Witchcraft, Evil, and Memnoch the Devil: Esoteric and Theosophical Themes in Anne Rices New Orleans Fiction
by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at the annual meeting of The American Academy of Religion, New Orleans 1996 (a version has appeared in Theosophical History, vol. VI, n. 5, January 1997, pp. 173-179).
Anne Rice needs no introduction. More people come to New Orleans every year just to visit the haunted city of her novels (1)through authorized or unauthorized tours than for the 1996 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, as crowded as the latter may have been. The "Gatherings of the Coven", when Anne meets her fans in New Orleans (the last one was held on October 26, 1996), are memorable, glamorous, and -- to the fans -- mythological events, where their identity as fans is reinforced, if not redefined. Since Rices genre is what is commonly called "speculative fiction", and references to esoteric themes abound in her novels, it is worth asking what, if any, is the relationship between Rices novels and the modern occult and theosophical tradition(2). Although occult references may be found elsewhere in her work(3), I will focus on the two series of novels Lives of the Mayfair Witches and The Vampire Chronicles, both rich in references to New Orleans.
Lives of the Mayfair Witches: The Mystery of the Taltos
The Witching Hour, the first novel in the saga of a New Orleans family of witches, the Mayfair (and, according to many critics, Rices finest literary achievement), was published by Knopf in 1990(4). By that time, Knopf had already realized that Rice was a literary golden mine thanks to the success of her vampire cycle. The Witching Hour was followed by Lasher in 1993 and Taltos in 1994(5). Typically, Rices first novel of each cycle raises some questions about the exact nature of the beings involved but does not give all the answers. While the first novel -- in this case, The Witching Hour -- is more action-filled and fast-paced, the sequels become increasingly philosophical. Thus, in The Witching Hour we are told the generational story of thirteen female witches (and one male, Julien) of the Mayfair family from Scotland to continental Europe to the Caribbean and eventually to New Orleans. The witches are accompanied by a familiar spirit, Lasher, whose nature is never clearly explained in the novel. Lashers agenda is to "come through" in the world, and finally he finds his "doorway" in the thirteen witch of the family, the neurosurgeon Rowan Mayfair. Lasher masterminds Rowans marriage to Michael Curry (who, he and the readers will discover in a subsequent novel, is himself a descendant of the male witch Julien Mayfair). When Rowan becomes pregnant, Lasher fuses with her unborn child on Christmas Day 1989 and, born as an adult, escapes to Europe with her after having nearly killed the desperate Michael.
The Witching Hour is primarily about witches in New Orleans (at least two of them also involved in voudoun) who have the power to communicate with a spirit. The novel is particularly well written, but it is hardly original for witches to be able to call forth spirits. What however is original is what Lasher exactly is. In Lasher we finally learn the spirits origin. Rice starts from the legends claiming that Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and the mother of Elizabeth I, was in fact a witch. In Rices genealogy, Boleyn becomes the lover of one Douglas of Donnelaith. Douglas is a member of a special clan of the fictional village of Donnelaith, carrying a genetic anomaly (the "giant helix genes") enabling them, when mating with some witches (but not all), to procreate adult members of a race different from humanity, the taltos. Douglas and Anne Boleyn, thus, generate Lasher, who is subsequently killed in a Protestant massacre of the half-Catholic and half-pagan Donnelaith circa 1560. His spirit is called forth by Suzanne, the first Mayfair witch, one century late, in 1660, at Donnelaith.
Lasher, thus, is a taltos. We learn more about the taltos in the third novel, Taltos, but the basic truth about them is already revealed in Lasher. The taltos are a human-like, pre-adamite race, taller and stronger than human beings and capable of surviving for centuries. They are born as adults, and -- according to some of the scholars showing up in the novels with some real knowledge of the taltos -- they may live two lives, one shorter and one longer through reincarnation. They dominated the Earth long before human civilizations and most of them perished in a flood. Some, however, survived in an island close to Scotland, where they were eventually discovered by the conquering Romans. The latter tried to mate with taltos women in order to generate powerful warriors, but discovered that taltos female die when impregnated by human males. The Romans then tried to exterminate the taltos; but the pre-adamite survived in the Scottish Highlands and one of them, Ashlar (later venerated as Saint Ashlar although, unknown to most, he was in fact still alive), eventually converted to Christianity. The superstition of the peasants and the Protestant Reformation later killed almost all the taltos. Only a male, Ashlar, and a female, Tessa, survived, but Ashlar did not discover the existence of Tessa until 1990, and she is at any rate unable to bear children.
