Alternative Character Interpretation: Religion And Mythology
Egyptian Mythology: Set. He might be the heroic guardian of Ra, a jealous brother, or a chaotic god of evil. The darker interpretations were the result of politics and not reflected by all Egyptians. Unfortunately for Set, the latter two are the more well-known in popular culture, and his place as the Egyptian god of evil is used in many modern sources, such as the Forgotten Realms. There are also some interpretations who view him as...sort of evil but nothing compared to Apep/Apophis.
Many retellings of Cinderella include the two stepsisters... however, many portray one of these stepsisters as not being all that bad. It's always the younger of the two who does this - and sometimes she may end off better when karma bites them and the wicked stepmother in the ass. (In fact, many older versions have the younger sister be the one who calls her Cinderella, as opposed to Cinderslut.) This shows in Ever After, and even seeped into the Disney version where the sequels show Anastasia undergoing Character Development.
The Snow Queen's personality and degree of villainy varies from adaptation to adaptation — some have her as a straight-up villain, while others portray her as more of an Anti-Villain who kidnapped Kai out of loneliness or to have him and/or Gerda help her fix the mirror or break a curse.
While it is common Christian dogma that God is a God of love and is all-caring, the Book of Job, in which God screws over an innocent man's life by giving Satan free hands to maim and kill any- and everyone related to Job over a bet with said incarnation of evil, can be seen as evidence for the contrary. Making it even stranger is how the entire book is Job condemning God while his accusers tell him that God is all-loving — and then, at the end, after lecturing Job on how he's not qualified to critique God, God turns around and attacks his accusers, saying that "you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has." One interpretation of Job is that Job wasn't speaking badly of God but was demanding an answer off him while Job's friends are telling him that he must be doing evil things since God only punishes the wicked. Job learns in the end that God doesn't have to tell him why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa) while Job's friends are told by God that good things and bad things happen to good and bad people alike, and they should stop judging others when things go bad for them.
Almost every major atheist author has done a critique of the Bible which treats God as an evil, ego-maniacal tyrant and murderer. It's required. Consider the familiar Exodus story, where God kills the firstborn sons of all Egypt in the 10th Plague, but passes over the Jews. It's laughably easy to treat the story as an example of God Is Evil. Those children hadn't enslaved His chosen people. Their fathers had. Instead, He sent His angel to murder babies whose only sin was being the firstborn son of an Egyptian. God directly commands the death of babies. The whole Bible has received such treatment.
Richard Dawkins goes through many accounts of Biblical events and comes to the following conclusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” He goes on to say that while the Old Testament God was harsh and cruel, He did stop when those who angered Him were dead. The New Testament added in Hell.
Christopher Hitchens gave similar interpretations of the character of God of the Bible many times. Sam Harris did it as well.
This interpretation have been around pretty much as long as there have been Christians. Notably the 1st-to-2nd century bishop Marcion of Sinope dedicated most of his career to prove the Old Testament/Traditional Jewish God to be incompatible with the God Jesus speaks of.
According to some Gnostic interpretations, suffering is required for whatever the ultimate state of the universe is. From there, it goes that God lived and suffered as a human as a way of saying "Hey, I'm not just torturing you guys for my own jollies. I'm willing to pay the price as well."
God admittedly claims Himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: His chosen people are the Israelites. Hence, salvation is possible only for them in the Old Testament, for his Covenant was with the Hebrews. Then came the New Testament: the Old Covenant gave way for Jesus, the New Covenant, opening the possibility of salvation to all.
The Jewish interpretation is rather different: God has a special covenant with the Israelites, but also made a general covenant with Noah after the Flood, which is why "The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come."
Then there's the alternate interpretation that God is above interpretation. Since humans are mortal creatures, and extremely limited (barely removed from our tree-dwelling, poop-flinging ancestors), there's no way we could really begin to comprehend an infinite being such as God, and trying to apply our own views and interpretations is the height of arrogance.
