When Elvis died, they said “the king is dead“. Now Bowie is gone, and there is nothing we can say that really sums it up.
When my girlfriend broke the news to me last night, I cried and cried. I cried into my dinner. I cried as we sat and watched endless clips of him over the decades. Seeing the outpouring of grief in others was a salve. But I wanted to shout at everyone on social media that wasn’t posting endless Bowie things, “BOWIE IS DEAD! NOTHING CAN BE WELL!”
This morning, when the trending started to fade (and those celebrities in North America seemed to barely react), I sat and listened, pressing the bruise that is Blackstar—Bowie’s latest album, released on his 69th birthday just days before his death. In particular, I was struck by the imagery in the video for the title track. I quickly became obsessed with decoding the symbolism lacing the clip.
The album cover for Blackstar
Apparently Bowie told one of his saxophonists on the album that it was about “Isis”. Some fools took this to mean “Islamic State”. But those dinguses really need to do their occult reading. Before Daesh, Isis actually referred to an Ancient Egyptian goddess, who, as some myths have it, became impregnated by lightning. LIGHTNING GUYS. Sound familiar? She was also the goddess of magic. My suspicions about Bowie’s occultism were confirmed when I came across this Flavorwire article about some of Bowie’s favourite books, which lists a number of esoteric books, including Eliphas Lévi’s Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual.
Bowie’s obvious occultism seems to have reached its peak in recent times. Blackstar is not only about death, it is a meditation on consciousness and what it means to be alive when you are slipping out of the world.
So, focusing on the Blackstar clip, let’s break it down. Most of this is me surmising, so please don’t take this too seriously (unless you want to end up in an occult clickhole…)
The opening shot is of a spaceman, whose gloved hand has a red band around its middle finger, and more prominently, black tape around its thumb. Here the red band may be a reference to the Kabbalah practice of wearing red string around the left wrist to ward off the evil eye. And as we know, black is often associated with death, particularly in esoteric traditions. We also see the astronaut’s foot, wrapped in blue tape, the colour of consciousness and the spiritual. The astronaut itself is no doubt a reference to Major Tom from Space Oddity, representing Bowie and/or Bowie’s past.
We see a smiley face patch on the jacket of the spaceman (who we soon learn is dead).
This is perhaps a nod to the Smiley Face Killer theory, again calling to mind death.
Next we pan out to see the spaceman alone on a strange planet, with an eclipse in the sky. Eclipses generally represent a powerful and dark time of endings and beginnings.
When we first see Bowie, singing about “the day of execution”, he is the blind man with only buttons for eyes. He repeats, “your eyes, your eyes”. Given the symbolism regarding the third eye throughout the clip, this is perhaps a reference to Bowie “knowing” his fate, though he cannot see. It also suggests that the imagery of the clip is occurring in his mind’s eye. The video is then about what he is seeing and experiencing in that place between waking life and death.
This idea is repeated when we see a woman finding the spaceman who has a monobrow, again symbolising the third eye. But why does she have a tail? Well, perhaps it is a reference to Isis’ sibling the deity Set, the god of chaos, who is often represented as having a tail. Though, maybe not. That one’s a long bow.
We can only imagine that the candle “in the centre of it all” we see next is the light of human consciousness that has been burning for a long, long time.
We then see the jewelled skull that lies beneath the spaceman’s visor, again a callback to Ancient Egypt, and the ornate decorations of mummy tombs. But it also bears striking similarity to the ornate skulls from the catacombs of Rome, which were later worshipped in Europe. The camera zooms into the hollows of the eye socket.
Throughout we see people dancing feverishly, quaking as if having a religious seizure. In particular the inclusion of a white and black man dancing together in unison, and the other black and white contrasts used, calls to mind the esoteric idea of opposites. Here we also think of the phrase “as above so below“. That is, the idea that the spiritual and the physical is interconnected—opposites are not separate, but one.
We see a shot of the city, “the villa of Ormen”—which looks a lot like what the first city might have looked like, in southern Mesopotamia (now, Iraq). Or perhaps, it’s a call to this.
A group of women gather, perhaps a coven, forming a magic circle—a key to rituals where energy is being raised.
Meanwhile, the skull is now a relic in the hands of the woman, travelling to the centre of the city. We see the skeleton being pulled slowly into the eclipse as a reminder of the inevitability of death.
We see Bowie’s face for the first time and he is holding what appears to be a book of shadows, where magic secrets are kept. Bowie is the high priest. Notably on the front we see a five-pointed black star, the same as the album cover. This is undoubtably a pentagram. With its point facing up, this is a symbol of good magic (not dark magic). All eyes follow as Bowie waves his book, and the shadows pass over.
The song switches to Bowie praying—almost pleading— in the attic he was previously blind in. A ray of sunshine pours in and he sings about the “day he died”. But then things start to get fuzzy again. The camera blurs, and the music distorts. Consciousness is waning.
Then we see some really creepy scarecrows. The history and symbolism of the scarecrow is contested. But what is interesting here is the clear parallel with imagery of Christ on the cross. Perhaps here the scarecrow also represents a boundary—a “do not pass” border, protecting the material realm. Scarecrows also call to mind for me the creepy as hell one from The Singing Detective, which presents itself as a nightmarish vision experienced in illness, between the conscious and unconscious. Notably the scarecrows in Bowie’s clip are blindfolded with bandages and so cannot see—but only feel—death.
We see another group of women gathered in a magic circle, worshipping the skull. A dreadlocked and rather terrifying creature appears in the next shot, perhaps summoned by their ritual.
The creature has hooks (or perhaps scythes, or claws) for hands, and it is fast approaching. It seems to be a figure of death. The deep vibrations we hear throughout the scene remind me of the nightmarish figures that appear during sleep paralysis, particularly if you are trying to lucid dream. Perhaps Bowie is communicating here the visions experienced when one is not quite conscious, which no doubt become more vivid when death is coming.
The scarecrows try to frighten the figure off, and we see the again-blind Bowie writhing in fear. The scarecrows fail, and the figure slashes at their feet.
All we are left with is a vision of lightning over the city.
If we believe the story that Blackstar is about Isis the goddess, not Daesh, we can see the lightning as representing (re)birth, not death. After all, if we’re really going to be esoteric about it, the symbol of death isn’t about doom and darkness, it’s about transition, a new beginning. The soul continues and the candle keeps burning bright.