My Top 10 Pagan/Heathen Movies

My Top 10 Pagan/Heathen Movies November 3, 2010

Ok, I usually don’t write about topics like this, but over the past week half a dozen people have asked me about my favorite “Pagan” movies. Maybe they wore me down because I woke up this morning with the thought that I should put a little article together on my top ten so that others could enjoy them too. Now, when people ask me about my favorite Pagan themed movies, I can point them to this!

This isn’t my complete list, folks. There are other movies that I think are useful for Pagans and Heathens too, but these are, right now at least, my top ten favorites. These are the films that I watch and think ‘yeah, I get that. That speaks to my own spiritual worldview in some way” or “wow…we could learn from that. That makes me think.” I’ve specifically included a few that are more or less appropriate for children too.

So here we go, in ascending order…

10.  Princess Mononoke: Not only is Miyazaki’s animation extraordinary, but the story is a powerful tale of environmental abuse, disaster, and valiant honor. Land spirits, animal spirits, and various Gods figure prominently throughout the film and we see what happens when mankind falls out of balance with them.  I don’t know, however, that this movie is appropriate for small children as it is a fairly violent and bloody. For little kids, I’d recommend “My Neighbor Totoro” instead, because it is a much more gentle story that also shows how one can have a healthy relationship with nature spirits, in fact, I was seriously torn in trying to choose which of these two Miyazaki films I prefer! Little kids might also enjoy “Brother Bear” by Disney, which shows a Native culture, respect for land and animal spirits, and the interconnectedness of life. Please note that a mother bear is killed in this movie, which might be hard for very small children to cope with. I would have placed these movies higher, save that I really have to be in the mood for animation.

9.  The 13th Warrior: I know, I know, but I liked the film so sue me! I can’t place it higher if only because the weaponry is so incredibly inaccurate and anachronistic, but I found it entertaining to the extreme, and very indicative of good Heathen virtues. This movie is a retelling of Michael Crichton’s “The Eaters of the Dead,” which itself, is a modern adaptation, more or less, of parts of Beowulf. The Heathens elements are even more glaring in the book, where you have a definite parallel between Buliwif and Odin more clearly drawn. In the movie, you have a leader who exemplifies the good leader described in the Havamal: a brilliant man who keeps silent, observes everything, misses nothing, and gains fame through his valor. There are two gorgeous prayers in the movie, one given by a Muslim and one by the Heathen war party and all in all, it’s immensely enjoyable so long as you’re not expecting historical accuracy.

8. Disney’s The Lion King: Why do I class this as a Pagan/Heathen friendly movie? Primarily I do so because so much of the film deals with interconnectedness to the natural world, and moreover with ancestor veneration. We even have a shaman figure. There’s a fine thread of reverence and respect for the ancestors running throughout this film and moreover, when that balance is upset, when that thread is broken by neglect for tradition and the natural order of things, it shows the devastation (in the form of famine and drought) that may ensue. Plus, it’s especially nice in that it’s one you can watch with your kids. That’s not the case with many of my favorite Pagan/Heathen movies!

7. Arranged: This is not a Heathen or a Pagan movie, but I’ve put it on this list because I think that we can draw a lot of inspiration from it. Star Foster initially recommended this film and I found it enchanting. It tells the story of two public school teachers: one a devout Muslim woman, the other orthodox Jewish, who become friends. They’re both trying to find a husband by going through the traditional match-making methods common to their religions and cultures and the twists and turns they go through are hilarious and poignant. (Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending for both, folks). Where I find the movie particularly relevant to Heathens and Pagans, is that it clearly shows the struggles of two very contemporary, intelligent, and independent women to live their faiths in a world that is often diametrically opposed to piety and devotion of any sort. There is a particularly powerful scene toward the end of the film where the principle of the school chides the Jewish teacher, because a student draws a parallel between some of her folk practices and his own Afro-Caribbean ones. One clearly sees traditional religious practices being dismissed as nonsense by “those in charge” and watching these two women rise above that and hold true to their own path and piety is something from which I think we can all draw a powerful lesson.

6.  The Deceivers: I adore this movie, partly because I love Kali immensely, and partly because it’s just a really good film. The film centers around a man, coming from 19th century British imperialism, who is thrust into the world of the Thugee, assassins who killed in Kali’s name (there is historical evidence for their existence—the movie is loosely based on real events). By the end of the movie, Kali has used him to purge these assassins and has destroyed his life, burning within him in a way that ensures he will never, ever be able to go back to who he was. It’s beautifully filmed (what Merchant Ivory film isn’t beautifully done?) and really highlights the clash of cultures: both the British and indigenous Indian, as well as the Thuggee culture, which thrives on the secrecy of its existence, with the greater indigenous one. Mostly I like it because Kali overshadows all the action!

