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Measuring Evil: Sacred Scales and Final Judgments in “Sundown”

By nomaD,

  Filed under: Lost News
  Comments: 24

Let’s begin this analysis with a look at the episode’s title. Sundown or “dusk” is a period between lightness and darkness, a possible reference to the fuzzy area between good and evil, a zone where Lost tends to dwell at times, especially where its characters are concerned. It is also notable that the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown and that the Christian messiah, Jesus, was taken down from the cross and buried before sunset, as it was required by law. With this in mind we might wonder, what will happen during the next three days on the island? If Jacob is the ultimate Christ figure of the island, will he be resurrected as an all-powerful deity and save the true believers? It’s clear that most fans would be sorely disappointed if Lost turned out to be a simple Narnia-like Christian allegory. I contend that this is certainly not the case, but that the religious images and narrative references are always significant. They are weaved together so that no single mythological storyline ever gains too much strength or holds more sway than another. Rather, they work together to create a textured mystery that always feels a bit sacred.

So, what other sacred narratives can we revisit to help us interpret “Sundown”? It has been mentioned by other fans that Jacob and Smocke reflect the ancient Egyptian story of Horus and Set (or Seth). Unlike many early polytheistic stories, this one clearly defines a “primal duality” which was later interpreted as a battle between good and evil. Like many monotheistic faiths, it promotes the notion of pure goodness being embodied by one deity and pure evil embodied by another. Horus, the falcon god and representative of goodness is frequently seen holding the shen ring which is, notably, a symbol of eternity. Shen means “to encircle.” This particular hieroglyphic symbol was written on the stone that Ilana pushed to open the Temple’s secret Scooby door. Perhaps this pictograph refers to the shape of Lost’s narrative or hints at Nietchze’s “eternal return.” Will the characters continue to revisit their same old mistakes? Will they ever be able to redeem themselves? Are they stuck in an eternal cycle? Is time a circle?

The ancient Egyptian falcon god, Horus, with shen rings in his talons.

Set, god of sky and storms, was Horus’s evil counterpart. These two gods, of course, represent the theme of polarity that has been tirelessly accentuated in recent episodes through the relationship between the benevolent Jacob and the “evil incarnate” Smocke. But I think we should return to the episode title in order to temper this idea. Remember that sundown is a middle place between light and dark, good and evil, high and low.

St Michael and the Weighing of the Souls

Another significant motif we should examine here, as well as in a study of “The Substitute,” is the final judgment and the image of the scale. Recall Dogen’s words to Sayid: “For every man there is a scale. On one side is good and on the other, evil.” Apparently Sayid’s scale is off kilter in a bad way. But before we determine which is “the wrong way” in Dogen’s eyes, let’s take a look at some cultural references to the old-fashioned balance scale.

In Medieval times, St. Michael was considered to be the guardian of souls. Many works of art depict him weighing souls on a balance scale. In the 15th century painting provided (see directly above the Egyptian work), you can see a devil, perhaps Satan, lying underneath the left pan, coaxing the souls toward him and acting as a magnet to weigh the scale in his favor. Another story involving scales is the ancient Egyptian judgment of souls in the underworld or Amenty (literally “the place where the sun sets each day”). Anubis weighs the heart of each soul against the weight of a feather and Ammit, a fierce goddess with a head like a crocodile’s (possibly an eight-toed creature?), eats the souls of those who don’t pass the test.

photo courtesy of abc television

A very similar process takes place during the cycle of reincarnation, according to Tibetan Buddhism. Shortly after death, the soul is faced with a scale—on one side there are black pebbles, on the other white ones. If the scale tips too much in the “wrong direction,” the soul will be tortured and punished by the terrifying “Lord of Death.” But first, the newly-dead must look into a mirror that reflects the “naked soul” including all of its hidden faults and deepest desires. (Recall the magic mirror in the lighthouse where Jack’s deep-seated longing to find a true home is revealed to him.)

Cover of Deep River, published by New Directions, 1995

As for the featured book of the week, Chad Post at Three Percent, has reported that Deep River would be used in “Sundown,” but, unfortuantely, I could not see Dogen’s book well enough to read the title. Good old Lostpedia confirms that he is, indeed, reading Deep River, a novel by Christian Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo published in English in 1995 by New Directions. “It is a novel about four Japanese tourists on a trip to India,” who each eventually discover an individual spiritual purpose for the trip.

And while I’m on the topic of featured books, I just want to thank “Doc” Jensen at EW for this bit of bookish cheerleading from his article on“The Lighthouse.” Go literary references Go!

This is why it’s actually important to read the literary references that Lost gives us, because a mere Wikipedia summary of Through The Looking-Glass doesn’t tell you about the kittens and their color coding. It also doesn’t tell you this: the title of the book’s first chapter is ”Looking-Glass House.” Which totally evokes the title of last week’s episode (”Lighthouse,” also awkward for its missing/implied ”The”), not to mention the Lighthouse itself, which was less notable for being a beacon for bringing ships to the Island than for the magic mirrors in its tower — for being a real ”Looking-Glass House.”

