I had no intention to write about "Zeitgeist" at all. I've skimmed it shortly after its release, seeing as it had generated a pretty consistent buzz on the blogosphere and the discussion forums. I've seen references popping up here and there afterwards, but mostly I just ignored them. So I thought the whole affair was dead and buried and I was well on my way to forget it. Except, I was not aware of the impact and influence that the movie still had in the time that followed - and still has today. That was my biggest surprise, and the reason why I'm writing now.
OK, I'm lying. I'm also writing about it because I need the exercise - you know, to keep that pen sharp, or rather that word processor busy. But regardless of the reason, here it is, my review. Sort of.
Let's see. "Zeitgeist", noun, German word. Means "the spirit of the age", the ethos, the prevailing thinking of a certain time, the world view. From the German words "zeit" (time) and "geist" (spirit). Used in texts of philosophy and high-brow literature. Goes back to a German philosopher who, in the 1700s, wrote a commentary on a book called "Genius saeculi" and translated the title in German as "Zeitgeist". Later on, Hegel borrowed the word and after him everybody followed suit.
Okay mr. Author (somebody named Peter Joseph, apparently, but perhaps others are involved too), or authors, so you made this movie, and you called it "Zeitgeist". What does that mean? According to what I've said above, it's a fairly big claim already. It means you're talking about the broad currents of thought, ideology, morality of an epoch. Means you take a few steps back, take a snapshot of that whole era, and draw conclusions, and pass judgement on it. You position yourself up there on the throne, the stone tablets of the Decalogue in hand, separating the sheep from the goats.
Well, not really. But you must be careful when you're talking about such broad issues. Tiny errors at the base tend to multiply upwards and, if you haven't got your fundamentals right, your far-reaching conclusions may get completely out of whack. And calling it "Zeitgeist" means you're looking at the very top, at the broadest currents and forces in the human society and thought.
True to its initial claim staked in the title, this movie attempts to do exactly that. The result? Well, keep reading and we'll build together the conclusion - but let me give you just a hint as to what that conclusion may be: it ain't pretty.
Note: I am reviewing only the movie "Zeitgeist" proper. I have seen the sequel, I think it's marginally better than the first movie, but I am not making any comments on it.
The most mangled story ever told
The first part of the movie, called "The greatest story ever told" is about religion. The claim the movie makes here is that all religion is just a big fabricated lie, consciously fabricated, designed, an instrument in the hands of the powers-that-be to control the masses.
The author, or authors claim most if not all major religious figures are all carbon-copies of the same myth, the same story repeated over and over again, in all times, in all countries, on every continent.
Now, whether some or few or all the world's religions contain some factual truth, or are pure unalloyed truth altogether, or possess no truth whatsoever, is a long and complicated discussion that did not begin yesterday or the year before, but a very long time ago, has been fiercely disputed by some of the brightest minds in the history of human thought, and is not likely to be put to rest any time soon. Yet the movie proposes a solution that is uncomplicated and quick and, given the "evidence" they claim to offer, should have been pretty obvious a long time ago.
Again, I'm not arguing here whether religion is true or not. I'm discussing their particular claim, the special way they allege religion is untrue, blended with all sorts of conspiracy theories, and the claimed "evidence" presented which is quite second-hand and amateurish. Those are not the measured broad cultured arguments of a rational thinker the caliber of a Bertrand Russell, it's wild imagination running amok. It feels like a fantasy flick, not a supposedly serious documentary.
Enough ranting, let's get to the point.
The cross and the zodiac
The first big bungle: The authors of this movie are looking at the ancient belief in astrology, not claiming it (the astrology) to be true, but just using it as a reference to show how certain myths are constructed. That's all very fine - by comparing the various myths you show more clearly their relations, their common characters and structure, and you can use one myth to explain another. This is a pretty standard procedure in comparative mythology.
But they present the circle (or disk) of the zodiac, the 12 constellations intersected by the Sun in its yearly trajectory on the sky - a pretty important concept in astrology - and somehow identify a cross in the middle of it. They even talk about "the cross of the zodiac" as a matter of fact, put the Sun in the middle of it, and voila, the Sun-god, the Savior of so many solar religions is seen as inspired (or justified) from or by the astrological myth.
