How The Final Conflict (a.k.a. Omen III: The Final Conflict) can be read as an allegory for the goddess Ishtar and Her rivalry with Therion, the spirit of human tyranny.
The Final Conflict (1981)—which was re-christened Omen III: The Final Conflict for its DVD release in the early 2000s—is the second sequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 masterpiece, The Omen. I enjoy the original Omen trilogy in its entirety, but The Final Conflict is the one installment thereof that’s made the largest impression on me. This film also makes me think about the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who is one of Set’s many romantic partners and the second-most important deity to me personally.
In case you’ve never seen The Omen or its initial sequel, Damien: Omen II (1978), here is a brief recap of their events. The 1976 original is about a U.S. politician named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) who learns his child has died while his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) was giving birth. A Catholic priest convinces Thorn to adopt an orphan who was born at the same time at the same hospital. Robert agrees, and the Thorns leave with their newborn baby boy (and with Katherine none the wiser to his true parentage). But as the child, Damien, grows older, weird shit starts to happen. One of his nannies hangs herself in front of his entire birthday party. A new, creepy nanny shows up to take the old one’s place. A crazy priest stalks and harasses Robert. A big black dog starts hanging around the Thorn household. A photographer (David Warner) captures prophetic photos of people’s deaths. And poor Katherine becomes terrified of the child who is supposed to be her offspring. All of which leads Robert to visit Rome, a monastery in Subiaco, and an archaeological dig in the valley of Megiddo, where he learns that Damien is really the son of Satan and can only be killed with these mystical artifacts called the Seven Daggers of Meggido.
What follows is the most disturbingly sympathetic depiction of attempted infanticide that has ever been filmed. Unfortunately, Robert only succeeds in getting himself killed when he tries to prevent the apocalypse (spoilers!), and Damien is then adopted by his uncle Richard (William Holden) in Damien: Omen II. Now an adolescent, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) remembers nothing of what happened to him or his parents in the first film. He’s also best friends with his cousin Mark, who’s more like a brother to him. Damien and Mark both attend military school, where their drill sergeant (Lance Henriksen) teaches Damien about his true identity. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter tries to convince Uncle Richard of the truth, and this leads to a bunch of increasingly over-the-top deaths. (My favorite is the guy who gets sawed in half by an elevator cable. Truly classic.) Eventually, Damien grows into his predestined role and wipes out all that remains of his family tree so he can be the sole inheritor of the Thorn family fortune.
The Omen is a perfect horror show from start to finish, and it’s every bit as scary as people say it is. The script wastes no time getting down to business, and each of the actors’ performances is Oscar-worthy. But it’s also my least favorite film in the trilogy, for Damien is only a peripheral character in the story. Granted, this is exactly what makes the film so scary; Damien remains completely alien to both his parents and the audience right to the very end, and it’s always easier to be frightened of something when it’s part of the unknown. But I find Damien: Omen II much more interesting, because it’s the first film ever made that actually puts us inside the Antichrist’s head. When Damien learns he is the Great Beast, he’s just as horrified as everyone else is; but the most powerful moment is when his cousin Mark gets wise and confronts Damien about his true identity. Mark threatens to tell everyone, and Damien reluctantly uses his powers to give Mark a brain aneurysm. When Mark drops dead, Damien screams the most convincing scream of despair I’ve ever heard from any character in any movie ever. That scene always makes me weep a little whenever I see it, because Jonathan Scott-Taylor really sells it. Damien: Omen II is quite derivative of the first movie, but it deserves credit for one thing at least: the character of Damien is perfectly written.
A lobby card for the film.
