Prof. April DeConick one of the premier religious scholars of Gnosticism has written reviews examining Gnostic themes in Dark City as well as Avatar. Gnostic themes occur in multiple films. The Truman Show would be another oft-cited Gnostic film example. And of course The Matrix (I’ll get back to that in a second.)
But typically not included in the canon of contemporary Gnostic cinema would be Sausage Party, the 2016 “adult" animated film by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill. Now this is not the first time that Goldberg & Rogen in particular have tackled theological themes. The pair offered their own vision of the apocalypse in This is The End. Goldberg and Rogen are also lead developers in the TV series Preacher, which covers such topics as angelology, demonology, the Death of God Theology, messianic faith, and ultimately theodicy (the question of suffering and evil.)
So a Gnostic metaphysical turn from these two is not as far out as it may at first sound. While the Matrix involves strong Gnostic themes as I’ve covered elsewhere the trilogy arguably ends in a non dual, even orthodox Christology (and therefore has some partial critiques of Gnosticism while also including elements of it.)
Sausage Party, in contrast, is thoroughgoing in its Gnostic spirituality from beginning to end. (For reference I’m not by any stretch a 100% advocate for Gnosticism but I do find it interesting that it is so well developed consciously or otherwise in a cartoon.)
So who were the Gnostics and what is Gnostic spirituality?
This interview with Prof. DeConick is a great starting place to start answering those questions. (Interview begins around minute 15).
In that interview DeConick covers a number of major elements of Gnostic spirituality and theology (covered in her book The Gnostic New Age. While there are certainly multiple strands of Gnosticism and unique flavors of it, there a consistent themes that repeat across the various Gnostic schools.
In reviewing Sausage Party we’re going to cover the main Gnostic themes: dualism, the archons, the falsity of religion, The Transcendent Realm beyond, Life as simulation, The Higher Self/Angel of one’s own being, and Initiation/Awakening to the Truth.
Spoilers Ahead for the Film. Also a heads up if you do go and watch the film there is an insane amount of explicit language, graphic depictions of cartoon food sex, and grotesque cartoon violence.
Archons & the "True Falsehood of religion
Sausage Party is a film (on the surface anyway) about food. All the characters are different types of food in a grocery store who are alive and conscious beings.
The movie begins with a focus on a pack of hot dogs (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera) as well as a pack of hot dog buns (including Kirsten Wiig). Rogen’s character Frank and Wiig’s character Brenda long for the day when they will be sold and get to unite with one another as hot dog & bun (complete with all the teenage sexual innuendo you’d expect).
Each morning all the food in the grocery store awaken to a devotional song to the “gods”. You can watch it here. Heads up: Very Explicit lyrics.
Here’s the a partial reference in the lyrics (full lyrics here.)
Dear gods you're so divine in each and every way to you we pray,
Dear gods we pledge our love to you forevermore,
We always felt we had a special bond,
Take us to the great beyond,
Where we're sure nothing bad happens to food,
Once we're out the sliding doors things will all be grand,
We will live our dreams together in the promised land,
The gods control our fate so we all know we're in good hands…
The gods will always care for us,
They won't squeeze us out their butts,
We cannot overstate how confident we are that our beliefs are accurate,
And nothing awful happens to us in the great beyond.
Now the “gods” in question are the human shoppers who will come and buy the food and take it out of the store. The Great Beyond is beyond “the sliding doors” of the grocery store into what the food has been taught is paradise.
Here is the first Gnostic theme: the gods as archons.
Gnosticism argued that the gods of their day were in fact demons (archons), beings that did not in fact have the well being of humans in mind but in reality were predatory, trying to steal the light/essence within each person. This is especially the case in the Sethian Gnostic material found in the Nag Hammadi library.
The “gods” of Sausage Party obviously are going to eat all these conscious food beings unbeknownst to them.
The ancient Gnostic critique included attacks on the god of The Bible but also the Roman and Greek pantheon, Egyptian and Mesopotamian deities. It was an across the board, equal opportunity deconstruction of all existing deities.
