Esotericism in Art: an Instrument to Narrate Social and Personal Paths
Among the many possible approaches towards esotericism, there is one – risen from 1930s onwards – which sees it as a yay to return to the human primal spirituality and the related truths (Boguslawski et al. 2020: 17 – 18). It is therefore not surprising to think that esotericism has been and is, in the hands of artists, a powerful instrument to talk about social and personal paths, giving the narrative further depth.
Carl Gustav Jung’s works are widely based on the connection between esotericism, archetypes and the true self. Even though a large number of scholars disagrees with him when it comes to the supposedly biological roots of archetypes, it is evident how some motifs and archetypes are common in literature and in myths through different historical eras and cultures, motifs being small narrative units and archetypes being recurrent patterns with deep psychic resonances (El-Shamy et al. 2005: XV – XVIII).
There are several possible definitions of esotericism; the term “esoteric” can in fact be used as referring to a secret knowledge meant for a small group, to western mysticism, to points of view and explanations about God and the metaphysic world, or in a more popular and general way to mysticism, to the occult and to paranormal (Ilman et al. 2017: 126 – 127).
In this essay I write about esotericism meant as magic, witchcraft, paranormal and explanations about the paranormal, even though presented through art rather than an organized philosophical or religious theory. Specifically, I take Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Mists of Avalon as an example of esotericism used as an instrument to narrate social radical changes, coming to the point of bending reality, and the miniserie The Haunting of Hill House as an example of paranormal being used as a way to tell about personal grief and family dynamics, connecting these to spacetime loops, and so binding once again esotericism to the very nature of the reality lived by the characters.
The Mists of Avalon: esotericism, values and society
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Mists of Avalon is a fantasy novel, tapping into the Arthurian legends in order to narrate the fall of paganism and the rise of christianity, with Avalon representing the old ways.
Even though Avalon’s cause is fought both by men and women, the story is told mostly from a female perspective, which is not surprising considering the fact that the ones walking the old path worship a goddess.
The difference between pagan values and christian ones as presented in the novel becomes evident analyzing the main female characters: Viviane, Morgause, Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), the former three representing the pagan world and the latter representing the christian one. Viviane is a powerful and charismatic leader, honest in her loyalty towards Avalon and the old religion, but this loyalty weakens the one towards the people around her; in front of her duty to protect Avalon and its interest, any sacrifice – be it others’ or her own – appears unimportant. Morgause, on the other hand, even though not incapable of love, has no other goals than her own personal interests; she has a very strong personality and is often desired by the men around her. Between them stands Morgaine: very loyal to Avalon’s cause, and yet her heart is full of personal feelings and desires; her feelings for any of her lovers anyway never manage to truly enslave her, as she very well remembers her beliefs and goals; she quite often feels like not having a choice, as if being a pawn in the hands of destiny – hands which sometimes, she realises, look surprisingly a lot like Viviane’s – but yet, she is very strong and capable of uncomfortable decisions. Gwenhwyfar, the only woman holding christian values, is presented as a beautiful and dutiful wife for Arthur; she is tormented though, due to her childlessness and due to her love for Lancelet, and the more tormented she becomes, the further she goes on the path of christian fanaticism. Esotericism, in this kind the use of magic, makes a great difference in the lives of the four women, becoming a symbol of the female condition within the pagan or within the christian world: even though none of them is destined to true victory, the former three have ways to pursue their goals and desires, often through magic, and their spirituality – despite being far from preventing inner turmoil – leaves more space for them to feel entitled when it comes to their emotions, their wishes and their attempts to get what they want. Gwenhwyfar’s power, on the other hand, depends entirely on Arthur’s good heart and on his affection to her; she strongly opposes magic and the pagan ways.
Ultimately, when the christian religion overcomes the pagan one, the mists which separate Avalon from the rest of the world grow thicker and thicker, and the portal between the two becomes harder and harder to open; Viviane dies, not before having been on the point of almost loosing her faith, Morgause is forced to accept the fact that her youth and her magic – which had a strong passionate and sexual connotation – have faded away, and her power over men along with them, while Morgaine retires forever to Avalon, being defeated in the fight against the christian ways, but still feeling that her goddess will survive and be worshipped through the image of the Virgin Mary. This ending, along with the fact that the Holy Grail is presented as a sacred regalia from Avalon, are a perfect example of how – in this novel – esotericism is used in order to narrate a deep change in society, with its pagan roots still visible in the phenomenon of syncretism.
