The 2012 Super Bowl was one of the most watched television events in U.S. history, with an estimated viewership of 111.3 million people. Three million more watched the halftime show. Madonna, the iconic pop star and headliner, crafted a thirteen-minute-long medley of her songs, a lavish production costing millions. The result was a spectacularly staged performance. The show opens on a stage decorated with Egyptian motifs and similarly costumed dancers as Madonna enters, dressed as the hierophant of an ancient mystery cult, seated in a throne on a chariot being pulled by dozens of "slaves."
The original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would likely have been envious of the attention to detail. Other dancers dressed as armored angels and strange deities spin around Madonna as she sings "Vogue." Tall banners are decorated with a symbol, an M cutting into a circle, the two sides of the letter forming what look like massive horns. Madonna's costume is simple, a Roman centurion's skirt, her head adorned by a winged helmet with two pointed appendages rising from the middle.
Madonna's interest in esoteric matters goes way back. Beginning with an awkward conversation with Kurt Loder of MTV in 1997, Madonna tried to explain finding her way to the Kabbalah Centre, where she was taught that, "If you want to have goodness in your life, you have to give it." She also explained that the soul becomes firmly attached to the body at age 13 (the age of a Bar Mitzvah). In a later 2005 interview with the Guardian, having become increasingly devoted to the Kabbalah Centre, Madonna again tries to explain what the teachings mean to her, and defending the controversial center from what the interviewer, Dina Rabinovitch, calls "charlatanism."
The Kabbalah Centre was started in 1969 by the retired Rabbi Philip Berg. Berg wanted to divorce the mystical teaching of the Kabbalah from its Jewish context, believing it to have universal spiritual power. While the center uses the Bible and the Jewish Kabbalistic text called the Zohar in its teachings, the main thrust of the approach is in the practical application of what the center calls "the world's oldest body of spiritual wisdom." The center contends that Judaism kept the 5,000-year-old teachings secret until Berg believed that all people should have access. In Judaism, the Zohar is considered the primary source of Kabbalistic wisdom. The Zohar was written in Aramaic sometime in the 13th century, likely drawing from a variety of sources, some old and some contemporary to its own time, and serves as a mystical interpretation of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The center claims that the power of the Zohar is not in what it says, but what it is— an artifact of great power that can alter one's destiny:
To merely pick up the Zohar, to scan its Aramaic letters and allow in the energy that infuses them, is to experience what kabbalists have experienced for thousands of years: a powerful energy-giving instrument, a life-saving tool imbued with the ability to bring peace, protection, healing and fulfillment to those who possess it.
This occult approach to the Kabbalah has been part of the tradition for centuries, but Berg was the first to give it such wide appeal. He was not the first, however, to extract the occult nuggets.
Renaissance magicians had looked to Jewish Kabbalistic texts as sources of wisdom that could easily conform to their own mystical interpretations of Christianity. Later, occultists followed their lead and found in the Kabbalah a rich mineral vein of esoteric wisdom they could apply to their own systems. For example, in the Golden Dawn, important tools of the student, such as astrology and tarot, had their corresponding Kabbalistic identifier, in particular the sefirot, the Kabbalistic tree of life, which became central to Western occultism. Simply put, the sefirot refers to the ten aspects of the divine that spring forth from the unknowable Godhead, or ein sof. The sefirot can be laid out like the geography of the universe. The sefirot are a beautifully realized, and in some sense, materialistic view of the universe. Each aspect of creation is delineated by a temperament (judgment, compassion, masculine, feminine), and not only is it easy to show how each individual sefirah has a corresponding numerological and astrological meaning, images of the sefirotic tree hearken back to the Renaissance alchemical emblems.
For occultists through the ages, Judaism represented the authoritative ancient tradition with enough of its own mystical and legendary magical practice that it offered the perfect complement to an already complex configuration of ideas and practices.
Madonna likely saw her very public interest in an esoteric philosophy as also having artistic potential. The halftime show presents her as a priestess, imbued with divine wisdom, ready and willing to initiate anyone who wishes to enter into her mysteries. Conspiracy theorists had a field day with it. The very next day, the website The Vigilant Citizen offered a breakdown of Madonna's show, a paranoid exegesis making note of every element of the performance: Madonna's costume resembles Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love, war, and sex; Madonna's throne flanked by sphinxes is a perfect rendition of the chariot in the tarot deck; the first song, "Vogue," ends with a winged sun disc illuminating the stage, a symbol one blogger claims is used by all the major secret societies. Most damning of all, however, is at the end of the show when Madonna disappears in a flash of smoke and the words "World Peace" light the stage, "a PR‑friendly slogan used by those pushing for a New World Order lead [sic] by a one world government," concluded one blogger.
Given the occult imagination's influence on popular music (and on Madonna herself ), it's not a stretch to suggest that Madonna consciously drew from mythology, occultism, and even the symbols of secret societies for her show. On the face of it, it was pure pop spectacle, full of color and drama, signifying Madonna's ego and little more. This spectacle, whatever its meaning, was only possible because of what came before it. The theater of rock began long ago: in the smoky UFO Club when Arthur Brown wore his flaming helmet, when Hawkwind hypnotized their fans with lights, when Bowie came onstage not as himself but as a crash-landed Ziggy. Madonna's show is simply a later encounter with rock's Dionysian roots, ones that can't be severed. Maybe the conspiracy theorists are right. We are being mesmerized by popular music, and it's an inside job. There is no all-seeing eye in a pyramid scheming with the music industry. It's just who we have always been, a civilization that demands that music shake our spirits.