Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Hebrews and Moneylenders

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in  Merchant of Venice

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in Merchant of Venice at Pace University, 2011

There’s an association between Jews and finance that goes back a thousand years into European history. The natural strife between creditors and debtors made moneylending an extremely unpopular profession, so much so that the Third Council of Lateran in 1179 threatened Christians with excommunication if they lent money at interest—expanding a 4th century prohibition against usury. Jews were exempt from this threat—and prohibited from most other trades—and so Jewish communities in Europe filled this loathed-but-needed economic niche.

The union of ongoing bigotry with intense financial resentment laid the foundation for a permanent form of anti-Semitism in the Western world. The massacres of Jews by Crusaders in the 11th century dovetails with conspiracy theories about the 2008 financial crash.

These intense associations between Jews and financial trades permeate modern pop culture as well, so much so that even works by Jewish or philo-Semitic creators still reflect some of these old elements, whether or not they carry the hostility. These can be physical:

EwigerJudeFilm

Promotional poster for the Nazi film Der Ewige Jude

Long, hooked nose, sunken eyes, payot (sidelocks), swarthy or sallow skin, all connoted a malevolent, alien intruder to European society. Personally, Jews were portrayed as conniving, greedy, and fundamentally untrustworthy. Moreover, they were capable of corrupting innocent Christians, bribing them or otherwise rendering them financially subservient. Corruption carried a sexual element as well, arousing particular fears. We can see a number of these stereotypes in today’s pop culture.

1935 Nazi newspaper cartoon. The text is "Ignorant, lured by gold, They stand disgraced in Judah’s fold. Souls poisoned, blood infected, Disaster broods in their wombs"

1935 Nazi newspaper cartoon. The text reads: “Ignorant, lured by gold,
They stand disgraced in Judah’s fold. Souls poisoned, blood infected,
Disaster broods in their wombs”

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Magical Mondays: Legend, Labyrinth, and the Fae

With a recent re-re-(put “re” like, fifteen more times here) watching of Labyrinth, I’ve come to two finite conclusions: I’m not done talking about fairies, and Labyrinth is still eons better than Legend. While there was a lot that I didn’t like about Legend, I wasn’t able to cover it all in a concise manner. Yet here we are again, and I find myself with the time to discuss Legend’s atrocious portrayal of the fae in comparison to Labyrinth’s—the latter of which seems to keep closer to the actual lore surrounding the fae instead of discounting it entirely.

Of course "their ways" includes the Magic Dance. (via PixShark)

Of course “their ways” includes the Magic Dance. (via PixShark)

It could be that “fae” aren’t the first thing you think of when Labyrinth is brought up. Indeed, in popular culture, fairies are shown as cute or even beautiful in regards to our societal standards, and most of the inhabitants of the Labyrinth are bizarre, non-nonsensical, ugly, or downright threatening. Hell, even Jareth, beautiful man that he is, is called the “Goblin King” rather than the fairy king. Yet, despite common perception, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. As it turns out, goblins are a type of fae, and have the same traits and rules as much as any winged wish granter. The only difference seems to be that while fairies have an ethereal sort of beauty attached to them, goblins (or trolls, or kobolds, or whatever you may call them) are equated with ugliness—given the track records of all other forms of media, it’s not really surprising that goblins and their ilk have been painted in a more negative light in falling out of this beauty standard. So when Sarah is dealing with Hoggle, Jareth, and all the other fantastical creatures in the Labyrinth, it’s just about the same as Jack dealing with Gump and the other magical creatures of the world of Legend. In terms of mythology, interpretations on the fae are about as varied as vampires or werewolves. So the issue here isn’t that these movies have different interpretations of the fae, it’s that Legend completely ignores the skeleton that the meat of lore can be built around. And how is this mistake manifested? By inferred intelligence.

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