Monday, 29 June 2015

Jupiter Ascending - The evolution of the secular gods

Jesus answered them "is it not written in your law 'I said, you are gods'?" 
John 10:34

Years ago, when I was in university, I had this desire to not so much review movies, but to critically analyse concepts that I picked up while watching them. I guess it had a lot to do with me studying English Literature and the realisation that I could take the same ideas and apply them to Hollywood movies. Okay, you may be wandering what one could possibly get out of Terminator II, but I have actually written a review and posted it on IMDB. However, that was back in the days before IMDB ever existed, so using my SMUG (Student Machine Users Group) account I created a basic webpage to catalogue my thoughts. Mind you, I doubt that website still exists, and even if it does it is floating somewhere deep in the web, cut off from the rest of the internet. A few years later a friend at church directed me to the website Hollywood Jesus which tries to get Christian meaning from Hollywood movies (while in many cases is not all that hard to do, it does depend on the movie: I doubt you are going to get any Christian meaning out of Debbie Does Dallas).
Anyway, I'm not writing this post to talk about my previous efforts at creating a webpage, or how I critically analyse movies the same way that English lecturers critically analyse books, but rather to explore a concept that has arisen out of some movies that I have seen recently: how the wealthy elite are being painted as gods. Look, this is not necessarily a new phenomena, there have always been a wealthy elite, whether they be the aristocracy claiming the divine right of kings, or the party that holds a tight grip on power in a totalitarian regime. However, I have recently encountered a couple of movies, In Time, and more recently, Jupiter Ascending, which seems to take this concept to a new level.
Before I delve into these two movies (and a couple of others), I first want to explore this idea by first looking at a couple of instances where European explorers have been mistaken for gods, then I would to have a look at the ancient world. I also wish to quickly touch on another movie that the makers of Jupiter Ascending also created, that being The Matrix. I also wish to look at Elysium where we see a 'heaven' created for the godlike elite to dwell. I then wish to conclude this discussion by exploring this idea and whether in fact the wealthy elite are truly all powerful gods, or whether they are basically mortal like the rest of us.

Jesus disputes the Pharasees

Humans as Gods

Jesus and the Jewish Rulers
In opening this post I have quoted a verse from the book of John where Jesus cites a passage from Psalm 82 during a debate with the Jewish leaders of the day. The full passage is as follows:
I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nethertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince."
There is some debate as to why Jesus was quoting this passage and what the original passage actually means. Mind you, suggesting that Jesus was debating the Jewish leaders is probably putting it a bit too lightly since the rulers were crying about blasphemy and wanting to throw some pretty chunky rocks at him. However, some have suggested that Jesus is implying that Christians are 'little gods'. Personally I think they are taking this out of context, however to understand it we need to consider the source of the quote: the psalm. A part of me feels that Jesus is being facetious, however when we see that the psalm is exhorting people to be just and merciful I wonder whether the psalmist is speaking to a ruling class. In a sense they have been granted power and authority by God, but God is reminding them that they are but mere mortal. In a sense that is true because the wealthy elite in many cases have authority over whole populations and their decisions can determine the fate of millions. This is why, I suggest, they are being urged to be just and merciful in their decisions. However, I am only speculating, and as I have suggested, maybe Jesus is being a little facetious towards the Jewish rulers of the day.

Hernan Cortez
It is interesting to note that there have been instances in history where Europeans meeting another civilisation for the first time have been welcomed as gods. When Hernan Cortez first encountered the Aztecs it has been suggested that they believed that he was the personification of their god Quetzalcoatl, a position that he welcomed since it enabled him to get close to the Aztec rulers and position himself for an invasion. This is not a surprising reaction, no so much that the Aztecs were ignorant people - they in fact were a very sophisticated society - it is just that Cortez appeared in metal armour with horses (two things the Aztecs had never seen before), and of course was white. 

