“Picnic at Hanging Rock”: an Apollonian allegory

Our analysis of Peter Weir's cult film, making use of the interpretative tools of the anthropology of the Sacred, in particular: the Sacred as "Totally Other" according to Rudolf Otto; the "breaking of level", the "suspension of time" and the theme of access to the Other World by Mircea Eliade; Apollonian symbolism according to the studies of Giorgio Colli.

di Marco Maculotti

« Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place. »

On its theatrical release, more than forty years ago (1975), the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel of the same name by writer Joan Lindslay, brought the Australian filmmaker to world attention Peter weir as a master of style and atmospheres. Although devoid of a palpable tension - on the other hand picnic takes the form of a mysterious drama rather than a thriller - and with a definite ending, the film over the years rose to the status di cult, thanks also and above all to the oneiric suggestions favored by one pre-Raphaelite photography and velvety.

Overwhelming film despite its slow pace, perfectly supported by a soundtrack that alternates 'paganistic' melodies - the Arcadian flutes of Pan by Gheorghe Zamfir - with classical symphonies (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky), Picnic in Hanging Rock it draws its sap from that coincidentia oppositorum which according to the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade would constitute the maximum expression of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans - the "Totally Other" of the German theologian Rudolf Otto - which our civilization commonly gives the name of 'Sacred'.


The opposition of the opposites and the exit from 'reality'

The whole narrative is based onopposition of opposites. On the one hand there is the girls' boarding school, in which the life of the young protagonists proceeds according to well-defined and intransigible rails and rules; it's this one the so-called 'real life', the existence of the individual within the social pact. In this first existential context the characters do not really exist, but only as puppets inserted in an iron and indestructible system, or at most - as in the case of Miranda - in the guise of idols others.

On the other hand, in complete opposition to life within the college, there is the ancestral nature of the Australian outback [1], which as in the best tradition folk horror it is simply not territorio, how much rather imaginative space,

...a landscape which effectively breaks down the main character's ego… through contact with the ancient as well as the surreal and the supernatural.

- according to the definition coined by Adam Scovell [2].

A print of Hanging Rock made during the 1860 expedition led by the German zoologist William Blandowski.

This dichotomy between the aspect of existence that is considered 'real' and what apparently appears to be 'supernatural' or 'surreal' - but which ultimately turns out to be far more real of the first - and the different attitude of the characters in the film in considering this dichotomy within their own reality inevitably affects their destinies within the narrative.

On the one hand we find a small number of people - the protagonist Miranda, her two friends Marion and Irma and the math teacher Ms. McCrow - who are elevated on the general way of feeling, based on mediocrity and on the subservience to a pact. social iniquitous, and for this very reason, at the height of what appears to be a real one lighting, are able to access the Other Dimension, access that faithfully to tradition takes place by means of a "narrow passage" inside the rock [3]. We will return to this.

On the other hand, there is the great majority of the characters who, following the 'miracle' of the disappearance of the former, progressively fall into a state that has the contours ofnightmare. For those who do not suspect the existence of an ontologically different Other Dimension than the one we usually perceive as 'reality', the entry of the Totally Other into the gray daily life has the characteristics of intolerability and execrability. The Sacred, bursting suddenly - as is natural - into everyday life, disrupts it from head to toe for those who have never explored its Paths, and for those who, despite having had the opportunity, refuse to follow them (Edith ).

While the first group of characters manages to go out - metaphorically (the "breaking of level" of eliadian memory) and physically - from the squared-off world of 'civil' society and the oppressive microcosm of the rigid Appleyard boarding school, comrades Edith first and Irma then return to their cradle of apathy and dissatisfaction, wounded by the experience anyway dazzling - having had the opportunity to see the Light, albeit for a quick moment - but completely unaware of its sacred meaning, thus remaining fatally linked to human and daily 'reality'.