In The Final Conflict, Damien is now an adult in his thirties, and he’s played by Sam Neill. He has now become the owner of Thorn Industries, a multi-billion dollar company that has revolutionized the food industry, and which is working to solve the world hunger crisis forever. Damien is also the U.S. President’s first choice for Ambassador to Great Britain (after the current guy gets possessed by a black demon dog and blows his brains out). Damien is hot for Great Britain because he has this entirely fictitious apocryphal text called the “Book of Hebron,” which prophesies that Jesus will be reincarnated in Jolly Old England any day now. (Maybe they didn’t have the budget to do a proper Second Coming, with the J-Man flying down from the sky?) But after he sets up shop across the pond, Damien falls for a news reporter named Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow); then these Catholic monks at a monastery in Subiaco, Italy find the Seven Daggers of Meggido and try to assassinate him. This leads to a series of hilariously incompetent murder attempts that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Meanwhile, Jesus is born again somewhere (did you see what I just did there?), but nobody knows where. Lucky for him, Damien knows the birth coincided with a weird astronomical convergence that occurred a few nights ago, so he sends his worshipers out to murder every male baby in England who was born within that time frame. Then Kate Reynolds finds out what the rest of us already know about Damien, and the titular Final Conflict truly begins.
The number one attraction in this film, and the most important reason for anyone to see it, is Sam Neill; he’s literally the greatest Antichrist I’ve ever seen in any film ever. Forget about Michael York, Nick Mancuso, Gordon Currie, or anyone else who’s ever played the Beast in those movies they show on the Trinity Broadcast Network; Sam Neill’s performance here is the gold standard. Rather than playing Damien like some two-dimensional cartoon villain, he plays him like he’s the goddamn hero of the movie. He brings so much charisma and charm to the role that he succeeds in making Damien extremely likeable, even when he’s ordering hundreds of newborns to their deaths. Everyone I know who’s ever seen The Final Conflict ends up rooting for Damien somehow (even though they know they’re not supposed to), and they can’t help but feel disappointed with the ending. (More on that in a minute.) The only other performance that’s comparable to this is that of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). If there is an Antichrist and he ever tries to take over the world, we’d all better pray he isn’t just like Sam Neill in this movie—or else we might actually want him to take over.
The novelization of the 1981 film, The Final Conflict, by Gordon McGill.
In one scene, Damien and Kate walk through a park and see one of the monks, who’s standing on a soapbox, preaching. Damien notices the monk is staring right at him, and he instantly knows the guy is here to kill him. So he starts surveying the area like a hawk—without breathing a word of his concerns to Kate—and he actually looks worried. Is he concerned for himself, or is he concerned for Kate’s safety should there be an ambush? Then there’s another scene where Damien goes to work right after the Christ child has been born. He’s been up all night because he could sense the birth happening, and Kate catches him at the elevator, asking if it’s okay for her to try interviewing him again. (Her last attempt was foiled by another assassin.) Damien smiles and agrees, and she leaves; then he gets in the elevator, sighs, and slumps his shoulders. I’d like to remind you that this character is supposed to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch with a vast array of supernatural powers; and yet Neill sneaks in all of these brief human touches—a look of genuine concern, a tired sigh—and actually makes us care about this evil, rotten bastard…
I hate to blow the ending of this film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but trust me; you probably want to know about this going in. For some reason, I thought this movie was going to end with a big showdown between Damien and Jesus; surely, that would be the “Final Conflict” everyone was expecting, right? I knew things wouldn’t end well for the Beast, but I figured there would at least be some kind of special effects extravaganza. No such luck; the movie ends with Damien being led into a trap by Kate, and Kate stabs him in the back with one of those nifty Meggido daggers. Then Damien limps away, curses Jesus, and promptly dies. Cue music, roll credits. When I first saw this, I was royally pissed. The film had done an excellent job of keeping me at the edge of my seat for the first 90 minutes or so; but it starts running out of steam real fast during the final 20, and that ending just didn’t seem fair. They went through all that hard work of building up this magnificent character and this huge final battle he’s going to have, and what do they give us? Sam Neill getting stabbed in the back (literally) by the woman he loves. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? I wanted to see Damien and Jesus go “Hell in a Cell” on that shit!
An additional lobby card for the film, with Lisa Harrow as “Kate Reynolds” in the center.