Captain James Cook
When Captain Cook first arrived in Hawaii, the Hawaiians believed that he was their god Lono. According to their legends, Lono had appeared in human form, taught them their civilisation, and then left promising to return from across the sea in canoes. Okay, Cook's ship was probably a lot bigger than your average canoe, but once again we have a man of fair skin appearing in a ship bigger than anything they had ever seen before, so it is not surprising that their legends would have come to mind. Considering that a lot of these myths and legends were handed down by word of mouth, the Hawaiians, no doubt also sophisticated people, would have believed that this was their prophecy being fulfilled. Mind you, after attempting to leave to continue on their journey (they were seeking the legendary Northwest Passage - which at the time didn't exist) their ship ran into a bit of trouble, forcing them to return. Unfortunately for Cook everything went down hill from there as they ended up getting into a fight with the natives, a fight which resulted in Cook's death. However many of the natives still held him in high regard and give his body a burial fit for a king (or a god).

Man who would be king
Rudyard Kipling also penned a short story about a similar incident in Afghanistan. While the story itself is fictional considering the above there may have been some truth in it. The reason I doubt the authenticity of the tale is that while the Afghani people revere Alexander the Great, they are also Muslim which would suggest, at least to me, that they would not seek to enthrone a white man whom they believed to be a god. To me it simply does not seem to be characteristic of a monotheistic religion like Islam.

However, it is interesting how there seems to be these disparate stories of a returning god, which seems to reflect the belief of Christians that Jesus will one day return and remake society anew. However, it is also interesting that it was Europeans who were mistaken for gods while the Europeans never experienced the same misunderstandings. There are probably two reasons for this, the first being that it was the Europeans doing the exploring as opposed to them being discovered by another advanced society, and also they had pretty solid ideas that Jesus would no doubt be European in appearance. However, while these thoughts might be interesting, I think I will leave that for another time as all I wanted to touch upon here is the idea of how mortal humans have been mistaken for gods.

The Ancient Pantheons

I am sure we have all heard about how the Pharaohs of Egypt were venerated as gods, however what I want to touch upon is the mythology beyond this belief. You see, the gods that made up the Egyptian pantheon weren't a lose collection of individuals that identified with some force of nature but were inter-related through family connections (or at least most of them were). The Egyptians had a family tree for their gods. The major god, Osiris, was married to his sister Isis, had a bit of a fight with his brother Set, and gave birth to his son Horus. When Osiris was killed Horus inherited the throne, though Osiris took charge of the underworld.

The connections between the Pharaohs and the gods was that the Pharaohs were all descendants of the god Horus, who in turn was the son of Osiris. Thus because they were descended from gods they themselves held the mantle of godhood. Mind you, like Osiris, they also married their sisters, most likely because gods could only marry gods. However, the thing about the Egyptians is that while the Pharaoh was considered a god, the royal family and the nobility were not necessarily divinities in the same way. Granted, they were members of the ruling class, however Pharaoh had the ultimate say and nobody could challenge him (though Terry Prachett put a twist on this in his book Pyramids suggesting that while Pharaoh could issue commands only the priesthood could interpret those commands, meaning that if Pharaoh tried to go against the accepted order the priests would immediately reverse the decision - however, I doubt it could ever be known whether that was true or not).

It is interesting to consider this structure though because I suspect that this idea of being a direct descendant of Horus may suggest that the Egyptian pantheon were once living, breathing human beings, and the mythology of Set murdering Osiris and then being exiled into the desert may be based on fact. Another interesting proposition is that this came about through a form of ancestor worship. Okay, having spoken to a number of Africans, the term ancestor worship is a misnomer because while they may revere their ancestors (Africans hold a great amount of respect for their elders) they don't actually worship them as gods. However, if we consider that as generations passed, and the stories of the ancestors grew ever more distant, it is quite plausible that they move from simple reverence to raising them to godhood.

