An Morrígan and Sarah Connor: Pt.3 Our Gods and Heroes in Pop Culture

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If we’re going to talk about Pop Culture in Paganism, I think we should discuss the flip side, Paganism in Pop Culture. Given my own interests, I’m going to stick with the Gaelic Gods and heroes in movies, TV and related media. Novels would make  it such a huge undertaking that I can’t even begin to think about it other than a couple of mentions. Really, I’m going to just skim the surface here, because there’s a lot out there already. And all of it goes from sucking to really, really sucking.

Some are optimistic about Pop Culture depictions of the literature, Gorm Sionnach finds hope that greater positive interest might be gained by more modern exposure to the stories. On the Norse side of things, where there has been as Gorm Sionnach also noted much more exposure, Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried expresses a positive opinion of the Marvel Thor comics, as well as discusses the continued popularity of Norse mythology in Pop Culture. Certainly the series Vikings has met with much positive reactions among Heathens, although I have seen snipes in various groups along with the praise. And there is no denying that the many decades of Tolkien’s popularity has been a “gate-way drug” for many into Heathen ways.

Of course, one of the things I think I personally like about Tolkien’s work is that he based his based his stories on the lore and cultures, yet the “names have been changed to protect the ancient.” That sort of fictionalization I’m a bit more comfortable with. Do with it as you will, but skip the actual names.

Over the past few years there has been much talk of movies based on Cú Chulainn and the Táin Bó Cúailnge. One attempt, Hound by Breakthru Films, appears to have been “on hold” for about three years. It’s unclear what the future is. Michael Fassbender was talking plans for a movie as well, last year, apparently with his 30something self playing the boy Cú Chulainn.  Depicting Cú Chulainn as an adult is likely going to be only part of the problem. I, of course, am just so looking forward to more misogyny thrown at Medb. (you really did catch the sarcasm there, right? At this point I don’t want to be too subtle).  And that is, of course, as far as even scholars get to so I don’t expect any film writer to do much better. (for an academic look that doesn’t do this, see my review of Dominiguez’s book and then see the book. I also discuss this a bit in ‘“By Force in the Battlefield”: Finding the Irish Female Hero’ publication pending)

There have been, of course, several novelizations of the story, I’m just not going to try to round them all up. Morgan Llewellyn’s perhaps the most famous. There is also a new graphic novel by Will Sliney, Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn also with an oddly adult looking, but thankfully beardless, CC. Of course, Medb is a pencil with boobs in a painted on bodiced dress…so period.  Considering the rich descriptions given in the Táin itself, you’d think an artist would actually have some fun using those descriptions. I don’t get it, this is just standard comic book art, at its most sexist at that.

This is not to say there aren’t modern pop culture depictions I haven’t enjoyed. I quite love the power and atmosphere that Horslips created in their album The Tain even if some points could be picked apart. This album just hits me in the feels real hard. However, I fear that when compared to such musical attempts that these movies will be more in line with the truly horrid The Tain album by The Decemberists complete with Andy Smetanka’s equally horrid video...although at least CC looks like the boy not an adult man.Of course, my love for one and dislike of the other may also just show that I’m old. Well, okay, so there was one I liked.

There is also another movie, The Curse of Macha, which is supposed to come out sometime this year. It seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the story it’s titled for, perhaps fortunately. I have also heard that a Finn Mac Cumhail movie and/or graphic novel is being made. It remains to be seen what any of these projects will become.

I suppose when it comes to a big reason why I doubt that a lot of Pop Culture exposure is going to have a positive resonation for Gaelic Paganism has to do with what’s happened so far. We can, of course, look to the more “mainstream” Pagan, with it’s Wiccan and Witchy focus, and the fun they’ve had with newbees coming in with their heads filled with The Craft and Charmed during the ’90s (and probably still). But I can look closer to home.

