Alternative Character Interpretation / Religion and Mythology

The Bible.

  • Cain and Abel
    • Was God being arbitrary? Was Cain unfairly treated? Did Cain have some further reason for his grudge against Abel that was never recorded? Did Abel actually earn the prize? Was it some kind of Secret Test of Character Cain failed miserably? Was Cain denied the prize for the evil in his heart? Did he even understand how horrible what he had done was before it was too late? Did he repent afterward?
  • God
    • In the Book of Job, God lets Satan destroy Job's possessions and wipe out his family (though Satan leaves Job's nagging wife alive to torment him further) and then give him some really painful disease to maximize his suffering, all as part of a bet with Satan. Job's friends turn up to mourn all his losses with him, and then start tormenting him by insisting he must have done something to deserve all this suffering and he needs to repent. Job pleads his innocence and curses the day he was born, but holds out hope that if he can just plead his case to God personally, that should clear up any misunderstandings. God turns up and pulls the Omniscient Morality License on Job, refusing to answer any of Job's questions and declaring him unfit to critique his Creator's decisions. When Job agrees to stop asking questions about these things beyond his understanding, God then turns to his accusers and declares "You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has." He then makes them beg Job's pardon and help him out and restores Job's fortunes. One question this raises: does God mean Job's pleas of innocence with his friends and desire to bring his case before God were right, or that he was right to shut up and stop asking God any more questions, or both? Various critics also differ on what exactly this book tells us about God's personality, and what moral lessons we should draw from it, if any.
    • Almost every major anti-Christian atheist author has done a critique of the Bible which treats God as an evil ego-maniacal tyrant and mass murderer, mainly for the collective punishments (whole cities and nations of men, women, children, and sometimes even the animals wiped out in certain cases), certain arbitrary commands (death for blasphemy), and sufferings inflicted (e.g. Job in the case above).
    • One defense, at least grounded in certain reformist sects of Judaism, is that Ancient Hebrew is a very allusive language with slippage between literal and metaphoric meaning (i.e. a given passage can be simultaneously literal and metaphorical, and true meaning is to be derived from percieving both at the same time) and that this subtlety lost value in the translation from Hebrew to ancient Greek (the Septuagint was translated during the Ptolemaic era). According to this, we are not supposed to interpret the God of the Old Testament as a personal deity, but merely a personification of the laws of nature and the universe, given human characteristics as a result of limitations of language. The argument for this is God stating to Abraham that "I am that I am" (possible translation of YHWH), meaning that God simply "is" (existence, universe, the air we breathe and so on). As such, God punishing Pharoah with the death of firstborn children is merely the outcome of a disease that affects the highborn and spares the Israelites, who as a result of their survival of this and many travails should consider themselves a "chosen people" (as is clear in the name Is-ra-el, He-Who-Fights-God, bestowed on Jacob after he apparently wrestled an angel (literal) or resolved existential questions within himself (metaphorical). In this view, applying a character interpretation to God makes as much as sense as asking the "Meaning of Life" and hence justifies the existence of The Talmud.
    • One of the issues with alternate character interpretation is whether or not humans have the right to judge God's actions. Those who believe that take a more literal approach, citing the first action a human ever took of her own volition: The eating of the fruit. God explicitly states that humans have became like Him in one sense: knowing good and evil. Some interpret this to mean that God is just as beholden to human morals as man is to God's, just we don't have as much firepower to back it up. Complicating this, is the first action undertaken by Adam and Eve after tasting the fruit, is putting on clothes when before they were happy naked and comfortable with their sexuality with God's approval, which casts a different light on what is implied by "original sin" as one could see it as God's disapproval of people feeling they need to be ashamed and cover themselves in his garden, and it is the awareness of shame that is the true sin rather than the actions itself, i.e. God was a hippie peacenik who envisioned Paradise as a free-love nudist colony and regarded humans as Sell-Out for Refusing Paradise and putting on clothes and going out in the world to find a "real" job.
    • Why did God put the tree in the Garden of Eden in the first place? Was He following some ineffable plan, the mere attempt to comprehend which would destroy our puny minds? A petty tyrant looking for an excuse to torture us? A genuinely compassionate being, foiled by an adversary? A loving parent, tricking us into developing our free will and responsibility? Maybe God was just demonstrating that divine sovereignty includes the power to allow some things and put others off limits, like a land-lord renting out the house but not the garage? Could it perhaps just be God's way of demonstrating that for mankind to love Him truly (by keeping His commands), we have to be given the option not to?
    • 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 and female 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.