Ancient Greece
My suggestion with regards to the Egyptian Pantheon developing from a form of ancestor worship could also apply to the Ancient Greeks. The difference is that the Greek Mythology is a lot more developed than the Egyptian stories (or at least we know a lot more about them). However, unlike the Egyptians, Greek society was no where near as stratified as the Egyptians. In a way, as long as you were a citizen there was a sense of equality. Granted, if you were a slave, then you were effectively powerless, however, unlike the Egyptians, I feel that you may not have felt that you were a pawn in a game being played by a godlike nobility. In fact, slaves in Greece had much more freedom, and in some cases were much more educated than those in Egypt (or at least that is my impression, though I could be quite wrong - to me Egyptian slavery conjures images of thousands of people dragging massive stone blocks across the desert being whipped by slave masters, while in Greece I picture people cleaning the house, doing the shopping, and even participating in philosophical discussions, but I digress).

Now, the thing with the Greek gods is while they were divine they didn't necessarily behave as it they were divine. For instance they would fight amongst themselves, display jealousy (particularly Hera), commit adultery (especially Aphrodite) and punish innocent people for being victims (as is the case of Io who was punished for being raped by Zeus). In a sense, they appeared to be little more that a bunch of humans that lived in the heavens who had immense control over the forces of nature. The people of Greece didn't offer sacrifices to them in the sense that the Jews offered sacrifices, but rather they were more like bribes to sway them to act in a certain way. For instance Agamemnon offered up his daughter Iphigenia to convince Zeus to calm the weather so that they could sail to Troy. There are at least four accounts of Zeus lusting over an Earthly woman, and then going and having his way with them, only for the woman to be punished by Hera for tempting Zeus.

In a way they seem to be behaving little more than a ruling class. This is why I suspect that the Greek gods may have at one stage been real people and over time, as the stories that they left became more distant, their nature ceased to be that of human ancestors and instead become gods. Even some of the heroes who lived during the age of legends (that of the period of Theseus, Helen of Troy, and Hercules) ended up being worshipped as gods. If indeed, far back in the mists of pre-history, Zeus and his cohorts were human kings and queens, the people who remembered the stories and passed them down from generation to generation would no doubt have been from the lower classes, and while they were human, to these lower classes they would have been as gods.

The Senators Encircle Ceaser

Rome and her Emperors
Rome ended up borrowing her pantheon of gods from the Greeks, though in many cases they were a fairly secular society really only paying lip service to the gods. However when Rome shifted from a republic to a dictatorship a new religion started taking shape - emperor worship. It basically began when Augustus Caesar elevated his adopted father to the status of a god, and also deified certain members of the senate (since it would not have been proper for non-Romans to worship Caesar). Upon his death Augustus was also deified, as was Tiberius (though when we get to Caligula and Nero they dispensed with the deification and decided that only good emperors were entitled to such an honour). Interestingly the Roman emperors did not drift into pre-history so did not attain the status of the Greek Gods, even though they were worshipped as gods. No doubt this is because a lot of the recorded history of Rome was preserved during the dark ages, and also Christianity became the dominant religion and rejected Emperor worship. However, that did not mean that the Christians did not engage in their own form of deification, and we still see that today with the various saints.

I raise this because I have stated earlier that I have a belief that the gods of the Greeks and the Egyptians were at one stage humans who through the passage of time went from being human to being gods. What we see with Rome, and to an extent Christianity, is that there are instances where humans, after death, are granted a divine status, and as such, after a time, end up being worshipped as gods.

However, while this is all interesting, and I have been outlining areas where humans have been made divine, that is not necessarily the purpose of my post since my original intention was to paint a picture of how the upper classes can, to those in the lower classes, be seen, and in some cases worshipped, as gods. I will now jump to three movies where I wish to touch upon this idea, and then finish off with looking out our contemporary society.

Modern Literature

The Matrix
I'm sure many of us have seen this film, especially since it won 4 Oscars and grossed over $171 million dollars in the US alone. I have already written a review of this movie (though the original review was written years ago so please forgive my poor use of grammar and atrocious writing style). While the theme behind The Matrix may not strictly fall into what I am writing about here, I do wish to touch upon it because a) the creators of Jupiter Ascending also created The Matrix and b) the themes behind Jupiter Ascending also touch upon the themes in this film.