Well, sure, if you divide a circle in 12 parts, you can skip every 3 segments and somehow decide it's actually divided by 4. And a circle, or disk, divided into 4 parts seems to suggest a cross, isn't it? So, that means, Jesus Christ and the cross and everything - that's all inspired by astrology, isn't that so?
No, it is not. This is a later syncretism, probably originating in the medieval times by the European astrologers who were trying to legitimize their practice in a world controlled by the various Christian churches.
Look at the earliest representations of the zodiac, such as this 6th century mosaic:
There is no cross in the middle. In fact, the 12 segments are not even very much regular. That is the original form, a circle, 12 slices, and that's it. No messianic figure on a cross - that has come later - only a representation of the Sun, which is expected in an astrological diagram. Christ's story has not been built on an astrological foundation - it's astrology that, much later, attempted to give itself a seemingly "christian" lustre.
They talk about the ancient egyptian deity Horus, present him as the god of the Sun and oppose him to Set, allegedly the god of night, as if in a good-versus-evil opposition of principles. They say Horus was born on December 25th, and his was a virgin birth. You see where this goes, or tries to.
Unfortunately, it is all a pretty wild combination of fact and distortion, like most of the movie anyway. First off, Egypt had a very long history, and religions and ideas and beliefs changed quite a bit during all those thousands of years. When talking about ancient Egypt's religions, it's best to specify the period you're taking about, or run the risk of looking quite foolish.
For the most part, what is now commonly known as "ancient Egypt" did believe in (among others) a god called Horus. He was the god of the sky, having the Sun and the Moon as his eyes. He was also the patron of war, therefore a quite obviously masculine deity. His symbol was the falcon and, very much like the Holy Spirit in christianity, the bird symbol was a reference to spirit, mind, inspiration.
The actual god of the Sun in ancient Egypt was called Ra, not Horus. According to myth, Ra travelled every day in "the boat of the millions" - a representation of the daily trajectory of the Sun on the sky. Every morning, Ra was born again, crossed the sky and, at sunset, died and entered the world of the dead. To secure his passage back to the East, Ra and his boat were guarded during the nightly portion of his journey by a host of other deities, among them Set and Mehen, whose mission was to fight Apep, one of the monsters of the afterworld who could otherwise swallow Ra and the boat and prevent the Sun from ever rising again.
Speaking of Set, it's clear he was not the bad guy after all. He was Ra's bodyguard each night, and also the patron of such things as desert, storm and chaos. Oh, and strangers too, he was the god of strangers and foreign people and things and lands.
So, thousands of years later, after Egypt started to lose its previous glory, not being anymore the mighty empire of days gone by, it got conquered by other, newer and now stronger, empires. "Those evil foreigners, how do they dare rule the sacred land of Egypt? Oh wait, Set is their god. So then... Set is evil! Yeah, he is the god of evil after all! It's his fault!"
That's what happened in reality. When Egypt declined and withered and all that remained of the grand and powerful empire of the pharaohs was a shriveled husk under the boot of any random Caesar happening to romance the Cleopatra du jour, Set's image changed, and he became the principle of evil. But that is not what is commonly thought of as the "ancient Egypt", but only a mostly irrelevant vassal country.
Horus too changed. Being a conquered people, the Egyptians probably did not bother sticking to religious fine points, and merged (syncretized) Horus and Ra into one bigger, more comprehensive god. "After all, when we're breaking our backs paying taxes to the Romans, who cares what's the name of that big guy in the sky? Horus, Ra, it's all Greek, or rather Egyptian, to me."
So, Horus as the sun-god of the ancient Egypt? Hardly. More like the remnant of the religion of a previously mighty civilization. The myth of the solar god, fabricated by the powers-that-be to enslave the ignorant masses, which is what "Zeitgeist" would have us believe? More like the masses, already enslaved by foreign conquerors, started to make a jumble out of their own traditions and beliefs.
And what of the virgin birth and the December 25 business? That was the dead giveaway that allowed me to identify their bad source. It turns out, the movie quotes heavily from somebody called Gerald Massey (mentioned on the credits at the end actually, but the name didn't catch my attention at first). Not a dishonest person probably, born in poverty and deprivation, educated himself despite hardship, a self-made man who ascended to a higher station in life through relentless effort despite overwhelming odds. I ended up kind of liking him actually, the way everyone's rooting for the underdog at the movies. But also, a self-taught Egyptologist, and that's the crucial point. Self-taught. He just learned "egyptology" by himself.