Is God either Good Is Not Nice or Good Is Not Soft? Can He be both? For the "not nice" part, He does a lot of things which humanity will find cruel, disproportionate, and evil, but in God's mind, it's fair and just (not to mention that He has a very hot temper in dealing with his loved ones and He didn't have any qualms in ruining Job's life in order for him to prove his faith). For the "not soft" part, He is kind, loving, and merciful, but He won't hesitate to punish those who have done evil, especially if it's downright monstrous. He also has the willingness to protect humanity from the hands of Satan. For both tropes to be in play, He appears to be a nice guy, but He's mostly wrathful and downright vindictive to those who have committed a sin, including minor ones, and all of the brutal things He does doesn't really make Him a clear-cut nice guy others expect Him to be.
A simple explanation for the difference in God's behavior in the Old and New Testaments is that after he lived life through Jesus, He saw that things were not as perfect as he believed them to be for the humans.
Of course morality varies widely throughout cultures. You can never satisfy everybody. For some people he could be acting perfectly reasonably but Values Dissonance. Then of course there is the possibility of Unreliable Narrator, someone could be exaggerating what happens because it sounds better.
There are about six different versions of the Taking of Hippolyta's Girdle alone, never mind the amount of times someone goes all Shrodinger and is either dead or living on a different continent which later comes to be named after them.
As war has becoming less accepted in the world modern interpretations of Ares make him increasingly evil, rather than just a force of nature. This is arguably also true of Hades.
The Romans took this in the opposite direction, reveering their Mars as a hero, as opposed to the childish and violent Ares of Greek myth. Technically, Athenian myth - the rivalry between Athens and Sparta was represented in that of Athena and Ares. The Spartans undoubtedly had a more positive view of Ares. He still wouldn't have been a nice guy, though - the Spartans had no use for nice guys. And besides, the Spartans' most important gods were Artemis Orthia and Athena of the Brazen House.
The myth of Heracles is mostly known in the Theban version, where Hera appears as his inveterate enemy, but things probably looked very different in the unrecorded traditions of Hercules' native Peloponnesus, in particular his home town of Argos, where Hera was the most important deity. His name ("Glory of Hera") and episodes like Hera suckling the infant Heracles and eventually agreeing to him marrying her daughter Hebe have been seen as traces of a more positive portrayal of their relationship.
The Hindu religions of India and the Iranian religion of Zoroastrism: Both derive from an older indo-iranian religion system mirrored their pantheon: In India, there are the good Devas (gods) and the bad Ashuras (demons), in Zoroastrism, there are/is the good Ahura and the bad Devas/Dehas/Deshas. For example, Indra is a powerful God of rain in India and once was one of the God Lords (before Vishnu and Shiva grew more popular), in ancient Zoroastrism Indra is an evil demon of drought a whirlwinds. It probably confused the Zoroastrians a big time when they entered India.
Early Christian tradition was practically an exercise of Alternative Christology writ large. Each of The Four Gospels included in the Bible present a different version of the Jesus story, ranging from the very human Jesus of Mark, to the stoic Jesus of Luke, to the Word-Incarnate of John. Other non-canonical Gospels of the day presented Jesus as a full-human whom God adopted, a full-deity only pretending to suffer and die, a human who was possessed by the spirit of Christ, or even a fictional allegory for transcendence of a person's inner spirit over their bestial inclinations.
This website makes a case of Jesus being the son of Satan who came to lead people astray. The site is completely serious and relies heavily on textual analysis of the original Greek.
Some Buddhist and New Age philosophers have theorized that Jesus was not God Incarnate, but rather a man who had a spiritual experience that his religious education could not account for (possibly something akin to samadhi), and went around calling himself the Son of God because that was the closest analogue to his experience that Judaism could offer. Some have even theorized that at some point during the unrecorded years of his life, Jesus may have wandered eastward and studied the principles of Buddhism to try and gain a better understanding of what happened to him.
Alan Watts: If Jesus had been born in India, and went around saying, "I'm God!" They wouldn't have condemned him; they would have said, "Congratulations, you figured it out!"