Even the college, an impregnable stronghold of 'civil life', suddenly disintegrates as soon as the Totally Other makes its appearance in the life of its tenants. Basic relationships of trust fail, families withdraw their daughters, the despotic director Ms. Appleyard turns to alcohol and confesses peculiar sexual habits that no one would ever have the slightest inkling of. Yet, despair affects only these characters who are left behind - not Miranda and the other 'disappeared', even if one of them suddenly returns on this side.

Time suspended on Hanging Rock.

The suspension of time and access to the other dimension

And just the unexpected re-appearance Irma allows us, if not to understand what happened to the young woman following her disappearance from our world - on the other hand the Sacred by its very nature is conceptually inexpressible - if only to focus attention on some characteristic of this afterlife in which the girl was a guest for days, and in which Miranda, Marion and Ms. McCrow.

The total absence of dirt and scratches on the feet of the revived Irma, for example, leads us to believe that symbolically in this Other Dimension do not walk as in our world, but rather soar in flight. In other words, to the Other World alone in spirit can be accessed and not otherwise. Indeed, in the scene highlight in which the three girls, entering the opening on the summit of Hanging Rock, disappear at the sight of the fearful Edith, they actually seem fluctuate towards access rather than walking. Time appears completely suspended, and Edith's cry expresses her utter disappointment and horror at what is taking place.

And besides, that day, time has really stopped. A short distance from the arrival of the group at the picnic spot, all the clocks stop at the same time, noon sharp. Obviously, this time is not accidental either. Noon, now in which the Sun is at its zenith in the sky, in its absolute axiality, is also the moment when the physical bodies they do not produce shadows. A moment therefore of perfect stasi, very favorable for the entry of the Totally Other into daily life. In this regard, we refer to the studies of Roger Caillois on the subject [4], which reminds us how even the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling recognized in "Pan's meridian sleep" - location which seems fitting here, as we will see - "everything that moves invisibly and that man perceives around him»In the peace of nature [5]. It follows that noon is "an hour of passage, therefore a critical moment". Even Servius recognized noon as the privileged hour of the bursting of the Sacred into daily life: "in fact then the gods are generally seen» [6].

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Peter Weir immediately points out that the space-time of Nature - and of Myth, and of the Sacred - totally differs from the 'human' one, and symbolically makes it clear to the viewer with the expedient of the clocks that stop fatally as soon as they arrive at Hanging Rock, as if this place were in fact another dimension in its own right. It is also significant that the facts unfold in the first year of the century: we are therefore at between two cycles and between two worlds, which is why it becomes possible for the Chosen to access a higher dimension.

The date is also not accidental: S. Valentino is the 'Christianized' version of Eros Protogonos - of which the director shows us various representations in the film -, primeval divinity of procreation and the origin of life in the Orphic cosmogony, often associated with Aphrodite Urania / Venus which in the film is symbolically represented by the protagonist Miranda, recognized even by Mlle. de Poitiers as one of her own Epiphany ("Now I know… I know that Miranda is a painting by Botticelli").

Botticelli's Venus, of which Miranda is considered an epiphany.

We are slowly approaching the fulcrum of our analysis, but with regard to the subject of time it is good to make some additional clarifications. Clocks as a symbol of linear time they appear several times in the film, and the attitude of the various characters towards them says a lot about theirs final destination - a concept on which, among other things, the collegiate students discuss before to disappear forever. So we see that, if on the one hand Miranda no longer wears a watch because "he can't stand the tick-tock on his heart", On the other Irma affirms that if she possessed one she would always carry it,"even in the bathroom».

From this reading it can be deduced why the latter, unlike Miranda, is not able to persist in the Other and higher Dimension, and after a while it is like rejected. On an even lower level, headmistress Ms. Appleyard marks the life of the boarding school by means of a large wooden pendulum that decorates her office, just happened to be placed right next to sinister black and white photos of people who have passed away. Clocks, and therefore linear time, therefore appear symbolically connected to death - True Life, to the absence of a real time, or rather to a cyclical, suspended, sacred time: mythical time [7].