    • Another common alternate interpretation is that God is above interpretation. Since humans are mortal creatures, and extremely limited, 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 a case of Good Is Not Nice or Good Is Not Soft? Possibly both? For the "not nice" part, He does a lot of things which humanity will find cruel, disproportionate, and evil; yet from God's perspective, these are fair and just. For the "not soft" part, God is often kind, loving, and merciful, but won't hesitate to punish those who have done evil, especially those who've been given specific instructions and are in a position to have known better. He also has the willingness to go to war to protect believers by slaughtering people in league with Satan. For both tropes to be in play, God appears to be a nice guy, but will punish persistent sinners very harshly for everything they've done, including seemingly "minor" sins, and that overly sentimental believers have overstated how nice God is as opposed to how just.
    • Some say God is an Eldritch Abomination: just read some of the descriptions given in the text. Looking at His true form is fatal. His most powerful creations are quite incomprehensible to the human mind. Even God's human manifestation can be rather bizarre when he exerts his power. The one part of the Cosmic Horror aspects YHWH subverts is not being so indifferent to us, but personally concerned. Even assuming God loves us all, His definition of love isn't necessarily going to be the same as ours.
    • Questions of God's identity have been around pretty much as long as there have been Christians. Notably the 1st-to-2nd century heretic Marcion of Sinope dedicated most of his career to proving the Old Testament/Traditional Jewish God and the New Testament God to whom Jesus testified were two different gods. The Old Testament God specifically claims 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 original Covenant was with the Hebrews. Then comes God of the New Testament: the old Covenant gives way to Jesus and a 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."
    • Another explanation for the difference in the Old and New Testaments is that experiencing humanity through being Jesus considerably softened God's perspective on humanity. Knowing everything on an intellectual level is one kind of omniscience, but (as Job asked during one of his arguments with his friends), how can God understand us emotionally and personally without suffering as we suffer? Coming down to Earth as Jesus could certainly answer that question—for God, as well as for us.
    • 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."
    • Of course, morality has always varied from culture to culture throughout history, and nobody can ever satisfy everybody. To some people (e.g. the true believers among the ancient Hebrews) everything God did in the Old Testament likely seemed perfectly reasonable, but Values Dissonance has always affected our views of previous cultures and assuredly always will. Then too, these differences of opinion could make anyone from a previous culture seem like an Unreliable Narrator to us, since he'd be describing whatever God does in a way that makes sense to himself, not necessarily us.
  • Lot and his family:
    • Were they the only righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah? Were they merely the least degenerate? Lot's offer to sacrifice his daughters to the rape gang to protect his guests doesn't exactly strike most of us these days as a very "righteous" thing to do, though (in all fairness) he was just about completely out of options by that point.
    • One point so many seem to have overlooked: before he offered to sacrifice his daughters, Genesis 19:6 says he went out to meet the mob and shut the door behind him. If anyone was going to get gang-raped that night, he would surely have been the first sacrifice ahead of both his daughters and his guests.
    • To carry on the family line, his daughters later liquored him up and had sex with him while he was passed-out drunk in order to get themselves some children (everyone else from their family being out of the picture, including his wife). Maybe it says a lot about the kind of places Sodom and Gomorrah were, that these people were the only ones worth saving. (They did a few things which we consider horrible, but they at least were trying to be decent hosts, while the first reaction from the other men in the town upon hearing about the two handsome newcomers was to round up a rape-posse to besiege Lot's house.) If getting your father drunk to have children by him is something the least degenerate people in Sodom would do, one shudders to think what the rest of Sodom and Gomorrah's citizens must have been like.
    • To be fair to Lot's daughters, they were being pragmatic, not lustful. They were cut off from Abraham's family (possibly not even aware he was still around), afraid to go back to Zoar (probably because the people there were hostile to them), and just about any other male roaming through the devastation of their former civilization who caught them alone without a man to defend them would likely just rape and murder them or (at best) make them his sex slaves and thereby end their family line for good. Once they had sons and those sons had grown up a bit, they presumably were able to go out under those sons' protection to get the boys some wives to carry on the family's line, but Lot's daughters couldn't count on anyone else to protect them until then once their father was gone.
  • Noah
    • His getting drunk and naked: innocent mistake because the fermentation process was different after the Deluge? (Some cultures took centuries to perfect the distillation process in subsequent ages.) Simple drinking habit he'd always had that got worse after the Deluge? Maybe his attempt to drown his sorrows after all the horrors he'd witnessed? Some combination thereof?