Special Thanks to SCS over at TheSanatorium for this post

Let me know what you think–leave comments here…and see more about the literature in Lost at TheSanatorium or at my personal blog at lostandlit.wordpress.com

From TVFrenzy:

  • sharktaco

    Nice read.

  • Russo

    I’ve got to be honest–I just don’t enjoy nomaD’s articles. They’re very forced, as if he/she is trying to emulate the other, better writers on this site.

    • Gunther

      I disagree.I always find something unique in nomaD’s articles–like the Buddhism scales for instance. Haven’t read about those anywhere else!

    • sharktaco

      Nephew please, I know youre not referring to fishbiscuit as one of the better writers.

    • Handsome Smitty

      While I may have issues with some of the takes the writers have in their articles, their time and effort should be appreciated. This one was quite interesting, new refrences to check.

    • I just get annoyed by her constant “check out the santorim” on all of her postings. It makes me NOT want to go there. Sure, say it a few times, but not every post & response.

  • greg dharma

    this is exactly the kind of stuff i want to read more about. making analogies to egyptology and buddhism, as well as christianity, and showing how they are all connected.

    one thing, though: the story of horus and set is also the story of osiris and set. or, more to the point, how horus battled set to overcome his adversary, who had usurped his father osiris, who was then resurrected with the aid of Isis. I’ve always thought of Jacob as more of an Osiris figure than a Horus figure, though i suppose you are making this reference specifically because of the Shen disk. and it stands to reason that one of the two most likely candidates–Hurley and Jack–will take on the Horus role and battle Smokey (Set) with the aid of Ilana (Isis) to resurrect Jacob (Osiris). it is Ilana, after all, who knows where the secret passage with the Shun disk is.

    In egyptian lore, it is the beetle Khepera who carries the Sun disk across the night sky, where it is reborn each day. The Sun disk is also associated with Ra the Sun god, who represents sunrise–which follows sunset or sundown. So resurrection seems to be in the cards, if i am reading the symbology correctly. To make another analogy, the Egyptian temples often contained sun chambers (attuned to the heliacal rising of Sirius, a star associated with Isis and Osiris)–which are literal houses of light. and Jacob’s proclivity for note-taking is reminiscent of Thoth, the god of scribes, who was also the Egyptian god of mathematics and magic, as well as a key figure in Gnosticism, alchemy, and science.

    It’s good to see the Egyptian stuff cross-referenced with Buddhist ideology. I thought of the game Go when i saw the black/white stones, but they are also linked to backgammon — whose historical precursor is Senet, an Egyptian game. Dogen–a reference to a zazen priest who was the author of the “true dharma”– appropriating the scales,is another stroke of genius. Here we have a direct synthesis between Buddhism, egyptology, and technology. Dogen guards the temple, whose primary feature is the spring or underground river. In buddhism, water is associated with spirituality, the soul and purity; in egyptology, the underworld is a kind of purgatory which divides heaven (Tu’at) and hell. Smokey is of course associated with both Anubis, ruler of the underworld and Lord of the dead, and Ammemit, devourer of souls.

    The parallels to Christianity are interesting too, and it’s good to see one of the less-obvious ones referenced here–St. Michael and the scales. not to put to fine a point on it, but Osiris and Jesus are both associated with resurrection as well as redeption to a certain degree. This season, we have seen some characters become redeemed (Jack and Kate); others have titled toward the dark side like Sith in star wars (Sayid and Claire).

    finally, time may well be an eternal circle or cycle, but in Lost, we’re getting the sense that we are building toward an epic culmination which will resolved the island’s moebius-strip like grip on the characters’ lives (that is, if any of them are still alive at the end). As Jacob says, “it only ends once. everything else is progress.”

  • Drew Lancor

    Yeah, well, you’re also the same guy who was convinced Sayid was talking about Shannon when he was obviously talking about Nadia, and who can’t distinguish Rousseau’s French lullaby and Claire’s song for Aaron, so you’re not really someone whose opinion should be taken seriously, are you?

  • B.A.Y.

    Thanks for the great analysis. Obviously, as you pointed out, the writers are using multicultural, ancient yet timeless themes. It was a brilliant move on their part.

    As for a guy who goes by the name F…M..ster, his “handle” says it all. His posts are a reflection of his chosen name.

  • Samuel

    When did this site become Sunday school for future Christian Fundamentalists? 3/4 of the blogs coming from this season include biblical references.

    • brent

      There are a ton of religious references on LOST, in case you haven’t noticed. Probably somewhere around 3/4 of the episodes, if not more.

