What, exactly, is meant by the name “Moloch?” Whenever I hear the word, the image that instantly comes to mind is that of the massive owl statue of Bohemian Grove, filmed by Alex Jones during his infamous infiltration, part of a ceremony known as “The Cremation of Care.” But long before this adventure, Moloch was mentioned by the Beat generation poet, Allen Ginsberg, in his epic poem “Howl” back in 1956.

The depiction of Moloch in the Bohemian Grove is of an owl, which draws some skeptical ire, as traditionally Moloch has had a bull’s appearance. But Bohemian Grove, after all, is a fabrication that draws on multiple sources. For example, their slogan “Weaving spiders, come not here,” was lifted wholesale from Shakespeare’s “Faerie Lullaby” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So the idea that their Moloch is in the form of an owl (mythologically speaking, a reference to Athena) is of no consequence.

What is of consequence is that the imagery connects it to Ginsberg’s vision, because these powerful, world-shaping figures who so influence our society worship Moloch as a deity, and thus it stands for its ancient tradition of the Canaaite god of child-sacrifice, and a more modern god of capitalistic corruption, at the same time.

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets
Like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose
factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose
Smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

In her essay titled “Ginsberg and the Machinery of Capitalism: A Political Reading of ‘Howl,’” Arianna Garofalo states that Moloch is a representation of “this monotonous, isolated, massified, consumerist culture” and goes on to state that, “Ginsberg summed up the evils of this Capitalist, consumerist America with one word: Moloch.” Writers have noticed that Ginsberg seems to have gotten some inspiration for his inclusion of Moloch from an artist named Lynd Ward, who created a radically new style of storytelling in the form of telling stories with a series of woodblock prints. In particular, there is a Moloch section of Lynd Ward’s “wordless novel” Wild Pilgrimage.

Curious about this imagery itself, I bought a copy of Wild Pilgrimage to take a look at the Moloch images that so influenced Ginsberg. In terms of literary theory, this type of novel lends itself to a style known as reader-response theory, where the interpretation of the novel is heavily influenced by what the reader brings to it when they read it. Since what we have here is a series of woodblock prints, the reader is left to create the “text” of the work themselves, drawing on what symbolism and meaning they bring to it.

Roland Barthes describes the meaning of “work” versus “text” in his essay titled “From Work To Text,” stating that “…the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only when caught up in a discourse.” Thus the work is the novel of woodcuts itself, and the text is the ideas surrounding them.

The synopsis on the back of this novel states, “Wild Pilgrimage wordlessly relays the gripping tale—in startling shades of black and red [actually orange]—of a man born into a grim industrial world, chronicling his struggles between the drab reality around him and the fantasy world of his imagination. Following the story’s hero through nearly 100 sharply rendered illustrated pages, readers become aware of a fundamental dilemma plaguing our modern times: that of a unique individual living, working, and aspiring to dream in an overwhelming mass society.”

When the woodcuts of the novel are black, it is inferred that we are in the real world—that gritty, dark, industrial world of actual society. When the woodcuts switch to orange, it can be inferred that we are in the main character’s imagination and the realm of fantasy. It then becomes interesting that Allen Ginsberg writes in “Howl,” “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” and then answers his own question in the next line, with the narrator exclaiming, “Moloch!” Well the unnamed man in Lynd Ward’s novel seems to have his imagination intact, so perhaps Moloch hasn’t destroyed him yet.

In Wild Pilgrimage, the novel starts with a quote from Arturo Giovannitti: “…Thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.” One turns the page to find a tiny woodcut image of a hand grasping through the clouds, reaching toward a star. Then we see the first full image—as seen from above, looking down, a surrounding of industrial buildings, and men filing in. In the next image, we are still looking down from above, but closer to the ground, and a man next to an open door holds his fist in the air with one hand and a sign with the hammer and sickle of communism in the other.

The woodcuts in orange seem to be where the novel matches up with Ginsberg’s depictions of Moloch, as the first two orange ones show towering furnace stacks reaching toward the sky. These belong to “Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!” In the third orange woodcut, we see the man shirtless, struggling against metal bars, with the sun shining beyond. This, too, is Moloch: “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!” In the next woodcut, the man jumps off a cliff. “Moloch whom I abandon!” He certainly seems to be abandoning Moloch here and jumping away from those bars we saw earlier. Next, we see the man floating in a stream, and this image hearkens to famous paintings of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One wonders if the man is alive or dead. This image may connect to Ginsberg’s line, “Visions! Omens! Hallucinations! Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American River!” And in the next woodcut, we see him appearing on the river bank, to find a naked woman reclining. Of all of the images thus far in the novel, this one is the most primal. Though Ginsberg’s poem seems to become a bit more primal as well, it seems that the imagery breaks off at this point, and in the next woodcut, we are back to watching the man walking through a landscape.