  • Pontius Pilate.
    • As the man who sentenced Jesus to death, you'd think the default interpretation among Christians would be that he was a Hanging Judge; and for some, it has been. Many others, however, see him as a Punch-Clock Villain and/or Beleaguered Bureaucrat, sometimes even with Sympathy for the Hero.
    • Incidentally, the only extra-Biblical historical sources we have are Josephus (who rather disliked all Roman governers of Judea, including Pilate) who described him as "cruel and greedy" and the Jewish philosopher Philo who bitterly hated Pilate and described him as a vicious tyrant looking for any excuse (however flimsy) to crucify more Jews than necessary. One way to reconcile these accounts to the Gospel portrayals of him (as a fence-riding vacillating politician forced to convict and crucify Jesus under duress from the Sanhedrin) is to assume that Jesus simply looked so innocent in person that even with all these biases, Pilate was convinced of his innocence from the start.
    • One common contention from skeptics is that the authors of the Gospels were whitewashing his character in order to demonize the unbelieving Jews (though every one of those authors was Jewish himself).
    • Others have brought up that Pilate likely didn't get along too well with the Sanhedrin, and given his contempt for the contentious people he ruled was inclined to take up the contrary position against them just out of spite.
    • Further historical analysis supports the Beleaguered Bureaucrat view: Emperor Tiberius and his lackeys in Rome had instituted a reign of terror during which anyone accused of complicity with the treasonous consul Sejanus (whose entire family had been executed along with him) was almost certain to be convicted and executed as well. Since Sejanus had personally picked out Pilate to be the prefect in Judea, any complaint to Tiberius from the Jewish authorities that he was not "Amicus Caesare" ("a friend to Caesar") would surely get him recalled and executed for being another traitor in the style of his sponsor Sejanus. He was already under a threat from Tiberius over these Jewish authorities having protested his troops' standards and the hanging of some decorative shields in Jerusalem as idolatry, and now they were threatening to accuse him of supporting "King of the Jews" in constructive treason against Rome. Whether or not he shared any anti-Semitic views with Sejanus (who hated the Jews bitterly for opposing his rise to power in Rome), Pilate was certainly going to be accused of doing so if he didn't do what the Jewish authorities wanted, and Tiberius would be even less likely to accept his defense if they did.
  • The Serpent/Satan:
    • Genesis, the first book of The Bible, depicts The Serpent as a simple talking snake. Later Christian interpretations in Revelation 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. These latter texts paints him as being similar to Prometheus from Greek mythology: defying God to make humanity more intelligent and independent, and suffering damnation for his efforts.
    • In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt's interpretation of Genesis is that eating the fruit gave humanity morality, and after that (when they had to begin working) productivity, main virtues in (the atheistic) Ayn Rand's worldview.
    • An idea one sees a lot in Freudian and Jungian psychology is that Satan is a metaphor for sex and the loss of virginity.
    • Did Satan teach Adam and Eve the ideas of Good and Evil, or did he merely convince them to eat the apple and watch them get filled up with sin? With Job, was he merely following orders, or was he secretly wishing to inflict pain on Job all along? After all, he was the one who brought it up in the first place and not once did he ever refuse to follow any of God's orders which, considering that Satan's supposed to be a rebel, one would think he would. For Satan rebelling against God, consider that life in Heaven was, according to most accounts, a paradise before Satan rebelled just like it was in Eden before the serpent screwed things up. Tempting Jesus certainly counts as another crime against God, because Satan was effectively saying "Hey, if you stick it to your old man right now, I'll give you whatever you want!"
    • Satan comes from the Hebrew word ha-satan which translates to "the accuser" in most places. People have interpreted that a number of ways:
      • Satan is The Accuser as in our main enemy. He's actively antagonizing the human race and/or God. He's the Ultimate Evil, who wants nothing more than to ruin us through conquest, stealing our worship, or getting us to do evil just so he can enjoy watching God punish us after he tattles on us for our sins. The reason he tempted Jesus is that he doesn't want humanity to have a savior to save us from him. This is the interpretation most Christians generally tend to believe.
      • Satan is the accuser as in the rebel accusing God to us. He's antagonising God because he believes it to be the right thing to do; he's not corrupting us, but trying to free us. The reason he tempts Jesus is that he's trying to convince Jesus to live his own life, because the path he's following leads to his rather painful death, following which a lot of horrible things throughout history would be done in his name. This is the interpretation by Satanists and a great many atheists/Nay Theists who assert that God Is Evil.
      • Satan is The Accuser as in a prosecutor. He's the ultimate Secret Test of Character, trying to corrupt humans to ferret out the righteous from the wicked. The reason he tempted Jesus was that he was testing whether Jesus was really the incorruptible Son of God he was claiming to be. Some Messianic Jews tend to go with this interpretation, and other Jews often go with the claim that he was tempting Job for similar reasons. (He states right there in the text that surely Job will "curse God to [His] face" if he's allowed to take away everything good in Job's life and fill it with pain and misery, and Job ultimately passes the test by refusing to do so.)