5. Sorceress: (the 1987 French film directed by Suzanne Schiffman). I have not seen this film in a good ten years, and I only just realized it was available on dvd. Despite only having watched it once, all those years ago, it remains in my memory as a powerful film (very much in the same vein as “The Anchoress” in some ways) that poignantly highlights the conflict between folk practices that very likely survived from indigenous Pagan beliefs and what was then the new Christianity. Here that conflict is dramatized in the persons of a Dominican friar on the hunt for heresy and a simple village herb woman who barely manages to escape paying for his sins with her life (and trust me, that comment will make a lot more sense once you’ve seen the film!).

4, The Anchoress: This movie was initially recommended to me because I have an interest in medieval female mystics but upon watching it, as a Heathen mystic, I found it positively haunting. It focuses around an anchoress (no surprise there), a young girl who, upon receiving visions from/of the Virgin Mary, commits to walling herself up in a small cubicle attached to a church, to live out her life in prayer. Problems arise when her visions threaten the Church conception of female piety, hearkening in their symbolism more to Pagan Goddesses than the authorized images of the Virgin. It highlights how experiential spirituality, mystics in particular often challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, which is sadly all too often based more on egotism than on either spirituality or experience. It’s an introspective movie, and some may be put off by the fact that it’s filmed in black and white, but I think it’s worth watching.

3. Eye of the Devil: (with David Niven). I wish this movie were available on vhs or dvd, I really do but so far, I haven’t been able to find it. Originally billed as a horror movie, it is one of the most moving portrayals of sacral kingship and a lord laying his life down for the fertility of the land and the good of his people that I have ever encountered in contemporary writing or cinema. The Pagan symbolism abounds throughout the film and while the female lead is immensely annoying, and one does have to contend with occasional minor attempts to make the movie frightening, overall, I found it intensely powerful. The story line is fairly simple: in 1950s, a nobleman takes his wife and two children back to his ancestral home, the big castle overlooking a village. He doesn’t tell her why they’re making this journey but it turns out that there has been a massive drought for several years, nothing is helping and the villagers are suffering. So he is returning to make a sacrifice that his ancestors would well have understood: to give his life so that the land may be made fruitful again, because he is bound as a noble to protect those people under his care. The final sequence where this man rides through the village on a white horse and these modern villagers bow to him in reverence, right before he gives his life, is one of the most powerfully moving I’ve seen in any film. If you can find this one, folks, don’t pass it up.

2. Agora: This is a new film, only released on dvd this week, that is based on the life (and more importantly the death—Pagans might say martyrdom) of the philosopher Hypatia. It’s a brilliant film but I found it immensely difficult to watch. Nearly every Pagan I’ve heard from who’s seen this film has had a similar response. Personally, I can’t say that I came away from viewing this full of ecumenical feelings toward Christianity or indeed any monotheism. I came away immensely sad and very angry. In the movie, the viewer is thrust into the Alexandria of 391 C.E, into the midst of what amounts to a religious war. Hypatia, a renowned philosopher, becomes a victim of that war.  Some liberties are taken with her story, including presenting her as more or less an atheist, which I do not believe was historically accurate. She was a Pagan. Still, it’s a wrenching film and one that made me take note of all those Pagans and Heathens who died upholding their beliefs, practicing their faith, living their lives….because they refused to bow their heads the new faith (and the destruction of their indigenous religions which it brought). An in depth review of this film, by a Hellenic Pagan, can be found here:

  1. Wicker Man: the original and only the original. For me, this is the gold standard of Pagan/Heathen movies. Let me note that I am referring *only* to the original version with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, not the horrific remake that recently came out with Nicholas Cage. The original “Wicker Man” is a story about sacrifice and renewal, about Pagan and Christian theological differences, and about sacral kingship. That being said, it’s a really good movie just in its own right. In the film, a fundamentalist Christian police officer is lured by trickery to an island known for having some unusual customs and beliefs. It turns out, that this island reverted to its indigenous Paganism in the late 19th century and ousted its Christian ministers. They’ve been living according to Pagan customs and religious beliefs since. Now, their crops are failing and their sacrifices of produce and animals up to this point haven’t been accepted by the Gods and they find they require a special type of sacrifice. I read somewhere, in some article about this movie, that producers originally intended to include one final image after the credits: of the apple orchards and fields in full flower, but that this was cut ostensibly because it would have been too shocking a conclusion. Pity.

Anyway, there are my top ten. There are a handful of other movies that I occasionally point people too, and of course I’ve omitted all the movies like “Chocolat,” “Woman on Top,” “The Mistress of Spices,” and ‘Like Water For Chocolate” that have to do with magic and food. But take it for what it’s worth: a nice post-Samhain diversion. I’d love to hear from readers about some of your own favorite Pagan/Heathen movies.

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