Category Archives: Polytheism in media

Polytheism in media (part 2): Gautama Buddha 2007 and Confucius 2010

Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. They might well be the first Indian and Chinese films respectively you have ever seen. Links are provided. Another warning: although I enjoyed these films greatly, I have something to say against Buddha and Confucius themselves. Pardon the intensity, but do correct me and engage if you have cause!

Gautama Buddha, 2007—set in North India around 550-450 BCE

Visual: Immediately I loved the attractive sets and colorful costumes. An older camera must have been deliberately used to make the film seem older and I think this had pretty good effect in the storytelling.

Verbal: The script was serious and literary, with much to analyze. Buddha is obviously given the largest share of speech, and he is always teaching and reflecting with success. There are also beautiful folk songs that are meant to adorn the story.  

Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic 220px-Tathagatha_Buddha_film_DVD_coverconnection, at least from my position. He leaves his wife on a whim and treats everyone with a sense of superiority and grandeur, and then when he returns to see her and his son after many years, he is without any emotion at all—a mere piece of wood. Indeed, if one looks closely enough, some of Buddha’s behavior and speech resembles that of a psychopath! Since the film was quite successful, the depiction and performance offered must have been very acceptable to the viewer and even admired as such.This implies that the film was not only meant to celebrate Buddha, but also in effect to deify him. He is often called “bhagwan” (god-man) by his followers and others who meet him, including former enemies. The question that the film (and indeed the story itself) raised but did not answer for me was, what did Buddha preach that was really new and why is he so admired for his erratic individualism?

Thematic/Moral: The main moral and theme was the promotion of peace and happiness by the limitation of desire. I admire the film for this purpose, but not so much the story itself. One thing I disliked is that women (in the form of the wife and later the courtesan) are placed on the side of desire and serve as obstacles to tempt the Buddha from transcendent salvation, but certainly he overcomes them because he is transcendent. Women are included in Buddha’s school at the very end, but we still don’t see any of the feminine power and agency of the traditional Hindu religion, where women serve as priestesses and oracles, for example. Moreover, regarding desire, even though Buddha merely organized a few ideas already known, Buddha must have desired excessively to be known, otherwise he would have conformed a little to what others were doing (including other sages-note the melodrama with the Hindu priest who hates Buddha). Moderation is a noble idea and Buddha should be admired for promoting it, but (this in reference to the film) he must not allow others to call him a “god-man” while declaring himself an agnostic, nor should he be so immoderately spiritual. But perhaps that is an inherent problem with individualism and the Axial Age “philosophy” that go along with it. It is said that the followers of Epicurus (who also invented nothing, but unlike Buddha preached absolute nonsense), who did not care for traditional worship or believe the Gods influenced life, erected a shrine for him.

 

Confucius, 2010—set in Eastern China around 500 BCE

Visual: Quite satisfactory and noble

Verbal: The script was somewhat Western in its brevity, but still there is some complexity and room for analysis between the lines.

Portrayal: Confucius reminds me very much of Buddha in his individualism and egotism, but at least he seems to care for tradition and other people. He weeps for one of his scholars who died trying to save texts, but at the end of the film he is shown surrounded by thousands of copies of his texts, directing one of his students to send copies to such and such a prince. I am not sure whether his humanization rather than deification is something the Chinese state would prefer, but in any case there isn’t much to deify about him, when all is studied historically. I know that he is a folk Hero in China, which I respect as far 220px-Confucius_film_postas local tradition and ancestral worship is concerned, but I question that one should go beyond. In the Analects, he alleges that Tian (Heaven) spoke to him, but not in words, and I don’t see how this is different from what any traditional Chinese shaman would experience. But Confucius’ concentration on Tian, the transcendent supreme Deity or Spirit, parallels his high-flown spirituality and ambition in the film. He is in the company of kings and nobles, and there are hints of Chinese unification and imperialism in his thought, or at least this is what the film depicts. The character of Confucius does not seem to fit his time at all, but fits the modern age quite well, which annoys me, although it isn’t his fault alone. The nobles had their share of wrongdoing in an unstable period and Confucius reminded people of some old traditions such as filial piety. His exhortation against the human sacrifice of retainers was also noble, but there was no need for the violent depiction to prove the point.    

