November 13, 2019

Folklore and Pagan Gods in The Lighthouse

My work schedule has been very busy the last few weeks, but I did manage to see The Lighthouse, the new film by Robert Eggers, the New Hampshire-born director who gave us The Witch a few years ago. My review is a little delayed but I wanted to post it anyway because The Lighthouse has some interesting New England folklore in it. Be warned: my review has a few (but not many) SPOILERS.


The plot is relatively simple. In the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers (or wickies as they're called) arrive for duty at a lighthouse located on a small rocky island off the coast of Maine. The older wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has served on the island many times before. His new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a former lumberjack reporting for his first stint in a lighthouse. When asked what happened to his previous assistant, Wake replies that he went insane and became convinced the lighthouse was enchanted and that merfolk haunted the island. Oh, and by the way Wake adds, never kill a seabird because they contain the souls of dead sailors.


After this ominous set-up the two men settle into a monotonous routine. As the senior lighthouse keeper Wake tends to the actual light itself, a role he guards jealously. He forbids Winslow from even entering the chamber at the top of the lighthouse and instead assigns to him all the manual labor: hauling coal, cleaning their tiny living quarters, and emptying bedpans. Winslow grows to resent his poor treatment, and his unhappiness is only compounded by a one-eyed seagull that regularly torments him. Winslow's sole pleasure is a scrimshaw mermaid he finds hidden in his mattress which fuels his sexual fantasies.

Over the course of their four-week stint the two men gradually come to an understanding, but things become complicated when the ship that is supposed to bring their replacements is delayed by a powerful storm. The men are stuck on the island. The storm lasts for weeks, and when their liquor runs out Wake and Winslow start to drink kerosene sweetened with honey. And that's when things start to get really weird...


As he did with The Witch, Robert Eggers incorporates local folklore into his film to make it feel authentic. Much of the dialogue was influenced by 19th-century writers including Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novels and stories were drawn from her experience living in Maine. I've read that Eggers used Jewett's work to craft the two distinct dialects the lighthouse keepers speak: Wake's nautical one and Winslow's inland Maine dialect. I think Willem Dafoe has the easier job, since he basically gets to talk like a pirate or Mr. Crabs from Spongebob Squarepants. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, has to speak with an accent somewhere between a classic Boston accent and the "Yah cahn't theyah from heyah" Mainer accent. He does a good job though, and I enjoyed hearing him deliver his dialogue.


One of the key plot points is Wake's admonition to never kill a seabird. This is an actual piece of nautical folklore although I think it is particularly local. Many people are familiar with it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a ship becomes cursed after a sailor kills an albatross. According to this article the belief was still extant as late as 1959, when sailors transporting an albatross in a cage blamed various malfunctions on the bird's accidental death.

However, there is one possible link to Maine's folklore. Maine lumberjacks believed that is was bad luck to kill gray jays (also known as gorbeys), which were small birds that frequented lumber camps. They were said to be the souls of dead lumberjacks, and hurting a gray jay would bring grave misfortune. In one tale a brutish lumberjack plucks the feathers from a gray jay on a cold winter night, thinking it is the soul of a deceased colleague that he despised. When he awakes in the morning he finds he finds himself bald, weak, and constantly pursued by stormy weather. He had plucked the feathers from his own soul.


The island in The Lighthouse may be haunted by a mermaid. I won't give away too much, but if it is she's definitely not the happy Little Mermaid variety. There are quite a few mermaid and merman stories from New England, and none of them are happy. They're much closer to horror stories than fairy tales.


One of the earliest comes from John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn, an Englishman, visited New England in 1633 and 1638. While visiting Maine some of the settlers told him about strange things that had happened to them.
One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.
Gruesome. Merfolk were generally believed to be aggressive, and an almost identical encounter with a violent merman supposedly happened in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, according to author Edward Rowe Snow. 

Snow also claims that in 1900 a lighthouse keeper at Nantucket's Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the woods near the beach. Other people who lived nearby saw signs that something large had crawled through the underbrush and made a nest. It's kind of creepy. The plot of The Lighthouse might not be that far from reality (or at least folklore). 


There are several references to classical Greek and Roman gods in The Lighthouse. The myth of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, is alluded to throughout the movie, as is the myth of Proteus, the shapeshifting Old Man of the Sea. I was also struck by this curse that Wake hurls at Winslow when the younger man complains about Wake's cooking:

WAKE: Hark, Triton, Hark! Bellow, and bid our father, the sea king, rise up from the depths, full-foul in his fury, black waves teeming with salt-foam, to smother this young mouth with pungent slime... 
(addressed directly to Winslow)... to choke ye, engorging yer organs till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more... only when, he, crowned in cockle shells with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, takes up his fell, be-finn├Ęd arm -– his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and runs you through the gullet, bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now -- a nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea... for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea.

Triton was the son and herald of the sea-god Poseidon and mermen were sometimes called 'tritons' after him (as in Josselyn's account). Wake seems to be invoking Poseidon but the 'slithering tentacled tail' also makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft's squid-like deity Cthulhu, and Eggers has said that Lovecraft's weird fiction was one of the film's inspirations.


The references to classical mythology are more prominent than the nods to Lovecraft, though, and I don't think they are out of place in a film set in New England. Many of the original English colonists were well-versed in classical mythology. For example, Thomas Morton invoked a variety of pagan gods (including Neptune, Triton, Priapus and Ganymede) at his 1628 May Day celebration in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course, the Pilgrims at Plymouth weren't too happy about this and burned down his settlement, but even the die-hard Puritans of Boston and Connecticut knew their ancient gods. For example John Winthrop Jr., the son of Massachusetts's first governor, was so skilled in alchemy and medicine that his peers dubbed him the Christian Hermes. 

In 1776, four captive British sailors carved a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, for an innkeeper in Windham, Connecticut, while in 1820 Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut started a church of Bacchus and declared himself its priest. Perhaps Lyon was just really the town drunk, but in the 1800s many large New England towns also built athenaeums, libraries named after the Greek goddess of wisdom. Many athenaeums were decorated with statues of her. In downtown Boston there are also several large mercantile buildings from the late 19th century decorated with statues of Poseidon and Hermes as well. New England was founded by Puritan Christians but they brought the gods of their ancestors with them as well. We can try to escape the past but it usually catches up with us, which is one of the film's themes.


I'm the perfect audience member for The Lighthouse. I like horror movies, I like art films, and I love weird old New England stuff. I enjoyed The Lighthouse and will probably see it again. It had good actors, beautiful cinematography, sea shanties, writhing tentacles, a sinister seagull, and something gruesome in a lobster trap. 

I'm curious how audiences will react to the movie. When I saw The Witch some audience members were puzzled and angry after it ended because it was not the straightforward horror film they expected. The Lighthouse is much weirder than The Witch and even harder to categorize. Is is a dark slapstick comedy? A mythopoetic meditation on the price we pay to tell the truth? A 19th century nautical version of The Odd Couple with repressed erotic undertones? If you see it let me know what you think.


BarreraArt said...

Yes. It is all of that! Evokes a strange sense of lost time and place!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree - a very deep sense of lost time and space. I feel like it starts in the 19th century and then just goes deeper into mythic territory.

Candace Jedrowicz said...

Great review! I'll definitely watch it!

Peter Muise said...

Definitely worth seeing Candace!

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