While Gorm Sionnach is hopeful to see more of the Morrígan in the upcoming American Gods series, I am hoping that She is not going to be expanded. Of course, American Gods is one of the few novels featuring Gods which I rather love (and here’s the first place I get to mention Linda Hamilton, as she mentioned it as one of her favorite novels of all time during the panel discussion at Chicago Comiccon 2010, making us co-fangirls!), as I think it raises some interesting questions, and I didn’t utterly hate his depiction of Her although I’m glad it was brief just in case. That means I have issues with the HBO series because of a tendency to hate movies based on novels I love. But, no, She’s rather been used and abused too much in pop culture, in my opinion.

“Morrigan” either as title or name and always mispronounced (although in the same way most Pagans also do) is actually real popular in pop culture. I’ve already ranted on, a good bit, about DC Comics Wonder Woman depiction in what is, sadly, my most popular post. In comics the title, along with some of the other Túatha Dé Danann have appeared in Marvel…apparently a bit more positively.

Morrigan Aensland in Darkstalkers

If you Google “Morrigan” the first links and images you will get do not relate to the Goddess at all, but to the green-haired, bat-winged succubus from the video game Darkstalkers. She was born in Scotland 300 years ago. I’m not sure anyone is at this point confusing her with the Goddess. But that may be coming.

Dragon Age
In Dragon Age

It has happened with another popular game character with the name, a mortal shape-shifting witch in the game Dragon Age. Doesn’t seem too confusing, does it?  A few days ago, while gathering material for this post I came across a very popular page for the Goddess, which along with a great deal of general Pagan fluff and misinformation about Her, had an entry about “Morrigan” the “daughter of Flemeth” and so forth. Presented, and shared I saw, as if it was information about the Goddess. Yes, no confusion there. Mind you, not that much more inaccurate that many other Pagan writings about Her but…

In Xena and Hercules

On TV we have had a “Morrigan” show up in Xena and Hercules. And here we again can look at another example. I think we might want to ask how much many Hellenic Reconstructionists loved these shows liberties with their Gods on a regular basis. Which means I suppose I shouldn’t bitch too much about the inventiveness they took with the pan-Celtic mishmash they added later.  Yes, all in campy fun. But the truth is, I still meet up with people who confuse the shows’ “mythology” withe actual Greek mythology, which has long been available. Again, not real hopeful that confusion isn’t an issue.

In Sanctuary

More recently there was Sanctuary‘s depiction of three enslaved sisters used against King Arthur, that typical and mistaken conflation with Morgan. Also, Scottish rather than Irish, so perhaps Darkstalkers comprised some of their research too.


Lost Girl
In Lost Girl

Also on the SyFy channels is a show I really would like to have liked. Lost Girl, after all, has one of the few bisexual main characters found in the mainstream media. Of course, she’s a succubus, which brings it’s own issues for me.  There is also the matter that (here we are again) Linda Hamilton appeared this past season and is scheduled to appear again. As a Valkyrie, apparently.  I really want to love anything she’s in. And I did watch the episode and she was great in it and looked awesome….love leather jackets, so…  But the general liberties taken with a plethora of folk legends and lore are annoying even before coming to the fact that “the Morrigan” is the title given to the leader of the Dark Fae, one of the two groups trying to get Bo, the lead character, to take sides. *sigh* Really?

Of course, I’m just a downer on this stuff, even when it’s just the culture and not the Gods or legendary heroes. I have issues with anachronisms and out right inventions made out to be history or lore. I have already blasted the way the Picts are, well, depicted in CenturionI could do the same with other movies, such as King Arthur. I adore Brave, but largely despite it being placed in Scotland….it could have been placed in any place or time.

While more knowledge about the Gaelic cultures in our mainstream might be nice, I think that any story using our beloved literature or history will be muddied with what sells. While I know some are bothered by Pagans who use Pop Culture icons in their practice due to it being commercial property, I am far more worried about our culture and lore being made into commercial property.  Of course, in either case what will be will be. More people will still know “Morrigan Aensland” than will know the Daughters of Ernmas and some will confuse Them with the daughter of “Flemeth.”  Perhaps at some point someone will do a really good rendition of one of our stories. But I fear, I remain pessimistic on that.