There would be no danger that the taltos take over again the world by multiplying very rapidly (as they can) were it not for some of the Mayfair witches. They are in fact able to be impregnated by male taltos (or by very special human beings such as Michael Curry) and generate new taltos (while ordinary human women and even weaker Mayfair witches when impregnated by male taltos die). Rowan, thus, generates a female taltos, Emaleth, from Lasher, but later realizes the danger and kills her daughter. Michael is seduced by the thirteen-year old but extremely powerful Mayfair witch, Mona, and she in turn gives birth to a female taltos, Morrigan. By this time the Mayfairs and Michael have met Ashlar, a real saint devoting the fortune he has accumulated through the centuries to charity and the good of humanity, and do not dare to deprive him after so many centuries from the companionship of a female taltos like Morrigan. Ashlar and Morrigan join together and leave to Donnelaith, leaving Anne Rice in trouble on how the continue the saga. She "was planning the sequel, which would be called Morrigan" about "Morrigan taking over the world with Ashs fortune". But she realized that "it got too big, too much comic book grandeur", too much "in the realm of science fiction"(6), and backed off. Although Rice says that she could "still do it"(7), for the time being we are left wondering what will happen to humanity if the two pre-adamite taltos, nice and kind as they may be, really decide to multiply and replenish the Earth.
Rice normally thinks and plans in term of sequels and prequels, not of single novels. The esoteric background is seldom revealed in the first novel, but unfolds gradually. In the witches cycle the more esoteric novel is Taltos; it is also the one where the action is slower. The latest novels of a cycle are thus of higher interest in terms of Rices use of esoteric concepts, but probably of lesser satisfaction for fans of page-turning horror. The whole idea of the taltos, at any rate,shows how much Rice is both indebted and close to the theosophical -- and perhaps also the Theosophical -- tradition. The taltos are basically a pre-adamite root-race who inhabited the Earth before the present humanity, with all the advantages of being closer to the Origin than we humans are. Pascal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) did indeed believe that pre-adamites survived to mate with Adams children(8), but he did not think that pre-adamites were very different from adamites, nor that they continued their existence as a separate race after merging with Adams sons. Rice is more close to the Theosophical idea of a pre-human and essentially different root-race, and asks the question what if some members of this root-race had survived to this very day.
The word taltos comes from Carlo Ginzburgs Ecstasies (9), where Rice found it used to designate some Hungarian shaman-sorcerers of the Middle Ages and liked it(10. Rice probably did not realize how deeply Hungarian táltos (the "a" has an accent in Hungarian) are connected to the ongoing debate on the genesis of another figure dear to her: the vampire. In opposition to the theory that vampire myths have existed always and everywhere, or originated in India or China, a number of European ethnologists have argued that the origins of the vampire are connected to the shamanic worldview of the relationship between life and death. A vampire is an anti-shaman (a figure opposite to the shaman) but some shamans (those who deal with the "group souls" of certain animals) may become vampires after their death. Among the shamans in danger of becoming vampires are precisely the Hungarian táltos. These theories have been proposed by Hungarian ethnologist Éva Pócs) (11), and approved by Italian scholar Carla Corradi Musi, a specialist of hugro-finnic philology, in a 1995 book on the origins of the vampire. (12)
The Vampire Chronicles and American Gnosticism
New Orleans is mentioned in each book of The Vampire Chronicles, and the narrative plan is similar to The Lives of the Mayfair Witches. The first two novels -- Interview With the Vampire, who quickly gained cult status and created the core group of Rices devotees, and The Vampire Lestat, who landed Rice in the New York Times best seller list (13) -- moves faster and raises questions answered later in the cycle. The third, The Queen of the Damned, proposes an elaborated mythology on the origins of the vampire in ancient Egypt (and confuses the reader with hundreds of characters) (14). The fourth, The Tale of the Body Thief, is an interlude, an occult thriller based on the time-honored idea that the ability of switching bodies, i.e. possessing with the magicians soul another persons body and vacating his or her own, could be acquired and mastered by a gifted psychic (only, this time the body the magician Raglan James exchanged with his own is the vampire Lestats, and the somewhat peculiar circumstance raises new problems)(15). But the real answers -- anticipated in The Queen of the Damned -- come in the fifth (and perhaps last) novel of the cycle, Memnoch the Devil. (16) As usual, the latter novel is of great interest to scholars of esoterica but may slightly disappoint some vampire fans for being too metaphysical. The specialized Journal of the Dark called it "more an exploration of theology and the inner workings of the soul than a tale about vampires"(17).
