Paganism in the Disney Vaults

Paganism in the Disney Vaults November 12, 2015

Cartoons have always held a special place in my heart. My first memories of television revolve around Space Ghost cartoons, and as I’ve grown older cartoons have served as a way to periodically re-connect with my childhood. For decades cartoons were marginalized as “children’s entertainment” with critics and adult audiences ignoring the creativity, artistic genius, and ingenuity that went into making them. Today’s cartoons are no longer “just for kids” and neither were the ones from 85 years ago, though most people didn’t quite realize it yet.

"The Goddess of Spring" by the Walt Disney Company.
“The Goddess of Spring” by the Walt Disney Company.

I think most of us today are aware of just how much pagan has popped up in Disney films over the years. We’ve seen pagan deities and cultures in Disney films such as Hercules and The Black Cauldron*, and though dragons, evil queens, brave knights, and pumpkin coaches may not be ours they certainly feel like it. I’m not sure just how much ancient pagan lies in a lot of our fairy tales (and the Disney ones have certainly been sanitized), but they do nicely fit into a magical worldview.

Fantasia is generally thought of as the most pagan of all the Disney films, and there’s certainly a case to be made there. From Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey Mouse to Bald Mountain to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony there’s a lot of magical stuff to enjoy. And yes they don’t get Bacchus as right as I’d like, and Zeus is a bit of a hothead, but it’s still a lot of fun. However if you are looking for some real Pagan cartoons it’s Disney’s older stuff that really stands out.

Growing up near Nashville Tennessee I heard lots of ridiculous accusations about people in the media. One I remember quite distinctly claimed that Walt Disney was a Pagan. Now that’s most certainly not the case, but some of his early shorts come pretty close to fitting the bill. The best of the lot are all Silly Symphonies, which are generally light on plot, but heavy on gags and music. Disney produced seventy-five Silly Symphonies over the course of ten years (1929-1939), many of them imaginative takes on nature, mythology, fairy tales, and holiday lore.

My favorite of the Silly Symphonies is Playful Pan (1930), and while the animation is a bit crude, it perfectly captures Pan as he came to be known in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I think we are a bit more aware today of how our gods were perceived in ancient times, and the Pan depicted above is certainly not the one I’ve come to know over the years, but it certainly captures a side of him. This is Pan as the Lord of Nature, in love with the natural world and putting out forest fires.

Despite my bias towards Pan, I’ll freely admit that the best of the Silly Symphonies is probably not Playful Pan. That honor goes to Goddess of Spring a retelling of the Persephone/Hades story from Greek Mythology. It has some issues, Hades is depicted as Satan for instance, but it’s also amazingly beautiful. Disney’s Persephone comes straight out out of a Alphonse Mucha painting and was the company’s first attempt at realistically depicting the human body.

Unlike Playful Pan not everything is sunshine and roses in Goddess of Spring (1934). Hades abducts his bride and takes her forcibly to the underworld, plunging Persephone into depression and the world into eternal winter. Though Hades is not quite likable in the cartoon, he’s not all bad. He does seem to at least really love Persephone in his own misguided way (which is keeping with the myth).

If you like your cartoons full of violence and animated mermaid breasts you’ll love 1932’s King Neptune. Looking more like Santa Claus than Poseidon, Neptune is the kind of cartoon that could have only been made in the 1930’s. Was that an attempted rape? Is there blood on that knife? Yikes! I think the moral of the story is that deities like Neptune do have power, and if you are going to mess with their worshippers there’s going to be retribution. (I’m not sure the animators really felt that way, but why not?)

1935’s The Golden Touch was Disney’s rather bland take on the tale of King Midas, mentioned here just because I feel like I should be thorough. Instead of taking place in Ancient Greece the animators chose a more medieval setting. It sort of works, but Midas’s incessant pleading for a hamburger makes it feel more like a Popeye cartoon than a Disney classic. It was also the last of the Symphonies with a mythological focus.

Just in time for Halloween in 1929 was Skeleton Dance, the first of Disney’s Silly Symphonies and perhaps the most recognizable. The art from this particular short has appeared in a number of other places, perhaps because there’s nothing quite like it. Everything about Skeleton Dance is rather crude but there’s a fluidness to the skeletons that I have trouble looking away from. It’s not Pagan, but in many ways it might have been the first real cartoon nightmare before Christmas.

Disney also did an entire turn of the Wheel through Silly Symphony shorts, though they vary in quality. The first was Springtime (1929) which was followed quickly by Summer and Autumn in early 1930. Summer is nearly a carbon copy of Springtime and doesn’t really capture the season as much as I might like. Autumn captures the barren and beautiful landscapes of late November marvelously, complete with birds flying South and animals preparing to hibernate. Near the end of Autumn there are blowing leaves giving way to blowing snow and perfectly capturing the change of season so many of us experience this time of year. The less written about Winter (which was released over a year later than Springtime) the better. It’s a disappointment after the whimsy of the first three shorts.

There are a few other Silly Symphonies worth taking a look at. Flowers and Trees from 1932 was Disney’s first Technicolor cartoon and it’s amazing just how much better it looks than Playful Pan produced just a few years before. I’ve always liked the myth of the eternal and magical countryside, and I think Disney captured it nicely in Flowers and Trees. In a similar vein is 1933’s Birds in Spring, perfect Ostara or Beltane viewing depending on where you live.

Silly Symphonies ceased production in 1939 as the studio began to focus on features (not to mention World War II looming in the background). And while Disney would make more animated shorts after the war, they never did so with as much frequency. Today hand drawn animating seems to be a dying commercial enterprise, but I’ll always cherish it. Here’s to playful Pan and Persephone, immortalized in movie houses and now on Youtube.

*But could they have gotten The Black Cauldron any more wrong? Why all of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles aren’t a giant box-office thing is beyond me. In an age of too many remakes and reboots, it’s time for a live action reboot.

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