If you have missed them the first two installments were Part 1: Deities and Icons and Part 2: Warrior Cults and Charm Schools.
I also have added Part 4: Training

 Text copyright © Saigh Kym Lambert 
Art from linked pages owned by the licensed owner and used here for critique purposes

Movie Review: Brave

While all around me went *squee* upon first hearing about this Pixar/Disney film set in Scotland with a feisty redheaded lead, I just sat back and waited. I try not to get my hopes up when it comes to movies with either strong female characters or set in Gaelic culture, let alone both. But all the hype had a certain charm.

There seem to be many feminists who take it to task for two things, often both. One the “why does the heroine have to be a princess?”  Of course, marketing is the answer, and culture programs the populace for certain marketing codes to work. And in our society “princess” is a strong marketing tool when aiming at young girls. Of course, Disney is largely responsible for the programming to begin with.

I have no problem with it though, largely because if you’re going to subvert a concept you need to use the concept, and this does twist the concept quite impressively. In fact, even more than I had hoped. Certainly the concept of rebelling against social norms and gender expectations could be done in a story of a young peasant girl, these issues certainly bridged all classes, unfortunately. However, “princess” does sell and it allowed for certain story devices which would have been much different otherwise. We’ll get to the peasant girls’ stories at some point. (and I’m not talking the peasant girl who becomes a princess standard).  In fact, we have that this year as well in The Hunger Games.

This actually brings us to a second complaint I have seen made by other feminists: Why in order to be seen as strong must female characters have to just be rebelling against societal expectations of women?  To me this the answer is pretty self-evident ….because we do have to! Still, today.  So why should we have a story set in Medieval Scotland where it’s not a problem. I’ve already discussed my belief that pretending that we had equality in the past that we, in fact, did not have such equality doesn’t really do anything to move us forward.  I do believe that as girls growing up today are still getting horrible messages about their role in life, it helps for them to have heroines who actively fight such convention. This is not to say it doesn’t also help to have role models who live in worlds where such conventions do not exist, but I do not believe we can set those in a past which, in fact, very much did. Again, this year we got another young archer (don’t you wish you owned an archery shop right now?) who lived in such a world in The Hunger Games.

One of the things we need, in general, are more stories with strong young female warriors, that way all these issues can get covered. And stories with more strong female characters in them. But we can’t complain when sometimes these things don’t happen in all movies because we’ll always find it falling short somewhere.

I think the important part is while we have a princess, she’s not pining for her prince to come, in fact, that is exactly what she doesn’t want to happen. When the princes to come-a-courting, none are anything to pine for (although one thinks he is and we’ll come back to an issue with him and his father). But while the depiction adds humor, perhaps having one truly dashing who she still didn’t want would have worked just a bit better for me. She wants her own freedom, she challenges for her own hand.

But the real story isn’t about romance or denying romance, but rather on subversion of another Disney Princess story trope…the Mommy Issues. There is no Wicked Stepmother who must be thwarted here, there is a loving mother who is suffering in her own ways over the battle with her willful daughter. This isn’t about a family torn asunder by the death of the loving parents, but rather by the issues at hand. And this is a story about healing those tears. With literal use of symbolism of it. I see this as a rather touching subversion.

And this too is another reason I see the rebelling against convention aspect important. Because this isn’t just about giving a role model to girls but also I believe it speaks to parents. Because today many are still pushing unhealthy gender conventions. Conventions which are neither good for the future women girls are becoming but also often get in the way of them being the daughters they should be with the kind of parents they need.

Merida with her horse Angus from Brave

I have a couple of quibbles. Okay, there could probably be more, as any movie set in a culture I care about but really the ones that stuck out were the woad and the horse. I think I already say enough about The Problem of the Woad already, but I have to say here, whether you believe it was ever used or not, it’s just an annoying anachronistic Scottish trope now (thank you Mel Gibson).

Okay, so the horse, Angus, was cute. And I realize that Clydesdales are the most recognizable Scottish horse now. But it’s a very modern breed, as Clydesdale originates only to the early 1800s. Yes, that source claims that they derived from knights’ chargers, as this is a common myth that the film and so many others take to heart. The problem it, it’s not remotely true.