But I’ve watched The Final Conflict countless times since that first viewing in 1999, and I think I’ve figured out what they were really going for here. Let’s consider that this film was not made by evangelical Christians with a religious axe to grind; if it had been, they would have kept things as close to their scriptures as possible. Let’s also consider the fact that none of the avowed Christian men in this movie can stop Damien; hell, not even Jesus himself can stop him! The only character who actually poses a real, substantial threat to the Antichrist is (1) a woman, (2) a skeptic, (3) a feminist, and (4) a single mother. In other words, she is precisely the sort of person whom conservative Christianity has always sought to disempower. The real “Final Conflict” here is not between Christ and Satan at all; it’s between male religious violence (perpetuated by Christians and Satanists) and a female secularist who just wants the violence to stop. Note that while Kate scoffs at Christianity at various points in the film, she nevertheless respects its right to exist; and while she eventually sends Damien back to hell, it’s clear she would much rather work things out and share a life with him somehow. Kate is also the only character who commits an act of violence for purely personal reasons. The monks want to kill Damien because he’s the Beast, and Damien wants to kill the Christ child because he’s Jesus; both sides are motivated by purely ideological concerns. But when Kate stabs Damien, it’s because he’s just murdered her son. (Peter is accidentally killed by one of the monks when Damien uses him as a human shield; the poor kid is literally caught between two religious fanatics.) With all this in mind, I now think the climax of this film is far more daring than I originally thought.
I used to think the conclusion to this film was just an example of lazy screenwriting, but I’ve noticed over the years that The Final Conflict gives us several hints about how it will end. In one scene, one of Damien’s “Disciples of the Watch” advises him to stay away from Kate. “I decide who’s dangerous and who isn’t!” Damien shouts angrily, betraying the fact that he feels insecure about Kate himself. Later, Kate falls into a river and almost drowns at Damien’s house. He hesitates before rescuing her (as if he senses that he shouldn’t), but his concern for her overpowers him. As Kate dries herself by the fire back in the house, she tells Damien she feels like a moth who’s flown too close to the flame; she knows he’s dangerous, but she can’t stay away. Damien’s response to her is perhaps the most beautifully-delivered line in the entire film: “Yes—but who is the moth, and who is the flame?” Finally, when Kate stabs Damien at the end with the Megiddo blade, he smiles to himself ever so subtly, as if he’s always known that she would be his undoing. Kate Reynolds was clearly meant to be the savior of humanity in this film from its very conception; and in casting her as such, The Final Conflict offers us a most unexpected soteriology.
“[Damien] is the human son of Satan, fully committed to his Father. But just as Mary Magdalene represented temptation to Jesus, so Kate represents temptation to Damien. She arouses human feelings within him that could so easily lead him astray from his insidious mission, his inglorious destiny.”
—Sam Neill in an 1981 interview upon the film’s release
The hero of this film is an independent, powerful, and successful woman. She isn’t owned or controlled by any man or male divinity. She comes awful close to losing herself in Damien, especially when she spends a dark night of the soul with him in bed. But she rises again from that proverbial pit, stronger than before, and equipped with the power to send her two-faced lover back to the Underworld. Is any of this starting to sound familiar yet? By gods, it should; for Kate’s arc is basically the Descent of Ishtar all over again. Damien is like a really nasty corruption of Tammuz, a version that’s turned completely rotten. All of his power and wealth are tied to the food industry, just as Tammuz is the god of food and vegetation. But while this “anti-Tammuz” and his enemies are gridlocked in their increasingly futile holy war, Ishtar sneaks in and chooses Her own “messiah” to save the day. The filmmakers try to give Jesus all the credit for this by slapping an obligatory Bible quote on the screen just before the end titles roll; but as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t the Lion of Judah who snuffs the Great Beast here. It’s the Lion of Babylon!
Ishtar be praised!
Contrary to popular wisdom, there is a distinction between “the Antichrist” and “the Great Beast 666” from Revelation 13. Early Christians used the word antichristos to describe anyone who (1) refused Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, (2) propagated a “heretical” version of Christianity, or (3) claimed to be Christian but didn’t behave like one. The first of these definitions is practically useless since it would seem to include all non-Christians. The second is equally problematic since it requires demonizing all Christian denominations apart from one’s own. The third, however, makes a great deal of sense, for what else can you call someone who claims to love Jesus but fails to treat people in a Christian manner? The real Antichrist has nothing to do with Satanism, but is actually the spirit of Christian hypocrisy itself. Turn on your local televangelist TV network and you will find the true disciples of Antichrist at work, pushing their insane political agendas and extorting millions from their hapless followers in Jesus’ name.