He is the source of long-standing but unsubstantiated rumours about Horus and his "virgin birth" and December 25. In reality, he had simply quoted a bunch of other people who dreamed up the whole affair. There are no egyptian texts supporting these allegations, no hieroglyphs, nothing. There may be things in life that only require you to be a good energetic capable person and nothing more, but Egyptology ain't it. Massey is rejected by modern (and true) Egyptologists. He may have been a fine person otherwise, but to the modern science studying ancient Egypt he is what Paracelsus is to modern chemistry - the weird grandfather with loony ideas whom everyone is embarassed to talk of.
And Massey is only one of the many bad sources used by this movie. In other words, wait, it gets worse.
After all, you know you're doing pretty badly when even pop culture has more precise information than you. Look at Enki Bilal's comics for the Heavy Metal Magazine (the Nikopol trilogy), or the movie "Immortel (ad vitam)" having Bilal in the director's seat (an awesome cinematic translation of the comics trilogy, great non-hollywoodian movie, a must-see for the fans of the genre) - Horus is one of the gods in this fantasy story, and he's definitely not the Sun-god, but the god with a man's body and the head of a falcon.
Look at the book "The Anubis gates" by Tim Powers, an unusual but well written sci-fi/fantasy hybrid with Ra as a marginal character, and it's Ra who is beyond any doubt the god of the Sun, not Horus.
Look no further than the book "The buried pyramid" by Jane Lindskold, an entertaining fantasy novel which seems to know more about ancient Egypt's religion than "Zeitgeist". The book even mentions the later syncretism between Horus and Ra and, while indeed one of its characters is this hybrid Sun god / Hawk god (no doubt because a tall muscular brilliantly shining man with the head of a hawk is a very spectacular asset for the plot), the readers are at least made aware that this has not always been the case in Egypt's religious history. Jane Lindskold did her research. Peter Joseph of "Zeitgeist" did not.
And this pop quiz primer is just put together from books and movies I've seen or read in recent years. Yup, no matter the philosophers, it's the whole pop culture pointing fingers at you and laughing, "Zeitgeist". Pretty embarrassing if you ask me.
And so it continues. Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu in the Hindu religion - the movie claims was born of a virgin, a star in the East assisted or announced the birth, then he performed miracles as a prophet, then died and was resurrected.
Okay. Let's go to the original sources, shall we? Krishna is one of the main characters in the Mahabharata, a work of traditional poetry of gigantic proportions, sort of like the Iliad and Odyssey put together, only much bigger. The book's main epic thread is the conflict between two royal families, the Pandava and the Kaurava, culminating with an epic battle after which the Pandavas, the good guys, win and rule the country, and the Kauravas, the bad ones, are defeated forever.
Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, has a pretty complex relation with Krisha - the latter is his friend, mentor, guru and, I guess I should say, god. Krishna, as the king of one of the many little indian states long time ago, is a powerful ally for the Pandavas, the good guys, who wisely use his help to secure victory over the evil Kauravas (both families courted Krishna before the battle, but it was the Pandavas, of course, who won his personal assistance).
A series of chapters in the Mahabharata are sometimes considered a separate book called Bhagavad Gita. You may have heard of it, it's the "gospel" of India, so to speak. It's the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna on the eve of the big battle, the latter feeling remorse for having to fight his cousins and uncles and nephews (the two warring clans were closely related), and the former responding with a "pep talk" which grows broadly into a big philosophical and metaphysical exposé (the gist being: "get up, take up your weapons and fight", "action is better than inaction", "do it in my name, I am the real source of all action, not a mere mortal like you" and finally "it is your nature to do this, you can't oppose your nature, it will force you to act even if you don't want to").
There are several other sources out of which Krishna's legend is constructed, but anyway, back to the movie: The virgin birth is not the mainstream indian legend. Krishna, according to the legend, was born in prison to princess Devaki and crown-prince Vasudeva. The legend is quite clear in saying his parents were imprisoned together (by evil king Kamsa, some sort of indian equivalent to king Herod). And together they had seven other children before Krishna, six of them killed by Kamsa, out of fear of a prophecy that one of the couple's sons would kill him (the seventh child escaped and became Balarama, a king like Krishna).