The man continues on and eventually, after his adventures, we see him staring into the fire. It is then, that we see his thoughts go back to Moloch and his smokestacks. We see men with heavy hammers breaking their backs with work. This seems to match up with the line, “They broke their backs lifting Moloch to heaven!” And in the next woodcut, we see a man standing with his hammer and the anvil, seemingly deep in thought. After that, we see a woodcut of an overseer with a whip. Though this individual seems to be an interpretation of “Moloch the heavy judger of men”, it could be anybody. Next we see that same overseer without his whip, body folded like he is about to fall. The thinking man has his hammer in hand now, as though to strike the overseer and overcome him, in the way that the narrator of Ginsberg’s poem wants to leave Moloch. The next images seem to show an overthrow of the overseer by the working men, and then the main character wakes up again, in the world of black and white.

That seems to be the end of the connections between the novel and the poem. In both, Moloch seems to be a harsh, industrial demon who wants our souls and imaginations, and overcoming him is the goal. He is Mind, and Industry, and stifles the imagination, which is the main character (and also the narrator of “Howl”)’s way out. But our hunt for Moloch is not yet over. In her article titled “Moloch and Destruction in Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’”, Clayton Jannise states that, “The reader knows Moloch is something sinister yet there are several Molochs Ginsberg could be referencing. One interpretation of Ginsberg’s Moloch could be the Moloch from the silent film Metropolis.”

Metropolis is a 1927 German film directed by Fritz Lang. It depicts a futuristic dystopia in which there are two classes: the workers that toil every day and live below the city, and the exalted Club of the Sons, whose members live above and play in pleasure gardens such as the Eternal Garden. Our main character, Freder, is a member of this upper class. Freder falls in love at first sight (somewhat comedically clutching his heart) when he sees Maria walk in, dressed plainly, with about 50 orphans, daring to say to them in the presence of the upper class, “These are your brothers!”

The film depicts monstrous machinery, and then the giant machine that the men are working on, seems to turn against them—men start getting burned, others are falling from the railings, and where the machine once stood, there is now a metal head with a gaping mouth and what appears to be flames within. For a moment, the disfigured name, “Moloch!” appears on the screen, and the machine that once powered the city seems to have transformed into a demon demanding human sacrifice. The image of Moloch in Metropolis is huge and terrifying. The image then zooms in to the mouth area of Moloch, where we see two priests on either side that look sort of vaguely Incan and yet vaguely Roman, and they begin pushing people into the mouth of Moloch as though ritualistically. They drag bound prisoners in groups up the steps, and the prisoners themselves bob along as though either drugged or in a trance. Smoke billows from inside Moloch’s mouth and Freder cowers at this terrible sight. Then we see what looks like regiments of soldiers marching into Moloch’s mouth before the whole scene reverts back to normality, and we see the machine again. This depiction suggests that Freder is using his imagination to see the machine for what it really is: Moloch.

We then see religious imagery crop up again, as Freder heads to the “new Tower of Babel” to see his father. It is unclear whether Freder tells his father about his vision of Moloch or just about the machine explosion. We learn that the machine itself is called the M-Machine.

It is unclear where Fritz Lang’s inspiration for the Moloch machine came from, but it is certainly a way to add violence to the film, of the sort that could be useful for such a story. Of theatrical violence, Fritz Lang has stated in an interview that, “Violence has become, in my opinion, a definite point in a script. It has a dramaturgical reason to be there. You see, I don’t think that people believe in the Devil, with the horns and the forked tail, and therefore, they don’t believe in punishment after they are dead. So my question was, for me, what are people…what belief people…what are people fearing? That’s better. And that is, physical pain. And physical pain comes from violence. And that I think is, today, the only fact which people really fear, and therefore it has become a definite part of life, and naturally, hours of script.”

Moloch, and Freder’s vision of it, is not mentioned again in the film, as its attentions shift to the inventor, who has merged man and machine. Fritz Lang, the director of the film, wrote the script for Metropolis with his wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote a novel concerning Metropolis with the intent for it to someday become a movie. So the question becomes, where did Thea get the inspiration for the Moloch scene? According to Wikipedia, “She was drawn to writing epic myths and legends,” and thus the trail of Moloch ends. We have chased him from Bohemian Grove to Ginsberg’s “absolute heart of the poem” through woodcuts and into classic film, only to find the old fiend back in his lair, in the realm of myth, where so much poetry and magic originates.