In the great 18th century European discussion about vampires those who were not skeptical about their existence followed, according to Antoine Faivres distinction, two different schools of thought: theological (the vampire are corpses animated by the Devil), and esoteric (the vampire phenomena arise from the astral body or one of the lesser souls) (18) . Rices Lestat de Lioncourt is a postmodern vampire and a gnostic anti-hero, engaged in a long quest to find the truth about the origin of the vampires. In The Queen of the Damned he is given an esoteric interpretation: around 4000 BC the spirit Amel, irritated with the Egyptian queen Akasha who has punished with a public rape the twin Palestinian witches who use to call him forth, Maharet and Mekare, causes the queens death in a revolt by a group of her subjects practicing cannibalism. Amel then enters her body and makes Akasha the first vampire. From then on, each vampire, starting from Akasha, by exchanging his or her blood with a victim, passes to the victim "the dark gift" (which is really Amels presence) and makes him or her a vampire. Who or what is Amel (not unlike who is Lasher in The Witching Hour) remains however unclear.
Memnoch the Devil delivers the truth about Amel, and much more. Lestat the hunter is hunted himself by a mysterious "Stalker", who finally introduces himself as the Devil, whose real and preferred name is not Satan but Memnoch. The Devil lures Lestat by offering him a tour to Heaven and Hell. In fact, Memnoch takes Lestat in a journey through time where Lestat re-experiences the creation, the great controversy between God and the Devil, and the Redemption itself. When God creates human beings, the angels, and Memnoch particularly, journey to Earth out of curiosity to watch humans and occasionally to mate with human women (a story confusedly recorded in the Bible). They also discover that humans are capable of violence, suffer, die, and go to a sad place called Sheol, with an uncertain destiny. Memnoch the Devil pleads the case of humans with God and wins a chance for them to be admitted into Heaven. God authorizes Memnoch to take from Sheol to Heaven some worthy souls. Human beings being what they are, however, only less than one out of a hundred souls in Sheol, when tried, are found worthy to join the angels in Heaven. Memnoch wants something to be done also for the other souls. Most of them, in fact, remain confused in the Sheol and may even become earthbound and dangerous for human beings like Amel, a spirit who forgets that he has once been human and ends up creating vampires (Lestat, thus, receives the final answer on how vampires originated, at least assuming that the Devil is telling the truth).
Gods plan for redeeming the souls is then unfolded, and what Lestat sees is very much the Christian history of salvation through the covenant with Israel and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Devil, however, insists that Gods plan is all wrong. By coming in the flesh and allowing humans to crucify him, God has exalted violence and suffering rather than removing it from Earth as Memnoch had suggested. Besides, according to Memnoch, God incarnated without removing entirely his consciousness of being God, with the result that his experience of suffering is not complete. As a result, Christs mission delivers many souls from the Sheol, but not all. Memnoch pleads again for those still in the Sheol. This time God looks positively annoyed, and transforms Sheol into Hell, banishing Memnoch there as the Devil. Memnochs Hell resembles more an unorthodox Catholic purgatory: it is not eternal and is a place where, tutored by the Devil, lost souls learn how they could eventually ascend to Heaven.
Memnoch asks Lestat to remain in Hell and work with him. Unconvinced by Memnochs story, and feeling the incredible sadness of the place, Memnoch escapes and lands back in Manhattan (where his journey had started) having, in the process, lost an eye and gained Veronicas veil with the true image of Jesus Christ. When the veil is exhibited in St. Patricks Cathedral the worst religious fanaticism erupts among humans and vampires alike (some of the latter commit suicide). Even Lestat starts behaving in a strange way, and older vampires confine him in a New Orleans orphanage. There, he returns to his (so to speak) normal self, and eventually receives back his missing eye and a cryptic message of thanks from the Devil for a job well done, that leaves him wondering whether the explosion of fanaticism was not what the Devil was really after.
Apart from the satiric depiction of religious fanaticism (here in mainline Christianity, in Servant of the Bones in new religious movements), Rice has indicated that she may actually believe in Memnochs gnostic cosmology(19). And gnostic her cosmology is, involving a God who, as Memnoch suggests, perhaps created the world in order to know more about how he himself became God in the first place. The controversy between two different salvation plans, conceived respectively by God and by the Devil, the latter not involving suffering, is strangely reminiscent of Mormonism. There is no evidence that Rice is familiar with Mormonism, but her cosmology and Joseph Smiths may perhaps share common roots in what Harold Bloom has called in his controversial book The American Religion the American gnostic tradition. (20)
Rice was raised a New Orleans Catholic, became a liberal atheist in California, and now claims to believe "more and more" in God and to regard as increasingly "pompous" the fashionable and politically correct Californian atheism of her liberal friends(21). She has also suggested that Memnoch be read together with her 1996 ghost novel Servant of the Bones(22), giving the Gnostic Gospels of Enoch, Thomas and Mary as sources for both. Rice also mentions Mircea Eliade and Jeffrey Burton Russell as two scholars with a great influence on her novels.
