By Aaron Ricker
The Promethea comic book series (1999-2005) was a minor hit for Alan Moore, compared to his Watchmen (1986-1987), V for Vendetta (1982-1985), or From Hell (1989-1996), all of which were bestsellers rewarded with reinvigorating afterlives as major motion pictures (2009, 2006, and 2001, respectively). Promethea did, however, collect enough critical acclaim, and soar close enough to big ideas and big sales, to merit some serious academic attention. Scholars like Christine Hoff Kraemer, Paul Petrovic, and Orion Ussner Kidder have recently published critical examinations of its creative engagements with religion and sex(uality).1 This paper extends and refines the work of such scholars, by examining the Western esoteric vision of Kabbalah that serves Promethea‘s sex magic symbolism and “feminism.”
The interest of the series in Kabbalah is clear enough: Promethea’s “climb” up the sephirot of the “Tree of Life” spans 10 issues and 2 years.2 The interest in sex(uality) is also very clear: the series includes, for example, a “magical initiation” sex scene filling an entire issue,3 and insistent sexual images accompanying every pivotal scene. In terms of its use of sexual themes and images, Promethea almost seems like a diving board into Moore’s later hit Lost Girls (finalized 2006), which celebrates “the feminine” and “the imagination” through 300 pages of uninterrupted pornography starring fairy tale heroines.
Although it is often read as a paean to “Kabbalistic mysticism,” “the (divine) feminine,” and/or revolutionary “imagination,”4 I argue that Promethea actually betrays all three, due to an obsession with being “mythic” in an omnivorous post-Christian way, and to an obsession with sexualizing its own symbolism. The series pays lip service to feminist Hélène Cixous (who wrote her own Livre de Prométhéa in 1983, which makes cameo appearances in the series),5 but Moore’s Promethea is far from a case of women writing themselves into the world of literature and out of the exploitative, voiceless prison male writing has constructed for them (to paraphrase Cixous6). This paper will argue that in fact Promethea‘s celebration of “the feminine” within a symbolic structure that panders to straight male desire re-inscribes the very problem pointed out by Cixous: writing as an exploitative “male game” remains a clear and present danger.
At this point, one might reasonably ask why anybody should care if a piece of pop entertainment like Promethea happens to promote shallow, exploitative pop visions of feminist imagination and/or Kabbalah. I would say that I care because Alan Moore is often taken very seriously as a writer,7 because Promethea continued to sell well enough in collected editions to make the New York Times Bestseller List,8 and because the series is recommended by pagan and Wiccan organizations in the USA as an educational resource on both feminism in religion and Kabbalah.9 It seems to me that when a pop medium wields that kind of soapbox power, it deserves attention from scholars interested in religion and culture.
“Kabbalah” in Promethea
Alan Moore is known for his interest in exploring Kabbalah, both as a writer and as a wizard—specifically, the kind of post-Christian Western esoteric vision of Kabbalah promoted by occultists like Aleister Crowley.10 The specific physical sexual traditions often associated with Kabbalah are absent in Promethea, presumably because they involve highly regulated kosher sex within marriage.11 That old frame is maybe a little too square for the scene Moore and his artists want to draw, using images drawn from Kabbalah as a sexy fertility aid for the imagination. Moore has claimed, for example, that contemplating the kabbalist Tree of Life while eating magic mushrooms helped him discover a new dimension, which turned out to be the cosmic source of all creativity.12 In a separate interview, he revealed that this method helped him write Promethea.13
This kind of omnivorous take on Kabbalah appears in Promethea primarily in terms of a promiscuous approach to sexy religious imagery—kabbalistic “image” serves magical “imagination,” in order to offer readers a new, transcendent level of consciousness.14
This makes sense as a creative strategy: Kabbalah was associated early on with images meant to accomplish something experiential/transcendental, and to incorporate a wide variety of mystical genres and cultures;15 and since then post-Christian iterations of Kabbalah have acquired a longstanding, flashy, flexible symbolic power in Western esoteric, occult, and “new age” pop cultures.16 In Promethea, the Western esoteric credit of kabbalistic images is primarily drawn upon to articulate what Christine Hoff Kraemer has called Moore’s stress on “the cosmological centrality of erotic love.”17
As Ussner Kidder has pointed out, the imagery/symbolism of sex(uality) is one of Moore’s favorite creative wells,18 and when images from Kabbalah appear in Promethea, they add glamour and depth to a religiously omnivorous system ultimately shaped by sexual symbolism. The Hebrew alphabet, re-ordered here and there, adds glamour to Tarot Deck revelations (Issue 10). Jesus appears crucified on the sephirot of the Tree of Life (Issue 16). The gateway for leaving the material plane is identified as “imagination” and “sexual fantasy” (Issue 5), and when the Tree of Life incarnates this gateway for our heroine Sophie Bangs (whose very name sounds like an ambitiously crude neo-Gnostic joke), Adam and Eve eat an apple and begin to kiss in the background (Issue 13). When Sophie arrives at the Yesod sephira, where Moore himself is hanging out near the Tree-of-Life-shaped subway map, it’s explained that Yesod “governs sexual fantasy” (Issue 14).