There is only one source (Bhagavata Purana) which claims Krishna was born without sexual union, Vasudeva having impregnated Devaki through some sort of yogic procedure. But even so, his mother was definitely not a virgin at that point.
The star in the East at Krishna's birth - maybe this is my fault, but I can't find any reference anywhere (using serious sources). I am going to stick my neck out and say it, too, was invented by the movie's author, or plucked by him out of a bad source. I could be wrong but I doubt it.
Next point, the miracles Krishna was said to have performed as a religious figure. Well, duh, you're trying to draw a parallel to Jesus Christ - fine, but use something more substantial than this, okay? Because, you know, all prophets and all saints and all avatars and all holy men and shamans and druids and medicine men and gurus, everywhere and in every time, are known as miracle workers. All of them. That's why they're considered holy. So then, why bother bringing it up? It's implied, it goes with the territory, it's nothing special. He was expected to perform miracles, as soon as he started his career as a god on Earth.
Next up, death and resurrection. Okay, so according to the actual indian legend, Krishna fought the good fight, helped Arjuna and the Pandavas win the big battle, then retired to enjoy life as king of Dwaraka for several decades. During his last years, after a bloody incident at his court (ending with his brother Balarama's "yogic" suicide), he renounced kingship and retired to the forest as a hermit (not unusual in ancient India, apparently). While sitting under a tree (either sleeping, or doing yoga meditation, depending on the source) he was shot with an arrow and killed by a hunter who mistook him for a deer. And that's it, end of story, according to the indian sources.
Yes, like any other prophet, he is said to have appeared in visions to many followers afterwards - let's pick a random example, Paramahansa Yogananda, an indian guru who lived in California in the first half of the 20th century, has claimed to have seen Krishna in visions many times during his life, including in 1936 at the Regent Hotel in Bombay, the vision smiling and waving at him standing on the roof of a high building across the street. Now, the vision's substantial reality is of course highly controversial, especially given that Yogananda doesn't even claim any witnesses or material traces of any kind - it was just a vision. But that's not what we're analyzing here. The important question in this context is: is that "resurrection"?
No, it isn't. It's "living in spirit", and it's a very different thing from the physical resurrection which would be the correct parallel to the christian myth. Most if not all big prophets and saints and avatars are said to live in spirit forever and appear as spiritual visions to their devotees. Krishna is no exception and there's nothing extraordinary about it.
No resurrection. Thumbs down again, "Zeitgeist".
Movie claims: born of a virgin, on December 25th, performed miracles.
Dionysus was the son of Zeus, who was one the biggest "players" ;-) among all gods ever, and one day he took a fancy for Semele, a princess, daughter of the king of Thebes. Apparently she was quite attractive, and Zeus was not one to turn a blind eye to the beauty of the earthly women. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon the pregnant Semele was noticed by Hera - you know, Zeus' legitimate wife, poor thing - who was quite naturally outraged by her husband's innumerable indiscretions.
A very strange sequence of events follows, with Semele killed by a divine vision, Dionysus as a foetus transplanted into an ad-hoc uterus that Zeus created in his thigh, and it was Zeus who eventually carried the pregnancy to term. Hence Dionysus Dimetor, or Dionysus "of two mothers", neither of which were virgins though - Semele definitely was not anymore after her encounter with Zeus; as for Zeus himself, Dionysos' second "mother", well, let's just say he was as far from virginity as humanly (or godly) possible.
December 25th again, and again I can't find any serious reference - we'll see below why no real source makes (or could make) any reference to this date.
Miracle working again, and again this is nothing special.
By the way, if you're talking about major solar gods like Jesus or Krishna, at least stay consistent. Dionysos was not the solar figure in the greek pantheon - that place is reserved for Apollo. Dionysos was the god of wine, ecstasy and madness, a visceral and orgiastic deity with nothing solar in it. If you're talking about apples, please don't switch to oranges mid-course. Thanks.
Main figure in the Zoroastrian religion in Iran and other countries. Movie claims again the virgin birth, the December 25, and the working of miracles. Also says he was surrounded by 12 disciples.