      • Satan is The Accuser as in accusing us to ourselves of wanting to do various kinds of evil. ("Come on, you know you want to!") He's a Misanthrope Supreme, trying to corrupt humans to prove to God that we deserve damnation. The reason he tempted Jesus is that he wanted to prove that Jesus, and by extension all the rest of humanity, are just as vile and twisted as he is.
    • There are also a few interpretations on the conventional treatment of Satan as the Big Bad concerning what kind of villain Satan is. Is he simply like the Joker, wanting to raise as much hell as possible for no earthly reason while knowing that he's headed to his ultimate ruin? Or is he causing all of the discord and mayhem even while knowing he's going to lose just because he knows it'll break God's heart to see us misbehaving and then suffering (both here and hereafter) for our sins?
  • Immortality:
    • It's explicitly stated in Genesis 3:22-24 that God did not want Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Since immortality is forever afterward 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.
    • One interpretation: 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.
    • Another interpretation: sinning left Adam & Eve (and all their descendents) in a state in which living forever would eventually come to be Hell right here on Earth. Revelation 9:6 speaks of just such an arrangement occurring somewhere in the future, when conditions will be so terrible that people will try to commit suicide and not be able to. Making us mortal therefore is a kind of delayed Mercy Kill, allowing us to leave this world before our depravity and the depravity of other sinners makes this place utterly intolerable to the righteous and wicked alike.
  • Jesus:
    • Early Christian tradition was practically an exercise of Alternative Christology writ large. Each of The Four Gospels included in the Bible present different parts of the Jesus story, ranging from the tidy biographical account of Matthew, to the action-oriented Jesus of Mark, to the human-interest-story Jesus of Luke, to the religious polemic of John. Apocryphal gospels of the day presented Jesus as a full human whom God adopted, a full deity only pretending to suffer and die, a kind of half-and-half mixture of God and man, or even a bizarre fictional allegory for transcendence of the inner spirit over one's bestial inclinations.
    • 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 Allah wanted to spare him from the a horrible painful death.
    • Jesus' personality has been subjected to numerous interpretations, either preaching social reforms and championing the little guy or issuing stark warnings about an approaching apocalypse and the need for repentance. Just ask any conservatives and liberals professing to be Christian about Jesus' character and how it applies to their personal philosophy. Either way, he isn't above flipping tables, scaring hypocrites out of temples, and calling Herod Antipas a "fox" in the vernacular of the day (which could be taken as an insult or a compliment, considering that comparing politicians to foxes could be referring to their being politically astute, or being too clever by half with a severely overinflated estimate of their own importance).
    • The website www.authentic-christianity.org makes a case that Jesus was actually the son of Satan who came to lead people astray. The site is completely serious and relies heavily on a 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 to 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 something. Nevertheless admiring him, he proceeded to publish what's generally known as the "Jefferson Bible", which is basically the New Testament with all the miracles and other supernatural events cut out.
  • Judas
    • He has his defenders, who frequently give him 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, and without which, the greatest mysteries upon which the Church is founded would have never come to pass.
    • According to some interpretations, he's the willing collaborator and enabler to Christ's death and resurrection.
    • In most of the Bible, In Mysterious Ways is a common explanation, but when we're talking about one of Jesus' close personal friends, other explanations are also of interest. In the 20th-21st Century, Judas is a subject of lively revisionist debate. If Jesus' crucifixion was part of God's plan, and if in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Judas "What you are about to do, do quickly," is Judas meant to be condemned for betraying Jesus anyway, even if he regretted it and punished himself for his actions, or should he have our pity and sympathy for playing a no-win hopeless role that nonetheless leads to man's salvation? Are these necessarily mutually exclusive interpretations?
    • 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.
    • 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' ministry to the forefront of the Jerusalem scene, and ironically Jesus' worst enemies would help fund it. His subsequent dismay was completely predictable and understandable.
    • A slightly modified version of the above would be that Judas fully believed in Jesus but was dismayed that, as God's Son, 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 forcing the Romans to worship him as well or simply driving them out. When Jesus allowed himself to be crucified, Judas was distraught as his plan had come to naught and committed suicide in shame and sorrow at the loss of both his friend and Messiah.
    • 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.

