Thursday, October 11, 2012
The Goddess Ligeia
October turns readers to stories of mystery, horror, and suspense. Poe has spun many tales but my favorite is "Ligeia." I loved reading this short story for the first time in a college American Literature class. It is perfect for the season.
Poe gives a marriage true immortality in his short story “Ligeia.” Even death does not part these two. Ligeia’s husband loves her so intensely that his love is a form of worship. After her death, she lives on in his heart and mind. He continues his worship of her, builds her a shrine, and provides her with a human body to be reborn into. This parallels the underlying theme of idolatry throughout the story. The narrator’s love for his wife is so powerful that it enables Ligeia to be reborn, similar to the ancient Egyptian cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Ligeia’s previous lives have brought her a vast array of knowledge. Both this knowledge and physical beauty have a “strangeness” that her husband cannot place. He dwells instead on adoring descriptions of her perfection. In amazement of Ligeia’s immense learning, the narrator declares:
“I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successful, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding; yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph—with how vivid a delight—with how much of all that is ethereal in hope—did I feel, as she bent over me in studies but little sought—but less known—that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden.”
The narrator has submitted himself to his wife’s dominant intelligence; he takes on the role of student, with Ligeia as his teacher. She has directed his studies to “metaphysical investigations” in order to expand his mind toward her intentions. He feels in her an underlying knowledge of a concept unknown to him, but can’t conceive of this concept himself. Not only is she a smart woman, but she is smarter than any men the narrator knows. Ligeia has ensured her immortality by making the narrator love her so fully and deeply. She has subconsciously laid the plans for her rebirth within his mind, but he is not aware.
Along with the narrator’s worship of Ligeia’s knowledge and beauty, Poe interweaves idolatrous imagery of the Hebrews and Egyptians. These cultures / religions are those most commonly linked with the concept of idolatry. Reflecting upon the beauty of Ligeia’s nose the narrator muses, “nowhere but in the graceful medallions of the Hebrew had I beheld a similar perfection.” This brings to mind the image of the golden calf, made from the Hebrews’ melted earrings, and is probably the most widely recognized symbol of idolatry. Ancient Egyptians also practiced idol worship. The narrator’s believes that “the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.” Not only is their love idolatrous but the narrator believes it is being presided over by his own invented goddess. His imagination has produced a hybrid between Ashtoreth, the goddess of love and fertility and Tophet, a synonym for hell. He blames this creature for his loss of Ligeia. This submission to an imagined goddess is comparable to his worship of his own wife as a goddess.
With the parallels of the narrator’s love for Ligeia and Egyptian idol worship established, the occurrences after her death continue down these same paths. The belief of the divine and the afterlife was ingrained in Ancient Egyptian culture. After Ligeia’s death, the narrator never stops thinking about her and calls out her name to conjure up her image. She becomes a god-like figure and, unbeknownst to him, his continued worship is necessary for her rebirth. He chants for her; “I would call aloud upon her name” and wishes her back from the dead so he “could restore her to the pathway she had abandoned…ah could it be forever?” This calling of her name is similar to religious chanting.
The narrator’s worship, even after her death, results in both an internal and an external shrine for Ligeia. He tells of his internalized love “when Ligeia’s beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine.” The narrator remarries and actually builds Ligeia a physical shrine. He believes this bridal chamber containing religious and ritualistic artifacts is for him and his new wife, Rowena. The room’s ominous descriptions, “huge censer”, “gigantic sarcophagi”, “grotesque specimens”, “bedlam patterns”, and “ghastly forms” invoke dread and horror. The tapestry of “arabesque”/ Egyptian figures having sex draped over the floor, ottomans, bed, canopy and curtains, is comparable to hieroglyphics. These figures portray the physical act necessary for birth. Ligeia coming in and out of life in Rowena’s body at timed intervals is comparable to a common birth. The sarcophagi were stone tombs used by the Egyptians to place their mummified dead. Rowena’s enshroudment in linen is similar to the Egyptian wrapping of the body. When Rowena falls ill, the narrator still only thinks of Ligeia, his “one only and supremely beloved.” He has provided all the necessary tools, complete with a human vessel, to allow Ligeia to be reborn.
All of the unconscious preparations by the narrator for Ligeia’s rebirth are presented by him as acts from a marriage of reciprocated love. The fact that we only hear Ligeia speak through the narrator leaves reason to believe he may have exaggerated her love for him. His obsession for her may have produced an imagined equally intense love for him in return. Ligeia herself may have exaggerated her love to ensure his devotion even on her death bed:
“…in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more that passionate salvation amounted to idolatry.”
She is not truly professing her love, but instead, begging for him to fulfill the role she needs him to play. Her portrayed fear of death shows her ability to deceive. She has done this before, hence the ancient beauty and immense knowledge, so she knows what will happen. Her dramatics are merely a ploy to ensure the narrator’s love for her will continue after her death, ensuring her resurrection. Her repetition of the Joseph Glanvill quote also affirms this idea that her will is what will bring her back from the dead, not her love. Her final words were “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” Her will and the preparations by the narrator together make the rebirth possible.
The narrator’s choice of a fair second wife to contrast the dark first wife implies dark conquering light. The resurrection of Ligeia conquers Rowena’s mortality is therefore evil and unnatural. This dark-haired imagery and the ability to be reborn are references to the Egyptians. Poe makes Ligeia a reincarnated goddess. The narrator worships her to the point of idolatry. She has lived many lives before and it is assumed that she will lead many more. She just needs to keep making men fall deeply in love with her. Ligeia is the worshipped goddess, the powerful, immortal female, just as in ancient Egypt. This story only gives us a brief glimpse into her long lifespan. It would be interesting to know if the narrator plays a recurrent role in her life or if he has a short, mortal scene. Is this an immortal love or simply an immortal goddess? The narrator will soon find out if his love is reciprocated: either she will find another lover to keep, leaving him dead, or she will find another lover to bring about his rebirth.