Immortals, Mythology and Metaphysics
A Review by Benton Rooks
“…Myth remains the proper language of metaphysics.” –Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
There are three essential layers and functions for any mythology: social, psychological and metaphysical /spiritual. The dualistic social function varies significantly from culture to culture—myths have often been used by the media, Church and the State as tactics of control to subdue the “masses”—but they are also educational tools for illustrating how mere mortals can achieve spiritual perfection or immortality through divine acts. A myth, then, cannot always be said to be false, at least not metaphysically, and therefore it may in fact be more true than some of the mythical narratives our consciousness weaves for us in the day-to-day routines we often find ourselves hopelessly trapped in.
While Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung had much to say about the psychological importance and function of myths and archetypes, the metaphysical aspects, i.e. how mythology illustrates fundamental spiritual truths through ritual, story and symbol—is more clearly illustrated by scholars such as Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, René Guénon, John David Ebert, Charles Upton and Frithjof Schuon. Ebert’s book Celluloid Heroes and Mechanical Dragons is particularly instructive for understanding director Tarsem Singh’s intent for Immortals, as Ebert claims that film is a perfect medium for conveying (albeit in a fragmented visual fashion) the rich grandeur of lore and wisdom found in world mythology for the post-literary digital age, and all without having to pick up a single book!
Indeed, Tarsem Singh’s latest film Immortals proves to be one of the most explicit films in recent memory to be inspired directly by mythology—not just in terms of thematic content, but also within the film structure itself. Singh’s self-conscious, postmodern sword and sandal Hero’s journey contains a circular narrative that ends cyclically—with a beautifully surreal vision of the Titans and the Gods suspended in the sky of endless epic battle. It is a visual that recalls the scenery of the astral plane, when wars of unimaginable scale occur between divine deities on inner spiritual planes. Moreover, this scene illustrates Singh’s ability to retain a truly cyclical form of storytelling common to the mythology of the Greek, Indian, Norse and Egyptian traditions. Paradoxically, this last vision nearly renders senseless all that we have previously seen of Theseus’s heroic struggle against the evil King Hyperion. By admitting the war of the Gods and Titans as truly eternal—an inner spiritual reality that only the Immortals seem to understand—the inner details of the film’s plot take on cosmic proportions in the grand vision of Immortals’ narrative logic. We realize that small mortal acts will do nothing to stop the inevitable fate which only the Gods have knowledge of.
Singh’s deceptively high gloss film utilizes Greek mythology as its jumping-off point, and while it has plenty of faults (namely, a lack of genuine character development and distinct emotional resonance for its characters) it nonetheless almost consciously forces the viewer to re-consider the larger than life archetypes on a cosmic scale—rendering each character’s individuality weightless against the looming weight of the original Greek myth. This last scene also highlights the central function of the war of the Titans and the Gods in mythological traditions the world over. For the war of the Gods and the Titans signifies a reconciliation of two contrasting dualistic principles, the light and the dark constantly consume one another until there is nothing left but non-duality or freedom from all contrasting opposites, and even all notions of mind, time and space that the Spirit does not need when it is free from the constraints of the body and mind, when it is fully naked and free to bathe in the divine light. As Coomaraswamy says:
“The Devas and Asuras, Angels and Titans, powers of Light and powers of Darkness in the Rig Veda [Rg Veda Samhitâ], although distinct and opposite in operation, are in essence consubstantial, their distinction being a matter not of essence but of orientation, revolution, or transformation, as indicated by such express statements as ‘The Serpents are the Suns’ in PB [Pancavimsa Brâhmana’]’ Thus Hermes can write: “By the friendship of contraries, and the blending of things unlike, the fire of heaven has been changed into light, which is shed on all below by the working of the Sun.” (Coomaraswamy, 1935, p. 1)
On the surface, Immortals is an incredibly violent film, but underlying the sleek CGI bloodbath is an account of how any true Hero attains spiritual immortality through symbolic violence. True to the original Greek myth, Theseus must slay the minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth (the latter of which is a symbol for maya or the illusory world of the senses and the limitations of the material plane as it is depicted in Hindu myth) in order to finally secure a climactic victory and sacrificial death over the scheming King Hyperion, who is expertly played by Mickey Rourke, easily stealing the show in terms of raw performance power in the film.