Thematic/Moral: Transcendence, avoidance of temptation (we see another courtesan, but at least Confucius doesn’t disrespect his wife), asceticism, self-righteousness, and other Axial Age pomp as before. I can’t help the criticism! I wish Buddha and Confucius weren’t such individualists who constantly subverted their own humility and thus weakened their lessons!

Polytheism in media (part 1): The Egyptian 1954 and Pharaoh 1966

Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. Links are provided for further reading.

 

The Egyptian, 1954

Set around 1335 BCE

**Initial reactions:

-Beautiful scenes and set (later used for The Ten Commandments)

-Excellent script and performances

-Thematic depth, but with somewhat fixed charactersTheegyptian

-Peter Ustinov’s drollery

-Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is social decay

**Critical thoughts:

-Horemheb should have been replaced with the historical Ay, and perhaps giving a presence to the Amun priesthood would have also added complexity.

-Akhenaten is depicted as a wise saint as well as a tragic hero, but this was hardly the case in reality. His unprecedented invention of monotheism resulted from a bitter struggle with the priesthood of Amun for the domination of Egypt.

-The artistic and thematic allusions that compare Christianity to Atenism are rather weak in a historical respect, but significant in what the film wishes to achieve for a popular audience. In particular, I mean the “whore of Babylon”, the Moses story, the ankh/cross, and Akhenaten’s selfless humility.

-General Horemheb massacring Akhenaten’s “fanatics” turns the story into somewhat of a melodrama, but I can understand its purpose for the plot without justifying its huge inaccuracy. It is also entirely misleading and unlikely for the historical Horemheb to have done so, because Akhenaten’s “reforms” were neither popular with the masses nor did the common people worship Aten directly—rather, they worshipped the Pharaoh and Akhenaten served as sole mediator and priest with Aten. If there was any real violence associated with this historical event, it was probably committed by Akhenaten in order to force the Egyptians (the priesthood especially) to adopt his heretical innovations.

-Sinhue’s conversion and transcendence at the end of the film, after hearing Akhenaten’s last words, is obviously something that would annoy a polytheist. This increases with the intended foreshadowing of corruption and inevitable decline in Egypt when Horemheb becomes Pharaoh (because he doesn’t care for ideas or morality), which contrasts to the foreshadowed moral & philosophical ascendance of monotheism to reform the world. In reality, Egypt was to decline seriously (and never recover) about two hundred years after Akhenaten, because of the raids of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who actually succeeded in destroying the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations. As for the purported improvement of monotheism upon polytheism, the present state of the world says enough to prove otherwise…

 

Pharaoh 1966:

Set around 1070 BCE

**Initial reactions:

-A very magnificent and monumental set and scenes

-Excellent script and performance

-Thematic simplicity, but with great depthFARA-2

-Several interesting characters

-As before, Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is decay

**Critical thoughts:

-Although Ramesses XIII is a fictional pharaoh, the film is set at the onset Third Intermediate Period, which was a time of great decline for Egypt, from which it was never to recover. One thing to admire is that this film, unlike the other, doesn’t seek to add inaccurate ideas or choose sides to prove its point. The theme that was unfortunately missing in The Egyptian, i.e. the struggle between the Amun priests and pharaoh for power, is present here to the full.

-As with the other film, we have a contrast between the virtuous, humble woman and the deceitful, tempting one. This film gives us the familiar Hebrew and Phoenician contrast, which is rather worn out and stereotypical, but at least it is wrapped up in political intrigue. It was good (and somewhat surprising) to see that the other film didn’t further degrade its complexity with such unnecessary Biblical allusion.