Returning to Irma's reappearance, it is also curious to note how a mysterious bleeding wound is found on her forehead, the cause of which the doctor cannot explain. We also find it, identical, on the forehead of the young Michael Fitzhubert who had gone to look for the missing college girls on those rocks, as if moved by a supernatural force. And it is precisely that wound, which so much remembers the 'third Eye' of the esoteric tradition, which allows him to experience the vision of what happened to the collegiate girls in the last moments of their existence in this floor, as in one 'remote viewing'.

They are these purely shamanic themes on which we have dwelt elsewhere [8], and a repetition of which is not necessary here. Suffice it to emphasize how the three girls, just before 'disappearing', suddenly fall into one trance static - obtained both through dance and during a state of total rest [9] - which is perfectly in line with the dictates of shamanism around the world. Likewise, say about Michael before receiving the 'vision'. Finally even Ms. McCrow appears in a state of trance cataleptic, both on the chariot when she exposes the geological history of the site to which they are headed to her pupils, and when, just before taking theapparently inexplicable decision of take off your clothes to access the Other World [10], appears in ecstasy in front of a geometric figure representative the union of the circle with the triangle.

The ascension of Hanging Rock.

Ascension, the "right time" and the "level break"

The rise of Hanging Rock, on the other hand, has all the chrism of the initiatory experience. Formerly Mircea Eliade and René Guénon [11], just to give two of the best known examples, they focused on symbolism of the ascent of the mountain, symbol ofAxis of the world, at the end of which contact with the Sacred becomes possible, since once at the top you are ideally in the Center of the World.

writes Mircea eliade about the esoteric meaning of ascension [12]:

Climbing or ascension symbolizes the way to absolute reality and, in the profane consciousness, approaching this reality causes an ambivalent feeling of fear and joy, attraction and repulsion., etc.

And, speaking of the metaphysical value of the Center [13]:

A "Center" represents an ideal point that does not belong to the profane, geometric space, but to the sacred space and in which communication with Heaven or Hell can take place [14]; in other words a "Center" is the paradoxical place of the breaking of levels, the point where the sensible world can be transcended. But by the very fact of transcending [15] the Universe, the created world, transcends time, duration and stasis is achieved, the eternal timeless present.

The same scholars also note the topos of the cave inside the mountain: an ascent which is simultaneously one descent into oneself, in the womb of the rock, an incorruptible substance indifferent to the passage of time. This cave or hole in the rocks through which Miranda and the others pass is the so-called "Narrow passage" of the shamanic tradition, the forum which leads to the Other World. A hole which, we recall, remains open only for a few moments, and then closes immediately.

Miranda and the «narrow passage».

This is the topos of the "Razor's edge", the "Difficult passage", of the "narrow bridge", of the "eye of the needle", and so on. In this we recognize thatimportance of the "right time" in time, what the Pythagoreans called καιρός, the "right time" to take an action - often of vital importance. In the words of George de Santillana [16], "It is not prayer or hope that counts, it is only a question of accuracy, of punctuality in the appointments of the καιρός: the right periodicity that makes you fall into place, where fate awaits you, or else you have recovered in the storm of time».

There is a time and a right place for everything to have a beginning and an end… up there.

Let us return to the observations of the Eliade [17], which we consider of primary importance in order to understand the deeper meaning of Picnic at Hanging Rock:

He "whose thought is stable" and for whom time no longer flows, lives in an eternal present,  in nunc stans. [...] Any instant ... can become the "favorable moment", the paradoxical instant that suspends the duration and projects ... into the nunc stans, in an eternal present. This eternal present is no longer part of time, of duration […] The "favorable moment" of illumination is to be compared to the lightning or the mystical ecstasy that the revelation communicates and that paradoxically extends out of time.

In the "eternal timeless present" experienced and lived by the collegiate girls on the pinnacles of Hanging Rock, in a state of absolute solitude and communion with Nature - celebrated with feral dances supported by ineffable panic and Dionysian flutes - there is the whole atmosphere heavenly ofArcadia loci idyllic and dreamlike of the Hellenic myth. The timeless aspect of the experience is also underlined by the sentence pronounced by one of the girls: "A million years ... just for us". The college girls, perhaps unconsciously, seem aware that they are going to get out of time samsaric, and to be in the process of experiencing access to an elevated dimension - or a return to the Origin.

