The Spirit Board, Magdalene Asylums, And Other Things That Inspired The Mars Volta

Music The Spirit Board, Magdalene Asylums, And Other Things That Inspired The Mars Volta

 Caveat emptor
to all that enter here

–The Mars Volta

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" is one of the Judeo-Christian commandments. We’ve always related this precept with swearing under God's or Christ’s name. But we never consider that it could also imply doing any negative action under the Lord’s protection.

This applies for several horrors and mistakes made by the Church. One of them includes the incarceration of thousands of women to institutions of hard labor "to keep them from falling into the devil’s claws." This happened from the eighteenth to the twentieth century all over the world. The so-called Magdalene Asylums, where the “sisters” suffered sexual, psychological, and physical abuse, were based in countries such as Canada, Australia, England, the US, and Ireland.

Mars Volta Goliath Bedlam

The Mars Volta released a track titled “Asilos Magdalena” in memory of these women. This is where the band’s connection with madness and sin began, which eventually resulted in the record The Bedlam in Goliath.

The song about the Magdalene sisters is part of their third record, Amputechture. Not long after its release, Omar Rodríguez López, the band’s guitarist, went on a trip to Jerusalem and bought a spirit board for frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala.

Mars Volta Goliath Bedlam Amputechture

At the time the band was on tour with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, so they would entertain themselves with the board. While this sounds like a story from junior high, when they noticed the letters would spell out messages, they began to write it all down.

They named the board “The Soothsayer” as it began to tell them stories and make demands. According to certain accounts, the band spoke to three entities who together called themselves Goliath. Some believe that the spirit came to them after listening to “Asilos Magdalena.” Rodríguez López was mesmerized with the discovery and decided to turn the words of “The Soothsayer” into music. But apparently, the spirit did not approve. This is when things began to take a turn.

Mars Volta Goliath Bedlam

It started when drummer Blake Fleming quit in the middle of the tour for no apparent reason, resulting in cash flow issues. Then, Bixler-Zavala had to get surgery for a foot malformation. Meanwhile, while the guitarist began working on the following album, he found impossible to get any recording done. Frustration was running high.

Then everything came crashing down when a producer working with him suffered a nervous breakdown, leaving behind all the work that had been done already. Then Rodríguez López’s home recording studio flooded and power blackouts put all the equipment in jeopardy.  Something was definitely afoot. Everything pointed to Goliath not wanting the words given to the band to be spread among the masses.  

The Mars Volta would’ve been using someone’s name in vain, despite not knowing exactly who that was. The stories claim that Rodríguez López refused to give up and kept conversing with “The Soothsayer” in search for help.

Mars Volta Goliath Bedlam

Things were not looking good. The guitarist was about to leave it all behind and start again. Instead he chose to keep going. He hired a new producer and continued the work. It was then when he reached an epiphany: he needed to get rid of Goliath. Omar broke and buried the spirit board somewhere he chose not to share with anyone. He then told everyone involved not to speak about the subject while they finished recording.

According to some legends, The Bedlam in Goliath contains some of “The Soothsayer’s” words and extracts of poems that were part of the spirit board. The texts refer to a romantic triangle between a mother, a daughter, and a man.

Mars Volta Goliath Bedlam
Rodríguez López also added several Santeria chants as a form of protection for the band and producers from any curse. The album was not well received by critics but remains as a fan favorite.

Perhaps Rodríguez López used in vain the name of an unknown being. Whether it was the devil or a celestial creature, we’ll never know. The truth is that the album’s creation has acquired mythic status. The Mars Volta refuses to talk about it again and is focused on new projects. Their new influences might not be as complex as Goliath, but at least they’re safe from any more paranormal punishment.

There are several stories of the supernatural and spiritual in music history. Find out the tale behind John's Lennon's most spiritual song or the band that started heavy metal.

Translated by María Suárez