To Religious Studies student eyes, this joyful, shameless appropriation can sometimes look careless (as when the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are, for example, typically confused in Issue 32, in Moore’s mad rush to include everything including the kitchen sink). The singular sephira and the plural sephirot are confused repeatedly (Issues 16 and 17), and Tree of Life symbolism is explained at one point with reference to the “Hebrew letter” tau, written as “a T-shaped cross” (Issue 13)—confusing the Hebrew letter tav and the Greek letter tau, which look nothing alike. Sometimes, though, the loose, tendentious symbolic alchemy feels more sinister than merely sloppy or silly. When our heroines reach Geburah (which, we are informed, corresponds to warlike, virile Mars), they are shocked at how aroused they are by its “strength” and “soldier-boy atmosphere” (Issue 18). When they reach the “highest male” sephira of Hokmah, they’re erotically intoxicated again by the atmosphere of “godsex” (Issue 22). It should be noted that this idea—that Kabbalah reveals a masculinity so divine, and a divinity so masculine, it turns our heroines on, to the point of wanting sex with each other—does not look like a mountaintop of imaginative, revolutionary feminism. Hokmah is also where we see a male “upright” triangle combine with a female “cup” triangle, to form the Star of David (Issue 22), an image which re-appears a few pages later when our heroines encounter a sky-wide vision of Pan raping Selene. This divine rape, our heroine Sophie/Promethea informs us, is the act of creation itself, and therefore a good thing: “It’s almost like she wanted that… Like he had to” (emphasis in original).
In a comic book series that was, as mentioned above, conceived and praised as revolutionary in feminist and artistic terms, these ideas of “masculine” and “feminine” look out of place. At best, they look symbolically conservative and unimaginative; at worst, they look like examples of what might be called the Spinal Tap effect (i.e. joining clueless character Nigel Tufnel in confusing “sexist” with “sexy,” in a pop medium marketed overwhelmingly to straight men). Questions about the political implications of such creatively and culturally lazy choices in religiously-informed symbolism also loom large in the next major theme under examination: the character and function in Promethea of “the (divine) feminine.”
“The (Divine) Feminine” in Promethea
I’ve noted that Promethea is commonly read as revolutionary feminist esoteric/neo-pagan art. I’ve also noted, however, that the series shows an obsession with being omnivorously “mythical” (in the sense of activating the maximum possible number of traditional patterns of meaning), a symbolic strategy that can have counter-revolutionary artistic results. One such two-steps-back result in Promethea is the tendency for “the (divine) feminine” it celebrates to be objectified and instrumentalized in ways that serve traditional masculine creativity and desire.
Femininity is, for example, identified with receptivity. “The snake or phallus represents the will,” Promethea informs us: the creative counterpart of “our female, receptive imagination” (Issue 32). Even less subtly, divine femininity is said to be a “cup” that contains sacred mysteries (Issues 10, 13, and 21), and a “holy grail” into which a magician must plunge the “masculine” power of a magic wand (Issues 10 and 29): “It takes in. It receives,” Sophie is informed by her wizard tutor, just before he penetrates her: “It’s the essence of female” (Issue 10).
