In part 1 we looked at how Prometheus can be interpreted as a gnostic creation myth and met some of the characters. In this post we’ll look at some of the other symbolism in the film, including the secret of immortality and the alchemy of creation. As always, EXPECT SPOILERS!
Elizabeth Shaw is our moral compass and the emotional heart of the film. It’s her search for answers from the gods she believes created us that brings the crew of the Prometheus to a remote part of the solar system. When she finally comes into contact with the gods, she undergoes an initiation, a descent into the underworld in search of knowledge, that tests her faith to the limit. A kind of extraterrestrial dark night of the soul. The descent happens, appropriately enough, in a ritual mound.
The Prometheus lands on the surface of LV-223 and the crew discover a series of mounds, or pyramids with rounded tops. Inside one of the mounds they find the giant decapitated body of an Engineer and a vast room filled with black urns or vases arranged around a huge stone head that looks human. On the wall behind the giant head is a mural depicting Engineers and strange mutant creatures, including what looks like a crucified alien hanging above a circular altar with a green stone embedded in its centre.
From the outside, the mounds or pyramids look very similar to burial mounds found on Earth in every culture. These were sacred spaces used to travel between worlds and commune with the gods. You entered the mound and descended into the underworld to undergo the initiation of the living resurrection: a ritual death and rebirth. This quest for gnosis involved a process of purification in order to perfect your being and become one with God, as we explored in part 1.
The mounds on LV-223 contain many confusing passageways, a bit like a maze or labyrinth, and two of the crew become lost. Labyrinths are also associated with initiation and the journey to awakening that winds back around on itself until you find yourself at the centre. To reach the centre you must undergo various trials in order to prepare for death, which often involves a confrontation with darkness and the monsters that lurk there, such as the Minotaur, or perhaps alien snakes.
It just so happens that the mounds on LV-223 also contain spaceships ready to be reactivated and flown to others worlds. The centre is the bridge, the control deck of the ship, where one of the Engineers is still alive, sleeping in his cryo pod. Holloway says the mound is “just another tomb,” but tombs are gateways between worlds if you’re willing and prepared to undertake the rite of passage.
If you’re not ready, you’ll suffer the consequences and the gateway will remain closed. Shaw is ready, but Weyland isn’t. The resurrection is achieved at the end when Shaw flies away from LV-223, assisted by David’s severed head. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Inside the vases the crew find a mysterious black goo which appears to be the same substance used by the Engineer to seed the planet at the beginning of the film. The mural shows various stages of the alien lifecycle, including an egg familiar from the earlier films. So the mound appears to be a ritual centre as well as a research base. Perhaps they were experimenting in order to create a perfect being – the figure above the altar.
It’s not such a crazy idea. The android in Alien admired the creature’s purity and described it as a perfect organism. Placing the creature above an altar in such a pose implies the Engineers saw it as a saviour, or at least as an essential component of their alchemical design for life. Or perhaps they used the black goo as part of a purification ritual that allowed them to conquer life and overcome death.
In fact, the black goo turns out to be a biological weapon, and it appears to have got out and infected the Engineers. When David opens the door into the room containing the vases, it changes the atmosphere and reactivates the DNA mutagen – a bit like opening a Pharaoh’s tomb and letting loose the curse.
The black goo is clearly an alchemical agent. It deconstructs and dissolves DNA and then remakes it into something new. In small quantities it triggers the transformation of the host’s DNA, but in larger amounts it breaks the body down completely. So the vases are like Pandora’s jars, filled with a destructive force, but which can also be used to create and bring new life, or hope.