“As for the large draft breeds. Most people who read this will know that the Belgians, Shires, Percherons and other really large draft breeds were bred as beasts of burden and not to be knight’s great horses, but I’ll repeat that fact anyway. The Great Horse of the middle ages was not a draft animal. Heavy draft horses are not intended to run fast, or carry big men in armor. They are bred to be steady and pull heavy objects such as a plow through thick clay to turn a field, or heavy dray wagons. They have a plodding gait and simply are not fast enough.”  Medieval Horse Guild

The draft horse is derived from the Medieval rouncey type horse, the farm horse owned by farmers not nobles. A fine animal, smaller at that time (likely much like current draft ponies than the big guys) but not a charger. The charger was usually a clean legged horse, such as Andalusians, as can be seen in the art of the period. The exception is the feather-legged Friesian which is not a draft type at all despite the hairy feet. And there were a lot of different horses in Medieval Europe, including Scotland, most likely the type of horse ridden by Angus would have been different than he would have provided for Merida. Yes, Angus is cute. But so are Highland Ponies (which are, actually, probably also mostly from the rouncey) and the Icelandic which was possibly a very popular type throughout much of Europe before the gaited horse lost favor (and despite the link above, is actually the classic palfrey type). Or a fine charger if we wanted the horse to show her rebelling by riding one not deemed proper for a lady as a palfrey would have been (although “palfrey” does not mean “slow” or “unspirited”).

So yeah, I went off on a tangent that most probably see as trivial because horses are kind of a big deal for me and I’m often annoyed. I managed to avoid going into it too much in the Centurion review because there was so many other things to complain about.

On the other hand, the hounds delighted me. I also loved seeing the Pictish stones this time around, as much as they annoyed me in Centurion. That is about anachronisms too, they wouldn’t have existed in the time period of that movie, while some would have dotted the landscape in Merida’s time (although others would already have been buried from sight). It just seemed touching to me.

The modern, but cute, draft horses and woaded MacIntoshes aside, I utterly loved this movie and if I had a daughter would be thrilled if she loved it. I think there’s some reminders here for those who are raising daughters about control and conventions that still exist, as well. And it’s fun, which is an important bit if it’s going to convey all the lessons it strives to.

And, yeah, I really kinda wish I owned an archery shop right now. I hear there’s a sales boom going on.

 copyright © Saigh Kym Lambert

Movie Review: Centurion

I’ve avoided watching this movie for a year and a half, after nearly seeing in the theater with the director Neil Marshall and one of the actresses, his wife Axelle Carolyn. I did see their panel at the Chicago 2010 ComicCon the next day. I admit some bias against the film, which makes me sad as I like some of Marshall’s work. Yes, I am actually a fan of the generally loathed film Doomsday, I very much like The Decent and Dog Soldiers is not the worse werewolf movie ever, although I’d have hoped for more from a werewolf movie set in Scotland. While I know not to expect much from werewolf movies, I have learned to expect far less from movies about the “Picts.”

You’d think, of course, that a movie with painted up female Pictish warriors would be right up my alley, but this couldn’t be more wrong in my book. Of course, while I do love the idea of women warriors among Celtic people and I do think that they can be done in fiction, I think much care needs to be used in how it is done. We need to balance out the foolish fantasies of it being a usual thing and look as to where and how such women might have been found.

There were other issues I could see before seeing this movie, and seeing it doesn’t help. One is the woad thing, I stand by my belief that this is a fiction, but I also understand it’s a long standing one and people won’t give it up easily. This goes with the “limed hair” or at least with what that would mean. I do hope that some people out there realize that lime is extremely caustic and no one would use it to “gel” their hair, it would quickly remove the hair and tanners actually use lime precisely for that. The reference (para. 28) to the Gauls doing so seems to refer to the damage done just by using lime water, briefly, to wash the hair, much the same as lye soap can do. It certainly wouldn’t have looked like a pile of bird poo on top of the unbleached hair. This movie takes the cake in the stupidest depiction of “limed hair.” And ickiest.

