Quick Notes: Spartacus, American Gods, and James Arthur Ray

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 15, 2011 — 14 Comments

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Friday.

Swords, Sandals, and Sex: I know I’ve been talking about Starz new series “Camelot” quite a bit lately, so today I’d like to highlight an excellent essay concerning its stylistic predecessor at the cable network: “Spartacus.” Academic and Patheos.com columnist P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has recently watched both seasons of “Spartacus,” and files this examination of how the show treats sex, history, and religion at his personal blog.

“However, my main critique of the newer Spartacus isn’t its history, nor its sexuality (although more will be said on the latter in a moment), it is precisely the matter that Rome got right (even though some bits weren’t quite right in terms of timing, e.g. the taurobolium in the first episode)–the religious aspects of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and its successors is very off. In the 1960 Spartacus, the character of Crassus (a member of the First Triumvirate) says to the very young Julius Caesar at one point that he’d like to obtain a pigeon for a sacrifice, to which Caesar replies that he thought Crassus did not believe in the gods; Crassus replies, “Privately, I believe in none of them; publicly, I believe in them all!” And this is precisely the matter that the newer incarnation of Spartacus goes wrong on–it makes the matter of the gods too much about “belief,” when that is not what pre-creedal religion’s spirituality was based upon.”

The entire essay is fascinating reading, and I’m glad P. Sufenas Virius Lupus took the time share his analysis. Popular entertainment does influence how we engage with history, and the spate of films and television set in the ancient world that depict the protagonists as modern-style atheist/agnostics (“Agora,” “Troy,” “Clash of the Titans”) do a disservice to  the adherents to pre-Christian faiths.

American Gods Coming to HBO: While fan expectation is ramping up for the epic fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” there’s another project in development for HBO that may interest modern Pagans quite a bit. It seems there’s been serious movement on bringing Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” to the cable network.

“As HBO prepares to unveil its epic-sized series adaptation of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones this Sunday, the payweb has begun talks to acquire the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods to be developed into another fantasy series. The project was brought to HBO by Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and it was brought to them by Robert Richardson. The plan is for Richardson and Gaiman to write the pilot together.”

Robert Richardson, for those who don’t recognize the name, is a famous cinematographer who has worked with directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Since the show features an assortment of Pagan gods and goddesses in a variety of contexts, it will no doubt draw quite a bit of comment and interest from modern worshipers/followers/devotees of said gods. The book has been matter of conversation within our communities since it was first published in 2001, mostly centered on the treatment and depiction of various deities. I expect those conversations will heat up once again when production gets underway.

James Arthur Ray Mistrial Request Denied: For those who’ve been following the trial of James Arthur Ray, accused of negligent homicide when a sweat lodge ceremony went horribly wrong and killed three people, this past week has been particularly event-filled. Ray’s lawyers filed for a mistrial after it was revealed that a preliminary report by environmental investigator Richard Haddow was not sent to them. However, prosecutors claim that the situation was inadvertent, and that the report’s finding were repeated in other material sent to the defense team.

“Monday’s motion by Ray’s legal teams cited the omission of environmental investigator Richard Haddow as a means for the state to withhold an alternate cause in the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman after a Ray-led sweat lodge at the Angel Valley Retreat Center on Oct. 8, 2009. The state’s response, however, signed by co-counsel Bill Hughes, states that information about the construction of the sweat lodge, with its off-center rock pit and lack of air circulation, had been provided to the defense in other forms. Further, the motion contends that the evidence contained in Haddow’s report is not exculpatory, but rather further proof that Ray is guilty of the three counts of manslaughter raised against him.

If the evidence truly is damaging rather than exculpatory, it can only mean that Ray’s defense team is grasping at straws trying to derail this trial by any means necessary. A desperation perhaps incited by last week’s damaging decision by Judge Darrow to allow testimony regarding previous sweat lodge ceremonies that Ray has held. In any case, there won’t be a mistrial, and instead defense will be granted extra time to analyze the data and witness.

“While Ray’s attorneys pushed for a mistrial, prosecutors argued an appropriate remedy would be to allow the defense to interview Haddow and gather its own witnesses if it chooses. Darrow didn’t immediately elaborate on his decision to allow the trial to move forward, but said he would issue an expanded ruling later.”

Blogger LaVaughn, who’s been following the trial in-depth, says that “the Haddock email was a red herring to get a mistrial and now they’re stuck with it.” Meanwhile, public opinion and the press have not been on Ray’s side. CNN recently profiled the life of Kirby Brown, one of the three killed in the 2009 sweat lodge incident, describing a horrific death where she “wheezed and gurgled and foamed at the mouth.” Even if Ray somehow manages to escape all this with no legal repercussions, his “brand” will be permanently tainted by these deaths.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • http://www.thehighwayhermit.com highway_hermit

    Where's Ray's "law of attraction" now? Why isn't he "attracting" his way out of this latest legal trouble? Or maybe the strength of his clients' attraction to severe legal recourse is simply stronger than his attraction to freedom.