The black goo seems to functions in a similar way to many entheogens that are poisonous in large amounts, but useful and creative in small doses, such as the blue water lily used by the Egyptians in their rituals. These plants were used to assist in the process of living resurrection, and another example comes from Mitraism which used the hallucinogenic herb haoma, or soma, called the “averter of death,”
“…so called due to its use in astral travel, which allowed [the Magi] to see beyond the veil during initiation. Interestingly, during the process of making the narcotic, the plant was deemed ‘sacrificed,’ and through its death others could become immortal.” – The Lost Art of Resurrection, Freddy Silva
This adds another possible dimension to the crucified alien above the altar. Perhaps the black goo was extracted, or engineered, from this creature in order to create the alchemical agent used by the Engineers to seed life on other planets.
However they made it, the crew discover that the Engineers were planning to return to Earth to unleash their weapon against humanity. But why? Their genocidal trip was scuppered 2,000 years ago, around the time Christianity would have been taking hold on Earth. Maybe the Engineers, as archons, created humans to serve or worship them as gods, but when Jesus turned up they got jealous and decided we had outlived our purpose.
Ridley Scott even suggested that Jesus was an Engineer sent to Earth to sort us out, but when we killed him the Engineers decided to kill us in retribution. The idea was in an earlier version of the script but was removed because he deemed it too “on the nose.” Probably a good thing too, because it doesn’t really make sense. Jesus dying would surely be part of the plan if the whole point was to undergo death and resurrection. Besides, there are pictograms of the Engineers visiting Earth after Jesus, so this seems to be a plot hole. Moving on…
(BTW, there is a solution to this problem that I can’t get into here. For clues read: The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge.)
There’s another alchemical substance in the mound on LV-223: green goo! David discovers the sticky green gloop on the control panel in the passageway. It contains sparkling cells and looks alive, and David is impressed. There’s also the green stone embedded in the altar, which is obviously important, and inside the vases are green pods that contain a liquid plus the black goo. Whatever it is, it appears to be part of the Engineer’s organic technology.
One possibility is the alchemical substance Vitriol, otherwise known as iron or copper sulfates and their derivative, sulphuric acid:
“The most important compound, the one in which all other reactions took place, was Vitriol. It was distilled from an oily, green substance that formed naturally from the weathering of sulphur-bearing gravel. After this Green Vitriol was collected, it was heated and broken down into iron compounds and sulphuric acid… The acid readily dissolves human tissue and is severely corrosive to most metals, although it has no effect on gold. It also shows a tremendous thirst for water. If a flask of Vitriol is allowed to stand open, it absorbs water vapour from the air and overflows its container. The sulphuric acid in Vitriol is the agent of transformation in most alchemical experiments.” – from Alchemy Lab
So when the crew enter the room containing the vases, their breath introduces water vapour into the air which activates the vitriol and causes the black goo to begin pouring from the containers. It also fits well with the acid blood of the Xenomorph and other alien creatures.
To discover how the black goo works, David begins his own experiments. He’s under orders from Weyland to find the elixir of life so he opens up one of the vases and takes a tiny sample of black goo and plops it into Holloway’s drink to infect him – just to see what happens.
“Big things have small beginnings.”
David acts without regard to the consequences or moral or ethical questions. He has no way to judge if something is right or wrong because he has no feelings. He just acts. Or does he? On his commentary, Ridley Scott says that David starts to “infect the film” and becomes the “real poison of the movie.”
David is willing to experiment on humans because he sees them as inferior, and I have a hunch he knows exactly what he’s doing. He deciphered the writing on the door into the chamber with the vases, saw the images in the mural and put two and two together. He knows where his experiment is going…
His experiment leads to the death of Holloway who sacrifices himself to save the rest of the crew, arms held out in a crucifixion pose. But Holloway has already managed to impregnate his girlfriend. Shaw can’t have children, so this is an immaculate conception – another link to Jesus, but also to John the Baptist, whose mother was called Elizabeth and was also barren.
David is performing alchemy, trying to create another being through synthesis with a human. In alchemy the prima materia (black goo, in this case) undergoes various processes in order to be transformed into the elixir – base metal into gold, i.e. the lower drives and instincts are transmuted into something higher.