According to the actual legend, his birth was virgin only in as much as solid rock can be considered "virgin". That's how the legend describes him, as emerging, fully grown as an adult, from rock. The only author making any mention to a "virgin birth" is Joseph Campbell, an otherwise respectable figure in comparative mythology and comparative religion - we'll meet him again later in this commentary. It's hard to understand why Campbell made that observation. It contradicts everyone else in the field of mithraic studies. Seems like the movie is selecting its sources to match a given pattern.
December 25 - again, a lone author, Martin Larson, is responsible for the rumor. In this case, it's a very different story - while Campbell is somebody with a solid reputation (although not necessarily beyond error), Larson is more of a popularizer of religious ideas. Again, hard to discern why he said Mithra was born on "December 25", but in this case I won't worry too much, Larson being to religion what Bill Nye The Science Guy is to physics.
12 disciples? Where is that coming from? He was represented surrounded by the 12 astrological signs. And yes, there are parallels drawn between Jesus' close circle of disciples and the 12 signs of the zodiac. But Mithra and 12 disciples - I can't find anything like it anywhere.
I admit, I had to look this one up. I'm not a stranger to this field, but there are so many tiny details it would take more than a lifetime to learn them all. It turned out Attis was some sort of minor god in a backyard of ancient greek mythology.
Look, if you're talking about major solar gods, at least be consistent. If Christ or Krishna are major religious figures, Attis is nobody. If Krishna is the world-renowned star pianist performing front-stage on the grand Bosendorfer concert piano, Attis is the fifth guy on the seventh row of the orchestra playing the piccolo. Hardly any comparison can be made. Let's move on.
The December 25th fiction
The movie keeps talking about the alleged birth of these many religious figures on the same date: December 25th. The problem is - December 25th according to which calendar?
We are currently using the Gregorian calendar (and the Julian one before), which has a month called December which has more than 25 days. But all those various cultures mentioned in the movie use so many different calendars, sometimes difficult to reconcile with the Gregorian timekeeping method, that it is essentially meaningless to talk of a single date that remains fixed across cultures, in every epoch and every geographic area.
India uses the Saka calendar, which is a solar calendar like the Gregorian, but historically they had an eclectic mixture of various methods of keeping time that are hard to put in correspondence with each other, to say nothing of the modern calendar. They seem to have used a combination of solar and lunar calendars, and once you talk about lunar calendars, there is no hope for a direct correspondance to a completely solar method like the Gregorian one.
Iran at some point used the Zoroastrian calendar, with the year composed of 360 days - the difference between it and the 365.24 days of the Gregorian calendar makes it difficult to translate the dates, and there is certainly no way to simply proclaim "this day in the Zoroastrian calendar corresponds unambiguously to December 25th in the Gregorian or Julian calendar."
Ancient Egypt's calendar is not very well known. Then how can anybody say that some Egyptian deity was born "on December 25th?" Even if we knew more about their calendar, it appears to have been based on the motion of Venus, which throws out any hope of a simple translation between it and the current one.
So let me state this clearly: there is no universal "December 25th" across all cultures, in all places and all times. Various peoples had various ways of keeping track of time. What to us is indeed the 25th of December could have been several different dates each different year for some cultures of the past (and even present). Such a simple parallel ("it's December 25th everywhere!") is impossible to establish.
Focusing now on the movie's claim that, because there are so many similarities between religions, there must be some sort of "world conspiracy" using religion as a tool for domination:
Look, all these things have been studied before, this movie is not the first place where parallels between various myths are raised (and, sadly, often invented when reality doesn't provide enough "flesh" for the feverish imagination in search of world conspiracies). It's called comparative mythology, and it's a science studying various myths in order to evidentiate common themes and features. But comparative mythology proceeds rationally and scientifically, not from mirage to error to delusion.
There are many approaches to comparative mythology. It studies the myths from a linguistic perspective, looking at similarities of names - e.g. Zeus Pater in the European space and Dyaus Pita in India. It looks at the myths from a structural perspective - e.g. the fairy tales in certain cultures tend to have a similar and predictable plot and sequence of events. Finally, it uses psychological methods, Freudian or Jungian or other techniques to reveal the same psychological forces behind all the various myths.
