The Ninth Gate: occult and tarot-like symbolism in the engravings by Aristide Torchia and Lucifer
The Ninth Gate is probably one of my favourite movies of all time, as is the official soundtrack. A film by Roman Polanski, it stars Johnny Depp as the ambivalent protagonist, Lucas Corso; and features an incredible performance by Frank Langella as the brazen, smug and sinister collector of all things diabolical – Boris Balkan – a wealthy man where money and morals are no obstacle to acquiring books that deal with the Devil.
The film is an adaptation of The Dumas Club, a book written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
I’m a huge fan of H.P.Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos cycle of stories which provide unnerving glimpses of a pantheon of Outer Gods and their minions, writhing obscenely within alien vortices of inarticulate sounds and invisible light, sometimes only just beyond the perceptions of ordinary folk. The cosmic horror of the Mythos has nothing to do with this movie which limits itself to the spiritual, psychological and metaphysical menace of Evil, and all its many incarnations within the Quantisphere (the realm of Man, Spirits, Elementals and Angels & Demons).
However, the central theme of the story is an investigation into an enigmatic and much-coveted book of ancient and some would say ‘forbidden’ lore. And this dials directly into a key theme of Lovecraft, where terrible secrets and sanity-shredding knowledge ‘from beyond’ are woven into the insane ramblings of madmen and devoted cultists.
Some books should never be opened.
Nor should such secrets be pursued.
Here, the book in question is the “De Umbrarum Regis Novum Portis”, translated as “The Nine Doors To the Kingdom of Shadows” or the “Nine Gates” for short. The Nine Gates was written by Aristide Torchia whilst in Venice, in 1666, reputedly whilst in possession of the Delomelanicon – an apocryphal book allegedly written by Lucifer itself. Torchia’s book contains nine woodcut engravings that purported to be copies of those made by Lucifer in of the Delomelanicon. More, it is said that the Nine Gates contains within it the secret to raise the Devil.
SPOILER ALERT: This article will ruin the film if you have not seen it. If this is the case then I can’t recommend strongly enough that you pause here and take the time to watch The Ninth Gate and savour this detective thriller and the esoteric puzzles contained within.
“They form a kind of satanic riddle. Correctly interpreted with the aid of the original text and sufficient inside information, they are reputed to conjure up the Prince of Darkness in person.
– Boris Balkan: speaking of the engravings in the Nine Gates
Only three copies of the Nine Gates are said to have survived after Torchia was burned along with his work in 1667.
Just as the film begins, Andrew Telfer, the owner of one of the three copies, commits suicide by hanging himself.
Boris Balkan acquires this copy and so events unfold that lead Corso, a specialist in rare books, to travel to France and Portugal to examine the only two other copies in existence. One is owned by Baroness Kessler and the other resides in the Fargas collection.
Balkan believes that something is ‘not right’ about his copy.
“What’s wrong,” Corso jibes, “the Devil won’t show up?”
Balkan wants Corso to examine and acquire the other copies, “at all costs.”
“At all costs sounds illegal,” Corso states warily.
“It’s not the first time you’ve done something illegal, Mr Corso.”
“Not that illegal.”
“Hence the size of the cheque.”
Corso, is at heart, a mercenary; his morals are dictated by his percentage and Balkan knows there is nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for cold hard cash.
This statement may be true at the time, but later the truth or untruth of it defines the very core of the riddle. For Corso, something beyond the materialism of money becomes far more important.
The Nine Doors To the Kingdom of Shadows contains nine engravings. In each of the three surviving copies of the Nine Gates, there are three variations in these engravings: six are signed AT, referring to the Nine Gates author Aristidem Torchia; but three, different in each surviving copy of the book, are signed LCF.
The nine original engravings by Lucifer have been dispersed amongst three separate books; only somebody who is able to study and compare all three books would be able to ascertain this.
Working for Balkan.
The nine engravings are the nine doors, the nine gates, and define the route into or out of the Kingdom of Shadows: the ultimate purpose of the book(s).