And dreadlocks. Now, I’m going to say that Carolyn and Olga Kurylenko look very cool, in a punk warrior woman sort of way, they might have looked great in, say, Doomsday, and Kurylenko especially seems to be a popular avatar on my FB flist. ButOlga Kurylenko it’s hardly accurate of the “Picts.” The Celtic people (and I do believe they were Celtic speaking, but of a P-Celtic not the modern Gaelic they are depicted as speaking in this movie) of what is now Scotland would have been contemporary to other Celtic people. Which would mean textiles, stunning metal work and all. In fact, we know they had quite a good bit of nice metal work. They probably were also extremely into good grooming, as it does seem to have been a big thing for the Celtic people overall, and likely never would have had dreadlocks. Later periods certainly showed such concerns in the stone work, just check out the curls on the first “king” here (yes, this is at least 9th century, but I just love the hair on this).

Speaking of time periods, put “Picts” in quotes because these would not likely been known as Picts because the event this story, if it happened which it didn’t, would have happened in 117 ce (and therefore why do the call the governor Julius Agricola who died in 98 ce, having been recalled from Britain before that) and the term “Pict” was not recorded prior to 297 ce. Before that they probably were known by tribal names.

But “tribe” should not make one think “savage” as the depiction here shows, they were a sophisticated people. We have them shown as stereotypical savage and that’s the role they’re used for. They are politically correct “Savage Indians” apparently; after all, no one can really claim to be of a living Pictish culture (well, aside from Robbie, I suppose) to complain. That Marshall has actually admitted this much in mind boggling, but he seems quite proud of it. That an actor who played a “Pict” in the movie, one who loves all things Pictish too (which makes me question how he can defend this movie beyond “I needed a paycheck”) , said to me on FB that the Picts were “just like your Native Americans” I suppose brings up it up on the “Noble Savage” angle, which is just as stereotypical and insulting an image for both Native Americans and the memory of the Picts. (and while I might hold out a bit for the Noble Savage myself, I see it in the Outlaw Warrior bands, not the society …and I admit, nobility might have been rare)

Of course, as the “Picts” are the “bad Indians” here, the Roman main character (Michael Fassbender) is the “Good Cowboy.” Like the old Westerns, I find it hard to cheer for said fucking cowboy. The Romans were invaders, perpetrators of genocide, I do not consider anything about their occupation of Britain as noble or good. If the 9th Legion had been slaughtered, which they weren’t then I’d consider it a good thing. (Actually, this is thought never to have happened, instead they were transferred to Germany.) But we’re supposed to be cheering for the Roman protagonist here. Really?

All this was stuff I could have written before seeing the movie. So, how was the movie?

Boring. I have to say just plain boring, other than how annoyingly stupid it was. I was surprised by this, I had expected a lot of action and to say “at least it was a usual Marshal romp of activity.” But it wasn’t. And I don’t think it was just because I could not sympathize with the Romans, it was just horribly paced and lacked any real action. Even the usual Marshall Gorn wasn’t there. Seriously, you had people hacking other people up, the mighty heroic Romans even having to look away at one point, and …meh. Not remotely gory. Seriously? I don’t think I was the only one who had trouble staying awake, I think everyone who made it must have slept through the film.

I’d be interAxelle Carolyn and a horse that had no choice about being in this movieested in seeing how someone involved in Roman interests would view the actions of the Romans. I thought they seemed outstandingly stupid. The entire chase was both boring and boggling as I wondered why the hell they weren’t caught in the very beginning or just found frozen to death when the all sleep out in the wind. Supposedly Etain (Kurylenko) is this super badass tracker, the “Picts” are on horseback, the Romans acting like idiots yet they continue to stay ahead. Seriously, the movie shouldn’t have lasted so long. *yawn*

Oh, speaking of “on horseback” do I even need to mention that the horse types were wrong, which at this point can almost be forgiven as they usually are, and the saddles are way wrong which really can’t be forgiven. We know exactly what Roman saddles were like and what ever the “Picts” might have ridden in I can guarantee you did not have fucking stirrups. I am so sick of seeing anachronistic stirrups. And, as in most movies, few of the riders could actually ride, so it’s good the horses were way over sized or they’d have been unhappy with all that bouncing about.