Et in Arcadia ego.

Picnic-at-Hanging-Rock (1)
Miranda, Apollonian epiphany.

Miranda, Botticellian Venus and Apollonian virgin

The character of Miranda (played by Anne-Louise Lambert) is undoubtedly at the center of the conflagration of events: she is the most ethereal and angelic of the college students. appleyard (literally the "Apple Garden", that is to say a profane version of the “Garden of the Hesperides” and, as we shall see, of the island of Avalon), and nevertheless it is at the same time the one that most detaches itself from the pre-established patterns of social conventions.

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The figure of Miranda, not surprisingly defined as a 'Epiphany of Botticelli's Venus, which in many sequences we see blurred and evanescent on the ancestral backgrounds of Hanging Rock, is the representation of the truly free Spirit, which flew where he wants. Significantly, in one of the final scenes of the film, Sarah will say of Miranda that "she didn't go there by chance" is that «he knows things that few others know: secrets». Miranda is, in other words, the Chosen - in a way not unlike if we want from Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks [18] - or, to put it in Gnostic terms, the Pneumatic Spirit that rises above the surface of things to return to the Source: for this reason, Miranda is also Sophia.

In the character of Miranda we recognize very ancient symbols of our tradition, of which we can only assume Peter Weir was aware. On the other hand, symbols often act unconsciously to their own 'evocators', so we shouldn't be surprised by this. It must be said immediately and clearly: Miranda has all the trappings of an Apollonian and Hyperborean epiphany. From the very first scenes, she is associated with her the swan as 'double': we see her for example combing her hair in the mirror and her face appears next to a photograph of the hyperborean bird par excellence. In the final stages, her friend Sarah prays an effigy of her next to which, again, a statuette of the same animal has been placed.

Miranda in ecstatic trance on Hanging Rock.

But there is much more: the Weir shows us on more than one occasion, thanks to the visual expedient of superimposition, its effective interchangeability with the Apollonian swan, and precisely in that form he shows himself to Michael in a highly significant scene. Where Miranda used to be, suddenly a swan appears; then, that too disappears and nothing remains. Miranda has returned to the Other World. We thus understand that, far from being 'dead', Miranda still lives in an ontologically superior and subtler form than the human one, and can thus appear in the dreams of her companions or in the form of a theriomorphic epiphany to those who really know how to 'connect' with her.

As well points out Antonio Bonifacio [19], who is credited with having been able to grasp the Apollonian significance of the figure of Miranda, that it is a Hyperborean theme there can be no doubt: Eurasian folklore abounds with tales on the theme of the metamorphosis of divine girls in the form of a swan - of which the Iranian Fravarti (or Fravashi) - which "present themselves to humanity in the semblance of swans, mutating then, in secluded places, generally in the vicinity of lakes, to finally appear as girls of an enchanted and almost evanescent beauty". Such divine maidens in the Eurasian tradition are configured as messengers from the Other World - the Hyperborean one, connected to the topos axiality and the Pole [20] - who travel the otherworldly routes to visit the 'pure' and bring them advice in case of labor. Bonifacio continues:

La Andersen's Tale of the Whooper Swans, expresses this passage "poetically" without losing any of the symbolic allusiveness of the theme. In particular, a phrase put into the mouth of the swan-creatures seems almost a viaticum to communicate in the best way the contents of the passage between these two worlds: "... We fly like swans,  while the sun is shining high in the sky ... We do not live here, a land as beautiful as this lies on the other side of the sea".

If we read this excerpt while savoring the scenes of the three college girls who, under the sun at its zenith, dance like fairy creatures on the rocky peaks of Hanging Rock, we cannot fail to recognize the validity of these Apollonian interpretations. Just as we do not feel we can think of Weir as ignorant of her if she even lets Miranda out, during a dialogue with one of her companions, her invitation to go and visit "his funny little family ... up north».