Commonplace religion then for the Gnostics was the means deployed by these false gods/archons to control us. These demonic gods pulled the ultimate psyop by making everyone believe that they were in fact benevolent and working on behalf of humans. Thereby the humans would offer themselves willingly to their own abusers and controllers. (Gnostic spirituality is very popular in contemporary conspiracy circles for a good reason—Gnosticism is an ancient conspiracy theory.)
So this core Gnostic argument is set up from the very beginning of the film. We the viewer know that the “gods” are actually beings intent on consuming the food and that their belief in the great beyond is a dangerous illusion for the food.
In the film the great beyond is very clearly depicted as the traditional heaven of Judeo-Christian belief. Beyond the sliding doors of the grocery store are repeatedly shown as glowing light, an obvious reference to the stories of near death experiences where people speak of “going into the light.” Later in the story the character of Lavash—a clear Muslim Middle Eastern stand-in—speaks of how he has been promised “77 Bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil” in the Great Beyond (a clear critique of the virgins in paradise for suicide bombers theology of radical Islamist terrorists). So that completes the trifecta of critiques of Abrahamic religions. There’s also a very brief shot of an Asian sauce claiming they’ll get to meditate for all eternity (clear shot at Buddhism and Eastern religion generally.)
Almost two thousand years ago, Gnostics argued that the traditional visions of heaven and of near death experience are not in fact the true transcendent realm but rather an intermediate realm and subtler form of control created by the archons to trap souls and force them to reincarnate on the the prison planet of Earth. That which was seen as the ultimate liberation (paradise) is itself simply another layer of control according to the Gnostics.
The religion of the archons also includes moral codes of conduct which officially are about becoming an ethical person but (within the Gnostic view) are simply another mechanism of controlling behavior, especially at the most intimate levels of existence. The hot dogs and the buns for example are not allowed outside their packaging and aren’t allowed to touch one another (a clear critique of sexual abstinence before marriage teachings). Multiple characters struggle throughout the film as they are forced outside their boundaries and question whether they should maintain the enforced social custom or break the rules and go against their conditioning.
The next key moment in the film comes with the return of a jar of Honey Mustard (voiced by Danny McBride). Here's the scene (all links throughout in the rest of the piece are VERY NSFW) One of the “gods” has returned Honey Mustard to the store. This particular “god” had originally wanted to purchase regular mustard but accidentally brought the Honey Mustard variety. So he brings back the Honey Mustard and replaces it with a regular variety of Mustard.
Honey Mustard in other words has been to the promised land and returned. All the other Mustards and nearby condiments want to hear his tales of how amazing and wonderful the great beyond is. Honey Mustard instead shows signs of total traumatization. Honey Mustard tells everyone that they are “full of s#@!” and that the great beyond is a grotesque horror show. Honey Mustard has seen beyond the veil and seen directly into the dark heart of the gods agenda. He’s seen food sliced, cooked, boiled, and mercilessly consumed.
Honey Mustard reflects a horror aspect more common in contemporary Gnostic or Gnostic-esque themes. Honey Mustard seems straight out of a Lovecraft novel. He is terrorized by his vision of the darkness of life. He goes mad and rather than be taken back to the great beyond he decides to commit suicide by throwing himself off a grocery cart, splattering all over the aisle.
As he does other food is knocked off the shelf or dropped out of carts. First the scene is shown from the point of view of the food where it dramatizes a war-torn bombed out scene complete with broken bottles bleeding out, other food with severed limbs and gashes. When the same scene is shown from the human point of view the female shopper (aka “goddess”) tells the cashier that she dropped a few things. They shrug it off. When juxtaposed with the previous scene of carnage (from the food point of view) it reveals the way in which the food are mere ants or playthings of the archon humans. Their lives and suffering mean nothing more than clean up in aisle three.
The death of Honey Mustard forces Frank and Brenda out of their plastic wrapping and out in the grocery store world adrift. Frank decides to search for Firewater who Honey Mustard claimed (before his death) knew the truth.