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.

Greek Mythology.

  • There are about six different versions of the Taking of Hippolyta's Girdle alone, never mind the amount of times someone goes all Schrödinger 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, which is based on fear of death rather than the simple acceptance he commanded from the ancient peoples. This also applies to The Greek Gods: Are they callous, but ultimately nice? Are they outright malicious, seeing humans as toys? Are they just plain dicks? Or maybe, like humans, they're just complicated. Or are they merely forces of power beyond human comprehension and manifestations of a capricious formless universe that the ancients were better able to accept for what it is, rather than later attempts to make Gods relatable to humans?
  • As for why they're dicks, is it because of Cronus screwing them up? A consequence of their immense power? Or maybe it shows what we are like without anything to restrain ourselves. According to some myths, When the titans ruled the Earth, it was a Golden Age and since the Olympians took over, the world has been going downhill. The Bad Guy Wins anyone?
  • The Romans took this in the opposite direction, revering 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. Likewise, Athena was also regarded as a war god, especially in The Iliad but she represented a more orderly approach to warfare, one that tolerated great and brutal violence (like the sack of Troy) for the greater goal of conquest/subjugation, rather than Ares who represented the spirit of battle, fighting and survival. So between Athena and Ares, it's more a question of degree rather than kind. The Romans took the tack of giving Mars jurisdiction over farming as well, and thus over soldiering for the defense of one's crops. In other words Mars was a god of soldiers (militiamen to be precise) and Ares was a god of war.
  • Persephone and Hades. Did Hades, friendless god of death, abduct the helpless and protesting Persephone away from the world above, her natural home? Or maybe Persephone wasn't so helpless. Maybe it was a secret elopement with a recluse, misunderstood god who just needed a friend... or maybe Persephone saw a chance to be a Queen in her own right, out from under her mother's thumb. There have also been interpretations of it being a political marriage.
  • 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 myth of Hippomenes and Atalanta. Did Aphrodite know that Atalanta would stop to pick up the golden apples, enchant the apples so Atalanta would pick them up, or did she know that Atalanta would throw the race because she loved Hipponenes but was too proud to just admit it?
  • Some scholars argue on whether Sisyphus should be seen as a tragic figure punished by the gods with task he will never be allowed to finish or a Determinator who never gives up, no matter how many times he fails.
  • Helen who followed Paris to Troy, then returned to her husband Menelaus during the fall of the city. Did she follow Paris of her own volition, falling in love (or in lust) with him and being unhappy in an Arranged Marriage? Was she abducted? Was she brainwashed by Aphrodite who favors Paris? During the ten-years-long war, was she kept against her will or was she free to surrender herself to her husband to avoid more killings? Her decision to return to Menealaus while Troy was burning: did she genuinely regret of having left him or did she calculate her best chance of survival? Depending on the interpretations, Helen is either a Woobie or a Karma Houdini.

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), while in ancient Zoroastrism Indra is an evil demon of drought and whirlwinds. It probably confused the Zoroastrians big time when they entered India.

King Arthur:

  • 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 Diabolical 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.)

