Gods, Sacred Texts, and Battlestar Galactica

The past few weeks have been very busy. Epiphany is in Chapter 4, and you can now subscribe to the audio version in Google Play or iTunes. It’s a fun story to record, and in fact, in Chapters 4-5, you will get a hands-on view of some of the polytheistic religious culture I have built into the work. There is even a framework of miasma and purification.

I spent the past weekend at my alma mater’s scifi convention, which was great. I ran a tabletop roleplaying game and sat on a panel about librarianship, where I ranted with three other librarians about the lack of realistic portrayals of librarians and libraries in science fiction and fantasy. I bought a programmer’s oracle and discovered that the person who made it is a polytheist only when I looked lim up on Tumblr yesterday. That could have been a really cool connection and I am sad now, but in my defense, I was distracted by just how hilariously the deck reminded me of the time I translated a Homeric Hymn to Hermes into l33tsp33k.

One of the panels during the con reminded me of an early post I put up on Old KALLISTI. It was about fandom and criticism and how fans can walk the line between loving a work of fiction and being critical of its problematic aspects.

The post looked at the vaguely-Greco-Roman religious world-building in Battlestar Galactica and the limitations of the writers. It came up during the discussion panels because I love BSG despite the hefty criticism I have for its portrayal of polytheism. It was simultaneously the first TV show I saw that took gods seriously and a TV show that really did things … less than optimally. Needless to say, this post pulls a lot from what I wrote years ago, but a lot of this will be different because I have slightly different things to say.

I watched BSG devoutly. It helped me work through a lot of the devotional practices I was developing in my life. Partway through the show, I transitioned from the neopaganism in which I was raised to worshipping the Hellenic Gods in a historically-inspired way. The sacred texts, articles, and books I read about ancient Hellenic religion helped me contextualize a lot about the show that was incorrect.

BSG is written by monotheists trying really, really hard to write a polytheistic society, and it’s essentially monotheist fanfiction about early Christianity. Something similar (I have heard) was intended for HBO’s Rome, but the set burned down before they could make Rome about Jesus. The BSG set never burned down, so they were able to turn the last two seasons towards what they intended all along. Here is some dialogue that I quoted in the original post from “Escape Velocity,” which aired on 25 April 2008 on Syfy:

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. It was elegant in its commentaries on the role of torture and dehumanization in war, terrorism, and religious tension. To provide some background for people who have never seen it, the Twelve Colonies worship beings called the Lords of Kobol, who have the same names as Greek Gods. The Colonials give them cult, but the writers for the show were not consulting academic literature on how Mediterranean polytheisms like Hellenism actually work.

The excerpt from Season Four shows the mounting tensions between monotheists — who are sometimes now even non-Cylons — and polytheists. Reverence for the One God has spread throughout the fleet, causing friction with traditional believers. A radical group has defiled the monotheists’ main enclave, so Gaius Baltar decides that his monotheist cult will retaliate by rioting during the first worship service they come across. They destroy religious objects. The scene is doubtless appealing to cultural (or devout) Christian viewers, who will understand that Baltar is a proxy for early Christians destroying idols.

This episode is the one that shocked me out of complacency, and I took a good, hard look at religion in the series and what the scenes of polytheistic piety meant. As a polytheist watching an episode like that, I am seeing desecration similar to that which my religious ancestors experienced. It is religious violence that polytheists today experience worldwide as a result of colonialism and Christian missionary work. The types of arguments Baltar makes for why one should worship the One God is a really common argument that monotheists make to delegitimize other religions.

In addition, because the story was written by monotheists, the Colonial polytheists put way too much weight on their specific scripture. People are carrying around a limited number of religious scrolls, when in reality, a lot of the religious worship would be tacit knowledge. Priests, priestesses, religious scholars, and philosophers would likely travel with lots of sacred texts because one needs a library in a polytheism. 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 society in Battlestar Galactica takes many of these 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.

The writers need to make this jump because the historical context of the religious stories fuels the series’ quest, but we can see something deeper working here. Their failure to draw deeply from our ancestors’ beliefs comes from 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 … whatever this we’re watching in BSG actually is.

Still, I am grateful for the show. I am jealous of the travel-sized sacred statuette industry that must have been behind the fast prayers some characters gave while cradling them in their living quarters.

I’m even one of the BSG fans who actually liked the ending.

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