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Movie Monday: 13th Warrior

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I’m working on a deeper theological piece, but it’s going to take me a bit of time to complete, especially since I have a conference paper to finish writing. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying my movie Monday posts, so here’s another one. 

Someone at school asked me the other day what my favorite medieval themed movie was and without missing a beat, I said, “13thWarrior.” This was the first-time Heathenry had been portrayed on screen, at least insofar as I had seen and I loved it, and despite its flaws, it remains one of my feel-good movies. I think I’ve watched it dozens of times. 

The movie is based on a book by Michael Crichton titled Eaters of the DeadThis book itself uses two medieval stories, firstly Beowulfand secondly a book by Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century Muslim traveler to the North, who spent significant time amongst the Rus and later wrote a travelogue of the wonders he witnessed there. Viking Answer Lady has an informative post here that gives links to Fadlan’s account and also analyzes some of the more interesting sections. It’s worth a read because – and this is one thing that comes through in the movie too – we get to see the Northmen through a foreigner’s eyes, someone for whom the practices and customs he’s experiencing are completely alien. He is able to bring them into vivid relief in his account, because everything is different and strange and new. In the movie, the main character (supposedly based on Ibn Fadlan… a very very fictionalized Fadlan) becomes our interlocutor, in the same way, for a story of great heroism. 

Things I really liked about this movie: 

  1. The divination scene where the prophetess calls 13 warriors to journey forth. I particularly liked the respect they gave to her and the reverence the entire process of divination had for the Northmen.
  2. The prayer the Muslim character makes before the final battle – it’s lovely and potent (despite referring to God as “Father,” which is not congruent with Islamic tradition), and the prayer all the Heathens make before the final battle (in which the Muslim character joins too), to the ancestors. I just adore that final prayer. 
  3. The way the main character learns the Norse language, through osmosis, i.e. listening. 
  4. The way this then demonstrates how intelligent Bulwif is – I won’t give anything away, but he represents the best type of leader as described in the HavamalHe’s also very, very Odinic, especially how he dies. This is much more emphasized in the book than in the movie but it still comes through (in the book, he’s not only seated in the throne with his dogs at his feet but ravens come to rest on each shoulder). 
  5. The fight scenes – I’m a sucker for a good fight scene. 

Things that annoyed me: 

  1. The different types of armor. While some of the older armor might have been passed down in a family, at least two warriors wore armor that wouldn’t be invented for another couple hundred years! 
  2. The wash basin scene – it’s just inaccurate, a misreading of Ibn Fadhlan. 
  3. The minor romance. Why must otherwise good action movies always have romance (if romance it can be called; it was really just a booty call on both sides)? Fortunately, it didn’t detract much from the movie and little time was spent on it. 
  4. All the older fighters die in the first attack. If they had lived long enough to be old, that means they were canny, intelligent, lucky, and badass fighters. They wouldn’t have crumpled in that first battle.

Is this a great movie? No, not by any means. It is, however fun, and it’s one of the few things I’ve seen that not only presents Heathens well, but taps into (however lightly) some of our lore. Despite its inaccuracies, it brings the viewer into a different world, a different time, a different way of being in the world. It shows certain virtues, like courage and honor, a willingness to confront terrifying things to do right by one’s allies. As always, I think it’s beneficial for us to see and read examples of heroism, of virtue. That’s a big part of why these stories, epics, folksongs and the like, were continuously recited. The media we consume changes us internally and that can be for the better or for the worse. That’s why it’s important to approach these things critically, to make good choices, to make choices that teach us how to cultivate a better way of being in the world, a message emphasized most assuredly, in the Havamal. 

“American Gods,” “Wonder Woman” and the Need to Think Critically About Our Media Consumption

I’ve been talking about pop culture a lot this past week on social media and there have been a few good discussions and a few not so good and I find myself moved this morning to post about it here. Two things prompted this. Firstly, I watched last week’s “American Gods” and posted the following:

“”American Gods” is beautifully shot. Parts of it are intensely profound but in the end, it is peppered with pollution, the attitude clearly stated that the Gods are dependent on us, that humans are greater than the Gods, and the typical screed of modernity. I am so disgusted. It does show the danger of modern culture but…I wonder how many people are seeing that underlying message of disrespect? The same scenes and same story could be told without the line “humans are greater than gods” and yet they just had to put that in. Gaimon et al couldn’t help themselves.”

You would have thought I’d kicked someone’s dog. Many people were deeply bothered by the fact that I criticized Gaiman and this work. Let me be clear, I enjoy the show. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully directed but, because I enjoy it, it’s all the more important to criticize it, to be critical of it, because this show like so many others, presents our Gods in ways that are deeply problematic. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

The second thing that happened today was that my friend Wyrd Dottir posted a review on her fb of the new “Wonder Woman” movie and again, apparently, the Gods are the villains. (I’m disappointed to hear this. I loved the WW television show as a child and I was looking forward to the movie but I won’t be wasting my money on it now). It was at this point that I felt pushed to write something for my blog.

I’ll state right up front that while I may abstain from media like this, I am not actually advocating not reading a book or watching a movie because it is disrespectful or impious. Everyone has to make the choice of what they give space to in their heads, what they indulge in during their free time, and what they expend energy on for themselves. I am, however, deeply concerned about how uncritically polytheists will immerse themselves in media and pop culture without giving it the slightest bit of thought.’ I enjoy it, so it’s ok’ seems to be the rule of the day.

