I believe that to look at it in this way is to confuse the map with the territory and to risk falling into the category of 'mumbo-jumbo'.

The engravings describe two possible paths which must be followed *in real life*, each path leading to radically different experiences and endpoints. There are scenes in the movie which physically mimic the symbolism of the engravings, like the scene of Bernie the book-seller's body hanging in the pose of the Tarot's "Hanged Man" as shown in the engraving for the Sixth Gate, and the resemblances between some of the characters in the engravings and real people Corso encounters on his journey. I believe these were included to give viewers the clue that the journey depicted in the engravings was also happening in the lives of the movie's main characters. But since the journey up the Tree is one of internal spiritual evolution (in Corso's case) or the lack of it (in Balkan's), depicting it outwardly would be difficult to impossible except through the use of such periodic, symbolic clues. Not every engraving is illustrated in this literal, visual way.

For some, symbolic rituals performed as part of a spiritual path may help to focus the mind, but they are certainly not required. The engravings may be valuable in their function as maps, but you still have to make the journey. In the movie, Corso is the one who successfully completes the journey because he enters into partnership with 'the girl' who helps him to follow the path which is symbolized by the LCF variations of the engravings. Balkan, the so-called 'black magician', refuses to make the journey beyond ego-dominance and tries to use the energies of the Tree to serve the desires and power drives of his own ego.

Balkan's path is symbolized by the AT variations of the engravings and it ends in exactly the kind of fiery destruction which the collective ego consciousness of our time is now trying to convince us is also our 'fate': Armageddon, 'the end of the world'. But as the LCF engraving of the Fourth Gate illustrates, "Fate is not the same for all" and for those who devote themselves to the real-life 'journey up the Tree' described by the LCF version of the engravings, the ultimate fruit of the Quest is nothing less than personal transformation and the experience of the world from the perspective of the Higher Self, as depicted in the genuine Ninth Gate's symbol of 'The New Jerusalem'. [emphasis added]

LCF vs. The Devil -- A Case of Mistaken Identity

The movie's characters all seem to agree that the purpose of the combined content of all of the LCF engravings is 'to raise the Devil'. Most of them (with the exception of Corso) take this to mean that the engravings are to be used to construct a ritual at the end of which a supernatural entity representing the force of evil in the world will appear (Poof!) and grant the one performing the ritual special powers. The main problem with this is that the symbolism of the engravings doesn't support that idea at all, but instead suggests an entirely different interpretation of the phrase 'to raise the Devil'. The symbolism used actually impressed me very much. I believe that either the illustrator was a serious student or initiate of a mystery tradition himself or he must have worked in close collaboration with someone who was. The way in which director Roman Polanski and his fellow screenwriters integrated the meaning of the engravings into his vision of the plot of the movie is also impressive and is the subject of Section VIII of this article, "The Polanski Code".

The most interesting twist with the engravings is that it is the variations bearing the initials LCF which actually represent stages in the development of the very positive internal spiritual state which leads to the experience depicted in the genuine LCF engraving of the Ninth Gate, the encounter with Light. This confirms to me that, despite what any of the movie characters might believe, LCF stands for 'Lucifer, the Light-Bearer', a symbolic figure representing a non-dual, spiritual-evolutionary force which is separate and distinct in its nature and function from our current popular conception of the degenerate symbolic figure of evil, 'the Devil' or 'Satan'.

The Journey Beyond 'Evil' -- All Climbers Welcome

In Torchia's AT version of the engravings, small symbolic variations describe a path which has only one final destination, an ultimate dissolution/destruction of the same nature as the destruction of the body by fire which Torchia himself suffered. If you take the time to explore the symbolism of the engravings, I believe it will be clear that although Balkan 'possessed' almost all of the necessary LCF symbols, his pre-existing mindset made it impossible for him to gain a true understanding of the meaning of the symbolism and so he made no effort to align himself spiritually with the variations depicted in the LCF engravings. His internal state, in fact, corresponded exactly to the symbolism of the Torchia version, so that even if he had possessed the genuine ninth engraving, his unevolved internal spiritual state would still have condemned him to suffer the same destructive result.