The Haunting of Hill House: esotericism and emotional life
The Haunting of Hill House is a miniserie created and directed by Mike Flanagan, mildly inspired by the homonym novel by Shirley Jackson.
In the past, what should have just been the work of a few weeks restoring a house in order to resell it for a higher price, became a tragic turning point for the whole Crain family, composed of mother, father and five children. Even though all of them witnessed paranormal events, not all of them had to face them in the same measure, and not all of them even recognised them as paranormal in the first place; the most affected back then was anyway Olivia, the mother, for whom reality slept away day after day, eventually leaving her in constant doubt about being awake or dreaming. What is known is that she killed herself, but even though Hugh, her husband, knows more, he refuses to openly talk about it with his children, claiming that it is in order to protect them. Later, through flashbacks, it will become clear that Olivia tried to kill her youngest children, Luke and Eleanor – due to being convinced by one of the ghosts haunting the house that killing them were the only way to protect them from the world – and that after failing she committed suicide still under the influence of the same ghost, who this time convinced her of being living a nightmare, and that killing herself would be a way to wake up.
The five children represent the five stages of grief (TV Insider: 2018). Their attitude towards grief is often the same attitude they have towards the paranormal activities inside the house, and it follows precisely the order in which they were born. Steven is denial, in fact he refuses the possibility that Hill House might be haunted and responsible first for his mother’s, then for his sister’s death. Shirley is anger, she is in fact very judgmental and hard for the others to approach or communicate with. Theodora is bargaining: she is aware that Hill House is, very likely, haunted, but she tries to leave that behind her; she is also aware about her own power to see truths about people and places when touching them, but she tries to deal with it almost constantly wearing gloves, putting a wall between herself and the outside world, and only occasionally using her power to help others. Luke is depression: he tries to fight the memories of what he saw in Hill House by taking drugs, at the point of becoming an addict. Eleanor is acceptance: her apparent murder is what forces the family to come together and face reality once and for all, but especially, her ghost explains to her remaining siblings the mystery of the house. The Red Room, which they thought they never managed to open in the past, was in fact the heart, or stomach, of the house, putting on a different mask for each one of them, so that they would stay still while the house fed on them, on their energy, on their hopes and fears. A large part of the paranormal activity witnessed by the Crains was anyway the product of different moments in time overlapping; Eleanor herself saw for many years a ghost, which she called the Bent-Neck Lady, who later turned out to be her, after her death by hanging, looking back on her own life.
In the end, dealing with the paranormal world, so tightly connected to their grief, and accepting what happened, helps the remaining family members to find some sort of resolution, closure and reconciliation. In this case, talking about the paranormal activities, therefore about their pain, gives them a way to build bridges, to start communicating once again, and leaving behind the stage of grief in which they were trapped.
Through different forms of art and different genres, esotericism, in its wide conception, is – among other things – a way to narrate parts of the human life strongly connected to deep feelings, values and beliefs. I here took The Mists of Avalon as an example of esotericism – meant both as use of magic and spirituality – used as an instrument to represent values, faith and belief within society, with their influence on the life of women along with reality itself; I also used The Haunting of Hill House as an example of esotericism – this time meant as paranormal activities – used to represent family dynamics and the human relationship with grief, which might appear to the grieving person just as unexplainable and invincible as a haunted house.
Boguslawski, Julia von, Nina Kokkinen, and Tiina Mahlamäki. Moderni esoteerisuus ja okkultismi Suomessa. Tampere: Vastapaino, 2020.
El-Shamy, Hasan M., and Jane. Garry. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature : a Handbook. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
llman, Ruth et al. Monien uskontojen ja katsomusten Suomi. Tampere: Kirkon tutkimuskeskus, 2017.
TV Insider (last visited on 29/12/2021).