in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” appeared in theaters in February, 2004. I saw the movie in a local theater in early March. The film had raised a great deal of controversy regarding its accuracy and the way it portrayed the people who had condemned Christ to death. The beatings of Jesus and the bloodiness of the portrayal of the events prior to and during his crucifixion had been reported to me by one previous viewer as revolting and excessive. I had also heard that the film had been “approved” by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church and that local churches were giving tickets to parishioners to see the film. Despite its R-rating, I had heard that church people were encouraging children and adolescents to see the movie. Some local Christians were praising the film for its redemptive and evangelical value. At the time of this writing, the film was already a box-office smash, promising to rank among the top-earning movies in theater history. What I write here is based on my own sensibilities, and my subjective response to the movie, as well as some of my interpretations of Jung, Neumann, and the archetypes of the collective unconscious.
When I first entered the theater I noticed the usual crowd of people buying popcorn, candy, and sodas. It was a matinee showing. I saw the picture for a second time, again in a matinee showing, but stayed for the beginning of the evening showing. The evening showing of the film was quite crowded with children and adolescents, some of whom seemed not to be accompanied by an adult. In both showings there was a table with Christian literature, free copies of the New Testament, and a flier entitled “The Passion of Christ” (Laurie, 2003). An elderly man, with a large cross hanging from his neck, was standing at the door of the theater during both showings, handing out this flyer and an invitation to join his church for a discussion after the movie or on an alternate date. The flyer enjoined moviegoers to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and lauded the film as “a moving and factual account of the last words ever spoken by the One whom millions know as Savior.”
The Passion depicts the last twelve hours in the life of Christ. It is drawn from the Gospels of the standard Bible, with considerable additions and elaborations, and is spoken primarily in the Aramaic language with English subtitles. In the first scene, we see the full moon, symbol of the archetypal feminine and the light of wisdom (Neumann, 1972). The moon is also a principle of Mary as the Cosmic Female, Mother Goddess, or Great Mother (Neumann, 1972). Jesus seemed to be looking up at the full moon during his prayers, and the moon cast a visible light on the trees and rocks surrounding him. The symbols of the earth, the rocks, and the garden again reflect the archetypal female principal, in its most basic or fundamental, or vegetative form, as the giver of life and the matrix of birth and rebirth (Neumann, 1972).
In the first scene of the Passion, Jesus and
his disciples had gone to a place that has come to be known in tradition as in
The scene briefly switches to Judas accepting money from the Jewish authorities for betraying Jesus, and then back to the garden, where Jesus again goes to pray under the full moon. As he prays, a voice is heard tempting him to give up his mission. To his right appears a demonic person with a black hood and cloak, with blue eyes and no facial hair, of ambiguous gender, with a worm crawling into one of its nostrils. I will henceforth refer to this entity as “the demon,” as its gender remains unclear. The demon told Jesus that he could not take on the sins of the world. Jesus resolved to do the will of God. Then a snake, or serpent, if you will, crawled out from under the demon’s cloak, to the right hand of Jesus, whereupon Jesus stood up and stepped on the snake, crushing it.
I have read the gospels many times, and have found in them a great deal of wisdom and solace. I was certain that there was no such demon in the garden of the gospels. I have checked again, and have found no mention of such an entity in the descriptions of Christ’s prayers in the garden, which occupy brief passages in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke (22. 43), an angel appeared to Jesus while he was praying, strengthening him.
Having been born and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, I am well accustomed to the statues depicting the Mary or the Madonna with a snake under her foot, so the image of the snake evoked the archetype of the Madonna or Great Mother. The archetype of the anti-Madonna was evoked during the Roman brutalization of Christ in the Passion when Jesus was confronted by the demon holding an infant in his arms. The infant was hideous, with evil eyes, and dark hair on its body. The infant was reminiscent of the white mutant fetuses I had seen in preserved in formalin in medical school. The bestial hair on the infant evoked primitive images of half-human creatures. The demon and the infant smiled hideously as Jesus was scourged by the Roman soldiers, who were taking a sadistic glee in the bloody punishment, as if infected by the demonic presence.