What we watch has the power to affect us. It sets up programming in our minds, unconscious attitudes that then influence how we approach our world. It patterns us to accept or not certain things as normal. What we expose ourselves to has the power to change our inner landscape and thus the way we process and relate to the world at large. It programs us. That’s why I find the attitude (across the board in pop culture) of the Gods being less than humans, or of humans being able to defeat the Gods, or of the Gods being childish and less evolved than we so problematic. This is the attitude enmeshed in modernity and pop culture and it’s  polluting because it is everywhere unquestioned. I know works like “Wonder Woman” or “American Gods” are fiction and yes, it saddens me that our cosmologies are up for grabs this way. For most Pagans, these attitudes will pass by most unrecognized and unquestioned and frankly, on a large scale, I think they  pollute and entrain the mind to dismiss the Gods when they are accepted without question.

People will argue that in the ancient world poets and dramaturgists often wrote in similar fashion of the Gods but I would counter that there was a cultural context deeply rooted in piety and respect for the Powers that counter the damage this might have done (and it wasn’t accepted unquestioningly. There were discussions in the ancient world about the propriety of presenting the Gods in such a liberal fashion. Certain philosophers actually condemned the practice because of the potential for impiety). We have neither that cultural context, that embedded polytheism to shape us, nor the willingness to challenge those things we enjoy. THAT is why it is so deeply problematic.

Others argued when I first talked about this on facebook that movies and television series like this are good even if they present the Gods poorly because they might bring people to the Gods and it’s a good way to spark and interest and learn about Them and Their stories. Maybe but I would counter that there were no records when the first people honored these gods. They had dreams, visions, the gods come through in ritual. They had piety. The lore is a map, not the territory. It’s a check, a useful tool, a reference point, it can teach secrets but nothing takes the place of direct encounters with these beings and that is a thousand times harder than it has to be when we approach them with unconscious attitudes of hubris.

Someone else said that shows like ‘American Gods’ were just an ‘alternative viewpoint’. Well, how is it an alternative viewpoint when the other side is never presented? Popular media only ever seems to present stuff that minimizes and attacks the Gods and devotion to them. Show me movie or television series that has pure, clean piety. (Please…I’d love to know of one). Show me one that isn’t 80% ok but 20% crap.

I reiterate that we need to approach our media critically because this plants seeds in our heads and grows the world inside us and one should be careful of that and learn to filter out the stuff that’s inimical to piety, which we can’t do if we refuse to even  recognize it.

Lykeia rightfully points out:

“In terms of pollution if we consider that one can become unclean from entertaining exposure that which is contrary to our spirituality, a case for pollution (vis a vis media) can be made. Of course it can be entertaining while acknowledging it is spiritually polluting. One can be entertained and enjoy aesthetically things while recognizing a need for cleansing if choosing to indulge in it. Myself such things tend to deter me. I prefer not having that enter my spiritual space.

In polytheism conduct towards the gods and our relationship with them is an important issue (although perhaps not to the “wider pagan community which is one reason out of many I don’t affiliate to such). It is part and parcel to proper etiquette in developing relationships with our gods. A seed planted that the gods are dependent on us and thus leaving us in a position of power taints this relationship potentially which is why many polytheists treat it so gravely. We are virtually surrounded by popular media saying our gods are weak and encouraging hubris ( a huge no no). This is not an issue to this novel only but a common trend in media and so there is a need to be mindful of it and guard against it if necessary.”

Kenaz Filan writes, “We need to figure out how to teach people that everything we are and everything around us is rooted in the Gods, not vice versa. That may be our greatest task in re-establishing a Polytheism for the modern era.” And this is true. Every single argument and controversy in some way comes down to the question of do we prioritize the Gods or man, do we venerate the Gods, or ourselves. Do we value devotion or have we eaten the poisoned fruit of modernity wholesale and without question?

The question raised by American Gods, the nonsense about humans being greater than the Gods isn’t something to allow to slip into our minds unchallenged. To again quote Kenaz Filan,:

“If the Gods are the wellspring and foundation of Being, we exist as part of Their plans and Their actions. If the Gods are the creations of men then they (small t) are tools by which we understand the material universe until they are supplanted by a more accurate understanding. (Once upon a time we believed lightning was Zeus or Thor throwing thunderbolts: today we know better). They are aspects of the Overmind which connects humanity together the way the Internet joins computers. They are symbols which we use like letters in algebra and calculus to answer problems. All those things are centered in humanity. By centering Being in the Gods, we move closer to a worldview where humans are not “lords over earth and its dominions” but part of an intricately connected system created by the Gods for Their purposes”

There is nothing in the community more important than developing a sense of respect and piety toward the Gods.  I think we need to seriously consider what kind of foundation we want to create for our traditions. If we can watch something that presents such a skewed view of our Gods and the act of devotion itself, without critically analyzing it, without even acknowledging that it’s perhaps not presenting us with the best example (at the very least), if we can’t look at our world and see the results of such doggedly entrained disrespect, then what hope is there for the future of our traditions. I think we need to be the most critical of those things we most enjoy because it’s what we watch when we’re relaxed, what we uncritically enjoy that’s going to creep by our mental censors. It’s those things we blindly consume that will do the most damage.

For me it comes down to not wanting to give space in my head to that which does not bring me closer to my Gods. I don’t want to give space within myself to that which doesn’t enhance my devotion. I don’t want to waste time on that which doesn’t nurture my piety no matter how much fun it may be. I’m not asking polytheists to go on a social media or pop culture fast but it would be nice if people could be a little bit more critical, a little bit more thoughtful of the media they do consume. We’re bombarded every day by messages that are deeply deleterious to polytheism. These things matter.