The Great Beast (or Therion in Greek) is based on several ancient kings who persecuted monotheists. People like the Pharaoh in Exodus and the Roman Emperor Nero all had three things in common: (1) they ruled over polytheist nations, (2) they considered themselves to be divine, and (3) they considered the Hebrews and the early Christians to be a threat. After being fed to lions for so long, Christians became convinced that such rulers were actually possessed by Satan himself, and prophetic texts like the book of Revelation were built upon this core concept. While Antichrist represents the evil that lurks within Christianity, the Great Beast represents the archetypal “evil king”—a ruler who tyrannizes his people, and whose actions will bring about destruction and doom. Unlike Antichrist, the Beast doesn’t try to pervert Christianity from within; he seeks instead to destroy it from without. So if we want to get technical about it, Damien Thorn is not really the Antichrist per se, but the spirit of Therion in human form.
Mind you, monotheists have not exactly been “kind” to Pagans throughout history, either. It was especially bad for those civilizations that lived right next door to ancient Israel. The gods and goddesses of these cultures are specifically named as “demons” in the Old Testament (e.g., Ba’al, Asherah, etc.) and are commonly invoked as such in contemporary media. Lady Ishtar is just one of these divinities, and it’s sad to think that whenever She is discussed in today’s world, it is almost always in terms of biblical prophecy. She is even linked with Therion in the book of Revelation:
Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For [Yahweh] has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to hand over to the beast their royal authority, until [Yahweh]’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
As I’ve discussed before, the Whore of Babylon is clearly inspired by Ishtar, even if her symbolic purpose is different. But what I find especially interesting here is the contrast between a female entity who “rules over the kings of the earth” and an evil king who has turned against her. Ishtar presides over the concept of “sacred kingship,” which required a Babylonian king to “marry” the goddess and serve the people as Her priest. He had to ensure that his nation’s crops didn’t fail, that his borders remained protected from foreign invaders, and that his people were cared for in times of disaster. He also had to perform religious rituals all the time to ensure that his people’s gods were properly appeased. A lousy ruler who brought ruin to his people would have been considered “unfaithful” to Ishtar, and some kings were even sacrificed to atone for this sin. This only reinforces my opinion that by killing Damien in The Final Conflict, Kate Reynolds is actually sacrificing him to Ishtar as penance for his disastrous leadership. (It’s reassuring to think that with the Queen of Heaven, even monarchs can be held accountable and taken to task.)
Sam Neill and Lisa Harrow posing for a behind-the-scenes photo.
Don’t get me wrong; The Final Conflict is not a perfect film. There are times when it sabotages itself by trying to copy the original Omen too much. Why are we still wasting time with lone individuals getting slaughtered in isolated places? Why isn’t Damien the President already when this film begins, sending troops to invade the Middle East and start World War III? They missed an opportunity to enlarge the scale and the stakes of the story here; and by restricting all the action to Great Britain, they do a great injustice to the premise. The only exception to this is the baby-killing conspiracy sequence, which is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen. The murders themselves are never shown, but are only suggested through quick cuts, musical cues, and horrified reactions from the actors. This is a perfect example of how the power of suggestion can leave a much deeper impression on the mind than just painting the screen with gore. It also helps keep the violence as tasteful as possible (which is no small feat, considering the subject matter), while also making it more disturbing to sit through. If you think the jump scares in The Conjuring (2013) are scary, try watching the scene where one of Damien’s disciples—an Anglican priest—gives a newborn his own version of a “baptismal rite.” It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.
She rebelled to help humanity before Prometheus. She died and rose from the grave before Jesus. And She invented the “zombie apocalypse” before George Romero.
Almost every culture has viewed Venus—the “Lucifer” or Morningstar—as an aggressive, contrary force. This is because it is usually the first star seen at sunset, and the last star seen at dawn. Based on this phenomenon, people imagined that Venus is a “rebel” who defies the Sun, refusing to disappear as her superior rises, then rushing to ascend as the Sun sets. Even before medieval Christians incorporated Lucifer into their devil myth, most theological beings associated with Venus were perceived as unruly, cosmic shit-disturbers.
