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Your handy guide to true religions on TV - Hellenism and Religio Romana

Posted on May 10, 2013 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Xena and Hercules

This entry is one of a series of articles covering religions depicted on TV as being true. For full details and a list of the other religions covered, go to the introduction.

Hellenism
The Greek pagan religion featuring Zeus and the other Olympians isn't quite a dead religion, but it's close. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most influential, dominating Western literature, film and TV to a far greater extent than those in a far healthier state, such as Hinduism. As well as adaptations of Greek tragedies on TV, there have been many adaptations of many Greek myths and the gods have shown up in shows set in the modern day as well as the past. Atlantis, which is currently being made by BBC1, would appear to feature elements of Hellenic religion as well as the Minoan religion of Crete.

Religio Romana
Again, another religion that's not quite dead and still gets featured occasionally in TV shows. A syncretism of native Italian religion and Hellenism, Religio Romana and its literature dominated Western understanding of Hellenism and myths until the 14th century, when an understanding of Greek and Greek literature became to permeate through after the fall of Constantinople. It wasn't until the late 19th and 20th centuries, in fact, that academics realised the two were separate, yet in the last century or so, despite the occasional blurring (e.g. Hercules/Heracles, Wonder Woman's Ares/Mars, etc), Hellenistic literature and Hellenism have now almost totally replaced Religio Romana in the public consciousness.

There are no Roman gods in modern-day TV shows, as far as I'm aware; no adaptation of The Aeneid or the Metamorphoses of Ovid. However, people are far more interested in period dramas set in Roman times than in classical Athens (Athens' misogyny might be responsible for that) or Sparta (everyone exercising naked in olive oil outdoors?), perhaps also because of the Roman empire's continuing influence on everything from architecture to politics to this very day.

However, one of the differences between Roman and Greek religions is that the Roman emperors became gods on their death, so technically any show that depicts a Roman emperor technically is showing a possible future Roman god. How many shows have followed through on that?

Hellenism

1. Wonder Woman (1975-1979, 2011)
Wonder Woman, at least in the comics, is an Hellenic heroine: a princess of the mythic Amazons, in most versions, she's created by her mother from clay and imbued with life and supernatural gifts for the Greek goddess Aphrodite (and Hermes, Demeter, Artemis and Athena), although in the last "new 52" reboot of her comic universe, she's actually a goddess as well, the daughter of Zeus. On TV, this is neither confirmed or denied, and the gods never make an appearance. However, Wonder Woman is clearly at least a believer in the gods and her message of peace and tolerance, while not especially Hellenic, is shown to be the correct one.
Further reading
Buy it

2. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999)/Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)/Young Hercules (1998-1999)
A trio of overlapping spin-off shows set in a nebulous period of history that brings in figures from as far back as 2000BC through to Julius Caesar in a melange of Greek myth and history. Gods and goddesses make many appearances, as do their worshippers. Hercules (technically, Herakles in Greek) is the son of Zeus, Xena the daughter of Ares and both take on evil, although their messages are more in keeping with Christianity than Hellenism. There is considerable overlap with other religions, however, with Celtic, Egyptian and Norse gods featuring in Hercules. The shows also feature 'The Twilight of the Gods', in which many of the Greek pantheon are killed and the Christian host of angels, devils and God replace them. However, several episodes of Hercules also show some of the gods living on in modern times, so the shows are contradictory.
Further reading: Hercules, Xena, Young Hercules
Buy Hercules, Xena, Young Hercules

3. The Aphrodite Inheritance (1979)
The 'tomb of Aphrodite' is discovered on modern-day Cyprus and its riches stolen. Together with Dionysus and Pan, she uses a mortal pawn to get her revenge and to recover her treasures. Along the way, the 'pawn' is educated in the ways of Hellenism.
Further reading

4. Who Pays The Ferryman? (1977)
A tale of revenge on Crete, modelled on Greek tragedy. Ultimately, though, the Fates have a cunning and cruel plan for all the mortals involved.
Further reading
Buy it

5. Valentine (2008)
Aphrodite, Eros and Heracles try to match-make mortals and bring more love to the world, both hindered and helped by other Greek gods. However, an enemy is trying to destroy them - Bast, the Egyptian goddess.
Further reading

