I received a strange knock on my afternoon door earlier this week, followed by the sound of something hitting the wood floor in the hallway and hurried footsteps fading down the stairs. Opening the door, a large white envelope stared up at me, the unblinking red postmark stamp as omniscient as the eye of Solomon.
I grabbed the package, closed the door and locked it. The new Black Swan DVD had arrived.
Darren Aronofsky’s tale-within-a-tale, Black Swan was one of last year’s best films. Many are familiar with the Oscar-nominated flick’s re-telling of the Swan Lake ballet to create a psychological horror flick that explores the perils of artistic perfection.
The movie has rightly earned it’s place among genre classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie and — like the former — Black Swan is rife with occult symbolism and references that add weight to the scary-movie-cliches, making this bloody ballet one of those unique films that define a genre at the same time that it transcends the limits of that genre’s conventions.
Of course, the central symbol of the film is the heroine’s (Nina — played by Natalie Portman) gradual crack-up into two separate personalities. This mental breakdown reflects the ballet’s protagonist/antagonist duality embodied by the White Swan and the Black Swan. Traditionally, these characters are portrayed by the same dancer and while Nina is the right dancer for the White Swan her attempts to embody the Black Swan are where her troubles begin.
In ancient Egypt, the twin rivals Horus and Set embodied primal duality, and twin symbolism has long been associated with all occurrences of opposites sun and moon, night and day, summer and winter etc. The good folks at hermetic.com offer this list of contrasts between Egypt’s Terrible Twins:
Day Night Life Death Fire Water Slayer Slain Bursting-forth of life Withdrawal of life and its reappearance later Openly active Secretive Conqueror & King Victim & Rebel Hawk, Lion, & Ram Serpent, Antelope, Hippo Rises into the sky Descends into the Earth Steals Set’s virility Throws filth in face of Horus
Often, another kind of twin symbolism emphasizes the balancing aspect of opposites. The caduceus staff with its entwining snakes has come to represent both the Greek god Hermes and the Roman god Mercury, but it is thought by some to have originally been a representation — in and of itself — of a more ancient deity. Borrowed by alchemy, the symbol of the crucified serpent became synonymous with the Philosopher’s Stone and poet John Donne referred to Jesus Christ as the crucified serpent.
In Black Swan, the twin symbolism is strictly played antagonistically between the White Swan/Black Swan, Good Nina/Evil Nina, between Nina and a newly-added rival dancer in the company who lacks Nina’s expertise but oozes the sexuality and liberation that Nina cannot seem to summon.
Throughout the film, Aronofsky uses mirrors and reflections to further emphasize Nina’s gradual splitting into two distinct personalities. In some ways this is a technique that simply reinforces the twins theme, but the symbolism of mirrors and reflections has its own specific implications.
Mirrors have long been used in the occult for magical work and the twin-creating power of mirrors is reinforced when one considers that mercury was once the preferred backing used to make glass reflective. Mirror magic has been used to divine the future, contact otherworldly beings/dimensions and — more to the point regarding Black Swan – to peer directly into the chaos of the subconscious mind. From the Prophetic Mystic site:
The purpose of a magical mirror, contrary to popular belief, is not to summon ghosts and have them give you answers, magical spells, or even to place a curse. In psychological terms, it can best be described as a form of psychoanalysis whereby an individual attempts to create a direct connection with the subconscious by suppressing the Id and Ego. Rather than restricting the unconscious to the confines within the mind, a seer is able to visually project the unconscious within the mirror. By projecting the unconscious visually, the desired subject of analysis becomes tangible and not so abstract.
In terms of mysticism, the unconscious is direct link to our psychic interpretation and divine inspiration. In psychological terms, it would best be associated to what Carl Jung described as the ‘Collective Unconscious.’ Specific cultural archetypes, as Jung described, are able to be found universally through this Collective Unconscious, or that common inner experience that we all share. The projections of these archetypes, such as angelic beings or demons, are simple representations of one’s inner self that can be projected within the mirror and confronted.
The mirror, as a tool for this psychoanalytical purpose, functions solely through the individual. What an individual perceives through the mirror is solely based upon their perception and the very limits of their own subconscious which becomes reflected in the mirror. In other words, what you are opening up to subconsciously plays out virtually on the mirror.
Check out this exhaustive examination of the the film and its symbols at Vigilant Citizen.