Ishtar, the Akkadian goddess of Venus, is no exception. She stole the sacred mes, the powers of civilization, from Her uncle Ea and gave them to the people of Uruk. She insisted on visiting Her deadly sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and conquered death in the process (with some help from Ea). When She learned Her husband Tammuz had not grieved for Her at all while She was dead, She killed and kicked His ass straight down into hell. When the “hero” Gilgamesh refused to marry Her, She sent the apocalyptic Bull of Heaven after him. And when Her father Anu refused to give Her the Bull at first, She threatened to raise all the dead across the earth and send them to feast on the living. She is also said to have an insatiable sex drive, exhausting all of Her various lovers to death.
If you think that sounds bad, Gilgamesh was a king who tyrannized his people, breaking into their homes and raping all the women. He only stopped when the gods created Enkidu to challenge him, giving him something else to do with his time. Gilgamesh then became so obsessed with finding the secret to immortality that he abandoned his people and left them to fend for themselves. (What an asshole!) So it’s always seemed weird to me that he is portrayed as the “hero” in this story (despite being a tyrant and a rapist), while Ishtar is framed as the “villain” (even though She is divine and transcends all human understanding). The greatest threat Ishtar poses for this megalomaniac is not to his life, but to his ego.
(If Ishtar appeared and said She wanted to marry me, I’d say, “Okay.” Better to be mauled ecstatically by Ishtar’s lovely, blood-splattered mouth than to die by the hand of any mortal man!)
Ishtar appears in Babylonian art as a badass Amazon standing on a goddamn lion, getting ready to beat the shit out of some motherfuckers. Assyrian kings prayed for Her to join them on the battlefield like a Valkyrie and slaughter their foes like cattle. (And if their records are to be believed, She answered their prayers…brutally.) As a warrior goddess, Ishtar was very popular with the Hyksos, who called Her Astarte and paired Her with their chief deity, Ba’al Hadad. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, they brought Ishtar’s worship into the Land of the Pharaohs. And since Ba’al Hadad was identified with Set by the Egyptians, they came to view Ishtar/Astarte as one of Set’s romantic interests as well.
There is a fragmentary Egyptian text from Edfu in which
Yamm, a sea monster, demands the hand of Ishtar in marriage. For a moment, it seems the beast will claim its bride; but Set intercedes, and while the rest of the story is uncertain, there is a similar Ugaritic tale in which Ba’al Hadad rescues Astarte from Yamm. Since Hadad’s name is substituted for Set’s in the Edfu texts, the Egyptian version most likely ends with Set destroying Yamm and marrying Ishtar. Considering Their unruliness and Their shared frustrations with dying-and-rising fertility gods (like Osiris and Tammuz), don’t you think Set and Ishtar make a perfect couple?
Ishtar is often vilified for being so “promiscuous.” This is due to a complete misunderstanding of hierogamy or hieros gamos, the concept of “sacred marriage.” It is a religious rite in which people have sexual intercourse, with at least one of the participants being “possessed” by a deity. Such procedures served a twofold purpose in the ancient world. The practical purpose was to channel the fertility of a god and/or goddess into the crops, livestock, and people of a community. The spiritual purpose was to reach a higher level of consciousness. Under the right circumstances (all of which require CONSENT), a really good orgasm can totally “blow your mind” and make you feel like you’re in tune with the rest of the cosmos. It makes total sense why people would consider that ecstatic moment of self-surrender to be supremely magical. From this standpoint, sex can be much more than just some “dirty” animal act; it can be a divine religious experience that is both self-fulfilling and incredibly humbling.
The clergy in ancient religions that practiced hierogamy are often described as “cult prostitutes” by biblical scholars. This is especially true when it comes to the qadishtu or holy women of Ishtar. Sex did in fact play a part in the beliefs of the qadishtu, and they were ostensibly paid by the laity for their clerical services. But the way I see it, there probably wasn’t always a direct relation between these two things.
