30 April 2008

Religion in Battlestar Galactica

Reactions to “Escape Velocity”: Comparing Polytheisms
Gaius Baltar: We want justice, not these stupid old Gods!
Priestess: Sir, we're having a service.
Gaius: Are you? But whom are you serving?
Priestess: I have to ask you to leave.
Gaius: Do you? Would you be serving Zeus? Apparently king of the Gods, who also happened to be, let me tell you, a serial rapist, [people express outrage, which garbles what Gaius says next, but at this point it’s still discernible] prone to giving birth out of his own forehead! That's very likely, isn't it?
Priestess: How dare you!
Gaius: [Outrage from the assembled masses, some lost words] . . . what are you going to do, you [ignorant?] witch, telling the people lies and stories. Maybe you want me to pray to Aesculapius [Gaius shakes the priestess, and here the screams get so loud that it's really difficult for me to hear the main dialogue, so there are some lost words; this is also where the roughhousing starts] . . . with the blood of gorgons with Aphrodite or Artemis or any other of this rubbish!
[And here it really gets chaotic, and it's really hard to hear Gaius over the riot he just started. Rest assured, though, that he keeps talking until crowd control comes and takes him to the brig.]
Battlestar Galactica distinguishes itself from many other types of science fiction in its treatment of religion. While it uses situations based on current events as tools to properly move the public—the tactics that the Cylons use in the first season makes many relate them to terrorists—the show works with the monotheism/polytheism war, which we have not seen in full swing for some centuries.2 To provide background for those who do not watch this show, the Twelve Colonies worship beings called the Lords of Kobol, who have the same names as Greek Gods.3 The Colonials give them cult, but not always as our ancients did, due to both the scientific setting and the writers’ hesitation to develop things that will not influence plot.

The excerpt, taken from Season Four’s “Escape Velocity,” shows the mounting tensions between monotheists and polytheists in the series. No longer a divide simply between Colonial and Cylon worship, reverence for a single God has spread into the fleet, causing friction with many traditional believers. A radical group has defiled the monotheists’ main enclave, so the monotheists, led by Gaius Baltar, have decided to retaliate by rioting during one of the worship services, destroying much of the religious paraphernalia. Christian viewers of the scene undoubtedly identify with Gaius Baltar, as he has decided to destroy “idols” and refute the immoral mythology of a “corrupt” civilization. Goddess worshipers may feel ambivalent about this, as many refuse to cultivate relationships with Zeus4, citing the fiction of matriarchal civilizations displaced by a patriarchy; as the group that previously attacked the monotheists has a special relationship with Ares, these Goddess worshipers remove themselves one step further from the retaliative desecration.

As a Hellenic Polytheist, the moment when Baltar throws the libation glass and overturns the palm-sized statuettes makes me angry, in addition to provoking worries about causing a fire from thrown candles. I feel kinship with those characters who only came to worship the Gods and likely have no ties with the Sons of Ares or any other hate group. At face value, I relate this to the destruction and looting of sanctuaries of the Gods, which angers the deities because the perpetrators lack piety and respect for the Deathless Ones.5

Righteous outrage does not make me stop watching or reading something. If it did, I would have backed away from Battlestar Galactica long ago—probably during the reunion of Pegasus and Galactica. Working through my objections to things that happen on the show makes me a stronger person. In the case of the sacrilege, Baltar makes some very common points against Greco-Roman Polytheisms, focusing on the myths instead of on the Gods behind them—a mistake that monotheists tend to make, as the respect we show the Gods, and the honor we show them, does not correspond to our reactions to individuals committing similar acts.

These stories, far from functioning as Hellenic scripture in the real-world religion, assist us in bringing the Gods down to our level. Through these myths, we can understand them more thoroughly, and we learn how to worship them: Prometheus deceived Zeus into choosing the less edible portions of meat as the Gods’ part of the sacrificial meal, so we give them the bones and fat while we eat the desirable bits. Mythical creatures, such as the centaurs, gorgons, satyrs, or sirens, do not exist in our world, but we use them in stories to express things like the contrast between barbarous and civilized conduct or the importance of piety. Indeed, the Deathless Ones frequently punish humans in our mythology for their impiety: Ariadne does not thank the Gods for her skill in weaving, declaring that all credit is hers, so Athene turns her into a spider; Tantalus, to highlight some of his acts, steals ambrosia and nectar from the Gods, and he also tries to feed the Gods human flesh, so he receives eternal punishment in the Underworld.6

In light of this, how should we view the rape stories that Baltar mentions? Should we consider Zeus a serial rapist, and are the Deathless Ones linked to misogyny for allowing this behavior? Does Athene’s birth only serve to make Zeus “a father without using a spouse, [who possesses] both titles by himself,” as Ovid’s Hera says?7 Many of these rape myths speak of Gods’ and heroes’ births, allowing them divine fathers while still maintaining mortal stepfathers in influential positions. Providing that the woman does not consent to the God’s advances, she retains her sense of virtue and thus the hero or God has a mother who has remained faithful in mind, if not in body, to her mortal family. In addition, these myths bring Zeus down to our level, providing us with a tangible connection to the Gods. In the case of the Gods and their sexual encounters, these myths work to articulate complicated relationships between deities, ties that exist beyond our limited understanding. The incest we see among them means something different from the very real problems of incest in the mortal world. Athene’s birth, then, falls under this category of “problems articulating the Gods’ truths” and, while used in Agamemnon to clear Orestes of his matricidal guilt, does not devalue the position of mortal women in their creation of life.

