On the Representation of the Gods in Pop Culture

Χαίρετε ἀναγνώστες!

With the arrival of the new video game “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” a topic has resurfaced once more in online discussions. The topic being the disrespectful and dismissive depiction of the Gods, polytheism, and polytheists, in popular media. I wanted to write something about it here and express my thoughts.

Let us start at the beginning. The mentioned game is set in the final days of an independent Egypt. It features Cleopatra VII and how she, aided by the game’s protagonist and by allying herself with Iulius Caesar seizes power as Pharaoh from her brother, Ptolemaios XIII. As well as the murder of Iulius Caesar later in the game. I will leave it at this in regards to the historical setting. Overall, it seems the game succeeds beautifully at rendering the world and what these featured places looked like in those days. Culture and religion are by and large portrayed accurately, though reportedly the bits where ancient Egyptian, Hellenic, and Latin are spoken kind of drop the ball a bit. Polytheism is largely depicted fairly well, with the main protagonist being a devout worshipper of the Gods. Which makes it all the more puzzling when the game suddenly shifts and drops the ball entirely.

The game features side quests to “Kill Sobek” and “Kill Anubis”. And by the end of the game, I have heard the protagonist becomes… less than devout, according to what I have heard. It is one more instance of the Gods being portrayed disrespectfully in popular culture. And what is most disconcerting about this whole things is how many pagans, and polytheists even, rush to defend the game from any such critique. “It’s just a game” they say, “these aren’t the real Gods”, “Our Gods are above taking offence at such things”, “we shouldn’t defend the Gods, they can defend themselves”. These are the kinds of things said by some pagans and polytheists to defend this blasphemy. And blasphemy it is: the Hellenic verb βλασφημέω means “to slander”, “to speak ill of”, “to speak profanely of sacred things“, which is exactly what is happening here. This game, God of War, Gods of Egypt, Wonder Woman, and so many countless movies, books, and games, depict our Gods in disrespectful and slanderous ways, peddling  “Gods are evil”, “polytheism is silly and dumb”, “humanity can/should kill the Gods” tropes tirelessly.

The reason why is an issue is because of public perception. The general public is constantly bombarded with these depictions of the Gods, of polytheism, of polytheists as dumb, evil, undesirable, and/or silly things. This naturally results in them viewing those things in that way, with general disrespect towards Gods, polytheism, and polytheists as a result.

Let us compare it to the depiction of LGBT+ people in popular media. For so long, it was considered abnormal, something wrong and undesirable. So, in the instances where characters were portrayed as homosexual, bisexual, or transgender, or anything outside the hetero-norm and/or cis-norm, they were usually evil or tragic or suffering from various other “mental illnesses”. But as LGBT+ people became more confident and louder in their demands for equal rights, calling out bigoted presentations and queer-coded depictions or LGBT+ people in movies and other media, people started becoming more sympathetic, and more positive depictions of homosexuals started to appear in media. Which started to affect popular opinion on LGBT+ issues, reinforcing the shift in popular opinion towards more tolerance towards LGBT+ people and more calls for justice in regards to LGBT+ issues. In just a decade or so suddenly a majority of the US citizens believed that same-sex couples should be able to marry. And eventually, this became the law of the US at the highest level. More recently, almost 80% of Australian citizens voted in a (non-binding) referendum on whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex marriage. An overwhelming majority of Australians voted, and of those, a clear majority voted for such a change, at over 60%.

This is a clear example of how depictions of LGBT+ people and issues have reinforced society’s trends towards more acceptance and changes in laws. The same holds true for polytheism. This current climate of disrespect and dismissiveness towards Gods other than Yāhwēh, Allāh, or demigods like Yēšūă‘, or prophets like Muḥammad, is endemic in our Western Christian-monotheist dominated culture (even in countries that are now more secular). At best, traditions widely known to be extant such as Hinduism or Shinto can be, but are not necessarily, spared this fate. But it is a wholly different story for traditions generally believed to be firmly dead, from Egyptian to Germanic, from Akkadian to Irish polytheism.

This continues to nourish disrespect and dismissiveness and even derision towards the Gods and polytheism and polytheists. More than that; by constantly being bombarded by it, it may nourish, even subconsciously, forms of disrespect for our Gods and traditions within polytheists and pagans themselves. Just look at the hordes of generic pagans and eclectic neopagans who for the most part culturally appropriate and pervert the living daylights out of everything and anything they get their hands on, who work with the Gods as if they are colleagues of the Gods on equal footing, or even worse, use the Gods as components in their spells and magic…

By not calling this bullshit out, or worse still, rush to its defence, we will continue to live under the yoke of monotheist privilege, we will continue to face an uphill battle to have our religious rights recognised, acknowledged, and respected. As one of my friends said in a discussion on this topic I had on Facebook: If we keep quiet about it, nothing will change. Which I agree with wholeheartedly.

On the argument that the Gods don’t need us mortals to defend them, I have the following to say: The Gods don’t need us to defend Them. They also don’t need us to honour Them. They’d just go about Their divine business as They have since time immemorial and for all eternity to come. However, recognising and acknowledging Them results in honouring Them, and honouring Them results in speaking up and denouncing depictions of Them in slanderous or outright blasphemous ways. After all, if you hear a friend being gossiped about, or otherwise slandered, would you not rush to their defence? If you don’t, are you genuinely a friend? (I am ignoring here concerns such as social anxieties that may negatively impact your capacity to interact with strangers; I consider these things being inability rather than unwillingness to defend your friend)

If you argue that “but the ancients also had unsavoury depictions and descriptions of Gods, think of some ancient comedies!”, I will retort that you are being conceited and drawing a false parallel. There is a world of difference (literally!) between what happens in a living polytheistic culture, and what is done by a monotheist-dominated culture bent on erasing and dismissing the Gods and that stands in opposition to everything polytheist. The ancients still believed in and worshipped the Gods. That is not the case today.

And even if you can genuinely disconnect the depiction in video games/movies/comics/books, etc. from the real Gods, the matter remains that Their holy names are being used. To go on a bit of a tangent, it is like naming your pets after Gods. As in, giving them names of Gods. In the detective series “Magnum P.I.” from the 80’s, the character Higgins has two dogs named Zeus and Apollo for example. Giving them commands to sit. Say the phrase “Zeus, sit!” or “Apollo, roll over!” and you should immediately understand how this is problematic. Just imagine saying such things in the presence of a shrine or image of the Deity in question. Consider instead to name pets with theophoric names such as Diodoros (or anglicised Diodiore) or Apollonios. Just like naming pets after Gods can nourish akharis (ungrace) and miasma (spiritual and ritual pollution), so can these pop culture depictions of our Gods cause the same. That is to say, the diminishing and breaking down of the bonds of reciprocity that are built with the Gods through worship, and the spiritual pollution that inhibits contact with the divine, leaving us separated from the Holy Powers.

To summarise:

  1. By portraying the Gods, polytheism, and polytheists in a disrespectful manner, it nurtures disrespect and derision towards those things in people’s minds.
  2.  By not resisting this and calling this out, we will continue to live under the yoke of monotheist privilege and have our religious rights dismissed and derided.
  3. By honouring our Gods, we engage ourselves to build proper relations with the Them. This includes educating people and calling out wrongful depictions of Them.

Hopefully, my message has been understood and will encourage people to think more critically on these matters. May it lead you to a deeper understanding of their consequences and to a re-evaluation of your stance regarding this issue.

Ἔρρωσο.

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