In Jungian terms, the snake, the demon, and the infant evoked the shadow side of the Passion’s portrayal of Jesus, projected from his own psyche, or, perhaps more accurately, from our own psyche, in the depths of the collective unconscious. The serpent or snake was likely a reference to the temptation of Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, in keeping with the meaning of the scene. In mythology (Neumann, 1970, 1972), the serpent commonly represents the most primitive and undifferentiated element of the unconscious, the uroboros. The uroboros is the symbol of the serpent eating its tail. The uroboros gives rise to the uroboric mother, who embodies both the male and female principles. Thus the ambiguous identity of the demon reflects her identification with the snake. To the ordinary viewer, the demon was the external evil, perhaps Satan to some Christian viewers.
There was a peculiar correspondence between the demon following Jesus and Mary, the Mother, also following him as he endured inhuman torments, which seemed to be evoked by the influence of the demon. The whipping and beating of Christ continued as Jesus carried the cross in the passion. Mary -- the Mother, Mary Magdalene, and John the apostle followed him through the ordeal of bearing the cross. At one point the camera flashed back and forth between the Mother and the demon, and while Mary was weeping and consoling Jesus, she seemed powerless to diminish the brutality, and the demon’s infectious influence seemed to dominate the events as it appeared in brief film-bites.
The scene of the temptation of Christ by the demon set the stage for the rest of the movie. The demon seemed to cause mass hysteria and the infliction of bloody wounds on the body of Jesus throughout most of the film. I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but my reading clearly indicates that the demon and the snake were introduced by the filmmakers of “The Passion of the Christ.” They were clearly intended to be symbols of an external evil. I think it goes beyond artistic license to substitute a torturing demon for an angel of mercy in a document that is sacred to millions of people.
The external evil can then be assumed to be responsible for the brutality inflicted on Jesus in the movie. As a movie-goer, I found the brutality directed at Jesus offensive, and can find little Biblical evidence to justify its enormity or graphic basis. In Mark (15. 15) it states that Jesus was scourged by the Roman soldiers prior to being delivered over for crucifixion. Having been brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, I have seen many crucifixes depicting the body of Christ, and the only marks I recall are from the crown of thorns and the wounds of the nails and the spear in his side.
The bloody sacrifice, which is so graphic in the movie dates back, in mythological terms, to primitive matriarchal cultures and religions. As Neumann (1970) notes in The Origins and History of Consciousness: “Worshiped from Egypt to India, from Greece and Asia Minor to darkest Africa, the Great Mother was always regarded as a goddess of the chase and of war; her rites were bloody, her festivals orgiastic. All these features are essentially interconnected…The womb of the earth clamors for fertilization, and blood sacrifices are the food she likes best. This is the terrible aspect, the deadly side of the earth’s character…Slaughter and sacrifice, dismemberment and offering of blood, are magical guarantees of earthly fertility.” Neumann goes on to write: “Originally the victim was the male, the fertilizing agent, since fertilization is only possible through libations of blood in which life is stored. The female earth needs the fertilizing blood-seed of the male.” Such rituals were co-opted by patriarchal religions, but their archetypal significance and unconscious meaning remains the same. Although the characters of Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene are portrayed throughout the movie as good and caring, they do soak up the blood in the courtyard with white clothes after the scourging of Jesus by the Roman soldiers, receiving, in a sense, the blood sacrifice to the Great Mother. So, once again, we have the archetype of the Terrible Mother, primitive as it might seem, demanding blood sacrifice, here is the Third Millennium.
The image of the full moon, in the context of the first scene of the Passion, reminded me of the archetype of the Cosmic Female. When I was a child I would often visit my Italian grandmother's home. Her bedroom was kept dark, with red candles burning on an alter on the bureau next to her bed. This was the world of the collective unconscious that she entered every night during sleep. Behind the alter was a mirror which had photos of her dead relatives and friends. Above the mirror was a large picture of a lady dressed in a white gown that was bathed in light, set amidst the blackness of space. Below her feet was the moon, and above her head was an arc of twelve stars. It was the numinous image of the Mother in Heaven.