The assertion that the Nine Gates can raise up the Prince of Darkness in person is incorrect; one of the many traps embedded within the journey the book entails.
Important Note: one of the engravings signed LCF is actually a forgery, created by the Ceniza brothers who reside in their strange shop, in Toledo, Spain, and this throws our antagonist and protagonist into a fatal spin; however, this very deception is portrayed in the engravings themselves and is a part of the game.
This is a story of duality. There are two journey’s occurring here. One is Boris Balkan: fervently materialistic, hungry for acquisition and determined to go after what he wants. The second journey is that of Corso; through the narrative of the story he becomes a seeker of knowledge without any clear vision of what the outcome will be. Both men are travelling in opposite directions. One is heading towards ultimate destruction, dragged down into the fires of Hell, to become lost within the Kingdom of Shadows; the other is heading towards Enlightenment, to claim a prize he never knew existed until the moment of final revelation. Neither man is innocent, but one has failed to “play by the rules” and so suffers the integral trap contained within the riddle of the book and the engravings.
This is a good point to discuss the female companion that takes Corso’s side without any real explanation. There are allusions to the idea she may be Lucifer or certainly an agent of Lucifer. Does such a potent figure “play by the rules?” It depends on whether you see Lucifer as force of good, evil or merely powerful and ambivalent. Look at the Catholics and the Cathars; both deeply entrenched in the view that the other is evil whilst they are good.
Differentiating between Good and Evil is never as clear as black and white.
What is certain is that the act of investigating the books, perhaps their penultimate function within the earthly plane, so to speak, has caused her to appear.
As if summoned. And a game has begun.
One aspect of Lucifer is as a trickster and a figure that excels in riddles and mind games.
Boris Balkan, he is a known disciple of the Devil.
Corso, he’s something of an enigma regarding morality and motivation; even to himself as the story causes him to evolve. In his character he defines the very essence of duality.
Duality, and the subjective nature of what is good and what is evil is at the heart of this story.
So perhaps the woman – or whatever she is – has arrived to preside over the playing of the game, the execution of the solving of the riddle.
The First Gate
“Silence is Golden”
A knight rides through a fortified town. With his finger on his lips he counsels prudence or silence.
AT: The castle has four towers.
LCF: The castle has three towers.
Another translation of the latin text is: “Only one who has battled according to the rules will prevail”.
The castle in the image is the final destination and this has significant in regards to the final outcome, or the Ninth Gate.
Number 4 is the physical domain; there are four phases of the moon; four cavities in the human heart; four limbs; four points of the compass and of the cross used to crucify Christ; four known physical forces, nuclear, radiation, gravity and electromagnetism; and in some cultures it is considered an unlucky and tricky number.
Number 3 is the realm of the spirit and perfection; the Holy Trinity; Mind, Body and Soul; Birth, Life and Death; Conscious, Subconscious and Physical Form. But most significant is this: the number three may represent new and challenging adventures with an assurance of cooperation from others whom you may require help. Consider the exploits Corso becomes involved in and the mysterious woman who joins his side. Typically, the number three symbolizes reward and success in most undertakings.
So right from the very outset, the First Gate describes the final outcome will be either material or spiritual – will bring good fortune or bad luck – depending one which path is taken. Duality again.
The Second Gate
“Open that which is closed”
A hermit before a closed door. A lantern on the ground and two keys in his hand. Next to him, a sign that resembles the Hebrew letter Teth.
AT: The hermit has the keys in his right hand.
LCF: The hermit has the keys in his left hand.
Two keys refers to salvation or damnation. They are also highly prized in occult circles. King Solomon’s Temple has two doors and also two doors to its oracle. Two keys are required for the outer doors, a gold key for the right door and a silver key for the left door. Right hand. Left hand. The same keys are used on the inner doors but they are turned from left to right instead of from right to left. This defines duality of the nature of these objects; right can be left; light can be dark.
Whichever hand is used will determine how the door is opened and what route is unlocked to the seeker of (material power) or (enlightenment and knowledge).