Like any other dragon slaying myths—such as the Norse Volsunga Saga, where Sigurd needs to slay a dragon in order to learn the essential language of the birds (the art of spiritual flight)—the slaying of the minotaur by Theseus signifies the conscious cessation of all unconscious, bestial and/or evil tendencies within ourselves. The minotaur is a mythological monster not unlike the demon goat Baphomet, who is a symbol of the gratification of the lower animal desires that may obstruct the way to Nirvana, where no other desire save primordial union with the Divine Source may exist. Indeed, in most Eastern religions desire is seen to be the force that binds the soul to the endless cycles of birth and death, just as Theseus would be bound to a mortal death if he had not risen to the challenge and trusted the wisdom of the Gods.
Thus, Theseus, just like Heracles and a host of other divine Heroes and Demi-Gods, is not made immortal until he is alchemically transmuted in a symbolic and otherworldly act of heroism. This is solidified for the viewer when we understand that he actually has to physically die in his sacrificial slaying of King Hyperion in order to be miraculously saved from death by the interdimensional Gods (who appear as transcendent beams of light and whisk his body away to the otherworld) to be reborn again as an Immortal who fights endlessly against the evil marble skinned Titans (here closely aligned with demons or Jinn) in the eternal space of the inner astral sky. The goal of Theseus’ journey is hammered home when we realize that his death means nothing in terms of the overall logic and progress of the narrative: the Titans (with the help of King Hyperion) still manage to physically kill some of the Gods and free themselves permanently from their imprisonment in time and matter, even though they are temporarily buried in a mountain destroyed by Zeus after the death of Theseus.
Indeed, just as the visual zaniness of Singh’s painterly CGI threatens to swallow the actors’ performances in the film, so too do the acts of the mortals and Titans seem to be swallowed by the all-knowing Gods, who seem to purposely test Theseus on the physical plane to see how much pain he is able to endure before his Soul may rest in eternal light and join the ranks of the Immortals. For the Gods love to make puppets out of mortals in the sands of time, as all of it is but a play to them, a mere film of endless sensual illusions, at least to those like the Gods who would forever transcend time and mind in favor of dedication to the higher purposes of divine service.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K., & Coomaraswamy, R. P. (2004). The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol., 55, no. 4, New Haven, Conn., 1935.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Indra and Namuci. Speculum.” 19.1 (1944): 104-125. JSTOR. Web. 22 Apr. 2011.
Ebert, J. D. (2005). Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons. Christchurch, New Zealand: Cybereditions.
Guénon, R. Symbols of Sacred Science (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis.
Schuon, F. (1965). Light on the Ancient Worlds. London: Perennial Books.
Upton, C. (2008). Folk Metaphysics: Mystical Meanings in Traditional Folk Songs and Spirituals. San Rafael, CA: Sophia Perennis.
For more on the hero’s journey see Otto Rank’s The Myth and Birth of the Hero, Lord Raglan’s The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The astral plane is described as the 2nd stage or gradation of metaphysical worlds often visited by yogis and spiritual visionaries. See http://www.kheper.net/integral/planes.html for a detailed description of the inner spiritual planes as well as a cross-cultural comparison.
There’s something refreshing about watching a guy chopping off another guy’s head and kicking his carcass off a cliff. The popcorn and beer taste so much better when bludgeoned and bloodied bodies are flying left and right. Four years ago, the adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 showed us just how much blood, gore, and kickass stunts action aficionados could take. Immortals is the latest action flick to try to tap into moviegoers’ lust for epic bloody battles on the big screen, the type taken to new levels of ultra-violence in 300. Though it’s not as good as 300, Immortals is not that far off the mark. With a badass like Mickey Rourke and action star in the making Henry Cavill, director Tarsem Singh does not let action lovers down. For more of my thoughts on Immortals, check out my review on Sobriety Test Movie Reviews at http://bit.ly/vkaT5c
Stu Grimson says
Saw this movie on a long flight back from Kuwait recently. Holy crap it was terrible.
Stu Grimson says
And I should say that I am generally pretty easy to please. Throw a couple gods with crazy helmets down to earth to perform a CGI spinning back kick on a titan, and you should have me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood on that long ass flight.
You’re right, Stu: it’s not a great film.