This is a subject which has come up among people I know a few times. People get upset about depictions of the gods for entertainment purposes, or they think we, meaning the community, should be upset. Deities are often depicted in ways contrary to their mythology. Even worse, many are depicted in a light hearted manner and made fun of, or even in a completely negative way. Some culprits include Disney’s Hercules movie and cartoon with its depictions of many Greek gods, the Grimm Adventures of Billy and Mandy and their depiction of Eris, Erik the Viking and its depiction of the Norse pantheon, and the Herc’s adventure game on the PSX (okay, no one really knows about that last one but me, cool game though). Right now the subject is being brought up again due to the releases of Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson’s Lightning Thief, both movies that depict various gods. The question is, is this wrong? Are the gods being profaned? Is it something that we, possibly being very spiritually tied to and close to these gods, should be offended by?
Society says we should be. Most of the other religions are after all. Its recently become a bit of a fad to make fun of Jesus, but in the past any depiction that wasn’t following the general Christian belief on Jesus’s life and times was controversial (such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar). Native Americans get upset when their rituals, gods, and spirituality are inaccurately portrayed. There are Muslims that threaten to kill people because of depictions of Muhammad. This isn’t to say every person in these religions feels this way, or that this is true of every single religion. But a lot of religions don’t like their gods and sacred figures depicted in disparaging or inaccurate ways, especially by outsiders. So should we too?
Most people who are polytheists or pagans or whatever they’re calling themselves were once part of one of these mainstream religions. And they left their original religion most likely because they didn’t like the religion, they didn’t like the beliefs, they didn’t like the behavior of the people in the religion, and for the most part they were unhappy with the religion. Ironically they take these same habits that they learned from this ‘unacceptable’ religion and carry them right over into their new religion. But that doesn’t answer the question.
There are a series of good arguments that are not only against being offended, but are actually in favor of the depiction of the gods in modern entertainment.
First and foremost, this isn’t something new. Going all the way back to ancient Greece, we see the gods routinely depicted in poetry, plays, paintings, and sculptures. This continues on through out the Roman empire, through out the Middle Ages in Europe, through the Renaissance, right up into the modern day. So this is actually something that has been going on for quite some time.
Now you might think there’s a big difference between the epic poetry of the Greeks and a Disney cartoon. And although they aren’t the same thing, and maybe one is better than the other (Hercules was far from Disney’s best film after all), the core issue is the same. The artist is depicting the gods in an inaccurate way to serve their needs of telling the story they want to tell.
The Iliad is one of the most influential literary works in the entire history of the world. It is one of only two pieces of the epic cycle that have survived in their entirety. It is also one of the major sources we have concerning Greek mythology and beliefs. Nobody who spiritually follows the Greek pantheon is going to call the Iliad profane. And yet Homer routinely depicts gods in inaccurate and even negative ways in order to serve his own idealistic agendas and personal politics within the poem.
Ares is a good example. He’s a god that Homer routinely trashes throughout the Iliad. Ares is often seen as an evil or negative or lesser god today due almost entirely to Homer’s depiction and the depiction of Ares by contemporaries of Homer. And yet in ancient Greece Ares was a highly revered and respected god. He was one of the Olympians who are largely considered the most important and respected of the Greek gods. He was also one of the patron gods of Sparta, one of the strongest and influential cities within Greece. Prior to Homer he is not only depicted as a god of war, but also as a god of justice, vengeance, love, and righteousness.
And Homer wasn’t just mistaken in his depiction of Ares. Ares was specifically chosen for three reasons. First he wasn’t originally a Greek god, he was imported into Greece from the outside. The Greeks had a very strong sense of ethnic pride, and although Ares’ high standing in Greece despite coming from the outside is a testament to his reverence, being a non-Greek god gave Homer a lot of leeway in depicting him negatively. Secondly Homer was decidedly anti-war, and the Iliad has a strong anti-war message behind it. Ares, being a god of war, was a perfect target for Homer to take out his personal ideologies on. And lastly Homer was from Athens, a city whose patron god is Athena, a god that is often believed to be in conflict with Ares. Ares is also the patron god of Sparta, a city that was constantly in conflict with Athens. So trashing Ares was a way of saying “Yeah Athens – Sparta Sucks.”
And yet we don’t view the Iliad as profane.
Secondly we live in a time where the gods, for the most part, are not well recognized, taught about, or worshiped like they used to be. Without entertainment, most of us would only know the various myths from what we learned in school. I know where I live we only really learn about the Greek pantheon. The Roman pantheon we’re taught is the same as the Greek pantheon with different names, the Norse and Egyptian pantheons aren’t touched on, and I don’t think most people even know there is a Celtic pantheon. With the rise of Neopagan religions and the strong movements to remove religion from public schools, it may not be too long until these myths are not taught at all.
These movies and TV shows and cartoons may not depict the gods correctly, but at least they make people aware that they exist. With certain people, just hearing the name of a god can be enough to spark an interest, and a lot of people may be pushed to research these gods more in depth because of one of these depictions. I know my blog hits have gone up by about 10% since The Lightning Thief and Clash of the Titans came out due to people searching for Medusa. For a few people this may be enough to completely change their spirituality and lead them to a stronger and closer relationship with the gods. But even if it doesn’t, it still makes them aware of a god and gives them some connection to that god. It also makes them more receptive to that god in the future. And the cartoons, which seem to upset people the most, are probably the best at doing this because they target children and make children more comfortable with and receptive to the gods.
And this isn’t any different than what was going on in Ancient Greece. Plays and poems were written about the gods so people would become aware of them and learn about them. The plays and poems that have survived to the modern day constitute a lot of what we know about Greek mythology. This is true of a lot of other pantheons too.
My last argument is one I’ve used before concerning the gods. By their nature, a deity should be able to handle their own affairs. If there is something wrong or profane with the way they are being depicted, they should be able to take care of it themselves. At the very least, if human intervention is required, I would expect the offended deity to personally give instructions about what needs to be done. So unless a god has told you to be offended by something or take some sort of action, I’d say leave it alone. And by told you I don’t mean you saw some obscure sign only you could understand. I mean the god appeared before you and said something like, “Hey [insert your name here], you need to go on the Disney message board and tell everyone how poorly I was depicted in their cartoon and how this offends everyone of your particular religion. Also threaten to boycott their products and whine about them to everyone you meet.”