As a Deist, Thomas Jefferson believed Jesus was an ordinary human and that all the miracles and stuff were added to the story later to make it more exciting or whatever. Nevertheless thinking that Jesus Was Way Cool, he created what's generally known as the "Jefferson Bible", which is basically the New Testament with all the supernatural elements removed.
Judas, from The Bible, is frequently given a sympathetic Alternate Character Interpretation—usually because the narrative seems to imply that without his "betrayal" Jesus would never have been arrested, and hence could not be tried or executed. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most famous examples of the idea that Jesus was going to be arrested regardless of who betrayed him, or even if someone betrayed him. Judas, not Jesus, is the main character, and he betrays Jesus to the Romans not because he wanted the money, but because he was afraid; he believed that the crowds Jesus was drawing were becoming more and more radical, and he felt he needed to end things before large-scale violence broke out. The final scene consists of the entire cast, including Judas, in Heaven, singing a reprise of the title song and wondering what the significance of Jesus's life and death actually was. However, various interpretations of the show have also had Judas reprise the song from Hell, including a 2000 film version which has Judas taunt and goad Jesus on as he carries his cross.
Real World Example: According to the Cainite and Gnostic interpretation in the Gospel of Judas, Judas Iscariot didn't betray Jesus out of greed for money, but acted on Jesus' secret orders, because Jesus believed that his crucifixion was a part of God's plan, which would make Judas an instrument of divine purpose. The translation sponsored by National Geographic is an extreme Macekre of the original text - to the point that it omits the word "not" from a couple passages, completely changing their meaning. *Sigh.*
A secondary alternative character interpretation of Judas is that his "betrayal" was more of a Chessmaster ploy gone wrong. Judas wanted Jesus to stand trial and win. It would push Jesus's ministry to the forefront of the Jerusalem scene, and ironically Jesus's worst enemies would help fund it. His subsequent dismay was completely predictable.
A slightly modified version of the above would be that Judas fully believed in Jesus but was dismayed that, as the son of god, he wasn't forcibly casting the Romans out of Israel; merely quietly going around preaching and doing good works. By betraying him to the Romans, Judas hoped to bring it to a head so Jesus would have to show himself to be the Messiah, either turning the Romans to worship him or simply driving them out. When Jesus allows himself to be crucified, Judas is distraught as his plan has come to naught and commits suicide in shame and sorrow at the loss of both his friend and Messiah.
In Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal has an alternate interpretation similar to The Last Temptation in Film examples. But with eastern magic and judo powers, pun included. Judas is left mostly to the reader's interpretation, but appears to have done what he did because Joshua asked and was one of his closest disciples after Mary and Biff. The original characters can have their own alternate character interpretations: Notable examples include the exact nature of Balthazar 's feelings toward Joshua, and whether Joy was a cold The Stoic who snapped after the slaughter of her adoptive family, or was the most affectionate but tried to hide it. One character, the second wise man even intentionally made and lampshaded an alternate character interpretation of himself (two, if you count when they first meet him).
This trope applied to Judas is the premise of "Three Versions of Judas" by Jorge Luis Borges. According to the protagonist, Norwegian theologian Nils Runeberg, Judas is either 1) a loyal follower who intuitively understood the Kabbalistic truth that, for God to lower himself to become a man and die, it was necessary that a human being make a parallel sacrifice: to become a traitor and thus condemn himself to damnation; 2) a radical ascetic who believed that he was not worthy of righteousness, and therefore chose the most ignoble infamy to debase himself; or 3) Messianic Archetype, who truly made the ultimate sacrifice to redeem humanity: not a few hours on the cross, but eternal torment and lasting ignominy, being reviled as the worst of all sinners. Runeberg interprets the backlash engendered by his third thesis as a confirmation that God did not want his secret name to be known. He dies in the streets of an embolism (or something), ranting that his only desire is to join his Redeemer in Hell.
Judas: Jesus's willing collaborator and enabler of Christ's death and resurrection.