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana:

  • Various characters in these works have had alternative character interpretations attached to them, and 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, Prince Pandavas, as an Jerk Ass for participating in the Kurushetra War. Region, gender and class/caste all influence one's interpretation of both these epics.
    • Professor Roychowdhury interprets Amba as a Yandere whose murder of Bheeshma was motivated by his refusal to marry her. The main evidence for this theory is that Amba devotes years and years to getting revenge on Bheeshma specifically... not Salva (her ex-lover, who cast Amba out and called her a whore) or her dad (who offered Amba's hand in marriage even though she liked someone already). And she only does that after trying every possible option to get Bheeshma to marry her. Vyasa explicitly states that the two loved each other, but couldn't be together because of honor.
      • Ramesh Menon interprets Amba's story as one of Grey and Grey Morality which had to happen because destiny said so. (Bheeshma shouldn't have abducted Amba, Salva should have accepted Amba back, and Amba herself should have been brave enough to speak up before Bheeshma's chariot reached Hastinapura or compassionate enough not to blame Bheeshma - who was only following Kshatriya tradition - to the extent that she devotes her life to getting revenge on him.) In Menon's translation, Bheeshma's death is a Mercy Kill which he recognizes as such and accepts.

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.

Norse Mythology:

  • 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, dear gods, Odin. He's portrayed as a Big Good in modern times, but this is... arguable... for a number of reasons: 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. Further, Odin sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom, and allowed himself to be hung by his neck from the World Tree for nine days to gain knowledge of runes and magic. 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 admittedly did kill Odin's son Baldr). Also, Valhalla: the only real condition that you have to meet to get in is to die fighting. It doesn't really matter which side you were on, or what kind of person you were, you just had to die in battle, although there was still a limit - murderers, adulterers and oath-breakers (the scum of the Earth as far as the Norse were concerned) were sent to Náströnd, the nastiest part of the underworld, regardless of how they died. If you were badass enough that no one could ever kill you and you died of old age or illness, then through no fault of your own you went to the cold, dreary and comparatively very boring Hel, although the Norse, as a people rich in reivers, pirates and warriors, had a very good chance of dying fighting, and would prefer to do so anyway. 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 fight for him - although in all fairness, he only got half of the honorable dead. The other went to Fólkvangr, where his wife Freya ruled.
    • And naturally, alternative views to this abound, with many viewing his sacrifices as appropriate to what he gained (and he was the only one who suffered from them anyway), and his desire to have an amazing army backing him when Ragnarok to be quite reasonable, considering what Ragnarok would be like.
    • It sounds like he only took in the second best warriors, maybe some first-rate ones. The best warriors are the ones who have gone through hell and survived it, and they get sent to Hel from dying of old or illness. What was the quote from Gaiden Senji from the elder scrolls games? "The best techniques are passed on by the survivors".
    • Odin used the Valkyries note  to select who was going to end up in Valhalla after a battle. Exactly how this worked is unclear, sometimes their mission seems to be to make cause someone to die in battle even if they were an unkillable badass; at other times they seem to have just collected the pick of the crops after the battle was over. Either way, this could be used by the skalds to explain why a great hero had fallen ("Odin sent for him") or to comfort the survivors ("your friends are probably feasting in Valhalla now"). In any case, the Valhalla myth seems to have provided motivation for courage in battle.
    • Alternatively, Odin killing Loki's son may be more of Values Dissonance justice than morally suspect revenge. The Code of Hammurabi, which had 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.
    • The Asgardians are on the whole a bunch of preening narcissists. They are uncreative since many of their magical artifacts and technology were built by either Frost Giants (such as a Giant who they tricked into building a Wall around Asgard and then worming away from paying him back), or by the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim (Gungnir, Svarbaldnir the Ship, Mjolnir the Hammer). Their main skill is cunning, which they use to trick, abuse and exploit other people while they live in Fluffy Cloud Heaven drinking, feasting and whoring and ignoring all reality. They are total hypocrites who honor no oaths, submit to no laws but power, are totally incapable of compassion (such as when they trick and bind Fenrir by sacrificing Tyr's arm, without any attempt to befriend or make common cause with him) and more or less deserve ragnarok, because the world and everyone is better off without them.

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.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/AlternativeCharacterInterpretation/ReligionAndMythology