Fargas, the old man in Portugal, had lost almost everything but still kept two crystal glasses.
The Third Gate
“Wasted breath keeps a secret”
A traveller heads towards a bridge which spans a river. At each end a fortified door bars access. On a cloud, a bowman aims in the direction of the road leading to the bridge.
AT: The bowman has one arrow, loaded and ready, pointing down.
LCF: The bowman has a second arrow, this one in the quiver, pointing up.
Another transliteration of the latin title is “a missing word keeps a secret”. The bowman represents the danger from God or the Devil (duality) regarding the person who dares to seek to penetrate the boundaries of this powerful domain; who dares to grasp the hidden meanings to unlock the gates of secrecy.
The image can be a stark warning to those who contemplate proceeding. The river represents a boundary and transcendence; it is strength and calamity. And so the bowman also represents Eros or Cupid, who has gone through many reinterpretations, shooting his golden arrow to inspire love (positive benefit of the alluded transformation); but with two arrows, as depicted by LCF, there is also the risk of hatred.
Finally, the bowman holds more than a striking resemblance to the Ceniza brothers. It is they who have removed one of the Lucifer engravings (from the Telfer / Taillefer copy, now in possession of Balkan / Corso) and replaced it with a forgery. They represent the “missing word” that perpetuates the secret; the missing engraving, which they actually have concealed in their shop. As Corso leaves their shop in Toledo so danger descends upon him from above (the collapsing scaffolding) signifying that he did not acquire the missing engraving.
The Fourth Gate
“Chance is not the same for all”
A jester before a stone maze. The entrance is closed by a door. Three dice on the ground each reveal their faces showing the numbers 1, 2 and 3.
AT: The exit to the maze is bricked up.
LCF: The exit to the maze is open.
A maze, and a dungeon-like one built of stone, has potent symbolism. In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth of Crete was so well designed that it was impossible for a person to find their way out again; leaving them as prey for the Minotaur. The Minotaur is representative of the beast ‘in us’ that roams the labyrinth of the subconscious mind. The warning here is: delve into the darker side of your self and you may never find a way back out. And in Aristide Torchia’s version of the engraving there is no way out.
The controversial French philosopher, Michel Foucault called the Minotaur the very near and yet also the absolutely alien – the emblem of the unity of the human and inhuman. The duality of the good nature and the bad. The story of the Ninth Gate is suggestive of a maze, where the protagonist Corso reaches clear junctions of choice, to retreat or go forward, to deceive or to be honest, to kill or let live. All the while, Corso is being drawn deep and deeper into the mystery. What is it that will lead him out the other side? Lucifer’s exit is open. Will Lucifer (the mysterious woman accomplice) be the guide here?
Gambling with three dice was very popular in Greece. On each of the dice, the visible faces add up to 6. Three number 6. Sign of the Devil. The total of the three dice is 18, which is the true number of engravings (9 by AT and 9 by LCF).
The presence of the dice ties into the card’s title, that chance is not the same for all. Chance will generate different outcomes: entrapment within the maze to become a victim of ‘the beast’ or escape with experience from the journey through.
The Fifth Gate
A merchant counts his gold. Behind him, Death holds an hourglass in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.
AT: The sands in the hourglass have just begun to flow.
LCF: The sands in the hourglass have stopped flowing.
The merchant is sitting within a castle-like chamber, possibly hinting at the location of the final, Ninth Gate. The floor is a checkerboard, black and white together, repeating the theme of duality.
The hourglass and the pitchfork in either hand are significant. The pitchfork is three-pronged; a trident, which here is most likely a symbol for the Devil; although it is also a weapon against evil (Hinduism) with powers against demons.
In Lucifer’s engraving, the conclusion has been reached; the merchant has acquired much material wealth with no real reward at all. He has not seen that only time stands between him and the Devil. In Aristide Torchia’s version, there is still time to resolve the situation; to dispense with material delusions of wealth and to take the appropriate action (perhaps taking the trident to defend himself).