King Arthur/ Arthurian mythos: Try this one: Morgan le Fay is supposed to be Arthur's archenemy. She supposedly hated him because he owed his birth to the fact that his father, Uther Pendragon, murdered her father, Gorlois, and raped her mother, Igraine. Now let's look at what she actually did to her half-brother: she exposed the fact that his wife, Guinevere, was cheating on him with Lancelot. She herself slept with Arthur and gave him the son and heir, Mordred, whom his wife never gave him. Then, after Arthur and Mordred go to war over a misunderstanding, and Arthur kills Mordred at Cammlann, receiving a mortal wound himself in the process, Morgan carries him to Avalon to be healed. So, her undying enmity for her half-brother was exposed by her exposing the fact that his wife was cheating on him, then sleeping with him and bearing him a son, and then, after he kills their son, forgiving him and healing him. Perhaps, far from hating him, Morgan loves her brother, albeit in an unhealthy way, and is trying her best to be good to him.
Morgan as Mordred's mother is mostly a recent innovation - in older material, that's usually Morgause (or Anna, if we go back to when Arthur wasn't his father). Morgan in her earliest appearances is just a healer, then becomes an enemy of Lancelot and Guinevere but not too ill-disposed towards Arthur; it's only by the later Middle Ages that she's mostly evil, and really only in modern interpretations that she becomes the Arch-Nemesis - mostly because she's the only "bad guy" who's there right through the story, so if you want Arthur to have an archnemesis she fills the role better than anyone else. (In most versions, btw, she tries but fails to expose the adulterers - it's Mordred and Agravaine who succeed. This in itself has been subject to a bit of alternate character interpretation: modern versions often make Mordred an Evil Mastermind exposing them as part of his plot to bring down Camelot, whereas in earlier versions it seems to be a genuinely well-intentioned plan devised by Agravaine; things go south accidentally, and Mordred seizing power afterwards is pure opportunism.)
Anyone in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana has had alternative character interpretations attached to them and it is not just in modern times. Kamban Ramayana, the first regional translation of the Ramayana in something like the seventh century portrays Ravana from being the Big Bad to sympathetic Anti-Hero whose one moral flaw was women and similarly, the Orissan interpretation of the Mahabharata portrays the protagonist Royal Prince Pandavas as essentially Jerk Ass for participating in the Kurushetra War. Region, Gender and Class/Caste all influence one's interpretation of both these epics.
Native American Mythology Coyote. He's portrayed as everything from God's best friend, to a parallel to Satan. In some stories, he's the hero. In others, the villain. He is sometimes portrayed as an absolute badass, or as The Chew Toy. In some stories, he creates the World out of kindness. In others, he does stuff like placing the stars by kicking over the table they were on because another of the Animal People wouldn't let him make a constellation of his own, or releasing the sun and moon into the sky because he was too curious to leave the box they were in closed. He can be a real Jerkass, or even The Woobie.
Noah's drinking: innocent mistake because the fermentation process was different after the flood, simple drinking habit he'd always had, or his way of dealing with all he had seen? Perhaps some combination thereof.
Loki. Should you casually make mention of him as a 'bad guy', you will be chastised by both his hurt/comfort-obsessed fangirls and mildly saner (if snootier) fans of the earlier Eddas, who'll point out that most of the versions of the myths in which he's a bastard date from relatively late in the game. Turn around and say he's a good guy, however, and numerous people will pat you on the head and say, "Awww, that's adorable. You actually think there are good guys in these stories."
To be fair, even in the grimdark interpretation of Norse Mythology, Loki's penchant for "mischief" does set him apart on quite a few occasions for simply going too far for even the tastes of the most sadistic among the Asgardians.