The prophecy of Miranda, Apollonian oracle.

Peter Weir's Apollonian Allegory

Everything therefore leads us back toHyperborean Apollo [21], in its highest sense of Pole and Spiritual Sun, of Axial Light that is experienced only after having passed, through an ecstatic experience, the regime of the senses. Nor will we fail to note, following the example of Bonifacio, how Giorgio Colli [22] "Outlined precisely the traits of this ambiguous celestial character considering him as the bearer of wisdom, but of a wisdom understood as mania [23], completely outside its rational connotation, as it was imagined by certain Germanic scholars ».

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Giorgio Colli Greek wisdom sketches the divine figure of Apollo "the Oblique", describing the way in which, by shooting the arrow with his bow and entangling the intermediary by means of the paridisian sound of the lyre, the god possesses his 'predestined' by means of the mania, a state in which they instantly understand the Totally Other and, in an attempt to put it into words, vaticinano dark puzzles which are considered to come from Apollo himself. 

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, it could be concluded that Apollo reveals himself fully only to Miranda and the other 'disappeared', the only ones who have solved his 'enigma to be solved'. For those who have not been able, the inconceivable question remains as to what really happened. The mystery wisely is never solved within the film's narrative - and how could it? The resolution of the mystery goes far beyond reasoning, and consequently it can never be understood by those who reflect and act only on the basis of the same. The oracle can only be interpreted by those who prove to be able to 'sacredly' combine the two modes of existence, linear time and sacred time, history and myth.

A coincidentia oppositorum which is also realized in the duplicity of Apollo, symbolically enclosed in his two sacred objects: the bow and the lyre. The bow, which striking the predestined with the arrow of illumination, similar to a thunderbolt [24], kidnaps him from this world to lead him to a higher one, the Avalon Hyperborea; the lyre, which with its sweet music cradles the soul possessed by Apollo and favors its ascension to the axial extremity of theAxis of the world.

Harmony of contrasts, like that of the bow with the lyre. [25]

Only by realizing the coincidentia oppositorum one can 'fly' to the Apollonian Polar Kingdom outside of space-time and experience the Totally Other. Only then does it become possible to understand the ultimate Truth, which in Picnic at Hanging Rock is mockingly expounded right at the beginning, by means of a Shakespearean quote - borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe - from a voiceover:

What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.



[1] The Australian tradition of the Dreamtime, the mythical time of the origins, but also the "reversible" sacred time of the myth - according to the Eliadian terminology - after all, fits perfectly with the narrative structure set up by Peter Weir for this film, as we will try to demonstrate in the continuation of this report .

[2] A. Scovell, Folk horror. Hours dreadful and strange things. Author, 2017, p. 71. Here the author refers to David Rudkin's film Penda's Fen (1974); on the film in question, cf. M. Maculotti, “Penda's Fen”: the sacred daimon of ungovernable, AXISmundi.

[3] See M. Maculotti, Access to the Other World in the shamanic tradition, folklore and "abduction", AXISmundi.

[4] See R. Caillois, The meridian demons. Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 1999.

[5] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[6] Ivi, p. 10.

[7] Which is precisely, as we said in note 1, the "dreaming time" of the Australian aborigines. On this, cf. M. Eliade, The creativity of the spirit. Jaca Book, Milan, 1979.

[8] See, e.g., M. Maculotti, The Friulian benandanti and the ancient European fertility cults, AXISmundi.

[9] «Shakespeare speaks once, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, of the "common" sleep that he distinguishes from a state of more intense fascination, a magical state. One brings dreams, the other visions and prophecies ». E. Jünger, Approaches. Drugs and intoxication. Multhipla, Milan, 1982, p. 37.

[10] We emphasize in passing the esoteric value of 'stripping off one's clothes' to achieve a sort of 'original nudity'. The same can be said of the action carried out several times in the film by the pupils of the college of stripping off their gloves, shoes, stockings and bodice.

[11] R. Guénon, Symbols of sacred science. Adelphi, Milan, 1978.

