Houses of the Holy

On their previous - unnamed and unnamable - album, Led Zeppelin used four symbols to represent the four members of the band. The symbols all give the impression of secret truth hidden in plain sight. The first, Jimmy Page’s, sign is sometimes read as the magical nonsense word “Zoso.” For many fans this is the name of the fourth album. But the actual glyph itself is far more complex than a childish four letter word. It’s composed of four fused elements: a sleek and slithery Z with a curving tail, an elongated S that might also be a lost musical clef, two O’s with dots in the middle connected by a slender bar, and at the bottom a calligraphic scribble-slash that might be a pot-pipe or perhaps Aladdin’s lamp. All together, they form a sigil of power and bafflement. Nonsense perhaps, a magickal hippie doodle, or an arcana-scrawled doorway waiting to be opened.

Scholars, fan-boys, paranoid religiasts and esoteronauts have assigned a wide array of meanings to the glyph. Does it make reference to some Crowleyite spell? Is it an oblique Nietzschean strategy, the name “Zoroaster” compressed? Or split into the near-palindromes “Zoso” and “Rater”? Does this refer to Zoser, the Egyptian pyramid, or to herpes zoster, the viral pestilence? Benighted christians have seen “666” (the Mark of the Beast) in the emblem. We see the astrological sign for Saturn, the ringed planet, and the alchemical symbol for lead.

This emblem, well beyond the other three, had a life of its own, appearing on Jimmy Page’s amp, his shimmering cape, his silky wizard pants. But none of the symbols were to be seen on the fifth album. In effect, they had done their job - transforming themselves, from symbol to actual ritual. Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin’s next album, contains that ancient rite.

The cover shows the Giant’s Causeway: 37,000 hexagonal basalt columns on the north coast of Ireland. Some are complete, others broken. Some have sharp edges, like huge rusted nuts made to screw onto bolts. Others are like six-sided, lichen-crusted prehistorical wheels tipped on their sides. All of them fit together not as a puzzle but a temple built before mankind had ever come to that place. Dawn, or some baleful astral being, glows at the peak of the stones - sickly orange, crimson, seething yellow.

Opening the gatefold cover reveals a scene of pagan ritual. Is it sacrifice or exaltation? Eleven naked elf-children crawling over the stones, ascending - pale and ghostly - to meet their sunrise god. White-blond hair, powder-white skin. Not pasty subterranean pallor but soft forms dusty with sky-pollen.

They’re faceless, seen from behind. Six years old, maybe eight. Natural forms, not pure but prepubescent, like something Lewis Carroll would hallucinate on laudanum. Some claim they are all the same child, the body reproduced eleven times. But clearly some are boys and some are girls. Others say they are brother and sister, like a childish Siegmund and Sieglinde in The Valkyrie.

One lies on her belly like a mermaid. One squats. Another holds her hands above her head, in awe, expectation, opening herself to the solar crest-glow, making the same Y-shaped salute to the sun that the wandervogel and yogis used to greet and worship their god.

Inside the fold-out cover, a more overtly sacrificial image is revealed. It’s now sunset and a naked man holds a naked child above his head - clearly an offering - before the fungous nightmare ruins of Dunluce Castle. Rotted stumps of stone, a ravine crossed by a decrepit bridge, two towers, all decayed, all bathed in the same arcane radiation: oozy pink and orangey-green. Rich blue in the upper sky. It could be the surface of another planet, earth a million years in the future or the past.

It’s dusk now. The pale children are gone except the chosen one, the sacrificial offering. From the top of the citadel a faint white light gleams. And a milky beam extends downward to consume the naked priest and his offering.