Odin, oh dear sweet merciful heavens, Odin. He has often been made out as the Big Good in modern times, but let's go over a couple of things: First off, one of his nicknames is Oathbreaker, meaning that he is FAMOUS for committing one of the biggest sins in Norse Myth, breaking his word. Second, there are two forms of magic that are available in Norse myth, one exclusively male, one exclusively female. Odin learned both, one by sacrificing his eye, the other by allowing himself to be hung by his neck from the World Tree for 10 days. This means he is capable of making any sacrifice for power, regardless of cost (case in point, when Loki was bound, on Odin's orders, Loki's son was murdered and his guts were turned into iron chains to bind him. Which means Odin had an innocent person murdered so he could get back at Loki, who allegedly killed Odin's son Balder). Third, the whole Balder incident: let ask you, which is more likely, that Odin neglected one item in his list of things that could not hurt his son because he thought it was harmless, or because he didn't want a completely unkillable god with a legitimate claim to his throne who might try to overthrow him in the future? Leaving the Mistletoe off the list wasn't an oversight, it was an insurance policy. Loki was just unlucky. Fourth, Valhalla: the only real condition that you have to meet to get in is die fighting. It doesn't really matter which side you were on, whether you were a good person or not, you just had to die in battle. If you were badass enough that no one could ever kill you that you lived to an old age and died of illness, then through no fault of your own, you go to Hel, a very unpleasant person. Odin wanted his paradise filled with the roughest, toughest, hardest bastards who ever lived, so that when Ragnarok came, he'd have an army of the best soldiers who ever died to protect him. Honor was meaningless, he just wanted to win.
Regarding the Valhalla thing, Odin used the Valkyries to select who was going to die in battle, so it wouldn't matter if you were an unkillable badass if they wanted you dead. You'd think this would lead to a strange form of natural selection where all the greatest warriors were killed for Odin at the prime of their lives, leaving only the crappy ones he didn't want; thereby allowing those to be the ones that reproduced and trained the next generation of warriors. Perhaps this is what lead to the Viking's eventually weakening and getting defeated by the English and Irish.
Uh...isn't the whole point of the term "choosers of the slain" that it refers to the Valkyries choosing the best souls amongst those already dead from a recent battle? The idea of a glorious afterlife if you fight well, makes alot more sense from a military morale stand point than the idea that if you fight well, you are going to get your soul pulled out through your sphincter. The former would inspire warriors to fight harder, the latter would convince warriors to run like hell, to run away from any and all fights to evade soul swiping super models on horseback.
Alternatively, Odin killing Loki's son may be more of Values Dissonance justice than morally suspect revenge. The Code of Hammurabi, which was the phrase "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" among other things, specifies that a house builder whose work fails and kills the owner will be killed, but if it kills the owner's son, the builder's son will be killed. The idea of justice being proportional to the crime rather than equal to the crime (perhaps adjusted for differences between the victim and perpetrator) is a relatively recent development.
Um, the Code of Hammurabi isn't where, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" comes from. That would be Old Testament. And it comes after a story involving the slaughter of a lot of people over something a few of them did, so it's not the vengance law that a lot of people think it is but, rather, a call for fairness and proportionality.
Incidentally, contemporary historical sources describe Pilate as a typical iron-fisted Roman overlord, quite unlike his biblical portrayal as an ineffectual ruler who only sentenced Jesus because he was pressured. One way to reconcile this is to assume that Jesus was so awesome that even Pilate thought he was innocent. Another is that the authors of the Gospels were deliberately whitewashing the Romans and demonizing the Jews for propaganda reasons. Others have brought up that Pilate may have worked out that the religious leaders were trying to manipulate him, and given his hatred of the people he ruled under he would be inclined to go against them out of spite.
Russian Folklore: Baba Yaga - depending on the work, she's either the most common Wicked Witch who Eats Babies and lives on a house on chicken legs, flying on a mortar and pestle. Other times; she may be a crone...but is sought out for her wisdom or has guided lost souls.
Genesis, the first book of The Bible, depicts The Serpent as a simple talking snake. Later Christian interpretations cast The Serpent as Satan (in disguise!), whereas the Gnostic texts of the fourth and fifth centuries depict the snake as a teacher of humanity. One interpretation of the Serpent paints him similar to Prometheus from Greek mythology: defying God to make humanity more intelligent and independent, suffering damnation for his efforts.