Just to add a bit more to seriously hate about this movie, we go into the Big Bad Wolf trope, where wolves are shown to be man-eaters. Which people with an IQ above a turnip should know they are not. This is, sadly making a comeback, I guess we should expect it to come with more “Savage Indian” examples in the future. It’s all cool, irrational hate is apparently the in thing.

We of course also have the Helpful Indian Maiden (Imogen Poots) who is nearly a Magical Native American, or rather Pict, except she’s only accused of practicing witchcraft. True to form, she and the Good Cowboy “have feelings.”

So, what about those women warriors? Again, they looked sort of cool. In stills. Sadly, neither was convincing when the action came about, but they, and their stunt doubles, may just have been asleep. The fight scene with Kurylenko was just horrible and unrealistic even from my view point (remember, I liked Doomsday),because she just wasn’t moving they way it seemed she was supposed to. Neither she nor Carolyn appeared comfortable in their bodies. Perhaps this is linked, at least for Carolyn, in her apparent belief that women and men are physically so different that they can’t fight the same, a belief she expressed at the ComicCon panel. This was a sad set back from a director who gave us Rhona Mitra and Lee-Anne Liebenberg, both strong women who know how to move, in Doomsday. While I sometimes see potential for actresses to do better action roles when stuck in such a dismal movie, neither Carolyn nor Kurylenko would be names that would make me have much hope for a good warrior film. They seemed totally out of their element. The assumptions around them seemed to be that it was normal, there seemed to be a few other female “Picts” (hard to tell on my small screen).

Kurylenko’s Etain had a Rape and Revenge backstory while Carolyn’s Aeron seemed to “just be there” (in more ways than one, as, again, she just seemed to be sleep walking through the action). Mind you, I love the idea of multiple female warriors in a movie and I’ve been thinking about writing something on the need for varying reasons for a woman to become a warrior to be included in a single movie. The problem here, however, is that while it’s a popular fantasy, there is no evidence that female warriors were considered normal in any early Celtic culture, including those of what is now Scotland. I believe they existed, I could happily watch a well done movie with them (please, someone make one!) but there would need to make some point of why they might exist in such a culture.

I should note, however, none of the male-on-male fight scenes were really any better than the women fighting. Considering the plot, there wasn’t a lot of action in the action in the movie. Did I mention everyone seems to be only half there in this thing?

Of course, much of the dialogue may have been lost on me. Few of the actors could enunciate clearly when speaking “Latin” (English) and even if I could normally follow spoken Gaelic (I can read a little, slowly) I doubt that was spoken any better (I’d be interested in knowing what someone who can normally follow it thought…of course, Gaelic would not have been the form spoken, it would likely have been closer to Welsh as a modern variation). The subtitles were almost totally unreadable on my small screen, apparently no one cared if people might want to watch this at home. Perhaps they realized no one would really want to watch this.

Over all, this movie was bad. Not just for all the reasons I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but really just bad. The few things that could have been good just were poorly done and the whole thing seems to just be an exercise in bringing back racist movie tropes in new packaging in hopes no one will complain. And one that seems to have been halfhearted considering that everyone seems to sleep walk through the whole thing.

ETA: I think I actually blocked this from my brain. The symbol stones they showed. Um, why did they look as worn down or even more worn down than many look today? Considering they don’t date any earlier than the 5th century ce, and some consider that a romantically early dating (that’s 4 hundred years later than the movie takes place). I’m sure if they had them then, they wouldn’t have used them to chain up prisoners.

ETA2: I also forgot to bitch about the lack of fortifications in the Pictish settlement. This of course made it nice and easy for the Romans to sneak in, but, no never would have happened. There would have been walls and guards and all that stuff that people do when attacks could happen at any time.

Copyright © 2012 Kym Lambert