Goddess religions preceded male conceptions of God, and occupy the bulk of prehistory and thus of the collective unconscious process, which recapitulates our ancestral history. Isis (Neumann 1970) and Kali (Harding, 1993) were foundational to later patriarchal religions. Kali, in particular, embodies both the aspects of the Good and the Terrible Mothers (Harding, 1993). Later, more evolved archetypes of the higher female consciousness or the transcendent aspect of the feminine include the Taras and the female saints, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas. Patriarchal religions have sometimes found it necessary to revert to the primacy of the Goddess. The Catholic references to Mary as the Mother of God and as to the Assumption the Mary into Heaven are examples of this phenomenon.
So what of the externalized evil, magnified by the enormous brutality of the Passion? The Shroud of Turin, legitimate of not, does represent an image of the archetype of Christ, and shows no evidence of such brutal beating. Why would one want to see one’s Savior beaten in such a gratuitous fashion? Perhaps there is some vicarious satisfaction to be gained in the primitive sacrifice of blood. Certainly there is an increased need for retribution against those who represent the external evil, the shadow of our own collective selves. We see this, in the Passion, in the little children morphing into demonic creatures as they taunt Judas to commit suicide, in the graphic depiction of the suicide of Judas, and, most markedly, in the black bird pecking out the eyes of the mocking non-believer on the cross to the right of Jesus. The latter is most certainly not in the Gospels. The psychological torture of Judas by the demonic children seems to involve the pervasive influence of the demon, but the distinction seems to be blurred with the wrath of God. There is a brief flash to the demon, with its demonic smile, as the children are chasing Judas to the site of his suicide. The pecking out of the eyes of the man on cross seems to be more clearly portrayed as an act of God, but has a very primitive quality. The bird is, archetypically, reminiscent of the Egyptian hawk-god Horus, son of Isis (Neumann, 1973). The black bird is yet another expression of the shadow side of the Jesus of the Passion.
In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Jung, 1969), first published in 1934 and published in revised form in 1954, Carl Jung speaks directly regarding the collective unconscious of the theater: “The mass is swayed by a participation mystique, which is nothing other than an unconscious identity. Supposing, for example, you go to the theatre: glance meets glance, everybody observes everybody else, so that all those who are present are caught up in an invisible web of mutual unconscious relationship.” Jung goes on to state: “Since this is such an easy and convenient way of raising one’s personality to an exalted rank, mankind has always formed groups which made collective experiences of transformation – often of an ecstatic nature – possible.” The participation mystique is a phenomenon first described by anthropologist Levy-Bruhl in his study of the rituals of primitive peoples, but has also been used to describe the relation of infant to its mother. Levy-Bruhl used this term to describe the primitive experience of human thought processes happening in nature itself. So Jung goes on to state: “The regressive identification with lower and more primitive states of consciousness is invariably accompanied by a heightened sense of life; hence the quickening effect of regressive identifications with half-animal ancestors in the Stone Age.” The bestial nature of the infant is thus an example of the regressive identification which sometimes characterizes the participation mystique.
The audiences’ reactions during the two matinee showings I attended seemed to be mostly silent -- glued to the screen, as it were. One woman, who was alone, was crying almost continuously during the torment of Jesus, while another, who was with a male companion, was crying at intervals and saying “Oh, God,” and “Oh, no,” during some of the more brutal moments in the torment of Christ. One man was stroking his mustache throughout most of the torment. The children and adolescents I observed during the initial period of the evening showing seemed to be having a good time.
archetypes of the shadow are prevalent in the Passion, and seem to be in
control over the events occurring during the last twelve hours in the life of
Christ. Throughout his work Jung warned
of the dangers the externalization of the shadow side of the mass psyche. Continuing in the same passage from Jung quoted
earlier (1969): “The inevitable psychological regression within the group is
partially counteracted by ritual…But if there is no relation to a centre which
expresses the unconscious through its symbolism, the mass psyche inevitably
becomes the hypnotic focus of fascination, drawing everyone under its
spell. That is why masses are always
breeding-grounds of psychic epidemics, the events in
The mother-complex is described by Jung (1969) as inclusive of the mother, as the matrix of all experience, and the father, which is the “dynamism of the archetype, for the archetype consists of both – form and energy,” and is epitomized by the Great Mother, or grandmother. The “negative side” of the mother archetype, the androgynous Bad Mother or Terrible Mother, is symbolized by the demon in “The Passion of the Christ.” The demon’s influence over the events of the movie is infectious, and may also be unconsciously infectious to the audience, through the processes of the participation mystique and projective identification. Jung (1969) notes that as the separation of the unconscious from the unconscious increases, the polarity of good and evil in the archetypes of the collective unconscious also increases, and the danger of mass hysteria and violence increases. The polarity between the conscious good and the unconscious evil, projected largely as the demon, are quite striking in the Passion. It is frankly alarming that this movie may represent and further influence the spiritual psyche of its viewing audience.