The basic theme behind the Matrix is that the world in which we are living in an illusion and we simply exist to feed an alien intelligence who keeps us enslaved in this reality. The hero, Neo, is offered the choice between waking up and seeing the truth or remaining asleep in the illusion. One interesting thing that I encountered though was a discussion by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek who questions why there has to be only two pills - why cannot there be a third pill. The reason he says this is because both pills end up putting you in a bad situation - a reality that is little more than an illusion but in which you are a slave, or a reality that is basically hell and while you may be free you are still quite powerless.

Some have suggested that The Matrix has a number of Christian themes running through it in that we wilfully blind ourselves to reality and live our days oblivious to the truth: the Christian reality that exists just beyond our senses. I even when to a church where they played this film at the youth group and had a Bible study around it afterwards. However these days I have grave concerns about this interpretation of the Matrix. Granted, the film paints the picture of us being enslaved to a world which is an illusion and that we need to break through that illusion to attempt to grasp the reality. The problem with the reality in the Matrix is that first of all it is horrific, secondly we are powerless, and thirdly, in the end, it is probably better that we remain asleep.

Yet this can apply to the world in which we live today because in many cases we live our lives day to day, going to work, going home, attempting to save what meagre earnings we receive so that one day we may 'retire', a goal that seems to be getting further and further away from younger and younger generations. In a sense we are living in the illusion that if we work hard we will be able to earn enough money so that we might be able to enjoy life before we get too old. In a way it is a story that is being painted for us by the upper classes who, like the Aliens in The Matrix, feed off of our consumerist nature. They continue to produce things for us to purchase, and if we cannot afford to purchase them we take out debt, and then we have to service that debt, which means that we have to continue to work. In many ways it is a vicious cycle, and also an elaborate illusion that keeps them in power and us enslaved.

In Time
Okay, this film was nowhere near as popular as The Matrix, particularly since it didn't win any Oscars, though its world-wide box office taking was $175 million dollars (which meant that it did make a tidy profit, but nowhere near The Matrix, which was more like $463 million dollars). Anyway, like The Matrix, I have also written a review of this film, and considering that this review was written in November 2011 I do hope that the grammar and the style is much better (and I think my tag line may he better than theirs - mine is 'in the future, time is money' whereas theirs is 'his crime wasn't stealing time, his was giving it away').

Anyway, this film was the first film I watched where I picked up the idea of the wealthy being a race of gods, or at least godlike beings. The basic plot is that in the future humanity has developed the ability to cease to age after 25. However there is a catch - you only have a year left to live. Everybody has a clock on their forearm which tells them how much time they have left, and when they clock reaches zero you basically keel over and die. Anyway, that time has become currency meaning that if you want to live and earn more time you have to work, however you are not working just to give yourself extra time, but also too feed, clothe, and house yourself. The thing is that this time is currency which means that even if you get yourself an extra 24 hours after working an eight hour day, you still need to purchase stuff such as food, pay the rent and, if you are lucky, entertain yourself.

The thing is that while the working class is working a hand to mouth existence and don't know if they are going to see the next morning, the wealthy have so much time that they can literally live forever. The thing is that they have created this system so that they can basically be immortal yet keep the lower classes enslaved. In fact the various districts are divided by walls and to pass through these walls you need to pay a toll, which means that if you are poor you will never be able to get out of the district in which you live.

So, while there is enough time for everybody to live a full and rewarding life, they have created the illusion that they cannot be generous with their time. Their argument is that if the working classes have too much time then they will have no need to work, which means that the economy will collapse. As such, to keep civilisation running they need to be given the incentive to work, and that incentive is that if they do not work then they die.

Once again we see here the idea of the wealthy elite being painted in almost a god like fashion. They are in effect immortal and the lower classes are effectively enslaved. The villain of the piece has a million years under his belt. In a way the arguments that they use in this film are similar to the situation today. For society to function we must work, but more so, we need to spend money. If we cease spending money the economy will ground to a halt. Where the society in In Time functioned through forcing people to work, our society functions on the need for the population to spend money. Wealth is created through companies making a profit, and the profit can only be made when people are spending more money. If a company doesn't make enough of a profit (as I have discovered recently) the companies' share price is punished. In a way it is a vicious cycle, and one method they have created to generate the illusion of ever greater profits is a tool called inflation. By causing prices to increase at a set amount it means that a company's profit grows, and to keep these profits growing you need to continue to inflate the value of goods and services.

