A few weekends ago I went to go see Black Swan in the theatres. Like much of the audience I was terrified, disturbed and mesmerized by the film. As we talked about the goddess cycle in mythology, I found myself applying it to the movie. Spoiler Alert!!!
The movie starts off with an innocent young ballerina, still living with her mother and hoping to make her big break on stage. Her room, frankly, looks like my 9-year-old little sister’s – pink with dolls and ballerinas everywhere. It’s hard to believe that a girl obviously in her twenties lives in a place like that. She’s dedicated, to the point of obsession with performing with the New York Ballet. That is, until a darker ballerina joins the company, a wild girl who seems to enchant everyone. Along with this new competition, the main character finds that she has been chosen to star in the ballet of “Black Swan,” in which she must play both an innocent white swan and an evil black one. Along her way to try to achieve perfection she discovers sexuality and the monster within herself – running parallel to the story of the ballet she’s transforming for. She ends up giving a perfect performance after basically going insane and destroying herself. She relives her past as the innocent and perfect white swan waiting for true love, which she just barely tastes before the black swan (also played by her) steals her true love away from her. Distraught, the white swan kills herself, as does the protagonist at the exact same moment. And there the film ends.
What does all of that have to do with mythology?
The ballerina goes through three different journeys. The first I’ll talk about is the goddess cycle. She starts out as a child, a virgin in every sense of the word. The movie even specifies that she’s never dated or had sex. The audience feels like a she is a child. As she experiences her darker side and fights against it, she gets the role of her dreams, therefore becoming pregnant with possibility – becoming the mother of a sort. As she finally allows the darkness in her mind to consume her she becomes the crone – Lady Death herself. All three stages are present.
Next is the hero’s journey. This is a little harder. Her call to adventure comes in the form of her and her mother’s desire for her to be the star ballerina. However, her refusal comes when she’s not sure she has what it takes to fill such a role – the director of the show doesn’t think she can play the aggressive dark swan because of her innocent nature. She convinces the director to give her the part by kissing him. For reasons unknown, she bites him – a totally uncharacteristic move for her. I’m classifying this as the supernatural aid. This simple act of aggression makes the director think she may be right for the part after all. The crossing of the threshold happens when she goes into the prima ballerina’s dressing room – which is now hers. This represents the cross into her stardom. However, simultaneously she begins to get strange visions – hence she’s also been introduced into the belly of the whale. The belly of the whale can be characterized as her perfectionist and dark mind – the need to perform the role perfectly no matter what. This is symbolized in the film as visions of death and blood – an obvious connection with the underworld. This ushers in the road of trials – where she is faced by increasingly disturbing visions that threaten to ruin her new status. Her mother also begins to be jealous, since she gave up her ballet career to have her daughter. Her mother pushes and alienates her simultaneously – treating her as if she cannot do anything someone of her age can. Her mother and her mind are her main trials – along with the jealousies of the other ballerinas in the company. She meets with the goddess – personified by the new girl in the company – when the director tells her she simply isn’t sexy enough for the role of temptress in the ballet. She is told to work on it and the new girl takes her under her wing – persuading her to go out clubbing. This also serves as the woman as temptress step. They go to a chaotic and dark (symbolic of the womb) night club where the protagonist appears to lose her innocence. It’s here that she is released as a sexual being, but also where the dark part of her mind begins to control her – making the visions in her head even more gruesome. When she comes home late from the nightclub her mother is awake and worried, but the protagonist simply yells at her – saying that she’s no longer a little girl and destroying the relics of childhood in her room. This is her atonement with her father in a way – she’s finally told her parent that she needs to make her own decisions. Her mental insanity spirals even further out of control – reaching its apotheosis when she believes that she’s killed the new ballerina who helped her – who is also her understudy and main competition. This happens after the first act of the premiere of the ballet – after her portrayal of the innocent but doomed white swan. After hiding the body and blood of the girl she stabbed with a shard of a mirror (it’s important that it’s a mirror as you’ll see in a bit), she goes back onstage and dances as the black swan. She’s undergone a transformation. Her eyes are entirely red except for black pupils and her arms are now huge black wings. However her journey is not yet over. After dancing as the black swan, she changes back into the white swan and she realizes she’s simply going insane and has actually mortally wounded herself – not her competitor. She’s stabbed herself with a shard of mirror – symbolizing her destruction from within. However she continues with her performance, realizing that it’s all over and when the white swan jumps to her death, the protagonist’s wound has killed her. At the same time we hear the audience of the ballet break into thunderous applause – she’s performed perfectly. That’s where the story ends, but I still have a few more stages to fill in. Her refusal to stand down when she realizes she’s been hurt represents her refusal to return to her previous life. Her flight is her jump off of the set, the rescue could be interpreted as the mattress she lands on after her fall, set there so she wont get hurt after the swan’s suicide. The crossing of the 2nd threshold happens when her eyes go back to normal and she realizes she’s performed perfectly, and is no longer insane. The master of two worlds is when she realizes she’s played both the dark, evil swan and the white, innocent swan to perfection. Her boon to society is the performance itself. Since she has completed her life’s goal, she is ready to die and be free of the insanity and perfection that tormented her. In a way – in her death she is now free to live.
The last part I want to talk about is the consort to the goddess idea. It can be interpreted that the protagonist is the consort to the Muse – generally depicted as the goddess of divine inspiration. She is young, new and uninitiated in the beginning of her journey – fertile for a major ballet role. As she is slowly destroyed – becoming less and less fertile so to speak, she must die (and does) in order to make way for a new consort to the Muse – a new prima ballerina. This is furthered in the story shown about the prima ballerina before our protagonist – she’s become too old for the profession and must be replaced. In her horror at being replaced, the old star attempts to kill herself, but succeeds in only ruining her legs. The injury of her legs prevent her from ever dancing again – therefore a symbolic death. The protagonist then replaces her. The cycle is very obviously apparent. What is strange is that in this case the consort is female, promoting an almost lesbian view – which is strongly seen in some parts of the movie in the interaction of the protagonist with her competitors.
I’d also like to talk about swans in mythology – since they play such a large part in the story. According toa website about swans in tribal mythology the emotions of the swan are very sensitive and easily apparent – parallel to the strong emotional moments of the protagonist. The pure white swan is thought to be a symbol of the rising sun, of a beginning. This is shown by the rising star of the protagonist and the beginning parts of her journey – where she’s a perfect white swan but cannot grasp the black swan’s essence. The black swan is a dark, nocturnal symbol, also considered rare or nonexistent. This parallels nicely with the idea that the dark swan comes from the dark places of the protagonist’s mind. Therefore, it feeling almost unreal. Zeus also changed into a swan to tempt and seduce Ludo – another parallel to the protagonist’s sexual journey and seduction of her final audience. Swans are also thought to create beauty out of ugliness. Cygnets are unattractive, but grow into gorgeous swans. The produce of Zeus’ swan-liason was Helen of Troy, considered the most lovely of women. Swans were also symbols of Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty. In the story, the protagonist transforms an ugly and violent mental illness into a capturing and beautiful ballet of swans.