The lesson is that in the determination of 'fate', it is the nature of the internal spiritual state which is the deciding factor, and the nature of your own internal spiritual state is entirely up to you and the life choices which you make. To follow Corso's successful path, at some point it is necessary to forge an alliance with your own best understanding of a Higher Power, a benevolent spiritual guiding force which can help, inspire, and challenge you to grow beyond ego consciousness and align yourself with the greater purpose, power and harmony of your own Soul. (This is the real-life equivalent of the guiding and protective function which "the girl" provides to Corso in the film. For an analysis of her enigmatic nature and ultimate identity, see my response to the first reader's comment in the Commentary section of this article.)

Every religious tradition has its own language to describe this same process of spiritual evolution in different ways and those who have completed the journey, no matter what tradition they followed, have been unanimous in recognizing that all paths 'up the mountain' lead to the same 'Peak'. This is easy to see when you're looking 'down', but much less obvious from the ego's perspective at the very base of the mountain. The 'path of return' of the Tree of Life is one traditional way up this same symbolic mountain.

The major problems come in the earliest stage of the journey in the case of those who don't progress beyond the perspective of ego and expend their energies not in completing their own journey, but in declaring that those who are following all of the other paths up the mountain are 'evil', making war on them, and trying to stamp them out. From the perspective of ego consciousness, the symbolic figure of 'the Devil' is identified with anyone-who-doesn't-believe-exactly-what-I-believe, and for this reason, it is in the realm of ego consciousness, the realm of the lower mind at the base of the mountain, where the concept of 'the Devil' finds its ultimate playground.

This is why the teachings of Jesus the Christ, for example, require disciples first and foremost to love one another, to love their neighbors as themselves, to judge not lest they be judged, to love and forgive even their 'enemies' and to remove first the 'beam' in their own eye before presuming to remove the 'speck' in their brother's eye. At the top of the mountain, in the realm of Spirit/Soul, the divisive concept of "the Devil" has no power. The realm of the domination of the ego-mind is finally left behind in the passage through the Sixth Gate, and as we will see in the analysis of the Ninth Gate, it is this very lower ego-mind which the Apocalypse of St. John rightly identifies with the destructive nature of 'the Beast' and the number 666.

Where's That '100th Monkey'?

The analysis of the symbolism contained in the engravings and in the plot of the movie is not a simple subject, and I originally took on this challenge because of my own fairly obsessive curiosity and for my own use. But since it seems clear to me that the world as most of us know it is currently at risk of being destroyed by the raging desires and fears of a collective ego consciousness which is long overdue to be brought into balance under the guidance of the wisdom consciousness of the Soul, and since this essential transition can only happen if each one of us makes his/her own journey individually, I thought it would be worth the effort to try to describe, in the simplest possible way, what the journey represented by the symbols in the engravings is all about (for those who are not familiar with it). As some of you reading this will know, there are a great many people in this world who have already quietly and unobtrusively completed the journey which the engravings symbolically describe, and their numbers will only increase with time. No membership in any 'secret' organization is required, only the desire for a better life and a better world and the will to achieve both by working on yourself to become a better person.

Once this work is begun in earnest, the spiritual development which follows is an entirely natural and spontaneous evolutionary process, and the more people who make the trip, the easier it becomes for others to follow. You may have heard of the famous case of the group of monkeys on one island who learned that washing their sweet potatoes in the ocean made them taste better. Soon all of the monkeys on the island copied their example and started washing their potatoes and at a certain point, called the 'tipping point', enough monkeys had adopted this behavior that monkeys on another island, who had no contact with the original monkeys, suddenly started washing their potatoes too. The lesson is that there is a level at which consciousness is collective, and when that '100th monkey' (as this syndrome is called) makes the transition to a new standard of behavior, everybody else evolves right along with him. As a perennial optimist, I'd like to dedicate this article to that potential '100th monkey' who may be reading this sentence right now.

In the following Section II, Deciphering the Engravings, we will look briefly at the meaning of the symbol of the serpent on the Tree and at the significance of the Hebrew and Greek letters which appear at the top of each engraving.

Note: In addition to making comments and suggestions via the Feedback mechanism for this website, one can also make comments directly to the author, Laurel Whitney, at hesper79@uneedspeed.net. Comments worth sharing with others may be included in The Ninth Gate Commentaries.


Ha Qabala

Variations on a Theme         Tree of Life        Chronicles of Earth

The Ninth Gate

Forward to:

Deciphering the Engravings

ORME         David Radius Hudson         White Powder of Gold         Star Fire



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