Okay, I was only going to write about three films with similar themes, however as I was writing about In Time I suddenly realised that this film also falls into the same category. Well, like In Time, it didn't win any awards, but it did make a tidy profit of $286 million dollars world wide (and we do need to put it into context considering that it cost $115 million dollars to produce). Like the other two movies, I have also written a review of this one (which is not surprising since I have watched it - twice). Anyway, for those who have not seen it I recommend that you do, especially if you like science fiction (but then if you like science fiction I would be a little surprised if you haven't seen this film).

The film is, not surprisingly, set in the future where the uber rich have left the Earth and live on a space station called Elysium while the rest of the population live in an increasingly overpopulated planet inhabited by the working classes. The story is about a man, Max, who dreams of travelling to Elysium however drifted to the wrong side of the law and spent time in gaol and now works in a job where he manufactures the robots that become the law enforcers on Earth. However, after an industrial accident that leaves him with a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, he decides to risk everything for a chance to get to Elysium where medical technology exists to provide him with a cure.

While there are quite a lot of challenging themes about social inequality in this film it once again is the godlike aspect of the wealthy elite that I wish to point out. Once again we have the wealthy elite having access to medical technology that can effectively cure all diseases while the rest of the population must scramble for what is available to them. However, in Elysium we don't have them living being baracades that separate them from the lower classes, but now in a space station that separates them from the rest of the world. The name Elysium comes from the Ancient Greek version of heaven which is a place where the great heroes go to after they die and is no doubt where our modern ideas of heaven originate. In a sense with them inhabiting a paradise in the stars with an almost uncrossable gulf separating them from the rest of the world, and possessing technology that allows them to fight off death once again paints a god-like picture of these people.

The inhabitants of Elysium even separate themselves from the Earth's population by giving themselves special citizenship status. Their machines will not work on anybody that does not have the mark of a citizen, nor is registered in their database. Further, they are the bosses and the owners of production on Earth, thus taking the role of rulers. However, while Max may dream of one day reaching Elysium and living among the gods (the space station is forever visible from Earth, though impossible to reach) it becomes clear pretty quickly that this will never happen. The citizens of Elysium, while painting a picture of the possibility of one day being able to live among them, no doubt hold access to citizenship tightly so that their paradise may not be spoiled by the unruly mob living on the Earth below.

Jupiter Ascending
Now I come to Jupiter Ascending. At the time of this writing it is still in the cinemas so I am not able to give any details of how well this film has done, though at this stage it receives a rating of 5.9 on IMDB (or at least that was what it was at the time of writing). This suggests that the film has not gone down all that well, though there are still a number of people (such as myself) that did enjoy it. Rotten Tomatoes really doesn't seem to like it all that much with the audience giving it a rating of 47% and the critics 24%. Mind you, I generally pay little to no attention to the critics and if I want to see a movie, I go and see it.

Jupiter Ascending

Anyway, the story behind Jupiter Ascending is that our heroine, Jupiter, is a girl of very humble origins who suddenly discovers that she is in fact an intergalatic queen. This suddenly thrusts her into a world that is hidden from the eyes of the everyday human, a world of galactic politics ruled by a family of immortals.

The thing about Jupiter is that she is not so much the descendant of this queen, but rather she is the genetic duplicate of her, which pretty much makes her the same person. The problem is that her children do not like the fact that she has returned so are trying various means, including assassination attempts and disinheritance, to put her out of the way. Okay, they are human, they admit as such, but their technological ability has enabled them to live forever. There is a catch, their immortality is tied to the ability to reinvigorate their genes, and they do this by creating planets of sentient humans that they then harvest when their populations grow to a point where they are about to develop interstellar travel.

