Primetime Paganism: Popular-Culture Representations of Europhilic Polytheism in Game of Thrones and Vikings
By Robert A. Saunders
Correspondences, Vol. 2:2 (2014)
Abstract: This article provides a critical examination of the politico-religious content of the highly successful television series Game of Thrones and Vikings. By comparing and contrasting two very different representations of ethnically-marked “European” polytheism, I seek to uncover underlying trends in contemporary attitudes towards reconstructed “native faith” among peoples of European origin, particularly in contrast to “imported” monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). This article makes several tentative claims about the protean nature of religious identity in the context of popular culture. First, that traditional filmic treatments of pagans qua villains is shifting, with contemporary popular culture allowing for more nuanced framing of Western forms of polytheism. Secondly, that such popular-culture representations of paganism have direct impact on certain contemporary Pagans’ personal spiritual paths by promoting and influencing the “invention of tradition” among a population which manifests non-traditional religious identities.
Introduction: Representations of paganism in popular culture are a highly politicized affair, particularly since the rise of the religious right in the United States in the late 1960s, and similar conservative shifts in other parts of the Western world. Anti-“paganism” crusaders have condemned various targets from the rock musical Hair (1967) to The Twilight Saga (2008–2012) fantasy film series. Under the broad and amorphous rubric of “paganism,” critics have included a host of content, themes, and tropes, everything from lycanthropy and voodoo to crystals and angels. In North America, popular culture’s role in “corrupting” youth via romanticized depictions of the occult, psychic powers, and magic is a frequent refrain among cultural conservatives, Christian leaders, and other groups who espouse traditional values and mores. In “post-Christian” Europe, campaigns against “pop-culture paganism” have been less strident, but are nonetheless extant, including campaigns against pagan Black Metal in Scandinavia, attacks on J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series by the Catholic Church, and bans on Halloween celebrations in Russia. Concurrently, a number of scholars have demonstrated the infuence of mass media on the religious identity of contemporary Pagans, specifcally practitioners of Wicca. For such Pagans, novels, films, music, and television series are foundational elements of their religious identities, thus affirming the centrality of popular culture in “real world” practices and politics. While I will explore the recent history of pop-culture paganism (and its critics) in this article, my focus is on a highly circumscribed aspect of this larger phenomenon: positive representations of Europhilic polytheism in contemporary mass media.