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Pandora’s Pagan Paradise? Spoiler Alert – Avatar Review

Released in the same week as the Copenhagen climate summit (not an accident given its very deliberate environmental message), Cameron’s Avatar is alight with beautiful paradox This most technologically advanced of movies, product of our complex capitalist culture, extols a society seemingly without writing. Try inventing 3D cinema without writing.

But Pandora is a utopia, and utopias are fascinating because of what they have to say about the parent cultures that imagined them. In this utopia, lithe blue Na’vi men and women appear to enjoy equal status and respect, at least in the sphere of hunter-warriors occupied by Neytiri, the woman (not yet with children) at the centre of the story. And the Na’vi live in harmony with nature. Indeed, Nature is their religion. The Omatikaya (Blue Flute Clan) whom Cameron introduces us to, are Gaia-ist immanent pantheists. Eywa is their deity and she, the “All Mother”, is the planet Pandora itself, in particular the electrical bio-connectivity which is shared between all its creatures. She speaks to the Na’vi in signs, by means of the floating seeds of sacred trees (Neytiri calls them “very pure spirits”) and in the bond they are able to form with plants and animals by a joining of tendrils at the end of their hair plaits. The voices of Na’vi ancestors can also be accessed, by linking tendrils with violet bioluminescent “trees of souls”. The Omatikaya have a clan mother and a clan father. But it is the clan mother who is their spiritual leader or shaman; she who “interprets the will of Eywa”.

You begin to see a very modern paganism. The lithe and high-kicking screen feminism of the last couple of decades (think Cameron’s own Dark Angel for example) where violence is ever-present and wielded with aplomb by hot girl-women is combined with a Goddess-as-Gaia spirituality. Meanwhile ex US military, working for a greedy nature-destroying corporation, are the enemy. Avatar is clearly the product of a culture which contracts military duties to private companies like the infamous Blackwater and also permits women to serve in many military roles as well as recognising an ever increasing number of pagan faiths in the services; Pagan, Wiccan, Druidic, Shamanic, Dianic Wicca, Gardenarian Wicca and Seax Wicca.

The film raises some interesting questions about violence and paganism. The People, as the Omaticaya call themselves, live in an absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful forest (it is worth seeing the film several times just to be there), but, that forest is populated by some extremely fierce clawed beasties and it is as hunter-warriors that the Na’vi are initiated into adulthood. The human visitor they relate to the most is, like them, someone of sinew and muscle who delights in physical challenge. Jake Sully, the hero, is a marine. Do the Na’avi practice war themselves, or are their warriors simply defenders of the clan from marauding predators? We see a gathering of the clans to fight the common human enemy, carrying weapons aplenty, bows and arrows and lances, but the film glosses over whether they have ever used them on each other. Martin Prechtel, someone who spent time with Tzutujil Mayan people in Guatemala and talks about that traditional culture with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, recently told a story (at a talk of his I was at) about how “there had never not been war” amongst the different Mayan groupings, until the great and terrible earthquake of 1976 when it seemed the world was ending. Pretchtel also spoke about the tradition of cultural exogamy, of marrying only women from out-groups, and how, in some Native American cultures, secret prayers would be said to make the warriors of their enemies strong so that the daughters of their enemies would also be strong. War has probably been part of sexual selection amongst human beings in many settings.

Pandora is a world ruled by a fierce natural selection, one that appears to keep the Na’avi population at levels that do not upset the balance of its ecosystems. Critics have unkindly pointed out the similarities to Dances with Wolves, Disney’s Pocahonatas and FernGully. But Avatar is Paradise Lost. It is the longing for an earth before the discovery of agriculture some ten thousand years ago, the inexorable rise to seven billion people and the brink of environmental apocalypse. Of course Cameron’s pagan utopia is not without violence. How could it be when the spectacle of violence is the ker-ching in the Hollywood blockbuster? It is a utopia where there is room for violence. Neytiri, in a move clearly echoing some Native American traditions, teaches Jake that when an animal is killed for food its spirit must be thanked. Pandora is a utopia where violence is legitimately spiritual.

Critical reactions have been mixed, and are quite entertaining in themselves. US right wing bloggers have called the film a smorgasbord of tree hugging treachery. Guardian readers have be-moaned recycled plots. One website (I am still fence-sitting about whether it’s a spoof or not) titled “Stop Avatar, the Future is Transgender Not Straight” calls for protests because there are no LGBT characters in the film. Much entertaining back-talk follows. But, is it really stupid to wonder what it would be like to be gay in Na’vi society? One of the film’s conundrums is also one of the conundrums of recontructionist paganisms and the modern world that increasingly embraces them. Do we really want to live “way back when”, without painkillers and sofas? The answer, provided rather resoundingly by Cameron at the box office, is yes we very much do. In our imaginations…


  1. Lonnie
    Posted January 14th 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Excellent article! It seems you have taken away the same impression of the movie as I did. I fell in love with Pandora. I was envious of the tendril connection all living things seemed to share. I couldn’t stop imagining how wonderful that could be in our own culture. I gave the film two thumbs up. Any work of art that generates so much discussion is a treasure.

    On a side note, I have similar pain killer and sofa debates with my recon friends. They claim they would toss aside all the comfort and medicine of modern life for the way back when machine. I doubt most of them know how to hunt.

    Great post and good read! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Jenny Peacock
    Posted January 19th 2010 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Yes indeed. As you did Lonnie, I fell in love with Pandora – head over heels. I’m still having fun arguing about it. A pretty puzzle – anarcho-primitivist philosophy embedded in Coca-Cola tie-in entertainment product. I’ve noticed that some reviews refer to Neytiri as a Na’vi “Princess” and as the biological daughter of the clan shaman-ess and clan “leader”. This hierarchy/ fairy-tale framework is, of course, familiar to us and Cameron cleverly calls on that, but he also mixes it up. Neytiri is the Omaticaya’s shaman-in-waiting and, at least as I read it, a chosen spiritual rather than necessarily a biological daughter. Therein lies a hierarchy of course (so not pure anarcho-primitivism) but it’s a hierarchy not of blood but of “calling”, an anarcho-pagan-primitivism. Depending on your perspective that’s either the beginning of religious tyranny or, as the name “Pandora” sets out to suggest, the beginning of hope; the very last thing to fly out of the box of horrors, rejuvenation for the hearts of tired aliens from a tired Earth.

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted January 19th 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    We watched Avatar over the weekend, and it reminded me very much of a short story by Poul Anderson Call me Joe written in 1957 (i’d just re-read it, as it happens). Other people have pointed this out of course.
    I thought the “colonial critique” aspect of Avatar was interesting – the corporation’s incredulity -that despite their best efforts to bring the Na’vi the “benefits” of civilisation – they remained unashamedly “primitive”. Also Sully’s initial fact-finding mission as a form of knowledge-management – brought to mind the East India Company’s commissioning of Max Muller to translate the Vedas – in order to manage the natives appropriately.