The Great Mother in the Passion is
represented, in her various aspects, by the Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene,
and the demon. The demon’s presence in
the Passion is at times almost subliminal, as if it were meant to cause some
kind of unconscious infection. As Jung
(1969) notes: “On the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything
secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours,
seduces and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate.” Jung goes further to specifically address the
dual nature of the Madonna archetype: “Perhaps the historical example of the
dual nature of the mother most familiar to us is the Virgin Mary, who is not
only the Lord’s mother, but also, according to medieval allegories, his
In the Gospels of the Bible it is written that Jesus said that, to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must again become as little children. For this reason, I find the demonizing of the infant and the children in the Passion disturbing, and frankly anti-Christian. The sayings of Jesus might be better reflected in The Gospel of Thomas (Lambdin, 1990) which is a part of the texts recovered on the Egyptian desert in 1945, than in the standard Biblical gospels. Some scholars believe that The Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with its apocryphal counterpart, is the most accurate reflection of the teachings of Jesus. Helmut Koestler (1990) writes: “If one considers the form and the wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas almost always appears to have preserved a more original form of the traditional sayings…or present versions which are independently based on more original forms.” It is written in The Gospel of Thomas (verse 22): “Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, ‘These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’” Later in the same verse Jesus’ disciples ask him: “Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?” Jesus answers “When you make the two one, and when your make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same… then will you enter [the kingdom].” Elsewhere in the Gospel of Thomas, which I have in another translation, Jesus is reported to have said that the kingdom is spread out over the whole earth, but people do not see it. Although the Passion may be an “evangelical tool,” it is unlikely to bring about the perception of heaven on earth with its dark and brutal images.
In the Passion we see Jesus portrayed as the embodiment of the apotheosis of the ego. Apotheosis of the ego is its assumption of the status of God, and is inferred by the presence of the demonic shadow of the ego-persona in the garden, which was inserted by the filmmakers in the place of the Biblical angel. In a subtle way, what Mel Gibson is delivering to us is a kind of “Passion of the Anti-Christ,” a Christ whose ego has been identified as God. He is therefore haunted and tormented by his own demonic shadow, which is externalized as the numinous images of the demon and demonic infant. Demonic images are, sadly, the most prominent numinous images in the film, and are thus those that possess the power of the archetypes and of the participation mystique. The Passion fails to present Jesus as one who has transcended ego-consciousness and realized the True Self that is Universal in all of us. It fails to portray the beauty and numinosity of Christ, as exemplified by the depictions of Christ in many great works of art, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta (Figure). Instead, it gives us the image of a man that is literally bloodied and wounded over every inch or his body. The religious images of the film are primitive, pitting the good Christ against an externalized evil. Because if its violence and demonic themes, the film could cause psychological harm to some individuals, particularly children and adolescents. In terms of the collective spirituality, the film is regressive and potentially damaging.
Figure: Michelangelo’s Pieta
Koestler, H (1990) Introduction to The Gospel of Thomas. In The Nag Hammadi Library. J. M. Robinson, Ed., Harper:
· Laurie, G. (200s) The Passion of the Christ. Icon Distribution, Inc. 5p.
Neumann, E. (1970/1954) The
Origins and History of Consciousness. Translated by R. F. C. Hull.
Neumann, E. (1972/1955) The
Great Mother: An Analysis of an Archetype. Translated by R. Manhiem.
Lambdin, T. O., Translator (1990) The Gospel of Thomas. In The Nag Hammadi Library. J. M. Robinson, Ed., Harper:
Harding, E. U. (1993) Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. Nicholas-Hayes, Inc.:
Jung, C. J. (1969/1954) The
Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. In Four