The Sixth Gate
“I enrich myself with death”
A hanged man, similar to that of the Tarot, his hands behind his back, hung by one foot from the crenellation of the castle wall next to a closed tower gate. A hand clad in a gauntlet brandishes a burning sword from a loophole.
AT: The man hangs from his right foot.
LCF: The man hangs from his left foot.
Despite hanging upside down the man’s hair and clothes do not; he has a calm demeanour. This position is desired.
A key meaning of the hanged man is that through personal sacrifice, even death, comes new understanding.
The Norse god Odin hung upside down from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days in order to attain wisdom. By passing through these nine days of challenge, or nine gates, Odin acquired the runes from the Well of Wyrd, the source and end of all sacred knowledge.
He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed […] a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24).
The significance of the right and left leg is based on the motivation and nature of the sacrifice being undertaken. Torchia’s engraving, showing the man hanging from the right leg would suggest a materialistic sacrifice; but the inverted meaning can indicate the opposite is true; just as with the gold and silver keys for the Temple of Solomon, right becomes left and left becomes right. Duality.
The alternative engraving demonstrates a spiritual sacrifice; a surrender of oneself to acquire sacred knowledge.
The Seventh Gate
“The disciple outshines the master”
A king and a beggar play chess on a board with white squares. The moon can be seen through the window. Beneath this and next to a closed door, two dogs are fighting.
AT: The squares of the chess board are black.
LCF: The squares of the chess board are white.
The crescent moon symbolises new beginnings and the turning of dreams into reality. Question: is not reality a dream and to escape the dream is to ascend / descend into reality?
The two dogs fighting represent the fears of the mind at the approach of great transformation. Black and white. Opposites fighting over a single purpose. Duality. The difference between the black chess board and the white chess board is merely to reinforce this point.
The white and black chess board also hints at either an ascent from the Kingdom of Shadows or a decent into it.
Finally, with both King and peasant playing on a uniform board, it suggests that the game is in fact level, heading towards a draw. The King cannot beat the peasant. They are both equal. Having come this far the peasant is now equal to God or the Devil. Will he have the courage to get past the fighting dogs (his own fears) and head out through the door, which is closed but not locked, into the engendering light of the new moon?
The Eighth Gate
“Virtue is conquered”
Before the fortified walls of a castle, a figure kneels in prayer whilst behind him stands a warrior with a mace ready to strike. In the background is a Wheel of Fortune.
AT: The warrior does not have a halo around his head.
LCF: The warrior has a halo around his head.
The virtuous man prays to overcome the challenges he faces, but fate may still strike him down – a killing blow from the warrior behind him pending on the turn of the Wheel of Fortune. Virtue will not stop the praying man from being killed. Virtue is defeated.
The warrior and the man in prayer represent the dual roles of the protagonist and antagonist, Corso and Balkan. One is aggressive, acquisitive, determine to do whatever to achieve his goal; the other is passive and seeking guidance to gain an understanding of his goal.
Yet the engraving by Lucifer shows the warrior with a halo around his head, symbolising that the Warrior may also be virtuous but his high moral standards do not stop him killing.
The notion and potential of virtue being conquered is seen to rotate through both figures. Duality.
The Ninth Gate
“I know now that the shadows come from the light”
A seven-headed dragon is being ridden by a naked woman; she sits incanting from an open book on her lap whilst gesturing towards the castle in the background.
AT: The castle is in flames
LCF: A starburst of intense light radiates from behind the castle **
The castle depicted in the engraving is a visually literal representation of the Ninth Gate’s physical location. No doubt a location that has been sought for millennia and finally found (within this group of Satanists) by Boris Balkan.
**In Balkan’s copy of the Nine Gates, which he acquired from Andrew Telfer, who in turn bought it from the Ceniza twins, this particular engraving is a forgery made to look like the others – in other words, the castle is in flames.
This leads Balkan to make the fatal error of mistaking fire to be part of the ritual of the Ninth Gate, and so leads to his rather grisly ending and possibly his descent into the Kingdom of Shadows. Into Hell.