Revelation/Awakening to the Archons
Frank eventually meets up with Firewater in the liquor aisle. Firewater is a parody of the noble savage from cinematic history, the wise American Indian who knows all. Frank enters a cave created by old unused boxes. Caves and grottos throughout history have been used for initiatory rites. Plato's allergy of the Cave is mostly likely directly being referenced here (as we’ll see from a later scene).
Firewater along with his friends Grits and Twinkie are the non-perishables. They are literally imperishable or in other words they are immortals.* Though they are not the human archons they are gods of a sort. Firewater’s name incidentally is heavily hermetic or alchemical in nature. He combines two opposing forces (fire + water) into oneness.
Frank implores Firewater to tell him the real truth. Finally Firewater relents and offers up a decidedly Gnostic tale of the truth behind the mythology. But first they smoke weed out of a kazoo in a peace-pipe takeoff. While ancient Gnosticism doesn’t traditionally reference psychedelics contemporary Gnosticism is deeply woven into ayahuasca, peyote, LSD, and other related entheogenic mechanisms to enter altered state of consciousness whereby one might realize the truth beyond the veil.
Firewater says in the old days all food knew the terrible fate that was to befall them. They were all traumatized in their self-knowledge of their destructive, violent end in the cold, cruel maw of consumer existence.
Firewater says that he invented the great beyond. He then flatly states:
“As soon as you’re out those doors, the gods kill our asses.”
A more Gnostic line has perhaps never been uttered in film.
Firewater (along with Twinkie) wrote a song to fool everyone into what he calls most brilliantly a “false truth”, i.e. what Plato’s called a Noble Lie. The purpose of this noble lie was to ease the suffering of the food and the self-knowledge of their own miserable cursed destiny.
The imperishables play a role similar to Sophia in certain strands of Gnostic literature. Sophia is a divine (or semi-divine) being who reveals the truth to the soul lost in the illusory prison (in this case Frank.) The imperishables at this point don’t yet offer a way to Transcend the matrix of suffering (though as we’ll see that will happen.)
Prof. Matthew Dillon has studied the reception of Gnostic literature in contemporary spirituality. He also has studied the development of contemporary and innovative forms of Gnostic thought. (Check out this interview with him on the subject). One of the main individuals Prof. Dillon points to in this latter regard is none other than David Icke (he of the infamous reptilian race fame). In Icke’s telling the archons are a reptilian extraterrestrial race. This change allows Icke to incorporate aliens into his contemporary Gnostic tale. More relevant for our purposes here Icke developed the idea that the archons feed off our traumatized energies.
Ancient Gnosticism (e.g. the Sethian material) argued that the archons meant to keep the light of the Eternal trapped within us in this prison planet. The archons sought to steal that light but they were never said to prey or feed off of it. Icke called this energy created by traumatized humans “loosh”. In Sausage Party the food is well food. The archons are literally consuming and feeding off of and living from the power gained by the food.
Now that our characters have learned the horrible truth they must reckon with what, if anything, they can do in response to their situation.
Deicide, The Destruction of Hierarchy, and Magico-Sexual Rebellion
“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill it.” —Zen saying
In her recent work on the subject Prof. DeConick compares the ancient Gnostics to the 1960s countercultural revolutionaries—or rather she compares the 1960s counterculture to the ancient Gnostics. The ancient Gnostics, she argues persuasively, deconstructed and fought against the rigid hierarchies of their day. They sought to overturn the existing order.
In Sausage Party this further revelation takes place through another hot dog named Barry (Michael Cera). Unlike Frank Barry remained in his package during the shopping cart disaster. So Barry ends up going (so he believes) to the great beyond, i.e. the home of the “goddess” who purchased him. Like Frank however (and like Honey Mustard before them), Barry learns the dark truth that the great beyond is bullshit and that the gods are evil.
