Polytheism Through a Christian Lens

As I continued my two squares an evening pace, we watched The Immortals. It was visually interesting and they obviously poured some money into it. So, the Butcher and I were having a hard time understanding why they didn’t spend twenty minutes on Wikipedia reading up on polytheism. Because, whoa doggie. It was terrible. As the Butcher explained, it’s not even so much that the problem is that they didn’t stick to what we might call “known canon” about the Greek gods, it’s that, in departing from it, they didn’t supply any backstory of their own.

So, a ton of bizarre shit that made no sense happened. Zeus, Mr. “I never met a moral affair I didn’t want to meddle in (or have, for that matter, see how I’m busy fucking you and your wife and three of your neighbors while Betsy writes this aside)” for some reason the movie never explained claims that the gods must not meddle in the affairs of humans. What the fuck? I mean, just at that level–if you have a dude named Zeus, who is supposed to be a god, who doesn’t meddle in the affairs of humans…. I don’t know what to even say. That’s Zeus’s whole schtick. Not just him, either, but the fact that he would make a rule against it and then actually enforce it? In the words of the poet, shit is bananas, b a n a n a s.

Then, even though Theseus doesn’t have a known dad and even though Zeus trains Theseus and takes a special interest in him and even though a special godly bow is found near Theseus’s mom’s grave and even though Theseus can get stabbed repeatedly in the gut and still fight a dude to the death and kill him and even though Theseus ascends to the Heavens and becomes a god and even though Zeus’s god damn name is Zeus and Theseus’s name is TheSEUS, he’s not Zeus’s son. I repeat, he is not Zeus’s son.

Honestly, I’m not sure I can go on to make my main point because the weight of the stupidity of that last paragraph has broken me. How does this happen? Of course he’s Zeus’s son. He doesn’t have a dad and motherfucking Zeus hangs out with him as his “friend.”

Oh, and then, there are a bunch of atheists. I’ve done more than my fair share of reading on polytheistic societies and I have never come across any with a notable atheist population. You find “the gods don’t give a shit about me”ers and “I don’t give a shit about the gods”ers and folks who believe that the gods aren’t maybe literal beings but manifestations of human desires or something. But you don’t get a whole lot of people who just flat out don’t believe they exist. Especially because a lot of polytheistic religions also revolve heavily around some level of animism–the belief that everything is imbued with a spirit that can be interacted with in some way–and a belief in ancestor veneration–the idea that your dead loved ones are still interested in having an influence on your life.

Those two things–animism and ancestor worship–which are predicated on a daily interaction with the spirits of things reinforce the third leg–polytheism. Even if you doubted the existence of the gods, do you doubt the love of your grandmother? Do you doubt that the fruit trees are in bloom? Do you doubt your love for your children and your willingness to always be a part of their lives? If the trees blooming are real, if the dirt under your feet in your field is real, if your grandmother lived and you knew her, why not Zeus?

Look at how the Church had to Christianize Europe. They couldn’t come in and say “Your gods don’t exist.” No one would have believed them. They had to say “Your gods are demons” or “Oh, Brigid? She’s our St. Bridgette.” And, even when they managed to whittle away at the number of gods people believe in, they’ve still never been 100% successful in breaking the animism leg and have made no attempts to break the veneration of ancestors leg. And it still took 2,000 years before there was a sizable atheist population.

And, in ancient Greece, there was certainly no pressure as strong and prolonged as Christianity on polytheism until Christianity. So, it’s just not plausible that you’d have so many atheists.

Oh, and there’s this weird talk of salvation. On a spiritual level. And I don’t know enough about Greek polytheism to say for certain, but I have to guess that it would ring strange. What would a person be being saved from, spiritually? And saved for what? All Greek polytheists went the same place when they died.

By the end of it, I looked at the Butcher and I said, “This is a Christian movie. It wants to ask questions of the Christian god–Why doesn’t He answer prayers? Why doesn’t He interfere in the human realm in a way we find satisfying? How can He be surprised when so many of us have stopped believing in Him?–but it’s using the veneer of the Greek gods to do it.”

And the Butcher said, “Yeah, but not very well.”

 

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7 thoughts on “Polytheism Through a Christian Lens

  1. You get an award for paying much closer attention to that bronzerfest than I did. All I can remember is that I got a migraine about 20 minutes into it and spent the rest of the film in agony but trying to be polite to the people watching it with me.

  2. Betsy, the movie sounds like a hot mess. But the Greeks didn’t think that Theseus was the son of Zeus; they thought he was the son of Poseidon. And I’m no expert on the onomastics of Classical Greek, but I’m pretty sure that two names ending in “-eus” or “-eos” would have been, for them, like two names ending in “m” for us — no indication of relationship.

    There is evidence of the existence of atheism (or, at least, the existence of the possibility of atheism — in the sense that people were accused of it, as a terrible sin) among the Greeks by the later 5th century BCE. So maybe Alcibiades or Socrates had gotten to the atheist characters? Are they fiery demagogues who were brought up by Pericles? Or are they sculptors who wander around the Agora not charging for imparting wisdom?

  3. I thought he was the son of Aegeus, who at least had enough paternal feelings for Theseus to throw himself into the sea which is now named for him when he thought Theseus had died.

  4. NM, oh, I know that Theseus isn’t the son of Zeus in real life (just as I know that Zeus is now trying to fuck someone while in the shape of a water buffalo). I’m just saying that, if you’re the screen writer, who for some reason doesn’t want to learn anything at all about his characters’ real life backstories–which seemingly this screenwriter did not, for whatever reason–the plot path you’ve written goes right through the garden of “Theseus is Zeus’s son” and it is baffling how the screenwriter missed that. (Or could we say through the labyrinth of “Theseus is Zeus’s son”?) If none of the other things sparked a connection in the screenwriter’s mind, all I’m saying is that you’d think the similarity of the names might have.

    The atheists are everyone. No one really believes in gods anymore except Theseus’s mom–possibly another reason the screen writer should have considered why she was still faithful–and the oracle and her followers. Everyone else, including Theseus, is an atheist.

  5. I’m saying that, if you love a Greek historian, you should not let him or her drink while watching this movie. Because that person will have to drink dangerous amounts just to cope.

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