This weekend I went to visit a friend in Madrid, and whilst we were there we went to see Agora, the film with Rachel Weisch that I’d seen adverts for, but I didn’t have any idea what it was about (it’s weird when you don’t watch TV, you see all these billboards and adverts on buses, but all they have is their name and who’s in it. Without the trailer you have no idea what it’s about and most of the time they looks ridiculously crap). Anyway it turns out it’s about the library at Alexandria. Cool!
**Spoilers will be throughout this post alongside my thoughts, if you want to go see it, go and do so before reading this**
Anyway so the film opens by explaining that in the fourth century the Library wasn’t only a great store of knowledge, but that it was also surrounded by religious debate, and the opening scene marks a debate between a Christian and what they refer to as pagans, by which it means believers in the Roman gods. The Christian proves that he’s correct with a ‘miracle’ when he walks across the fiery coals without being hurt, and then his mates throw the pagan into the coals and of course he is burnt. Several characters see this as proof of Christianity. I don’t think I need to debunk that, but I was struck by how petty this god seems to be, to intervene to help a man cross some coals, but not intervening to prevent all kinds of suffering that no doubt were happening at this point in history. People were still dying in huge numbers during childbirth!
Anyway so one day the Christians start mocking the pagan gods, throwing rotten fruit at the statues. As a response to this insult, the pagans, so famous for their rational thought, decide to go on a killing spree, and quite a pathetic one at that. They surround the group of unarmed Christians with swords, but managed to get turned away and take many injuries. The Christians force them back into the Library, and they close the gates and are trapped inside.
I was very much reminded of a verse from the Bible, funnily enough. In Judges 6, Gideon breaks the altar of Baal and when the citizens of the town call for his head for doing it, his father says, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” Indeed. Why gods need people to defend them is beyond me.
So this pathetic, but tragically deadly religious bickering reaches a stalemate, both sides wanting blood. The Christian Emperor Theodosius decrees that the pagans will be pardoned, but that the library is to be given to the Christians to do whatever they want. So the Christians come in, destroy all the statues and burn all the ‘pagan’ works in the Library. This page seems to agree with the story, but with a small addition, the pagans had already been kicked out of their temples by the Romans, and then the Christians put up the statues in a church by way of mocking them, and that’s when the riot started. So the pagans aren’t a problem anymore, we now have the Jews and the Christians living side by side.
Not for long. In the film, the Christians go to the theatre on the Sabbath and throw stones at the Jews there. There’s a line where one of the Jews says that they couldn’t defend themselves because it was the Sabbath and that would be work. I suspect the director’s taking a bit of a poke at the idea of the Sabbath here. The Jews retaliate, and we’re in the same situation, with the Roman prefect trying to keep the peace between the two groups. It’s just so petty, and it’s still happening now, with religious fundamentalists still waging wars against each other.
Anyway the interesting thing is that throughout all of this we have the philosopher Hypatia, nominally a pagan, but she doesn’t really refer to ‘the gods’ at all. She’s been pondering whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa, discovers that both are possible, but comes to the problem that we’re further away from the sun in the winter. She’s a friend of the prefect, who becomes unpopular because he takes advice from this woman (albeit probably the most intelligent woman of her time), which is against the teachings of Paul as we know. Perhaps yet another dig at modern-day religious beliefs on the part of the director? So Hypatia’s literally just discovered the shape of the ellipse in the orbit, by some strange method involving dividing the sun into two parts, and seeing that the sum distance between them doesn’t change, which seems really strange considering she knows there’s only one sun. But I digress. Hypatia gets kidnapped by the Christians, taken to a church where they want to skin her alive. But one of the Christians, a former slave of Hypatia, says to stone her instead, and when they go to gather stones, he suffocates her out of mercy, while she stares at the ellipse shape made by the shadow of the sun through a hole in the ceiling. Nice feel-good ending.
But the message of this film seems clear, and I’m surprised that Christians in the US haven’t announced a boycott on this one as well (I suppose their pastors didn’t notice it so they had noone to think for them). We have religious groups fighting amongst each other, each essentially looking no less pathetic than the others. They claim to have these deep, very important beliefs, but actually in practice these beliefs don’t achieve anything but destruction. The main victims of this destruction are Hypatia as a woman and as someone accused of godlessness, and also science and the progress of the human race. It’s just such a pity that the world has changed so little between now and then. Still now we have the threat of armageddon with nuclear weapons in the hands of religious fanatics, we have religious groups holding back the progress of research into potentially life-saving science, and we still have women and atheists being oppressed in many parts of the world by religious groups. Religionists take note, many of your views seem as pathetic to me as the views of the characters will to you.