Those familiar with Battlestar Galactica will see some differences between the importance of myth that I described and its depiction in the series. Quite simply, the society in Battlestar Galactica synthesizes Western monotheistic concepts and Greco-Roman Polytheisms. They take many of their myths as literal truths. Much like Moses, Roslin wants to lead the people to a “promised land,” in this case Earth, and the thirteen mythical tribes reflect the thirteen tribes of Israel. Unlike our Greco-Roman predecessors, the Colonials have a standardized set of beliefs codified into a scripture, which disallows the myriad versions of each of our world’s Greek myths. The show’s writers, in their decision not to develop the plot-neutral, have overlooked one element crucial to Hellenic polytheism: the Ancient Greeks did not believe in their myths, but the Ancient Greeks believed in their myths.8 They need to make this jump because the veracity of the religious stories fuels the series’s quest, but we can see something deeper working here: the writers’ failure to draw deeply from our ancestors’ beliefs points to the disconnect between modern Western society and ancient thought. Something happened during the West’s religious revolution that changed the time-out-of-time approach to myth and replaced it with a historical approach.

Since the Colonials’ way of worshiping the Gods differs from ours, they do not have our sense of orthopraxy. Thus, we must separate Baltar’s critique of the Greco-Roman Polytheism depicted in Battlestar Galactica from similar criticisms of Hellenic Polytheism. The argument that we can refute in a religion that sees Gods through myth instead of scripture becomes impossible to defeat when speaking about the Colonials’ religion. One feels kinship with the worshipers because the writers have succeeded in creating art. One knows that the feelings of indignation at the altar destruction are just. However, we must keep in mind that Battlestar Galatica’s creators know that their audience consists primarily of monotheists, and with all of the philosophical questions they treat, reeducating the audience about the nature of truth and its relationship to myth would make the show too heavy for most Friday night viewers.

1 "Escape Velocity." Battlestar Galactica. Perf. James Callis; Dir. Michael Rymer. SCIFI, USA. 25 Apr 2008.
To try your luck at hearing all of the dialogue, along with getting a feel for blocking, this scene takes place about eighteen minutes in.
2 Arguably, this movement is still incredibly active. Instead of breaking the statues of the Gods and burning heretics, monotheistic missionaries go to the Third World and force the starving masses to convert with offers of food. Now, I consider giving food to starving people a good thing—let’s just keep religion out of it, all right? The last thing a traumatized tsunami victim needs is someone shoving a Bible in his her her face.
3 Sometimes Roman names for the Deathless Ones are used. Example: the Eye of Jupiter, a nebula. I have heard that some of these deviations from Roman names involve copyright issues, but cannot for the life of me remember who said this.
4No, really. I tried to find a copy of the Orphic Hymn to Zeus on the Internet (but not Taylor’s translation, which Romanizes the names) and found a web site that stated the following: “The hymns to Hercules, Jupiter, Thundering Zeus, Zeus Sabasius, and Zeus have been omitted as is the translator's prerogative.” I blame Zeus’s post-Feminist Movement image for this, as I checked Theoi.com’s E-texts to see if Taylor had omitted these for legitimate scholarly reasons, and found that his translation retains them.
Stewart-Avalon, Virginia. "The Orphic Hymns." The Sibylline Order: Sacred Texts. 8 Aug 2006. Sibylline Order. 27 Apr 2008.
Taylor, Thomas. “The Orphic Hymns 1-40.” Ed. Aaron J. Atsma. Theoi Greek Mythology. 2007. 27 Apr 2008.
5 “Even Demeter of Eleusis, like Artemis not naturally a war goddess, joined the action. Xerxes in his occupation of Attica burned the Telesterion at Eleusis, and Demeter in anger at the sacrilege sent before the battle of Salamis an omen favorable to the Greek forces and later denied the Persians refuge in her sanctuary near the battleground of Plataea.”
Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd., 2005), 169.
6 Atsma, Aaron J. "Heroes, Kings, & Villains." Theoi Greek Mythology. Atsma, 2007. 27 Apr 2008.
7 Ovid, “Ovid Fasti 5.229” trans. Boyle, in Theoi Greek Mythology. Atsma, 2007. 27 Apr 2008.
8 Veyne, Paul. Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes?: Essai sur l’imagination constituante. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1983.
There is no particular page that one can cite; it’s moreover a statement that comes from reading his argument.

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