-I am not sure what to make of the failure of the Pharaoh to defeat the priesthood. On the one hand, I am glad of it as a polytheist, but on the other, I know that the Amun priesthood was corrupt and touchy, much like the Catholic bishops and monks before Protestantism. However, I am baffled by what the film was intended to achieve according to its writer and producers, who were operating under Communism. Why does the Amun priest’s prayer cause a successful sandstorm against the mob that is depicted as divine? I can understand the Pharaoh’s youthful mistakes and tragical end, but his case becomes weak when he stands alone against the priesthood, except for a few bitter or ambitious associates.

-As a continuation of the above, it’s interesting to note that the priest of Amun is murdered by the Pharaoh’s men and the Pharaoh is murdered shortly after. It’s as if there is revenge and retribution for violating the sacred, especially since the priest was murdered just outside a temple.

-I couldn’t tell if the Greek youth, who looked like the Pharaoh and murdered him, acted symbolically in his capacity. Does it perhaps confirm our idea that the Pharaoh, in effect, destroyed himself? We know that the Pharaoh operated in a difficult environment and a period of decline, but his failure to understand his limitations and act patiently with good counsel led to his end.

35 films and drama series about polytheism you should see

are-you-not-entertained-w-text-720x396The following are select examples, some of the best I could find, of films and drama series relating to polytheism directly or indirectly. They are put in chronological order, from ancient to modern. All of them I have seen, except those marked at the beginning with asterisks, but I can vouch for them all, according to my research. Although these works are not always favorable towards polytheism and polytheists, they present us with interesting topics, themes and ideas to analyze and reflect upon. It’s my intention to discuss, more or less briefly, most (if not each) of them in order (with exception to the series), at the rate of once a week. This site has thus far been so stuffed with theory that it’s high time to offer something of a lighter kind. Why not share some of my thoughts about films I have already seen or will see, and hope that my dear readers will keep up? The films are easy to find and view online without any cost. So, next week I will discuss The Egyptian, a truly excellent film that rivals its contemporary The Ten Commandments, and which you’ll find on YouTube!

 

The Egyptian, 1956, set in the reign of Akhenaten

The Legend and the Hero 1-2, aka. Investiture of the Gods (series), 2007 & 2009, set during the Shang and Zhou dynasties of China

*Pharaoh, 1966, set just before the Third Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt

Gautama Buddha, 2007, biographical

Confucius, 2010, biographical

Sins of Jezebel, 1953, biographical

The 300 Spartans, 1962, set in the Second Persian Invasion of Greece

Alexander, 2004, biographical

*Ashoka, 2001, biographical

Druids 2001, set in the time of Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix

Boudica, 2003, biographical

The Passion of the Christ, 2004, biographical

*Quo Vadis, 1951, set in the reign of Nero and early Christianity

Spartacus, 1960, biographical

Rome (series), 2005-2007, set during the late Roman Republic and early Empire

Agora, 2009, set in Alexandria in Late Antiquity

Arthur of the Britons (series), 1972-1973, set in Post-Roman Britain during the Saxon invasion

The Pagan Queen, 2009, set in the 7th century CE in Prague

The Message, 1976, set in Arabia during the exploits of Mohammed–Sunni version

Mohammed the Messenger of God, 2016, the same setting, but during the early life of Mohammed–Iranian Shiite version

Robin of Sherwood, (series) 1984-1986, biographical

The Warlord, 1965, set in early medieval France

When the Raven Flies, 1984, set in the Viking period

Vikings (series), 2013-present, set in the time of Ragnar Lothbrok

The Virgin Spring, 1960, set in medieval Sweden

*Northern Crusades, 1972, set in the time of the Teutonic Crusade against the Baltic polytheists

*The Pagan King, 2018, set in the time of the Teutonic Crusade against the Baltic polytheists

The Great Warrior Skanderbeg, 1953, biographical

*Apocalypto, 2006, set after the Spanish conquest of Mexico

*The Other Conquest, 2000, set after the Spanish conquest of Mexico

Dances with Wolves, 1990, set after the American Civil War

The Last Samurai, 2003, set during the modernization of Japan

*Zulu Dawn, 1979, set during English imperialism in South Africa

The Wicker Man, 1973, set in modern Scotland