Bob Dylan: Gnostic Alechemy Revisited


By Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan comes in contact with the symbols of Gnostic Alchemy from the get-go. He reads ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe, and he takes part in  ‘Madhouse On Castle Street’, a modernist Western TV  play concerning a guy imprisoned within the walls of his own room; the social and physical envirnoment including one’s own body surrounds and constrains his spirit-seeking soul; not yet able to start over again from his basic white skeleton, the prisoner can’t take the next step in the direction from whence comes the overly bright golden light of a faceless God.

In the play, Bob Dylan sings the following song – the white swan being the alchemic symbol associated with the second stage of ‘gnosis’:

Tenderly William kissed his wife
Then he opened her head with a butcher's knife
And the swan on the river went glidin' by
The swan on the river went glidin' by
(Bob Dylan: The Gliding Swan ~ Dylan/traditional)

In the film “Renaldo and Clara”, Bob Dylan messes around with gnostic themes. The ghost-like White Lady arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, Emily Dickinson style:

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The carriage but just ourselves
And immortality
(Emily Dickinson: Because I Could Not Stop For Death)

The tiny, messy, tomb-like apartment parodies the giant pyramids of  Egypt, and its ancient mythologies – Horus is the falcon-headed son of the Egyptian sun goddess Isis, and her earth-bound husband Osiris; the ostrich-feathered Osiris is her twin brother who’s killed, and then thrown to the  catfish in the Nile River by their jeolous snake-like brother Seth. The left eye of Horus, representing the moon, is injured when he fights with his uncle, but his bigger right eye is an alchemy symbol that stands for the protection that his mother provides for everyone:

I was thinkin' about turquoise, I was thinkin' about gold
I was thinkin' about diamonds, and the world's biggest necklace
As we ride through the canyons, though the devilish cold
I was thinkin' about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless
(Bob Dylan: Isis ~  Dylan/Levy)

In the song lyrics below, the mythology of Isis and Osiris, and the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ are mixed together:

Oh sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?
(Bob Dylan: Oh Sister ~ Dylan/Levy)

Brings to mind:

AndI said, "What is written, sweet sister
On the door of this legended tomb?" "
She replied: "Ulalume - Ulalume!
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"
(Edgar Allan Poe)

The followers of modernist Jamaican gnostic Rastafarianism are somewhat akin to North American Mormons, but they geographically reverse the Promised Land. To them, Jah’s chosen people are black Africans, and the Ethiopia of old that includes part of Egypt is the Promised Land. There, a princess, a worshipper of Isis, protects Egyptain-born Moses.

However, many Africans become slaves of the “Babylonians”, of Europeans and Americans who change gnostic teachings into what they call the religion of ‘Christianity’ with stories like the ‘curse of Ham’. Jesus, for many Rastafarians, is Jah who appears on earth in the form of Haile Salassie, a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Salassie be symbolized by the ‘Red Lion’; he’s considered the physical manifestation of the unified, re-masculinized Judeo-Christain God; the female goddess Isis gets short shifted, and displaced once again.

In the following lyrics, the singer/songwriter plays with the “Song of Solomon”; with “But life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy19: 21); and with “Thou canst not see my face, for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33: 20):

Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams
In another lifetime, she must have owned the world, or been faithfully married
To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlight streams
In creation where one's nature neither honours or forgives
I and I
One says to the other, "No man sees my face and lives"
(Bob Dylan: I And I )


  1. Not a single time has Mr. Fyffe succeeded in proving that Gnosticism has had any influence whatsoever on the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Yet he keeps on hammering this point with fundamentalistic fervour. In vain so far.

  2. Kees:
    Though I would if I could take full credit for pointing out Dylan’s ‘gnostic’ bent, alas, it’s been done by other writers on Dylan’s songs as well…..not to mention that the idea of continuing to seek self-knowledge(gnosis) be there in the Bible, both the Jewish and Christian.

    And alchemic metaphors of yore are embedded in contemporary English languge.

    Not a single time have you given a convincing proof that all knowledge has come to an end, has ceased, under Christian orthodoxy and dogma. Your self-assured literalistic, fundamentalist view of the mysterious Universe is all in vain.

  3. That Dylan, as an artist, uses gnostic symbols in his lyrics, does not mean the singer/ songwriter identifies himself as a follower of Gnostic beliefs….the symbols thereof are just floating around in the Jungian well from which many artists, including Dylan, draw their images.

  4. Great post and interesting points made! Agree especially to last comment. Reminds me of what Leonard Cohen said about his source of inspiration, at the Prince Asturias Awards:
    “When I was packing in Los Angeles to come here, I had a sense of unease because I’ve always felt some ambiguity about an award for poetry. Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often.”

  5. * or rather…
    Horus is the son of the Egyptian moon goddess Isis

    The image of the tear-dropped Eye of Horus often appears behind Dylan when he performs on stage

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