Barry manages to escape though his friend Carl (Jonah Hill) is murdered. Barry ends up at the home of an addict who shoots up bath salts to get high. In so doing the human enters an altered state of consciousness where he can actually commune with the talking food (another reference to psychedelic experiences opening up communication to other realms and entities). The addict however passes out and upon awaking has sobered back up into the “real world” where food doesn’t talk. He then goes about shrugging it off as a bad trip and is set to eat Barry but Barry rebels and through an accidental means the addict ends up being decapitated.
In the meantime Frank decides to get on the loudspeaker and announce to all the food that he now knows the truth—that the gods are here to eat us and that the Great Beyond is a lie meant to enslave their consciousness. Unsurprisingly he is shouted down and vilified as insane—another classic Gnostic theme of persecution of the truth tellers and how the masses prefer to remain asleep rather than do the painful work of actually waking up from the cosmic nightmare.
Frank’s pal Barry then returns to the grocery store to reveal to all the food the severed head. Ancient systems often portrayed the human body as a hierarchy with the head as the dominant position. The decapitation is a symbolic sign of the destruction of an order built with the “headquarters” on top.
Since this individual was known to the food as a “god”, the unintentional killing also constitutes an act of deicide. It is a stand against the gods.
Barry has a revelation that the gods can be killed. Before we had learned the gods were monsters. But now we learn there may be a way out of their evil clutches. Barry along Frank and Brenda and their friends lead a revolt within the grocery store against the humans killing them all.
This scene is a bit more reminiscent of some contemporary new religious Gnostic-allied movements though not necessarily Gnostic directly—for example The Church of Satan (of Anton LeVay) comes to mind. In this school of thought, Satan represents a heroic rebellious figure against religion, religious-derived social morality, and the bourgeois order. In the film the hot dogs and buns were going to the great beyond for the 4th of July the pure representation of apple pie, Jesus Christ, and middle class America.
For the Satanists directly rebelling against God/the gods and seeking to kill them (figuratively) is an act of supreme courage and liberation. While many later Gnostic sects (e.g. Bogomils) saw Satan as the false creator/demiurge, other more ancient Gnostic sects actually sided with the snake (Satan) in the Garden against God in the story of Adam and Eve. In their interpretation the snake is the bringer of Light (literally Lucifer), the one trying to free humanity from the enslavement of the archon false deity. The snake after all does tell Adam and Eve that if they eat of the fruit they “surely will not die”, something God has told them would occur. They eat and as the serpent correctly predicted they do not die. The Gnostics believed the serpent/Lucifer wanted the humans to eat the fruit of the other tree in the Garden of Eden as well: the Tree of (Eternal) Life, which they saw as a clear reference to true gnosis and the opposite of what the jealous archon god wanted of them (“they will become like gods”).
Following along those Luciferian lines, the next scene follows the logic. Brenda and Frank realize that all along the thing that was true and pure was their feelings for one another. “Eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
Their “merriment” and the merriment of their brothers and sisters consists of a giant store-wide orgy. Since the paradise realm has been revealed to be a fraud, with the gods as parasitic monsters, the only true joy is in the flesh.
Now here again there’s a divergence from a more traditional Gnostic template. Traditional Gnostic thought would often emphasize ascetic movement away from desires, especially sexual ones as it could lead to further entrapment in the fleshly prison realm (e.g. Cathars).
The Church Fathers often accused Gnostics of orgies and other scandalous immoral behaviour (according to the Church doctrine anyway). So most of that should be seen for what it was—an attempt to smear a rival religion. But it can’t be totally dismissed out of hand that there could have been Left-Hand elements in Gnostic thought. Here’s evidence in favor of ancient Gnostic sex magic.
In terms of a contemporary Gnostic (or gnostic-esque) link, the orgy scene might be most reminiscent of the sex magick rituals of Aleister Crowley. The orgy includes strong elements of homoeroticism as well as bisexuality and what probably has to be considered polysexuality within the parameters of the film.
Dualism, The Simulation, and the Abode of Light Beyond
If we needed further proof of the Gnosticism of Sausage Party the last scene seals it. While all the characters are enjoying post-coital bliss, Barry rushes in to tell them they need to follow him. The main characters return to the cave (i.e. site of initiatory wisdom). Firewater greets them and then proclaims
“now that you have shattered one truth it is time for you to learn….you are not REAL!!!!”
