Undoubtedly the most archaeological of Kenneth Anger’s works, ‘Lucifer Rising’ opens with images of volcanic activity, perhaps symbolic of the social upheaval believed to mark the onset of the Aeon of the Horus. From this we head to the Egyptian desert, where we encounter Isis (Myriam Gibril) and then Osiris (Donald Seaton Cammell), the embodiment of the two Thelemic ages proceeding that of Horus, standing upon the ruins of some unidentified ancient building. There, we switch to the activities of a ceremonial magician (Hayden Couts) in his own temple before returning to Egypt, where we witness Lilith (Marianne Evelyn Gabriel Faithfull) awakening on the banks of the Nile and surveying the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids at Giza.
From Egypt, we are transported to the United Kingdom to be presented by the magician arriving at the Neolithic, Bronze Age monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Next, we are taken to the unique geological formation of Externsteine in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, which has long been associated (rightly or wrongly) with pre-Christian rites; here, Lilith ascends the stairs to the top of the peak and views the rising sun. Back in the occultist’s temple, where images of Aleister Crowley and the Stele of Revealing appear, we encounter Lord Chaos (Sir Francis Cyril Rose) in the centre of a magic circle. Once more in Egypt, there are scenes of Lilith approaching an ancient temple while Isis and Osiris walk through the pillars of Karnak. There are scenes at the United Kingdom’s site of Avebury, where the magician views the coming storm, before we return, finally, to Egypt, where a luminescent orange unidentified flying object flies above a statue of Ramesses II at Luxor.
‘Lucifer Rising’ is a religious film. Its main theme is the arrival of the Aeon of Horus, watched over by Isis and Osiris. This coming era is marked by storm clouds and Lilith, symbolising the chaos that Aleister Crowley believed would accompany the birth of the new Aeon. Here, Lucifer is not the malevolent fallen angel of Christian mythology, but an embodiment of the Aeon of Horus, the Crowned and Conquering Child; this reflects Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Anger’s willingness to utilize Christian belief, but not to actually accept its objective reality as a framework for explaining the cosmos. The film is an artistic depiction of one of the core beliefs of the Thelemic religion and thus could feasibly be understood as a work of proselytization designed to encourage conversion among the audience. Ironically perhaps for a film that lasts only thirty-minutes in length, it would take Kenneth Anger fourteen years from developing the idea of ‘Lucifer Rising’ to actually releasing it. In 1971, he obtained a little over $16,000 of financial aid from the United Kingdom’s National Film Finance Corporation, much to the dismay of The Telegraph, allowing him to fly his cast out to both Germany and Egypt for the filming. Kenneth Anger also employed fellow Aleister Crowley-enthusiast Jimmy Patrick Page of Led Zeppelin to score the movie’s soundtrack, but after their friendship ended acrimoniously, Kenneth Anger turned to old friend Robert Kenneth Beausoleil to produce the soundtrack from within California’s Tracy Prison, where he had been imprisoned for his role in the Manson Family murders.
Scholars of film studies have read various different meanings and themes in the film, which proved to be Kenneth Anger’s final major work. Benjamin Rowe suggested that in welcoming the Aeon of Horus, it represents a “happy ending” that broke with the earlier nihilism of the ‘Magick Lantern Cycle.’ According to Benjamin Rowe, the film “attempts to transcend the passive-active dialectics of power and the sexual preoccupations of adolescence,” in which the “cult of arrested adolescence is replaced by the fulfilment of its longing: reaffirmation of identity through spiritual communion between man, gods and nature.” Mikita Brottman thought that ‘Lucifer Rising’ was “intended to function like a spell, invoking feelings of anxiety and trauma in the film’s audience through a free-form exercise in dream imagery,” while Tobias Stanislas Haller described it as “a celebration, and an invocation, of the power of Magick to summon forth the forces of nature.”
In utilising ancient Egypt throughout the film, Kenneth Anger was working within a current of thought that had a long pedigree in Western esotericism. Among the first academics to discuss this approach was David Hornung, who described it as “Egyptosophy,” a term which he defined as “the study of an imaginary Egypt viewed as the profound source of all esoteric lore.” Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince instead termed this esoteric interest in Khemet “alternative Egyptology,” while Jordan Valley has characterised the object of its fascination quite succinctly as “Esoteric Egypt.” In Late Classical Greece, Neoplatonic philosophers had begun to muse on the idea that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were not a simple alphabet but were instead mystical symbols of esoteric importance, an idea later adopted by esotericists during the Renaissance. In subsequent centuries, various esoteric orders adopted elements of Egyptology into their symbolism and mythos: among them the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and Theosophists. Being a keen exponent of such esoteric thought, it was little surprise that Aleister Crowley pulled Egypt into his Thelemic worldview. Tully argued that Aleister Crowley chose Egypt as the location of his Thelemic foundation tale because he was “working in a structure that privileged Egypt as a source of Hermetic authority.” In 1898, Aleister Crowley had been initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ceremonial magic group based in London, and would subsequently rise to prominence within its ranks during a major schism the following year. The Golden Dawn had been influenced by occult interpretations of ancient Egypt, making use of excerpts of translated ancient Egyptian texts like ‘The Book of the Dead’ within its rituals, and wearing costumes often influenced by pharaonic dress. Although much of this predates Kenneth Anger’s work by decades and even centuries, it reflects the broader intellectual movement within which he had been working, and which was a clear influence on his work; ‘Lucifer Rising’ is, in effect, a mid-twentieth-century manifestation of Egyptosophy or alternative Egyptology.