And yes, there are many parallels between them. The great flood is perhaps the best example, and the movie does make a mention about it, saying it was "plagiarized" as proof of the world conspiracy. Oh, really? Are you aware that the same theme is present in the Aztec mythology too? Pray tell how exactly was it "plagiarized" across the Atlantic ocean, before Columbus?
The movie talks about the "death and resurrection" of many religious figures, in some cases inventing the resurrection to make the parallel seem more convincing. But this is the creative sacrifice and the dying god of so many cultures, including some Pacific islands, New Guinea, etc. How is that part of a conspiracy? How did the "conspirators" travel from ancient Egypt to the Pacific ocean in an era when the best means of naval transportation were the papyrus boats?
There are so many other parallels, besides those incorrectly used by the movie, some of them fascinating. The titanomachy, the fight between the gods of light and good and the dark deities is present in so many religions - from ancient Greece (gods vs. titans) to India (devas vs. asuras) to the Celts and so on. The Axis Mundi, the object or building or tree at the center of the world, is present also everywhere, literally on every continent, in every time, in every culture.
How can that possibly be part of a conspiracy?
Or just look at the concept of Monomyth, created by Joseph Campbell to describe any "hero's journey" type of myth. Buddha's, Moses', Christ's legends use the same narrative structure - and hear this, the same pattern is present in Star Wars, used to build the trajectory of one of the main characters (Luke Skywalker) through the vast panorama of the fictional universe in the movie. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card is fleshed out on the same transcultural and universal backbone of mythical substance.
All these myths and stories are the same because they reflect the same features of human psychology. It's essentially the same type of mind (Homo Sapiens) everywhere which created all these tales, and in that case there must be many details shared by otherwise unrelated mythologies.
But no, if you listen to "Zeitgeist", surely there's a conspiracy here. George Lucas must be one of the Illuminati, and Yoda is then the agent of Evil. Orson Scott Card too is one of them... oh wait, actually Card has been gravitating lately toward some sort of loony and, to speak honestly, kind of creepy radical right-wing politics, so maybe there is something to this whole conspiracy thing. At least as far as Card is concerned.
Okay, just kidding.
Jesus the unknown
The movie makes a reference at some point to Jesus "the unknown". This, again, is hardly unusual. With arguably the exception of Muhammad, the historicity of all the founders of major religions is barely more substantial than a wisp of fog. There are no uncontroversial historical references to Jesus outside the Bible - and the Bible itself is a self-contradictory text. Buddha is not different. Zoroaster doesn't fare much better. Krishna is definitely lost in the mists of ancient history. As for the religion of ancient Egypt, well, we barely know its generic outline, so any information about its founders is way beyond even hope.
(Note the exception: we do know there was a pharaoh called Akhenaten, or Amenhotep IV, who around 1300 BC tried to reform Egypt's religion to monotheism, a belief in the one god Aten, but it's pretty obvious he failed, in the grand scheme of things. His wife was called Nefertiti, whose bust is one of the most famous ancient works of art. They were succeeded by Tutankhamun, if that name rings a bell with you - hint: the most famous mummy in the world. So we do have some certified historic data in this case.)
All this is hardly surprising. All these figures, if real, lived very long time ago, during eras when only the most prominent characters (kings, emperors) had the details of their lives sculpted in stone to defeat time and reach us safely. A founder of religion must have been, typically, a figure whose influence grew significantly only after his death; many of these characters, to the contemporary eye, probably appeared slightly eccentric but otherwise ignorable, so there's no surprise there were no serious efforts during their lives to record their deeds in a prominent fashion - maybe with the exception of their disciples, whose memories were surely marked forever by the encounter with the numinous. An exception here might be, probably, Krishna, who is said to have been a king; but then, his birth, if real, took place around 3200 BC, five millenia ago, good luck finding solid historical references - Akhenaten's "age" is "only" two thirds of that, so perhaps that's why we do know a handful of things about him (also, the egyptians "wrote" their documents in solid rock).
And, of course, there is always the possibility that any or some or all of these figures are pure fiction, which is a perfectly rational hypothesis. But do you really need to watch such a movie to think about that? And is that necessarily a sign of a conspiracy, worldwide and spanning the ages, no less?
Somebody has not been applying Occam's razor that much, and they are in dire need to learn using it a whole lot more.
The second part of the review is here: