Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane and polytheism as a metaphor for homosexuality

This is possibly one of my favourite films, and not just as an extension of my weakness for ridiculous films about Christian mythos (if you want ridiculous in your Christianity, The Apple is the best yet). While carrying the airs of serious art film, Sebastiane has a ridiculousness to it, don’t get me wrong (from the liberties taken with the saint’s mythos to Jarman’s response to questions about the film’s profuse nudity [“we couldn’t afford costumes after the first scene”] to the fact that it inspired an episode of Father Ted, Sebastiane‘s ridiculousness is hard to ignore), my love for this film has more to do with the fact that the more I watch it, the more I see something that I didn’t before realise was there.

This film is a sometimes shallow, but sometimes incredibly deep metaphor for a closet case (and in case you can’t see it, Jarman has explained this in many interviews and in his memoirs, which span seven volumes). Sometimes the metaphor is so deep, you have to view the film repeatedly to get it.

Ceci n'est pas une pénis.

From pretty early on in the film, its established plot focus is the relationship between Sebastiane, the Christian and one of only two characters who isn’t shown to even surrender to sex with men for lack of women (the other being Maximus, who, on repeated viewing, represents society and the Middle Class that Jarman grew up in, in specific — Maximus is not only disdainful of homosexual preferences [to excuse his own presumed, but unseen, occasional dalliances with boys for “a quick one”], and xenophobic in comparing the openly gay characters to “Greeks”, but he is devoid of genuine spirituality, giving it little more than lip-service and making the rare allegory; his most notable references to the Gods of Rome is to mock the Captain in front of the other men), and the Roman army Captain, Severus, ostensibly a polytheist, and the character with an obsessive and unrequited love and lust for the title character. Severus uses his position of power to force Sebastiane into a debatably S&M relationship (which, interestingly, appears initiated by Sebastiane) in which Sebastiane is the tortured one, and which is periodically interrupted with outbursts of pleading from Severus, because this isn’t what he wants — he wants to love, be loved, make love.

This is all pretty obvious to people who can watch the film and think a millimetre or two deeper than the most literal interpretations of what’s on the screen — which would be a bunch of naked guys running around, mostly shouting at each-other in Vulgar Latin (as opposed to the Classical Latin learned by most people today), and occasionally tying each-other up and throwing hot lamp oil on each-other, and a soundtrack by Brian Eno, because why the hell not? [Aside: All who argue the genius of Eno will be beaten with cement-filled milk jugs, with the exception of Eno himself, as that would be counter-productive to my Eno-veneration.]

One of the fuzzier metaphors is Jarman’s use of polytheistic imagery juxtaposed with apparent homosexual longing and used to contrast Sebastiane’s refusal to give in to this longing and his Christianity. Scene Two opens with Sebastiane showering himself from a well with a large water jug one morning as Severus watches on, and Sebastiane’s voice narrates imagery of an unnamed “young god” conquering Nox before standing in his chariot, “his body glittering” being “like the gold in lapis” as the camera focuses on large areas with Sebastiane’s body covered in sun-sparkling droplets of water. To the untrained eye and ear, as Sebastiane’s voice was heard briefly in the previous scene, this may seem a morning prayer with the unnamed “young god” perhaps being Jesus standing high above all other gods (and I know this, because I’ve had to explain to people, yes, even other GBLTs, that this scene wasn’t what they thought it was); but if you do think just a tiny ways further, it’s apparent that this is either Severus imagining Sebastiane’s voice and such imagery as a manifestation of his own longing, or Sebastiane knowingly indulging Severus this pleasure and thus is reciting it himself, and thus giving himself a measure of disconnect from the scene so that even though he was knowingly teasing the other man, the pantheonic imagery allows him to assure himself that his heart wasn’t in it, absolving himself of Christian Sin.

In one of the soon following scenes, Sebastiane leaves the six other men to be by himself in a secluded pool, and in voice-over from Sebastiane is an odd homoerotic prayer all too careful to eschew not only the mention of a single,transcendental deity, but any of the more obvious Christian imagery (to a largely Christian United Kingdom), in favour of something probably more reflective of Jarman’s degrees in art than anything else:

Hail god of the golden sun
The heavens and Earth are united in gold
Comb your hair in the golden rays of light
In your hands the roses of ecstasy burn
The wheel turns full circle [5]
Cooled by breezes from the four quarters
The swallow has risen in the East
The doors are open
Your body, your naked body
Initiated into the mysteries, step forth [10]
That beauty that made all colours different
Comes forth into the world
Hail god of the golden fire
Your beauty holds my heart captive

I’ve watched this film so many times, this prayer no longer has a concrete meaning. I have reason to believe Jarman wanted it this way. The first line is obviously in lock-step with Jesus allusions, at least according to the fine kooks over at JesusNeverExisted.com(1), but the rest is so steeped in homoeroticism, ostensibly pagan imagery (lines 4, 5, 10?, 13), and the only reliable imagery I can muster up from around that period (~300CE) and that region for swallows would be as a symbol of the household Gods and Aphrodite/Venus. I’d accuse Jarman of intentionally making this pagan if it wasn’t for the fact that I know he was a Christian of extremely liberal philosophies (of course, it’s very clear that Sebastiane is not portrayed heroically in this film, but instead as a creature of pity).

The following scene reveals Sebastiane’s “initiation” of the “S&M relationship” between himself and Severus, by refusing to fight. Following the beatings, Justin, Sebastiane’s sole friend and sympathiser in the film, offers comfort and a vague warning that this could go too far.

In a following scene, Severus watches Anthony and Adrian make love in the sun (and despite 1976’s X-rating, this is tamer than the sex in some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). He turns to Sebastiane and asks “Are you still a Christian?”
“Yes.”
“Then remove my armour.”

No, seriously, somebody tell me what that branch is from.Severous touches Sebastiane’s shoulder seductively, which Sebastiane refuses. As punishment for this, Severus cock-blocks Anthony and Adrian to come over, after which we see the three of them tying Sebastiane up and out in the scorching sun. Following this, we see the other men playing with a time-travelling Frisbee™ (I can’t really excuse that one, either), and this scene is cut short when we see what is presumed a heat-induced hallucination of Sebastiane’s: Standing over and looking down on him is a youth wearing a leopard skin with head, and carrying a large branch I have yet to identify. Identified as “Leopard Boy” in the credits, he says nothing and apparently fades in and out from Sebastiane’s consciousness. (Feel free to click that image to get the full size; I really want to know what that branch is from — I also apologise for the quality of the image, the film wasn’t shot with the best film, and it’s an inexpensive Kino release, this is honestly the best screen-cap I could catch.)

We then see the other men on a “pig hunt” (because no UK-produced film about anything seems truly complete without allusions to Lord of the Flies, wouldn’t you agree?) During this hunt, Justin throws down his spear and goes to Sebastiane, who is still out in the sun hallucinating Leopard Boy; this is also the scene where it’s made obvious that this is Sebastiane’s hallucination. Justin asks “Why are you doing this?”
“His eyes are so beautiful. He has sky blue eyes.” As does the actor playing Severus.
“What are you talking about?”
“His hair is like the sun’s rays. His body is golden like molten gold. This hand of his will smooth away these wounds….”
Justin looks to the blond Severus, who just then stabs the pig.
“Justin… He is as beautiful as the sun, this sun which caresses me… is his burning desire. He is Phoebus Apollo[n].” Delirious cut to Leopard Boy stepping away. “The sun… is his… burning kiss.”
“This is madness,” notes Justin. “Why don’t you run?”
“His beauty is enhanced by his anger. It is his anger which is divine. His punishments are like Christ’s promise. He takes me in his arm and caresses my bleeding body. I want to be with him. I love him. Justin, you don’t understand. Take it away.” Cut to a pool of blood in the sand surrounded by spears.

Later, there is a scene of S&M-like torture for Sebastiane from Severus, which is conclusively ended when Justin takes some food to Sebastiane and pleads, “You must eat. Why are you doing this?”
“I love him. He is beautiful. More beautiful than Adonis.”

First off, after taking notes from this film last night (including lengthy transcriptions of dialogue by hand because all I have is a desktop computer), and especially after writing this all down for my blog, I’m really confused as to why I’ve ever had to explain this to people — it’s very painfully obvious what’s happening in the desert scene — but for those of you who want to hear it from me, yes, it’s Severus who is being referred to as “Phoebus Apollo” in this delirious speech of Sebastiane’s unattainable desire. The Leopard Boy is most assuredly drawing on Dionysian imagery, implying this may be either a manifestation of Sebastiane’s true nature and desires that he’s cut himself off from, or potentially even divine communique, beckoning Sebastiane to release himself from this pain by allowing himself to love, be loved, make love. The ostensibly polytheist Adrian and Anthony contrast Sebastiane and Severus by being both open and unashamed about their love; the only nay-saying they face is from Maximus, who the other characters seem to barely tolerate. This juxtaposition especially stands out because Jarman’s own Christian beliefs make the positive portrayal of homosexual love between Anthony and Adrian, and the arguable “morality lesson” against closeted and denied homosexual desires of Sebastiane a truly unique specimen.

The comparison to Adonis is also apparently intentionally vague: Is Sebastiane referring to “this” as allowing himself to be tortured as a means to keep himself from giving in to desire, thus he is saying it is Christ who is “more beautiful than Adonis”, or is “this” allowing himself to be tortured just to have Severus touch him, and thus it is Severus who is more beautiful? Perhaps it’s both; actually, considering Jarman’s body of work, it’s almost definitely both. The imageries of both Dionysos and Adonis, it probably could go without noting, are not casual references — these are imageries of life-death-rebirth deities known in Hellenic mythology for bisexuality and (at least occasional forays into) effeminacy. Furthermore, I really can’t help but notice that imagery of Adonis and that of St. Sebastian are often eerily similar.

Hey, look. Goats.

Sebastiane’s execution is preceded first with another S&M scene, one that ends with Sebastiane denouncing Severus as an impotent drunk and defiantly asking “[Do] you think your drunken lust compares to the love of God?” This would be basically a portrayal of “suicide by cop” — lacking the ability to make these desires go away, Sebastiane chooses martyrdom as an easy out. The next scene starts with a virtual ocean of goats on the move, and sitting among them is Sebastiane, in a crown of grapes. This, I had to screen-cap on general principle, it was just so blatantly referencing Dionysos, and really, it has to be seen to be believed. The only conceivable explanations I can imagine for this is perhaps Severus laying one final claim — or possibly Jarman attempting to trick the audience into thinking they’ve seen a Christ-figure in a crown of thorns surrounded by “devils” of goats. Thinking about it for a few seconds, and knowing Jarman’s films the way I do, it’s probably both. But what the hell do I know?

It is instead Justin who is crowned in vines, alluding to Justin as the true Christ-figure in this film, and laying down an implication of Jarman’s own brand of Christianity as all-loving when one considers some earlier scenes in the film (none of which had much, if anything, to do with this piece’s perceptions, so I’ve left them alone for a later time) Severus announces Sebastiane’s execution and immediately falls to tears. At Sebastiane’s execution, Maximus also forces a bow and arrow in the thorn-and-robe-clad Justin’s hands, and makes him pull back and release a final shot — one positioned to seemingly aim for another actor’s buttocks — I believe this imagery was also as intentional as it was to put these characters in that specific scene.

When you re-think Justin as the true Christ-like figure in the film, it’s apparent that the film has Christian sympathies despite Sebastiane himself being very definitely a non-hero and debatably both protagonist and antagonist, as was Severus, but looking at and examining the well-placed polytheist imagery (because the Apollonian and Adonian allusions of St. Sebastian alone simply aren’t enough) reveal that Jarman and his film had other sympathies.

As I’d said at the beginning of this post, the film takes great liberties with traditional St. Sebastian mythos — which tends to portray him as a 3rd Century CE Rasputin (id est, he was hard to kill) — to instead create an Anterotic fable about “the gay closet” and its effective cowardice.

It’s also not lost on me that St. Sebastian is probably one of the Christian saints steeped deepest in polytheistic imagery: His patronage includes not only arrows, but also plague, and even Wikipedia’s writers and editors have noticed the correspondences with Apollon. Being also one of the religion’s earliest saints, it can effectively be said that he’s probably one of the easiest examples of early Christianity syncretising martyrs with the old Gods. At least in my own mind, this makes the Dionysian imagery somehow all the more appropriate, and brings to mind an epithet shared by Dionysos and Eros, “Eleutherios – The Liberator”. Which in turn brings to mind Severus’ relationship with Sebastiane as both “Abros – Tender” and “Algesidoros – Pain Inducer”, both engaged alternated in a futile attempt to release Sebastiane from his self-induced prison of repression.


(1) Like all the best kookery, the Jesus Never Existed people have a bit of truth on there, and a fair amount of internally consistent evidence for their purposes; I also generally agree with them that, at best, the dominating and most consistent “evidence” for the existence of “Jesus Christ” is no more “consistent” than it would need to be to support the hypothesis of “Christ” as a composite of a few rebellious, vaguely Platonic Jews from around 20-35CE of the Roman Empire. I’m outing their “truths” instead as kookery cos the crux of a fair amount of their arguments seem to make their “evidence” into something more than what it is, or outright something that it is not. Don’t take my word for it, though; dig around on their site and judge for yourself.

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14 thoughts on “Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane and polytheism as a metaphor for homosexuality

  1. Thanks for this captivating analysis. I've watched a couple of Jarman's movies over the years – and rewatched them recently since they're available on Netflix – but I haven't gotten around to Sebastiane. I meant to – and even have it bookmarked – but this review makes me want to bump it up to the top. Reminds me a bit of Massenet's Thaïs.

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    • Glad I could be of service in spreading the word of Jarman!

      And after thinking about it a bit more, I think that branch might be a giant fennel; it looks about right, if wilted, and it would match the rest of the imagery in that scene, and if only for his art degrees, Jarman would do something like that.

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  2. Pingback: We are gathered here today to celebrate Derek Jarman | Of Thespiae

  3. So I am so late to this party, I mean this post is like what? 4 years old now? But I was so excited when I finally ran across it (I’ve actually spent the past few days obsessively reading your older posts) because I too loved this movie especially since I caught it “on a whim” on Netflix and had just finished watching Fellini’s Satyricon and was jonesing for another fix. I don’t know if these films can be considered “art house” but they were a welcome respite from the normal fodder pumped out iinto the movie theaters these days. But now I feel I have to watch it again because there is so much symbolism I obviously missed. Some of it I immediately caught on to probably because, as your said, I’m a Hellenist so the motifs popped out but the many of the subtle allusions completely went over my head. So now I have to see if you did do a similar post on Satyricon.

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  4. Images are down, but still strangely ran across this post in image search. Something about seeing nude man being shot at by arrows always takes my fancy (and the fact that I’ve visited your blog many times beforehand peaked my interest)… ANYWAY, thanks for the review, I have seen some of Jarman’s other films but always felt a bit awkward afterwards. I’m not really a fan of the object eclecticism he uses, eg. the Frisbee.
    However, your review has put it on my list of must sees… apart from the nuded dudes in it 😛
    So cheers.

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