[12] M. Eliade, Images and symbols. Jaca Book, Milan, 2015, p. 49.

[13] Ivi, p. 71.

[14] The volcanic nature of the Hanging Rock massif allows us to identify a symbolic connection with the Underworld: in ancient times volcanoes were always and everywhere considered access points to Hades or the Other World.

[15] "According to its rigorous Latin etymology, to transcend means to overcome by ascending" (J. Evola).

[16] G. de Santillana, “The history to be rewritten”, in Ancient fate and modern fate. Adelphi, Milan, 2012, p. 76.

[17] M. Eliade, op. cit., p. 76.

[18] See M. Maculotti, The secrets of Twin Peaks: Evil that comes from the woods, AXISmundi.

[19] A. Bonifacio, The polar way of the swans. The steeds of Apollo between prehistory and Augustan Rome (I part), Symmetry # 27, December 2013.

[20] Relate this to the note already made about noon and the solar zenith.

[21] See IP Culianu, Hyperborean shamanism of ancient Greece and G. Colli, Greek wisdom I. Dionysus. Apollo. Eleusis. Orpheus. Museum. Hyperboreans. Enigma. Adelphi, Milan, 1990, p. 45.

[22] "The mania it is wisdom seen from the outside, in its first showing, in the first appearing as vision, dance, contact, perceived sound, not yet heard ». G. Colli, op. cit., P. 26.

[23] This mania manifests itself in Picnic at Hanging Rock in various forms: Miranda and her companions fall into ecstasy while dancing whirls or sleeping; Ms. McCrow denotes her hers mania depriving himself of his clothes; Edith, to an even lower degree, expresses it in her mad cry of hers.

[24] This 'divine thunderbolt' or arrow fired by Apollo can perhaps be related to the 'red cloud' seen on the peak of Hanging Rock just before the 'disappearance' of the three college students.

[25] Heraclitus, fr. 51b. Giorgio Colli comments: «The bow and arrows of the god turn against the human world through the fabric of words and thoughts. The sign of the passage from the divine to the human sphere is the obscurity of the response, that is, the point at which the word, manifesting itself as enigmatic, betrays its origin from an unknown world. This ambiguity is an allusion to the metaphysical fracture, it manifests the heterogeneity between divine wisdom and its expression in words ». G. Colli, The birth of philosophy. Adelphi, Milan, 1975, p. 43.

14 comments on ““Picnic at Hanging Rock”: an Apollonian allegory"

    1. In my opinion it is rather antithetical to that of Irma: while for the latter sentimentality predominates over reasoning, Marion has a completely rational and scientific thought, a cold character and so on. But while Irma, without a superior point of support, is "rejected" by the Other World, Marion remains there: she was probably able to sublimate her reasoning to a higher and not purely "scientific" level, reaching the coincidence oppositorum between rationality and irrationality, thus reaching a sort of super-rationality. More or less what happens to Ms. McCrow, the austere math teacher who experiences her peculiar illumination by meditating on the union of the circle with the triangle.

      1. Yes, it is probable, as if it were a kind of translation of scientific detachment into a spiritual sphere: in the novel before the ascent Marion turns to look at the mass of human beings that move without meaning, then while she is about to draw the monolith seen for first from Miranda, throw away the notebook and pencil.
        This is where coincidentia oppositorum occurs instantly ...

  1. Wonderful article!
    I remember seeing this delicate and powerful film, for the first time at the age of fourteen, in the same days in which we dealt with the myth of Ila kidnapped by the Nymphs at school ...
    I could not help but draw parallels with the story I was witnessing and put forward the hypothesis that the missing girls had ended up in a "magical dimension" from which they would never return, leaving the film with an open and "mysterious" ending. and thus provoking, the bewildered gazes of those present who began to look at me as if I were mad!

  2. ¡Extraordinary interpretation of the film!
    He quedado dislumbrado por su lucidez.
    Previously, I had drawn similar conclusions, but the great cantidad of references that the author brings confirm me in them.
    Best regards

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