    • Fire

      I think Ray's trying to avoid going to the pokey and attracting a new boyfriend for himself.

      Seriously, the job of an attorney is to try and win the case for his client or to create the best alternative he can for him.
      If he can win by getting the case thrown out on a technicality, that's as good as a not guilty verdict.

  • http://www.hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

    And this is precisely the matter that the newer incarnation of Spartacus goes wrong on–it makes the matter of the gods too much about “belief,” when that is not what pre-creedal religion’s spirituality was based upon.”

    Absolutely. And this ties to a point I've made before: Calling most any modern Pagan religion a "faith" is a mistake. Most modern Pagans do not accept that their Goddesses/Gods exist because of faith, but because they have experienced the presence of those Goddesses/Gods. "Faith," like "belief in god" is a notion that makes sense when applied to the three large monotheistic religions. Substituting the word "faith" for "religion" implies that all "real" religions are "faiths." When we buy into the dominant framing by using its terminology, we do ourselves a disservice. Will be looking for Spartacus on Netflix soon.

    • Ursyl

      I've had Christians tell me the same thing about their religion. They do not "believe," they KNOW, because they have had experience with their God, have experienced the presence of their God.

      I don't see any difference, given the lack of ability to physically PROVE any of them, ours or theirs.*shrug*

      • whateley23

        What difference does it make to someone who hasn't experienced it? Why bother even attempting to prove experiences?

        They experience their god, we experience our various gods, atheists experience no gods. I don't see the problem or the need to prove any of it.

  • http://avaloniangirl.blogspot.com Morwyn

    I am very excited about Game of Thrones! Can't wait.

  • http://jackalspath.blogspot.com Baeni

    One of my biggest criticisms of 'Spartacus' has been that every character who has been shown to be homosexual or engage in homosexual behavior has died. In fact, this is the case for the original series' prequel series as well. While I don't entertain the idea that this is subversively intentional, I do find it careless and insensitive.

    • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

      Admittedly I haven't seen the show yet (it's on my list on netflix) but…doesn't pretty much everyone die in that show? I mean heck, the season finale was "Kill Them All" for the love of the gods (and it sounds pretty awesome). I don't think you should go getting offended about the "gay" characters all dying when the body count is as high as it is on that show. I mean heck, probably most of the 'Straight" characters have gotten killed off too. You might feel it careless and insensitive, but honestly, how many people were still alive at the end of everything?

      • http://jackalspath.blogspot.com Baeni

        Without getting into the exact numbers (as that would be too nerdcore), we're looking at something like 100% of the "gay characters" being killed off versus a little more than a quarter of the "straight characters." And, as I said, I don't think it's intentional so I'm not, and never said I was, offended.

        I simply find the experience less enjoyable when I find identifiable characters and every one of them are killed off.

  • http://twitter.com/YearInWhite @YearInWhite

    Nice! I hadn't heard about the television adaptation of American Gods.

    It could be good, but I'm sure there's a lot of room in there to offend folks.

    And just think of the merchandising they could do… http://hinduism.about.com/library/weekly/extra/bl

  • Sean

    I love Spartacus, but not because I expect it to be historically accurate (does anybody, really?) My friends and I get together and make popcorn, and watch the hot guys running about in their skimpy clothing . Definitely a lot of sexy actors. It's a fun, over-the-top show; I don't think it's intended to be taken as a serious, historical portrayal.

    • Nick_Ritter

      "It's a fun, over-the-top show; I don't think it's intended to be taken as a serious, historical portrayal."

      Sure, I'd agree with that (probably, as I've never seen the show).

      The issue is that, even as a "fun, over-the-top show" it affects (and reveals) how people view that history. This is no small matter: we become closer to the past by telling stories about it. I can certainly understand why Pagans, especially those who might worship the gods mentioned in this story, and who practice the religion portrayed in it, would want that story to be as close to true as possible.

      It can be disappointing for people who practice a particular religion to see that religion misrepresented in popular stories, particularly when accuracy would make the story better. Perhaps someday we'll see historical fiction in television and cinema written by Pagans striving for accuracy as well as good storytelling, in order to bring people closer to the real past.

  • Dennis Nock

    i have a comment on both points , i personnaly hope ray falls flat on his face and gets exactly what he deserves , those not properly trained and qualified donot need to running sweat lodges and wilderness experiences. i have seen a few reports abouts his activities and most if not all the info i've seen isn't good . this fool needs to be put out of bussiness and in jail.secoundly i'd like to comment on sparticus and other ancient depictions in film and tv.i can easily understand how folks can be upset by misrepresentation . as a celt and druid , we have not been well represented either and i find it upsetting and sometimes even amusing.when we are written about by christians and those not willing to do the proper research the results can strange , if not funny.pagan gods and godesses have been widely misused and misrepresented on tv and film . i applaud those who take the time and effort to get it right . could we be seeing a trend here , gods i hope so. i'll be watching thrones and looking for sparticus . we'll see Kilm

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I do not look to television for accurate history. Hel, they can't even get the present right most of the time.