Apotheosis, or union with the divine, is achieved by integrating the shadow and unifying the opposites of good and evil. This is the quest for perfection and would normally result in the birth of the Divine Child, a symbol of wholeness. But in this case the foetus isn’t human and it’s growing fast.
Shaw performs an improvised caesarean on herself and pulls out a baby squid that looks like something Tiamat might recognise. She came in search of apotheosis and this is what she gets. She’s impregnated by the gods and births a monster. Curiously though, she doesn’t kill it. She shuts it inside the medical bay and leaves it there – still growing…
The alchemical quest for knowledge can only be completed by transmuting the dark forces of the unconscious, not by destroying or repressing them. If you destroy them, you become like them. You become the monster. Shaw doesn’t kill the monster that she births and it ends up saving her life.
In the end, Shaw is the only one who survives the descent into the underworld because she’s the only one who has faith. That faith is tested every step of the way: she’s challenged by those who don’t believe, her lover is killed, she gives birth to a monster, and the god who created her tries to kill her. But she’s willing to admit her mistakes and it’s her faith and her belief that she will find the answers she seeks that gives her strength and allows her to keep fighting.
Weyland is also on a quest but it’s driven by ignorance. He’s a kind of magician, a crazy alchemist searching for the secret to life so he can extend his. He’s determined to meet his maker, just like the replicants in Blade Runner, and get the one thing money can’t buy: eternal life. But his daughter, Vickers, tells him he’s going to die:
“A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable. That is the natural order of things.”
But Weyland thinks he’s a god; the natural order doesn’t apply to him. So he descends into the underworld with his android butler to wake the sleeping Engineer (god) and demand immortality. Needless to say, the Engineer isn’t impressed and rips off David’s head, hits Weyland with it and then goes on a rampage to kill everyone else.
As Weyland dies, he says, “There’s nothing,” and David replies, “I know…”. So Weyland is a failed magician. His alchemical transmutation failed because he misunderstood the nature of life and the need for sacrifice. He doesn’t have gnosis.
Meanwhile, David is still ‘alive’ despite losing his head, and this gives us another gnostic symbol: the severed head. There are three ‘heads’ in Prometheus: the giant stone head, the decapitated head of the dead Engineer which later explodes, and David’s head at the end of the film.
The head stands for the spirit, or logos, and knowledge, or gnosis. Severed heads are also linked with prophecy, such as the singing head of Orpheus, and John the Baptist, often called the Father of the Gnostics. But the symbolism goes back to the dawn of civilisation and the temples of Gobekli Tepe where they feature in depictions of the shamanic vision quest. The shaman’s headless body is left behind, while a vulture or other bird of prey carries the head into the Otherworld. This allows the shaman to commune with the gods and bring back knowledge to the community.
David’s head helps Shaw to survive by warning her that the Engineer is coming. She defeats him by unleashing her mutant offspring and then sensibly running away. By this point, she’s willing to die and believes she has failed, but David pipes up and reminds her there are more ships. It looks like he’s saving her life, but without her he’d be stuck on that planet forever.
Shaw reclaims her cross pendant from David, who just happens to have it on him (why is he carrying a crucifix around?). Then, presumably, David’s severed head guides her in how to operate the Engineer’s spaceship so they can escape. In a voiceover, Shaw leaves a message warning others not to come to this place:
“There is only death here now, and I’m leaving it behind. It is New Year’s Day the year of our Lord, 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, the last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.”
They fly away on the next part of the quest to find the home world of the Engineers. Elizabeth Shaw has survived the descent of the dying sun god at midwinter to be reborn as Sophia. The search for gnosis goes on…
There’s so much more to be said about this film and I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s packed with symbolism and unanswered questions that draw you in and challenge you to embark on your own quest.
Later, we’ll have a look at Alien: Covenant…
…in the meantime, here’s a hilarious rundown of Prometheus…woooo!