The woman riding the dragon could allude to the Whore of Babylon, but her facial appearance certainly resembles Corso’s female companion. The angel / demon or Lucifer itself – summoned as overseer when Balkan and Corso started this journey.
The theme of duality continues, with Corso enacting the imagery of the Torchia engraving; being “ridden” by the Whore of Babylon whilst the castle burns in order to then receive the wisdom of where the real (and final LCF) engraving is held… thus allowing him to enact that version… walking through the gate into the Light as indicated by the Whore. The world behind him is cast into shadows. He is emerging from the Kingdom of Shadows.
Brought together, maybe it means nothing at all
Boris Balkan takes a bunch of Lucifer engravings torn from the pages of the three copies of the Nine Gates, goes to the physical location prescribed through other research, and then what?
On the simplest level all Balkan had to do was discover the three separate copies of the book contained variations in the engravings; then acquire the 9 LCF engravings and take them to the Ninth Gate. The physical possession of these engravings coinciding with the physical location activates the final outcome.
To add a little more complexity, it could be that Balkan had to not only have possession of the 9 LCF engravings, but was required to place them in a particular order to create a sense of meaning, understanding and comprehension as part of the solution to the riddle. This seems to be the interpretation taken by Balkan as he places the engravings on the table before him:
To travel in silence…
[ Engraving # 1 ]
…by a long and circuitous route,
[ Engraving # 4 ]
to brave the arrows of misfortune,
[ Engraving # 3 ]
to fear neither noose nor fire,
[ Engraving # 6 ]
to play the greatest of all games…
[ Engraving # 7 ]
…and win, foregoing no expense…
[ Engraving # 5 ]
is to walk the vicissitudes of fate…
[ Engraving # 8 ]
…and gain at last the key…
[ Engraving # 2 ]
…that will unlock the ninth gate.
[ Engraving # 9 ]
NOTE: In this movie clip, Balkan has a mixture of AT and LCF engravings on the table. Not sure if that’s an intentional decision or a goof on the part of the film-maker.
However, neither of these options pays much attention to the symbolism-soaked content of the engravings. It is unlikely that somebody of Balkan’s narrow but intensely focussed interest, and broad intellect, would dismiss them unless they actually were not vital to achieving them outcome. Perhaps merely noting the symbolism – and the duality between AT and LCF is enough, but having possession of the engravings is vital.
Additional complexity can be added by stating the protagonist is required to enact all of the scenes portrayed within the engravings. It’s certainly not included in the film, and although a feasible and interesting concept beyond the constraints of a tight script, I don’t think this is suitable for the game that is afoot. It places far too much literal interpretation of the engravings. And this story is more about the spiritual and psychology interpretation.
More likely, symbolism, and symbolic performance, such as those used in ceremony, equates to direct action and subsequent manifestation of… the outcome.
What does passing through the Ninth Gate mean?
On a metaphysical level, Corso walked out of this world into another.
On a spiritual / symbolic level, Corso walked through the gate and experienced some form of enlightenment.
In certain rituals thought can take on form, and so it is possible to shape reality as if it were itself a work of fiction; something that can be ‘edited’ by those who know how. Early in the film Corso purchases a copy of Don Quixote. The hard-boiled bargain highlights his cavalier and mercenary character – tantamount to theft – but it’s also a big clue to the mercurial nature of [our] subjective reality: what you see does not necessarily match what is actually there. Symbolism taking form and acting out in physical reality. The duality of matter and spirit.
Recall Liana Telfer’s loyal thug and bodyguard, black skinned but with platinum white hair.
Another frame of reference from which to view The Ninth Gate within, is as a window, looking into the story of Catharism and the fight against the tyranny of materialism. It is the journey of one man, Corso, who manages however unwittingly to escape the Kingdom of Shadows. Boris Balkan locates the Ninth Gate as the 13th century castle, once owned by the Congost family who practised Cartharism and were attacked as heretics by Catholic forces. Each of the nine engravings represents a particular life experience, generic or specific, that one must go through in order to gain access to the world of Light and Illumination. Acquiring the engravings was merely a part of that journey; defining the map, so to speak. The female companion was a guide. It looks at our world from the point of view that we are in fact living in falseness, fooled and subjugated into thinking this is the true reality by Rex Mundi, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness. There is an alternative world, a mirror of our own but where Truth prevails.
