Wine and Whore of Babylon


Wine of Babylon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

 
 

In May 1984, Jean-Michel Basquiat has his first one-artist exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery. Paintings include Bird as Buddha, Brown Spots, Eye, Untitled (Africa), and Wine of Babylon. The show was met by mixed reviews:

“The early work is of an original primitivism, with a graffiti heritage. The originality has quickly become stylized and somewhat self-conscious in this current show” (Donald Kuspit)

“The young artist uses color well …. But more remarkable is the educated quality of his line and the stateliness of his compositions, both of which bespeak a formal training that, in fact, he never had” (Vivien Raynor).

“And throughout floated a disembodied eye, which seemed to allude both to the self-the ‘I’-and to the witness or seer. But one sensed little of what Basquiat is witness to, or of why it bears accounting” (Kate Linker).

 
 

Whore of Babylon, William Blake, 1809

 
 

Babalon (also known as the Scarlet Woman, Great Mother or Mother of Abominations) is a goddess found in the mystical system of Thelema, which was established in 1904 with English author and occultist Aleister Crowley‘s writing of The Book of the Law (although the name Babalon does not occur in that text). In her most abstract form, she represents the female sexual impulse and the liberated woman; although in the Creed of the Gnostic Mass she is also identified with Mother Earth, in her most fertile sense. At the same time, Crowley believed that Babalon had an earthly aspect in the form of a spiritual office, which could be filled by actual women—usually as a counterpart to his own identification as “To Mega Therion” (The Great Beast)—whose duty was then to help manifest the energies of the current Aeon of Horus.

Her consort is Chaos, the “Father of Life” and the male form of the Creative Principle. Babalon is often described as being girt with a sword and riding the Beast. She is often referred to as a sacred whore, and her primary symbol is the Chalice or Graal.

As Crowley wrote in his The Book of Thoth, “she rides astride the Beast; in her left hand she holds the reins, representing the passion which unites them. In her right she holds aloft the cup, the Holy Grail aflame with love and death. In this cup are mingled the elements of the sacrament of the Aeon”.

Perhaps the earliest origin is the ancient city of Babylon, a major metropolis in Mesopotamia (modern Al Hillah in Iraq). Babylon is the Greek variant of Akkadian Babilu (bāb-ilû), meaning “Gateway of the god”. It was the “holy city” of Babylonia from around 2300 BC, and the seat of the Neo-Babylonian empire from 612 BC.

One of the goddesses associated with Babylonia was Ishtar, the most popular female deity of the Assyro-Babylonian pantheon and patron of the famous Ishtar Gate. She is the Akkadian counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna and the cognate to the northwest Semitic goddess Astarte. The Greeks associated her with Aphrodite (Latin Venus), and sometimes Hera. Ishtar was worshipped as a Great Goddess of fertility and sexuality, but also of war and death, and the guardian of prostitutes. She was also called the Great Whore and sacred prostitution formed part of her cult or those of cognate goddesses.

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