To make matters worse, this traditional “feminine” function of receptivity remains the ideal even in the paradoxical case of unwilling receptivity. I’ve already mentioned how Promethea approvingly incorporates the ancient Greek story of Pan raping Selene (praised by Sophie/Promethea in Issue 22, and again in the recap of Issue 32). One could argue that the idea of rape (at the right time by the right male, of course) as a necessary evil—ultimately serving both the divine natural order and the secret desires of women—has an ancient artistic pedigree.19 It would be harder to argue that Moore’s mythically promiscuous glorification of rape is a triumph of progressive feminist imagination.20 Moore is on record as a writer keenly aware of both the serious cultural problems of victim-blaming in discussing rape21 and the creative risks of writing “morally ugly, politically ugly” sexual content that privileges men.22 The glorification of Selene’s rape in his Promethea therefore points to a dangerously stubborn (artistically and politically reactionary) blind spot. It is hard to see Moore’s vision of ideal feminine divinity as that which wants and needs to be raped by male divinity as culturally, politically, or creatively forward-looking.
This problem of privileging masculine power in imagining feminine divine power is found throughout the Promethea series: Promethea’s vaunted feminine power is created by the magical knowledge and effort of a male magician—her father (Issue 1). The universe itself is revealed to be a saving “father” (Issue 19); its Big Bang is the masculine “creative spurt” out of which “everything… came” (Issue 22). This concept of “the male force, the creative urge from which all things proceed” (Issue 12) is of course traditional to the point of being religiously and artistically counterrevolutionary, and also conveniently glorifies the series’ male creators by implication. In fact, in the next creation ex nihilo that we see after the world’s Big Bang spurt, this Atum-meets-comic-books masturbatory male creative divinity is made quite explicit: we watch our naked heroines emerge in stages of layout and sketching from the empty page, through the writing and drawing powers of their male creators (Issue 23).
We see here, then, the potential trap of “female” figures being objectified by male creators (Why are the adult Prometheas in their prime always half-naked athletes? Why do none of them have body hair? Why is every page of the last book dedicated to a naked Promethea twisting playfully in space?). It seems clear that (as Ussner Kidder concluded on other grounds) Moore’s Promethea “occasionally falls back into precisely the objectification of women… that it fights against.”23 In the association of masculine divinity with creativity, though, we also see the related trap of “ideal female” figures being used as exotic tools for their male creators’ self-conception and self-exploration. Sophie becomes Promethea by writing, and her best friend Stacia becomes Promethea by drawing. How can we avoid seeing in these methods of creative self-apotheosis a further glorification of the creative powers of Moore and his visual artist teammates? Ussner Kidder argued that the series actually avoids this second trap of exploitative writing, pointing out that although in its storyline there are male creators who write and draw female Prometheas, those Prometheas are “real” and “alive”: they can gaze right back at their male creators, and otherwise assert themselves—how then can they be mere objects or tools of male desire?24 This analysis fails to notice, though, that Moore and his real-world team of male artists have no such redeeming, supernaturally imposed limits. They are free to write and draw female characters who think and do whatever their male creators like.
It’s easy at this point for those of us who are used to Moore’s imaginative and theatrical ways to imagine him responding to this question of the danger of “the female” functioning as a male creative plaything with a mesmerizing, stage-managed pronouncement that his female creation Promethea is as “real” as he is. The series certainly leans heavily on the premise that imaginary things are as “real” as any other things, and the plot depends upon the narrative conceit (also borrowed from the Livre de Prométhéa of Hélène Cixous)25 that the ideal female Promethea is “real”: she literally writes herself. For Moore to pose as channeling his female creation Promethea would, however, only risk serving male desire once again. It seems strange that the creative confusion Kabbalah has at times offered men, equating the drowning loss of “self” in sexual union with a woman with the drowning “death” of mystical union with the divine26 (an ancient and complex enough association to merit the attention of a symbolically omnivorous writer like Moore—the word “death” can mean “orgasm,” for example, in both Greek and Latin,27 and in symbolic terms death is traditionally associated with mystical and/or sexual union28), is not exploited in Promethea. The series does articulate a male desire to strategically, profitably, self-transcend by losing “the self” in “the (divine) female.” Jack Faust enlightens Sophie, for example, with the secret that all wizards, and indeed “all men,” desire to “become… the female”—to “drown in it” (Issue 10). When our heroines get lost in the bottomless “abyss” near the “top” of the Tree of Life (Issue 20), they stumble upon Aleister Crowley himself, who has succeeded in becoming “female.” Crowley explains to our heroines that when magicians penetrate the higher levels of magic, they themselves are penetrated by magic: “the penetrator becomes the penetrated,” he explains.
