Ancient Superheroes Struggled with their Greatness Too
I’d begun thinking recently about the fact it does not matter if a character is the bastard child of an Olympian or the last surviving son of Krypton, in some way, the character ends up being a hero. One might say, regardless of what period you’re a part of, that might qualify as a super-hero.
Lately, the conversation about the status of superheroes asks: Is it realistic that these people use their power solely for good? Well, no. As many of our modern depictions show, it’s very, very true that the heroes of classic myth are quite challenged by their own personal demons and are thus driven by the quandaries that our more introspective fiction places on them. They struggle to not abuse their power and not break ethical codes.
They struggle to not abuse their power for personal gain. You see something of this played out in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a man partially a descendant of gods but who has had such an accomplished heroic career, he has thus entered politics. This political career, that is, means he is king of his domain, and an oppressive one. The king, who has had a long history of saving the day and defeating monsters, will have his people object strongly to his new reign and thus turn to the gods to have a monster created. This ancient story sees a very interesting inversion of our expectations today: the hero of the story will end up being the monster who would contend to put Gilgamesh in his place.
We see a glorified and accomplished hero who has turned to politics, but he is not a just ruler in the same way he fought for justice in the past. Gilgamesh’s name even possibly means hero. In some way, he epitomizes what we would expect of a hero. But there’s more to the story, as he continues to be heroic, defeating the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba among other escapades.
It is clear that at some points these classic stories have a more quasi-realistic view of life (or maybe disillusioned view) with regards to the fate of their heroes. Heracles himself is one of these figures whose story does not have a happy ending. While he does superhuman feats, it’s his humanity (or maybe just his human experience) that comes through when many of his ventures end in failure. In a way we see his story being mirrored in Superman. Both characters end up dying. For Superman, it was because of his foe Doomsday. For Heracles, it is the ill-will of those in his life that cause his death. However, Superman will come to be resurrected and Heracles will ascend to godhood.
Much of the point of C.K. Robertson’s “Sorcerers and Supermen: Old Mythologies in New Guises,” as published in James McGrath’s collection of essays, “Religion and Science Fiction,” hinges on the point these stories share a common source. It’s about the development of the way our myths inform the current myth-making we do. In some way, these classic myths root in a search for cause or justice. But in the great struggles of these divine beings against one another, there’s not much justice to speak of.
The comparison does not end there: there’s much to be said about the crossover of myths into the superhero and comic book domain. Most prominent is Thor, a god turned terrestrial hero. Of course, the in-universe explanation is that Thor is more alien than a true god, but ultimately, much of the glamor is the same.
The current pantheon of superheroes draws at length from mythical deposits. And who better to exact justice than divine figures? But the godlike beings, as Robertson points out, don’t stop at the traditional and existing myths. New ones originate in the comic book world with characters like the Silver Surfer, who holds a status of herald you might expect to see in traditional myth. The entity foreruns Galactus, the cosmic being known to eat worlds. At this level, there’s a Lovecraftian significance to him, a divine terror bound to destroy those who oppose him. The Silver Surfer, in some ways purely because of the Harbinger role, reflects deities like Kalki, the harbinger of the Satya Yuga.
Dr. Strange and John Constantine are just a couple examples of those whose supernatural powers allow them enforce justice. These characters, among others have interesting implications on the worlds where they take place. For instance, Strange existing in the same reality as Thor says something about the pantheon that must exist, since these beings coexist in a multiverse replete with varying speculative fiction elements. John Constantine, however, is an exorcist fitted into a world with adulterated Christian elements.
We see situations in the world of superheroes constantly escalated to eschatological levels, with crises matching the level of Armageddon or Ragnarok. And with each instance, the characters have some sort of messianic role in saving the day. And, of course, the aforementioned Doomsday himself invokes the end of the world, with his own origin story arising from the death of another world, Krypton.
From the physically impervious Achilles demonstrating the superhero abilities of these ancient mythic figures, to the near apocalypses superheroes find themselves fending off, the connection between these genres is unquestionable. And with that, there’s much that can be said about our desire to weave these stories in which titanic figures defend and protect the world. Perhaps it’s because we look to the strong (particular those who might have unnatural powers) for justice. Perhaps it’s because we look to these stories for our own inspiration.