Once again we see an element of the rich and powerful reaching a godlike status, and in a way having godlike powers. Unlike Elysium and In Time, the elite in Jupiter Ascending, while being human, are not humans from Earth, but rather the ones who originally populated the planet. Of further interest, they have developed technology that allows them to create life - planets like Earth aren't colonised in the way that the British Empire colonised other lands, but rather they seed the planets by genetically altering existing species (in the case of Earth it was the Neanderthals) so that they can develop in a way that in the distant future they will become useful for their purposes.

We also see here the holding back of technology. Despite humanity's ability to develop and grow, these rulers make sure that their power cannot be challenged, and they do that by invading the planet at that time when they are threatened by the development of intersteller travel. They do not care about culture or art - that is not important because to them these planets are inhabited no so much by lesser beings, but rather by cattle that one day will be harvested.

'Nevertheless, like me, you shall die'
So, I have looked at four movies as well as some Ancient Cultures and other examples of humans being elevated to gods, so I guess the question is what is the point? Well, at times I have wondered, being an Australian, if we are 'like gods' to people of the developing world. In a way I would say yes, but in a way I would suggest otherwise. The only country that I have been to where I would feel like this would be Thailand, and in a way I did get the impression, while visiting a couple of pubs in the Nada district, that there was a distinct gap between the wealth that I have and the poverty of many of the locals. Granted, the Nada district is a pretty sleazy part of Bangkok, but it also seems to be a place where the rich and the poor meet, and the poor offer themselves to the rich for whatever crumbs can be thrown to them. Okay, I am not rich in any sense of the word, however the two nights that I spent in Bangkok put things into a much different perspective.

It is similar as I wander the streets of Melbourne seeing the beggars sitting at the side of the road with their caps in their laps. While we walk past going about our daily business, working to earn enough money to make sure that us and our families can live a comfortable life, they sit there in the hope that some small change will land in their hands. Look, I am not going to go into the argument as to whether they use that money for drugs or to actually get a bite to eat, but it does make me think, and challenges me, whenever I see one of them sitting on the footpath.

However, it has also been suggested that the wealthy live in a world of their own. We Australians live in a land that is held up under the rule of law. Many of us have food on our tables and a roof over our heads - and those roofs are of very good design. If we leave our shores we go to countries were this is not the case. People live in flimsy shelters scavenging food from the rubbish dumps - even in Australia the beggars know where food can be found, usually in the dumpsters out the back of the shopping centres.

Yet are the wealthy gods - are we gods? Those of us in the middle class may not feel like it, but once we step out of our middle class existence we enter into a completely different world, a world that could almost be considered hell. We live a comfortable lifestyle, and many of us blind ourselves to the absolute hell that grinding poverty creates. However, if we go up the ladder we see an even more different world - a world that shuts itself off from even the middle class, a world that is blind to the true struggles that the middle class faces, a world that seeks to enslave the middle class through the use of debt.

Yet we in the middle class work to elevate those of the upper classes to the status of godhood. Okay, we in Australia may not worship our politicians, but many of us see hope in the promises that they offer. We have our heroes and our idols, whether they be musicians, actors, or sports people. Some of them may only experience fame for a short time before they are stripped of their status, while others ascend to immortality through their death - Elvis is a great example.

However, despite their almost godlike status, in the end they are human beings - they live and they die, and in many cases they are oblivious of their adoring fans. Sure, they may live a luxurious lifestyle in Beverley Hills mansions, but their fans can only ever catch a glimpse through their barred gates and high walls. Sure, when our team wins the grand final, we may be ecstatic, but in the end what does it mean? Nothing really - we go to bed happy and then wake up the next morning to do it all over again. In the end, they may be like gods, but they die just like all of us mere mortals.

Creative Commons License
Jupiter Ascending - The evolution of the secular gods by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.

Horus Standing source: Jeff Dahl, use permitted under creative commons attribution-share alike 4.0 international 
Jesus Disputes the Pharasees source: Philip Medhurst, use permitted under creative commons attribution-share alike 3.0 unported

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