The Golden Girls and the Great Goddess
Lately I’ve been so busy with performances and art shows that I have heretofore neglected to properly eulogize Bea Arthur, the goldest of The Golden Girls, who died on April 25. My hope is to more than make up for it now with what may be my most serious and important blog post to date.
In 2005, during my final quarter of the MFA program at the University of Washington, I spent hundreds of hours holed up in my apartment equipped with a TiVo and dozens of chisel-tip felt markers to cross out the entire Bible, leaving only the violent words visible. The resulting document is a concentrated study in psychospiritual trauma more closely resembling a censored Bush-era CIA folio than a sacred religious text.
Due to the sedentary nature of the project, I also got more TV watching (or listening, rather) done during those three months than I have in any other period of my life. One of my favorite shows to half-watch was The Golden Girls, which I had loved as a kid and love even more as an adult.
To the uninitiated, The Golden Girls is a sitcom for old ladies, perhaps in a category with Murder, She Wrote (another show enjoyed by the same aunt who introduced me to The Golden Girls.) But the writing is brilliant. The Golden Girls focuses on the exploits of three menopausal women—two widowed, one divorced and looking after her elderly mother—who live together as roommates, forming a family unit. The plots are driven by the interaction of archetypes represented by the three central characters. Rose is the innocent one, Dorothy is the smart one, and Blanche is, well, the whore.
Blanche: I’ve decided what I’m gonna use my bonus check money for.
Blanche: I’m gonna have my breasts enlarged!
Rose: Blanche, why would you want to do that?
Blanche: Rose, breasts are back in fashion! Besides, what God didn’t give me, Dr. Newman will! He’s the Picasso of plastic surgery!
Dorothy: Just make sure he doesn’t attach one to your forehead!
For me, at that time in my life, those ladies were a godsend. Far from my own family and absorbed in an increasingly isolating task, the familial banter of the Golden Girls bridged a gap between the past and the present. Often I would half-watch five or six episodes in a row; allowing that infectious arpeggiated D bass line and accompanying image of a jet plane passing in front of a golden sunset to creep into my subconscious like the hallowed strains of a sitcom liturgy. Add to that a growing obsession (which I cultivated heavily during that time) in Gnosticism and alchemy: those mysterious, occult vocabularies that linked medieval Europe, despite all its patriarchal rigidity, like an umbilicus back to the primordial Goddess cults of pre-Christian antiquity.
One night while I was crossing out the Bible and watching The Golden Girls it dawned on me: this show is practically dripping with occult symbolism! I’ll explain.
The Pistis Sophia is a second century Christian text which has long been deemed heretical within orthodox Christianity, but was revered by groups of mystically-minded early Christians known as the Gnostics. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, it was one of the only Gnostic texts known to have survived the Middle Ages. The book, which takes place following the Resurrection, describes actions occuring on a metaphysical plane. Sophia, (Greek Σoφíα, “Wisdom”), is a female deity, the divine syzygy of Christ, the Logos, whose desire to know God fully without the mediation of the Logos leads to a series of catastrophes culminating in the creation of the world by the demiurge, a blind and inferior deity (identified by the Gnostics as the Old Testament creator Yahweh.) For Gnostics, the Fall of Sophia occurs in stages, which I will simplify as such:
1) A primordial innocence in which the immanent, transcendent God and Sophia are one
2) A descent into the earthly world of the flesh
3) A redemption through the intervention of the Logos and subsequent reinstatement into the fullness of the godhead
The various Marys of the New Testament may be read as representing these aspects of Sophia, with her innocence, earthly descent, and redemptive wisdom exemplified by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha (as well as the three Marys at the tomb). These characters, in turn, have analogs among the female deities of every pre-Christian Western faith and carry with them the mythic memory of the far more ancient deity outlined in The White Goddess, Robert Graves’ seminal study on the triple goddess of “birth, love and death.”
The three major characters on The Golden Girls embody these triune aspects of the Great Goddess perfectly. Rose’s innocence, Blanche’s lasciviousness, and Dorothy’s wry humor are expertly formulated to resonate with viewers on an archetypal, mythic level. (A comparison with the characterization of Carrie’s friends Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda on Sex and the City demonstrates the ubiquity of these archetypes in contemporary storytelling.)
But the spiritual symbolsim of The Golden Girls hardly stops there. The names of the characters, as well as the name of the show itself, are embedded with alchemical significance. The title of the show makes reference to gold, the most obvious alchemical color and the consciousness-transforming goal of the Great Work. The names of the two widowed characters, Blanche and Rose, are French for white and red, which, along with gold, represent three of the four principle stages of alchemy. (The first stage, dissolution is represented by black, and may be understood for our purposes as implied by the fact that both Blanche and Rose are widows.) Add to that the fact that red is often a symbol for lust and white for innocence (the colors and their characters are reversed; a tactic often used by occultists to indicate that there is more to a text than meets the eye.) The cherry on top of all this symbolism, of course, is that Dorothy, whose name is Greek for “Gift of the Gods” (Δωροθεα = doro + thea) has been reunited with her mother, the incomparable SOPHIA.
So there you have it. Evidence of a damn fine screenwriting education, perhaps, or evidence of my own overactive imagination (or both.) Be sure to tune in next week, where I’ll analyze Mr. Belvedere in terms of Lurianic Kabbalah.*
Rest in peace, my beloved Bea.