The idea that “being penetrated” defines “being female” is noticeably un-imaginative and counter-revolutionary in itself, in both artistic and feminist terms. I suggest that it also points to a troubling idea of “the feminine” vis-à-vis creativity at the heart of Moore’s Promethea. Scholars like Ussner Kidder29 and Hoff Kraemer30 have argued (against scholars like Paul Petrovic)31 that Promethea ultimately promotes an unfortunately monolithic heterosexual ideal of magic, love, and desire. I would agree,32 and in light of the “female” Crowley’s words above, I would add a self-aggrandizing “active” and “male” idea of creativity to the list of charges. As Adam D. J. Brett has pointed out, imagining the highest magicians as becoming “female” actually guards the status of the highest principle itself as male and penetrating,33 and I would add that the idea of a male “taking on the female” and “losing oneself” in it (especially when done in order to serve a higher creative male principle) looks like the use of an “ideal female” principle for male creative self-conception and self-exploration. Moore’s Crowley himself proleptically denies the charge of being in drag, showing off his new vagina (Issue 20), but this just reminds us once again that Moore and his artists can’t do any such thing. As such, the “female” Crowley’s defensive denial of magical drag only sharpens the question: How can we fail to see Moore and his male team as fetishizing creative self-transcendence as a comic book drag act, particularly when our heroine Sophie becomes Promethea by writing her(self), and her best friend Stacia becomes Promethea by drawing her(self)? It seems worth noticing, for example, that when Stacia first manages to transcend herself in this way, her dialogue suddenly veers into femme cliché. “How simply darling,” she drawls (Issue 14), in a self-congratulatory creative drag act inseparable in practice from her creators’ artistic magic act of “becoming the female” for fun and profit.
I have argued that Promethea suffers from a creative obsession with being “mythical” in the sense of activating the maximum number of convenient traditional patterns of meaning. My review of the representation of Kabbalah in Promethea has shown that its traditions appear in the series as part of a kitchen-sink symbolic strategy framed in sexual terms. I have argued further that one result of this omnivorous and sexual-symbolically conservative creative strategy is a cumulative picture of “female power” that actually locks the series into a re-assertion of a highly traditional reconstituted masculine symbolic order, which also happens to cater conveniently and exploitatively to straight male desires. To those of us who lived through the moral contortionist acts of the “divine feminine” celebrated by The Da Vinci Code (which also featured a quasi-Gnostic heroine named Sophie whose power depended upon having an important male ancestor, whose divinity was also insistently associated with the image of a cup, and whose narrative function also accordingly consisted of being filled in on things by men), this risk of turn-of-the-millennium pop culture “shooting itself in the feminism” looks all too familiar.
For all its revolutionary dazzle, then, Promethea turns out to be profoundly conservative and “ideological” in the counter-revolutionary sense of Slavoj Žižek’s consumer-society “bribe.”34 Consumers are offered a supposedly exotic and revolutionary vision of divine female power, only to find out in the end that this conveniently commodified vision actually panders to traditional straight male desires and ends up re-inscribing traditional masculine mythological patterns of order. The commercial and critical successes of Promethea have proven that by taking this kind of tendentious, self-limiting approach to feminism, magic, Kabbalah and sex(uality), artists like Moore and his team are able draw an audience. But what kinds of audiences are those pandering pencils drawing?
 See: Paul Petrovic, “‘It came out of nothing except our love’: Queer Desire and Transcendental Love in Promethea” (Pages 163-176 in Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore. Edited by T. A. Comer and J. M. Sommers. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2012); Christine Hoff Kraemer, “The Undying Fire. Erotic Love as Divine Grace in Promethea” (Pages 150-162 in Sexual Ideology), and (with Jason Lawton Winslade) “‘The Magic Circus of the Mind’: Alan Moore’s Promethea and the Transformation of Consciousness through Comics” (Pages 274-291 in Graven Images. Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, Edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer, New York: Continuum, 2010); Orion Ussner Kidder, “Self-Conscious Sexuality in Promethea” (Pages 177-188 in Sexual Ideology).
 See, for example, A. David Lewis, American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 118; Geoff Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics… and Why (New York: Continuum, 2002), 99; Hoff Kraemer and Lawton Winslade, “Magic Circus of the Mind,” 274.