First of all, it is unclear whether Ishtar’s holy women actually engaged in hierogamy with everyone who entered their temples, or if just one priestess performed the rite with a king during the annual Akitu spring festival. To be honest, I have my doubts that even the latter case was always true. Many contemporary examples of hierogamy (such as the Great Rite in Wicca) are often performed symbolically (e.g., sticking an athame in a chalice, rather than actually copulating). It is entirely possible that hierogamy wasn’t always practiced quite so literally in pre-Christian times, either.
Secondly, it is wrong to assume that every service the qadishtu provided for their society was sexual in nature. In fact, it is very likely that most of what they did had nothing to do with sex at all. The available evidence would seem to suggest they were more like nuns than nymphs, caring for the sick and the orphaned, keeping chaste, and living their day-to-day lives in quiet, contemplative prayer. So the fact that Herodotus and the biblical patriarchs defined the qadishtu in terms of sex says infinitely more about them and their dirty little minds than it does about Ishtar’s holy women.
Yet another attack on Ishtar is the false claim that She is the alleged “Pagan origin” of Easter. This story goes back to Alexander Hislop, who published a pamphlet called The Two Babylons in 1853. Hislop claimed that Ishtar was originally a mortal Babylonian queen named Semiramis, who single-handedly invented all of polytheism. She then became worshiped as Ishtar—which many Christians claim is pronounced “Easter” for some reason—and created the holiday we now know by that name for herself.
Hislop was partially correct; Easter does in fact have polytheist origins. But its name is actually derived from Eostre, a Teutonic fertility goddess who bears no historical relation to Ishtar whatsoever. The imagery of rabbits and eggs is taken from a myth in which Eostre transformed a bird into a rabbit that could lay eggs (the Easter Bunny). These symbols do not appear anywhere in Ishtar’s iconography, which has plenty more to do with bulls, dragons, lions, and owls. Nevertheless, evangelicals continue to repeat Hislop’s bullshit at every turn, criticizing Easter as a so-called “satanic” rite to Ishtar.
The Burney Relief, depicting an unknown female figure who could be Ishtar or Ereshkigal (but who likely isn’t Lilith)
One thing that really sticks in my craw is when people confuse Ishtar with the succubus, Lilith. In the 1970s, many Pagan writers circulated a claim that Lilith originated not as the “first wife of Adam,” but as a “handmaiden” of Ishtar who served the goddess by bringing men to Her temple for worship. Another claim states that Lilith is really a goddess in her own right; she was later demonized, or so the story goes, when biblical patriarchy replaced the goddess religions of old. And some people seem to think Ishtar and Lilith are really just the same person at the end of the day.
There is no evidence to support any of these theories. Even in pre-biblical polytheist cultures, Lilith was a qliphothic entity that ate newborn children and sapped men of their seed at night. She was never worshiped, but was only warded off with apotropaic spells. This was as true when the Epic of Gilgamesh was being written as it was when the Old Testament was being written. I can accept the idea of people believing Lilith is a goddess today, if that is truly how they feel; but they should admit this is a new belief in the grand scheme of things, and not an ancient one. They should also avoid conflating Ishtar with Lilith, because the two are very different figures indeed. At the very least, the former is my Spirit Mama, and the latter is not.
I first met Ishtar in McClennan County, Texas, during the autumn of 1999. I was about to turn 17, and I had been walking with Set for just over two years. I can’t really explain what drew me to Ishtar so suddenly that cloudy afternoon; the best I can say is that Set “traded” me with Her, and I walked with Her for the following year. They traded me back after that, and I’ve been with Set ever since. I never quite understood why this happened until about a decade later, when I met the woman who became my wife. We met in a Pagan discussion forum, and the only reason we did is because I wanted to meet other people who knew about Set, and she wanted to meet other people who knew about Ishtar. Considering this, we’ve always felt that Set and Ishtar are personally responsible for micromanaging things just so the two of us would meet. And that hiatus I had with Ishtar was the goddess sizing me up as a potential match for one of Her contemporary qadishtu. (I sure am glad I passed the test!)