And Satan is the simple character compared to God, who put the tree there in the first place. Is he following a ineffable plan the mere attempt to comprehend which would destroy our puny minds? A petty tyrant looking for a way to torture us and call it our fault? A genuinely compassionate being, foiled by an equally powerful adversary? A loving parent, leading but not pushing us into growing up, and developing free will and responsibility? Or maybe he just has the right to say what can and can't be done with his own stuff, like a land-lord renting the house but not the garage? Or perhaps it's an allegory meant to convey that God understands that for mankind to truly love him they have to be given the option not to. Or is that just too reasonable?
In Atlas Shrugged John Galt's interpretation of Genesis is that after eating the fruit humanity gained morality and after that (when they had to begin working) productivity, main virtues.
There's also the idea that he is metaphor for sex and the loss of virginity.
There is also the idea that Adam and Eve left the Garden more or less voluntarily because once their eyes were opened they realized it was completely and utterly dull.
Jewish Interpretation: before the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were static creatures unable to create things. They left because the garden, being perfect, was too small for them. they were subsequently given a broken world to fix together with God.
One interpretation of Genesis is that the first man Adam was split into male (ish) and female (ishshah) halves, neither having primacy (rather than thinking of Adam as "first" and Eve as "second"). [And thus god was not forgetful, nor was the same story told twice]
Satan, a truly evil heartless bastard out to get humanity simply because God loves them so much, as mentioned above God's former number one son seeing his master for the evil bastard and attempts to stop him from creating a truly tortured creature, man, yet fails and is sent to hell, OR a man jealous of how humanity is given free will and favor over god's fully devoted servants whom were there first and done much more for god than man could possibly dreamed of. The final straw was being forced to bow down to a being so undeserving.
Consider, Satan doesn't do anything evil in the entire Bible. In Genesis, he teaches Adam & Eve good and evil and is cursed for it. In Job he's acting specifically with God's approval. He supposedly rebelled against God, along with 1/3 of the Angels, but what's wrong with rebelling against an oppressive ruler? He "tempts" Jesus by offering him wealth, power and prestige. Most of the worst acts in the Bible are done by God, on God's orders, or by humans acting of their own free will.
Satan comes from Ha-Satan, which translates to "opposer." This has are at many ways you can take it:
According to the Qur'an, the Virgin Mary was a single mom (but still a virgin), and Jesus uttered the whole "first stone" speech at a few days old, in the defense of his mother, and not the unnamed woman caught in adultery. He also ascended to heaven before he was crucified because god wanted to spare him from the a horrible painful death.
Christianity is also subject to this. Are Christians simply Jerks With A Heart Of Gold who want to help the suffering sectors of humanity by preaching a coming of a savior who died for our sins, philosophers who are trying to answer the meaning of life by pointing it to a Physical God, misunderstood hippies, fanatics who are afraid of a little progress and struggles to bring the world back to the Stone Age because progress defiles the Creator's effort, or all of them at the same time? The same can also apply to Islam.
Muslims. Are they overall a peaceful group with an undeserved bad reputation due to Islam being hijacked by a violent, vocal minority? Or do Muslims use any perceived slight on their God as an excuse to riot and burn embassies and flags, showing the misogynistic and vengeful side to the teachings of Koran?
Don't only target the religious. Are atheists people who have Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions or people who refuse to acknowledge a superior power and create their own morality?
You'll probably find that each of these groups are divided.
It's explicitly stated in Genesis 3:22-24 that God was afraid that Adam and his as-yet-unnamed wife would eat of the Tree of Life and live forever, thus becoming like Himself. Since immortality is seen as abnormal for humans, this would seem to indicate that when God created both humans and Eden, He included mortality in the design plan:
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever; Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
Immortality was supposed to be the natural state of humanity, which Adam & Eve lost by sinning. Their punishment was to die, so allowing them to eat from a tree that would make them immortal would be allowing them to escape that punishment.
The whole Cain and Abel story. Was God being arbitrary? Was Cain unfairly treated? Was Abel an asshole that was never recorded? Did Abel actually earn the prize? Was it a Secret Test of Character Cain failed miserably? Or was Cain denied the prize for the evil in his heart? Or did he even understand what he had done before it was too late, or did he repent afterwards?