      • Samuel

        In my opinion you see what you want to see I suppose. Never once on Lost has anyone mentioned people returning from the dead to be”christ like”. When you watched zombieland did you say to yourself “wow this film has a lot of religious themes, look at all these guys returning from the dead just like Jesus!”. You are just searching for a deeper meaning to Lost than what is actually there, a straight forward sci-fi show. Think about how corny the ending would be if it was related to Jesus or any comparisons of that sort.

        • I am in no way religious however the biblical and other religious references are blatant and don’t bother me a bit. In zombie-Land there is no BLATANT religious context as there is in LOST…. LOST has included tons of biblical reference and this has been acknowledged by the producers several times. John Locke is THE ONE WHO WILL SAVE US ALL, the man in the shadow of the statue. He 100% is the character in LOST that relates to JESUS in Christian Ideology. The Bible is not only a religious text but also a book with every literary tool utilized to induce moral and emotional reactions, this is why it is the #1 selling text throughout the world. LOST would be corny if it were only a straight forward SCI-FI show- There is no question that LOST has become what it has because of the thought provoking elements it inspires,If it were a straight forward SCI-FI show we certainly wouldn’t be spending the 6 days in between each episode prowling on sites like this. Not to mention that “The Lost Supper” promo photos are a lot more relevant to religion than lets say the promos for ZOMBIELAND- The producers are knowingly planting the seeds to harvest the reactions they want from their audience. You dont have to be religious to respect and enjoy the religious themes in LOST. I had a theory a long time back that the island and its powers and inhabitants could be the SOURCE of what became all the religions of the world- I dont really still think that however the idea that this type of activity can inspire religious ideology is relevant. Remember that the religious themes in lost are not specifically CHRISTIAN themes but RELIGIOUS themes. They have touched on various religions and beliefs, this is not the producers acknowledging the TRUTH of one religion over the other. The fact of the matter is that SPIRITUALITY is a fundamental humanistic characteristic, some fulfill this niche with things other than religion, for example drugs, however the spiritual advancement is what is fulfilling not the ritual or religion itself. Heck even obsessing about LOST can induce the type of spiritual acceleration as well, mostly because of its strong use of religious themes. I am not a christian, but have a hard time with others who also consider themselves NOT CHRISTIAN and expend their energy getting aggravated with religious relevance or thought. Religion, in my opinion, is a man made institution- each religion trying to decipher the truth. I dont think any religion has it RIGHT over another however that being said- religion works. It does make changes in peoples lives and does fulfill the spiritual need that humans possess. We dont like the show because it is CHRISTIAN we like it because its SPIRITUAL. I certainly am not one who is digging for religious context however i will at least acknowledge it when it is presented straight forward to me.

        • girlof2011

          heehee! y r u using zombieland fer ur comparison? that haz nothing to do with it!zombieland iz just a movie with no deeper meanings than wat it looks like on the outside

  • Stephen

    I’m not sure how commenting on the Christian, ancient Egyptian and Buddhist mythological references is being a fundamentalist anything. They are fairly explicit elements of the show.

    • Samuel

      Because 90% of these so called references are self invented by the people on these blogs. Some other blogger on this site compared the title of last episode to a Gordon Lightfoot song of the same name, I would imagine this is news to the writers on the show. These comparisons originate in the minds of the bloggers not in the minds of the Lost creators. Do you think they sit around their offices thumbing through the bible looking for quotes that vaguely attach to an element on the show? I’m all for constructing theories and pondering elements on the show. I was simply making the point above that I don’t see why all comparisons have to have religious undertones. And if you think the writers of the show spend a quarter of the time that you do researching these things you’re delusional.

      • Stephen

        By no means do the references have to be intentional to be significant. What’s in the minds of the audience/bloggers is ultimately what counts. That’s what so great about any story–once the author is done, he’s done–but the various interpretations continue to evolve, and sometimes change the meaning of the story for new generations of readers/viewers.

      • MacCutcheon

        I think anyone with an open mind has to admit that they are clearly drawing upon common themes from many religions and philosophies. These things are all part of the human experience from ancient times to the present, they were not just invented by modern “fundamentalists.” I’m sure you are right that there have been many conclusions that were never intended by the authors, and of course everyone will see what they want to see, that’s part of what makes this show appeal to such a wide audience. But still, I would wager that the authors are way more knowledgable and intentional about these aspects than you think.

    • Whats so great about the show is how they have been able to create a show with a depth i am certain they never planned. When JRR Tolkien wrote The Lord Of The Rings he already had books written detailing all the religious and political circumstance of the world he was creating which is why those books have so much depth. LOST creators were able to make a world with the same kind of depth without all the pre-planned story and thats because they are utilizing literary tools to perfection.

      The great thing IS certainly how everyone can make their own interpretations however elements in the show are carefully choreographed to evoke a certain response from the audience.

      The producers very well may be surprised at some of the significance they themselves were unaware they created however that doesnt mean the overtly religious overtones are not intentional or fabricated by people digging for it. Read my comments on the post above!

  • alexis

    i agree with drew lancor;you r not the smartest person out there. nomaD haz made some very good points!

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