Servant of the Bones is not a New Orleans story, but a cabalistic tale about a young Jew, Azriel, who is able to speak with the lesser god Marduk during the Babylonian captivity, and is reduced to a ghost imprisoned in his bones by a conspiracy of evil witches and priests. Azriel could be called through the bones, but since he was not evil in life he could refuse to obey evil masters. He ends up killing his last master, Gregory Belkin, the leader of a dangerous cult who threatens to take over the world through large scale terrorism. Apart from the shadows of both power-hungry televangelists and Aum Shinri-kyo, Servant of the Bones is full of cabalistic allusions and subplots, and reiterates the message that gnostic knowledge could triumph over evil.
Rices mythological system also includes a secret society, the Talamasca, who from the Middle Ages investigates paranormal phenomena and keeps under watch both the vampires and the Mayfair witches. The order is not without risks (one of the leaders try to control the taltos following a crazy power trip of his own, and another -- a much nicer character -- is so friend with Lestat that eventually becomes a vampire), but is also not without the noble greatness of a true esoteric order. What the Talamasca ultimately understands is that taltos and vampires, as intermediate spirits, are necessary (as angels are) in order to understand the true nature of the universe. And the crucial role of intermediate spirits is, according to Antoine Faivre, one of the very marks of esotericism (23).
Anne Rice has often indicated that she hopes to be taken seriously by the academia and (while cultivating the folklore of colourful fans) does not particularly like to be regarded as a mass market author. She has found some audience in English Departments throughout the United States. The above remarks suggest that -- as her fiction increasingly gravitates toward esoteric themes, gnosticism and Kabbalah -- she may engage in a fruitful debate with scholars of religion, theosophy and the hermetic tradition.
(1) See Joy Dickinson, Haunted City. An Unauthorized Guide to the Magical, Magnificent New Orleans of Anne Rice, Citadel Press - Carol Publishing Group, New York 1995.
(2) In accordance to common practice, I use "theosophical" to describe a certain esoteric style and "Theosophical" (with a capital T) to identify the worldview of the Theosophical Society and its splinter groups.
(3) For an overview of Rices work see Bette B. Roberts, Anne Rice (Twaynes United States Authors Series No. 644), Twayne, New York 1994.
(4) Anne Rice, The Witching Hour, Knopf, New York 1990.
(5) Anne Rice, Lasher, Knopf, New York 1993; Taltos, Knopf, New York 1994.
(6) Michael Riley, Conversations with Anne Rice, Ballantine Books, New York 1996, p.287.
(8) Pascal Beverly Randolph, Pre-Adamite Man: Demonstrating the Existence of Human Race Upon this Earth 100,000 Thousand Years Ago!, Randolph Publishing Company, Toledo (Ohio) 1888, p. 41.
(9) Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath, Penguin, New York 1989.
(10) According to Katherine Ramsland, The WitchesCompanion. The Official Guide to Anne Rices "Lives of the Mayfair Witches", Ballantine Books, New York 1994, p. 434.
(11) Éva Pócs, "Hungarian Táltos and His European Parallels", in M. Hoppál - J. Pentikäinen (eds.), Uralic Mythology and Folklore, Ethnographic Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences - Finnish Literature Society, Budapest and Helsinki 1989, pp. 240-258; Pócs, Tündérek, Démonok, bószorkányok, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest 1989.
(12) Carla Corradi Musi, Vampiri europei e vampiri dellarea sciamanica, Rubettino, Soveria Mannelli (Catanzaro) and Messina 1995.
(13) Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire, Knopf, New York 1976; The Vampire Lestat, Knopf, New York 1985.
(14) Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned, Knopf, New York 1988.
(15) Anne Rice, The Tale of the Body Thief, Knopf, New York 1992.
(16) Anne Rice, Memnoch the Devil, Knopf, New York 1995.
(17) Larry "Chester" While, review of Memnoch the Devil, Journal of the Dark, no. 5, Winter 1995/1996, p. 15.
(18) Antoine Faivre, "Du Vampire villageois aux discours des clercs (Genèse dun imaginaire à laube des Lumières)", in Colloque de Cerisy. Les Vampires, Albin Michel, Paris 1993, pp. 45-74; see also Tony Faivre, Les Vampires. Essai historique, critique et littéraire, Eric Losfeld - Le Terrain Vague, Paris 1962
(19) M. Riley, op.cit., pp. 281-282.
(20) See Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon and Schuster, New York 1992.
(21) Ibid., p. 159.
(22) Ibid., p. 283. See Anne Rice, Servant of the Bones, Knopf, New York 1996.
(23) Antoine Faivre, LÉsotérisme, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1992, p. 16.
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