If you view the film as a revelation about the truth of our objective reality; that we are all living isolated from the divine light, cut-off, trapped with the realm of flesh and materialism, then consider The Ninth Gate is titled: I know now that the shadows come from the light. We come from the light. We are now shadows.
Location of the 9th Gate
The location of the castle used in the film is Château de Puivert in the Quercob region of France. I didn’t discover this until recently which is frustrating because I spent a lot of time in the South of France during 2005 and 2006 whilst working up notes for the novel, Dog Eat Dog. I realise now that I was tantalizingly close to it. Oh well, an excuse to return there perhaps?
The woodcut engravings used in the film
The engravings have a tarot-like quality to them, littered with cabalistic references and symbolism, generating much interest beyond the film.
Here are some high quality images of the engravings, a mixture of Aristide Torchia and those he copied from the Delomelanicon – created by Lucifer itself.
The Official Soundtrack to The Ninth Gate
The soundtrack to this film is by Wojciech Kilar, who also did the OST for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. It’s a seminal piece of work. The first time I ever listened to it I sat down and wrote an 8,000 word short story straight off the bat in one night, without even stopping for a break. That was Devil’s Spring – a Cthulhu Mythos story with a distinctly aquatic theme.
A Mythos version?
I see some parallels between the Delomelanicon and the accursed Necronomicon, or any other shunned and much guarded book of the secrets of the Outer Chaos. Perhaps Aristide Torchia will gain the same status in Occult circles, as the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred in Mythos spheres. It would be great to see a scenario utilising the plot model of The Ninth Gate to send characters scurrying into forbidden areas, plunging into the depths of Mythos symbolism, with the ultimate outcome being some cataclysmic event of cosmic horror or some kind of jaded salvation. An interesting observation is seeing the Delomelanicon, a fictional book within a fictional book (Nine Gates) becoming a meme – the influence of Hastur – much like the Necronomicon, whereby it starts to transcend fiction to become a reality through the activity of more and more people (talking about it as if real, crafting their own physical copy, etc).
- Whore of Babylon on wikipedia – click
- Tutorial for making your own copy of De Umbrarum Regis Novum Portis – click
- The Ninth Gate – film listing on IMDB – click
- Yahweh on wikipedia – click
- Play and experience this story as a scenario in Yellow Dawn RPG or Call of Cthulhu – click
By David J Rodger
A Supernatural Science Fiction Crime Thriller
AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE
“Atmospheric and Creepy” – The Guardian on The Black Lake
“I’d not heard of David J. Rodger, being more of a Rankin/Dexter fan! But it was suggested that if I liked crime thrillers I try Dante’s Fool…I was hooked, really enjoyed it. Strong, believable characters and a storyline with the thought-provoking twist of the occult.” – Susan Pay on Dante’s Fool
David J Rodger follows up the triumphant hit of God Seed with this punchy supernatural crime thriller. Dante’s Fool combines detective work with a dramatic descent towards a primeval horror that has always lurked alongside us, and always hated us.
David J. Rodger is a British author of science fiction dark fantasy with eight novels under his belt. He is also the creator of Yellow Dawn – The Age of Hastur, an RPG that blends Cthulhu Mythos and Cyberpunk themes into a post-apocalyptic setting. His books are often described as intense, character driven, near-future thrillers. Compared to Ian Rankin / Colin Dexter and James Ellroy with a dose of Stephen King darkness, Rodger’s work crosses many boundaries to deliver a new and exciting fusion of ideas and genres. You never quite know what waits around the next corner. All his books are stand-alone but support each other as part of a consistent shared universe allowing you to build a deeper knowledge with every story.
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