 See, for example, the summary of Moore’s career and recognition offered by Eric L. Berlatsky in his “Introduction” (Pages vii-xx in Alan Moore: Conversations, Edited by Eric L. Berlatsky. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), vii-x.
 2009 interview with Alex Musson and Andrew O’Neill, “The Mustard Interview: Alan Moore” (Pages 182- 206 in Alan Moore: Conversations), 199; See also Matthew J. A. Green, Alan Moore and the Gothic Tradition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 258-260; Kraemer and Winslade, “The Magic Circus of the Mind,” 276.
 I’m thinking here of the Greek “comic” motif of rape leading to marriage, which is portrayed as what the women wanted all along. See Edward M. Harris, “Did Rape Exist in Classical Athens? Further Reflections on the Laws about Sexual Violence,” Dike 7 (2004): 41-83. I’d note further that an oddly similar idea of marriage as the “happy ending” of rape can also be seen in law codes like Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
 Christine Hoff Kraemer risks justifying the violence of the scene when she refers to it as symbolizing “the paradoxical wantonness and glory of the universe’s birth” in “The Undying Fire. Erotic Love as Divine Grace in Promethea,” 161.
 See for example Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality. A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo (New York: Walker and Company, 1962), 223-240; Joseph Bristow, Sexuality (2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011), 105-150.
 I note, for example, that when our heroines fuse with God at the “top” of the Tree of Life, Barb is reunited with her husband (Issue 23); that when the “end” of the world arrives, it is marked by heterosexual “hookups,” including the city’s mayor and ex-mayor (Issue 30); that in the new world that comes after the crisis, Sophie is happily reunited with her boyfriend (Issue 31), etc. Only Stacia remains in a homosexual relationship, which she reveals to be unstable and dishonest (Issue 31).
Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company, 1962.
Berlatsky, Eric L., ed. Alan Moore: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Cixous, Hélène. Le livre de Prométhéa. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.
—. “Le rire de la méduse.” L’arc 61 (1975): 39-54.
Dan, Joseph. Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Di Liddo, Annalisa. Alan Moore. Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009.
Green, Matthew J. A. Alan Moore and the Gothic Tradition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Harris, Edward M. “Did Rape Exist in Classical Athens? Further Reflections on the Laws about Sexual Violence.” Dike 7 (2004): 41-83.
Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah. New Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics… and Why. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Kraemer, Christine H. “The Undying Fire. Erotic Love as Divine Grace in Promethea.” Pages 150-162 in Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore. Edited by T. A. Comer and J. M. Sommers. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2012.
—. With Jason Lawton Winslade. “‘The Magic Circus of the Mind’: Alan Moore’s Promethea and the Transformation of Consciousness through Comics.” Pages 274-291 in Graven Images. Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, Edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer, New York: Continuum, 2010.
Lewis, A. David, American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Livrea, Enrico. “La morte di Clitorio (SH 975).” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 68 (1987): 23-24.
Mautner, Chris. “Moore: ‘We Wanted to Do Something Which Solved a Lot of the Abiding Problems that Pornography Has.” Pages 153-181 in Alan Moore: Conversations. Edited by Eric L. Berlatsky. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Moore, Alan. With J. H. Williams et al. Promethea Vols. 1-5. Collected Trade Paperbacks. New York: DC Comics, 2000-2005.
Musson, Alex, and Andrew O’Neill. “The Mustard Interview: Alan Moore.” Pages 182- 206 in Alan Moore: Conversations. Edited by Eric L. Berlatsky. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Nevins, Jess. “Alan Moore Interview.” Pages 136-152 in Alan Moore: Conversations. Edited by Eric L. Berlatsky. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Petrovic, Paul. “‘It came out of nothing except our love’: Queer Desire and Transcendental Love in Promethea.” Pages 163-176 in Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore. Edited by T. A. Comer and J. M. Sommers. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2012.
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. Translated by Bernard Manheim. New York: Shocken Books, 1996.
Segol, Marla. Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah. The Texts, Commentaries, and Diagrams of the Sefer Yetsirah. New York: Palgrave, 2012.
Ussner Kidder, Orion. “Self-Conscious Sexuality in Promethea.” Pages 177-188 in Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore. Edited by T. A. Comer and J. M. Sommers. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2012.
Žižek, Slavoj, “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.” Documentary Film. Directed by Sophie Fiennes. Produced by Zeitgeist Films, 2012.