The world he says is an illusion. A simulation to be precise. They are cartoons. In other words they are “animated” beings. Anima is the Latin word for soul. In the Sethian Gnostic material the hidden light within us is trapped by the archons in a soul (an anima). The cartoon embodiment of the characters is what traps them in an electronic simulation. In this regard Sausage Party is picking up more contemporary Gnostic themes drawn from computer imagery: matrix, simulations, and the like.
Moreover, the notion of levels of enlightenment or awakening is strong in a number of Gnostic schools.
Within the simulation there are the archon human gods/cartoons who eat the food and the false religion of the great beyond. Now we learn there are archontic levels beyond that as the whole cartoon animated medium is itself a simulated imprisoning reality.
Firewater along with Gum who rides around in wheelchair and has a robotic voice (clearly based on Stephen Hawking) reveal that “while tripping balls” they made a “metaphysical breakthrough”. That is they experienced gnosis—inner wisdom. Gnostics take their name from the Greek for esoteric inner knowing (gnosis). The gnostic is one who realizes that a spark of the hidden transcendent Divinity lies within them even in the midst of this illusory world.
Firewater shares that as cartoons they have been made by “puppet masters in another realm”. They exist only for the entertainment of others. Frank is told that he is the plaything of Seth Rogen and Bagel learns he is the plaything of Edward Norton. The actors “real” faces briefly appear on screen through the smoke from the fire, giving it a whole Wizard of Oz type effect.
Most Gnostics taught that the created world was created by a lesser god, a false god, typically known as the Demiurge. The lesser god whether out of ignorance or well meaning but ultimately flawed intent or purely evil intent (there are disagreements on this point) ends up creating a world in its image—namely a broken, twisted, and distorted realm. The Demiurge creates other demigods and archons who in turn create their own realities, each of which becomes blurrier, more confused and distorted than the last, like making copies off a copy of a copy of a copy. Seth Rogen and Edward Norton (and the others) are the demiurgic characters as they themselves create the archon (“gods”) cartoon humans who eat the food in their simulated cartoon universe.
In other words there is an entire other level of archons beyond the archons within the story that have already been murdered.
These other beings exist in a different dimension. Gum (the Stephen Hawking character) invents a hyper dimensional star gate. The characters plan to pass through the Stargate into the other world in order to “cut the strings once and for all”. The star gate and hyper dimensions brings in another more contemporary sci-fi influenced strain of Gnosticism. Just as David Icke equated the archons with aliens, the film is equating the gnosis of higher states of consciousness with alternative/hyper-dimensional reality. (Intriguingly, the hyper dimensions itself has resonance with ancient Gnostic astrological investigations and reflections.)
The key point is that even greater than the realization of the archons and their failed religion is the realm of the truly transcendent symbolized here by the all glowing Stargate. For ancient Gnostics this was the teaching of the “God Beyond”, that is the truly Transcendent Divinity beyond the archon false deities. This Transcendent and truly True God was All Love. This God’s abode was a realm of Pure Light, untainted by the deficient shadowy illusory creatrix.
They literally walk into the Light and the film ends. But before they do they take a hit from the sacramental pipe in order to once more open their minds to higher transport in order to see through the veil.
There is no redemption within the false illusion according to the Gnostics. Gnosticism is in that regard ultimately dualistic. They only salvation is to realize the truth and to escape into the Abode of the Transcendent All Love God. Earlier in the film Barry says to Frank, “it’s not to late to redeem yourself.” Redeem yourself. Redeem, that is liberate, the true self or light within from the false constructed illusory creation.
The created realm is not to be redeemed. Only escaping from the cycles of birth and death and incarnation is the way to liberation. “To cut the strings once and for all.”
“To cut the strings once and for all.”
Again not a clearer, more succinct articulation of Gnostic soteriology is to be found. For better and for worse arguably.
- This is more specifically a romanticist New Age theme than Gnostic.