6. Jason and the Argonauts (2000)
A somewhat lose TV mini-series adaptation of Apollonios' Argonautika starring Jason London, in which Jason must obtain the Golden Fleece from Colchis with the aid of Medea and the Argonauts. This follows more in the path of the movie of the same name, rather than the epic poem, which largely featured goddesses trying to help Jason, rather than a competition between Zeus and Hera.
Further reading
Buy it

7. Hercules (2005)
Mini-series version of the life of Herakles, from conception through to death. It changes an awful lot, has certain Frazer-esque/Graves-esque influences in its depiction of religious festivals and doesn't include the gods. However, it does include the Underworld, Kerberos, Theseus, Chiron, harpies and other figures and monsters from Greek myth.
Further reading
Buy it

8. Helen of Troy (2003)
Mini-series based of various aspects of the Epic Cycle, including The Cypria and The Iliad, as well as the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, detailing Helen's life in Sparta, her departure for Troy, the Trojan War and the eventual fall of Troy. While not hugely accurate to the originals and using classical Athenian imagery rather than Bronze imagery, it does feature the Judgement of Paris, Aphrodite, Athena and Hera.
Further reading
Buy it

9. The Odyssey (1997)
Mini-series based on Homer's The Odyssey. Reasonably faithful, right down to the presence of Athena, Hermes and other gods, as well as various monsters.
Further reading
Buy it

Religio Romana

1. I, Claudius (1976)
While largely this depiction of the history of Rome, narrated by the emperor Claudius, doesn't feature the Roman gods themselves, it does show their worshippers as well as the emperors musing on their own divinity. The end scene, however, does see Claudius visited by his now-divine ancestors in a vision and also hints at Claudius' own divinity with a prophecy: "The man who dwells by the pool shall open up graves and the dead will come to life." Jack Pulman adapted the series from Robert Graves' book.
Further reading
Buy it

2. Shazam! (1974-1977)
Based on the DC Captain Marvel comics, this saw teenager Billy Batson become the super-powered Captain Marvel whenever he said the magic word 'Shazam!' Shazam came from the initials of the divinities that loaned Captain Marvel his powers - Solomon Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury - who all appeared (okay, technically as animated characters, but the show itself was live action) making Captain Marvel a pagan figure of Religio Romana, Hellenism and Judaeo-Christianity.
Further reading
Buy it

3. Tess of the D'Urbervilles (2008)
Based on the Thomas Hardy novel, arguably this is more pagan than Religio Romana. However, Tess and other local maidens are shown dancing in a ceremony to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
Further reading
Buy it

4. Arthur of the Britons (1972-1973)
Depicting King Arthur as a celt rather than a Christian, this features a mix of religions, including the Roman. One episode sees a worshipper of Mithras - a god popular among Roman soldiers and civil servants - use a Mithraic remedy to fix a situation. No gods actually show up though.
Further reading
Buy it

5. Spartacus (2010-2013)
A retelling of the true story of a gladiator who rebelled against the Roman empire, raising an army that nearly brought about the downfall of Rome. While Spartacus was Thracian and didn't worship the Roman gods, and while the main Roman characters were depicted as rather sceptical of their gods, during the first season, the Romans pray that a good fight by Spartacus in the arena will bring rain to the city, and the gods grant their request. Video NSFW, BTW.
Further reading
Buy it

6. Cupid (1998, 2009)
Whether this is Hellenic or Roman is a good question, since although the lead character in both shows (the latter a remake of the former) claims to have come from Mount Olympus at Zeus' behest to unite 100 couples in love, he goes by the Roman name of Cupid rather than Eros. Although it's never shown that Cupid genuinely is the Roman or Greek god of love, rather than someone who just thinks he is (and creator Rob Thomas says he never would have, had the show ever finished naturally rather than be cancelled), his high success rate, familiarity with myth, and the parallels with the Roman story of Psyche and Cupid, suggest that he probably was.
Further reading

Related entries

  • May 17, 2013: More religions added to the blog's handy guide
    More additions to the guide to true religions
  • May 13, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV
    All the scripted shows on Western, English-language TV that have not just featured religions but have actually shown them to be true in some way or other
  • September 30, 2013: Review: Atlantis 1x1 (BBC1/BBC America)
    A review of the first episode of Atlantis

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