Mythology and the Superhero: A Personal Reflection on Genre. Part 2

Carl Jung defines the archetype as “forms or images of the collective nature which occur practically all over the Earth as constituents of myth and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin,” (Jung 88). In other words, Jung is saying these mythological constructs reference structures within our psyche and we can evaluate these constructs against a normal and dynamic psyche, so we might see the correlation between the structures of subjectivity and objectivity. This collective is a social conscious we all share through collective unconscious. This means our personal experiences are categorized through the shared experience of our species’ biology. As humans we have a need for stories and this need predates or written history when our ancestors sat around the camp fire and told tales that not only entertained, but also instructed in the ways of the particular culture. Since these structures in our psyche are shared it allows the listener to participate in the society be it Cro-Magnon, ancient Greek, or modern American. Because we have evolved a need for heroic stories in prehistory, we now have the heroic archetype passed to us through the collective unconscious.

So now we must return to Campbell’s question as it relates to the superhero archetype. If we examine the superhero genre as a whole, we find that universally the hero/superhero is allowing himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher moral calling. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case that National Publication brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as

(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers —   extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.

(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)

This effectively defines the superhero archetype in a cultural context where the superhero is subjugated due to their responsibility to use their extraordinary abilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie directed by Sam Raimi will recognize the creed that Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetypal superhero for almost 70 years.

Before we can address the superhero genre in any proper fashion, we need to examine some of the old myths and legends that fed into creating the modern superhero. The first hero from antiquity we must consider is Gilgamesh. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories on Earth where it is preserved between 2750 and 2500 BCE in cuneiform on 12 Clay tablets and tells the adventures of the King of Uruk. The first tablet introduces Gilgamesh, who is two thirds god and one third mortal. The citizens of his city petitioned the gods for help because Gilgamesh oppresses them, especially the young women. Because Gilgamesh is King of Uruk he believes it is his right to be the first with a bride on her wedding night and deflowers them with a particular glee that is reminiscent of a super-villain.  The gods hear the pleas and create an opponent for Gilgamesh called Enkidu. Enkidu is a wild man and meant to distract Gilgamesh from his overly passionate pleasures with all the young women of Uruk. However, Gilgamesh does not directly engage Enkidu but sends a skilled temple seductress to help subdue him. Once Enkidu is subdued by the harlot and civilized, he learns of Gilgamesh’s improprieties with his subjects and goes to Uruk to change Gilgamesh’s mind.

Once he reaches Uruk, Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh’s entry into a bridal bedchamber. This enrages Gilgamesh. He is king and is denied nothing in his kingdom, especially the “lord’s right” of the first night with a new bride. The fight that ensues is truly epic and ends with Gilgamesh being barely able to subdue Enkidu. This fight made them friends and allows Enkidu to influence Gilgamesh against his lordly right to a new bride on her wedding night.


From a certain perspective we might say that this tells us a great deal about the ancient Samarian culture. First of all in Samarian culture, the King has the right to do what he wishes whenever he wants. It also tells us that while they are a warrior culture that places a premium on strength and courage; they also prize cunning and intelligence. We see when Gilgamesh did not directly engage Enkidu but uses his wits to devise a plan to bring the wild man under control.  Gilgamesh is a Babylonian archetype, a God-King, the epitome of manliness in Samarian culture. While we have no real icon of what Gilgamesh may have looked like we can say that Samarian culture had a sort of “hero cult.” Gilgamesh’s hero cult was the hero cult of a living breathing king who gathered a whole city around him as worshipers.

The next group of mythic cycles that exerts a great deal of influence over modern comic book superheroes derive from the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greece we have many heroes who, because of their exploits and the writings of Homer, have been able to survive until modern times. Perhaps one of the most important of these heroes is Achilles. Achilles fought for the Greeks during the siege of Troy and is, perhaps, their most celebrated hero from that time. Achilles was the son of Peleus, the King of Pithia and a sea nymph named Thetis, who because of a prophecy attempted to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the River Styx which left his heel unprotected. This small weakness led to his death by a poison arrow during the final day of the Trojan War. What is important to note about Achilles is that he shares many characteristics with the comic book superhero. He is invulnerable like Superman and like all good comic book superheroes he has a weakness that can be exploited against him, although in the Achilles case, it turned out to be his death.


Another Greek hero that served as an inspiration for comic book superheroes is Heracles. It is appropriate to use the Greek spelling here because we will be discussing the Greek hero born in Alcaeus and not the Romanized hero spelled Hercules. Heracles is the son of Zeus and is hated by his stepmother Hera because he reminded her of her husband’s, Zeus, infidelity. Once again, we have a character from antiquity who shares a great deal with modern superheroes. Heracles has a level of invulnerability because has divine parentage and a magical lion skin, extraordinary strength, and endurance above the levels of any mortal man. He also has one of the most important defining characteristics of any comic book superhero: he has an arch-nemesis that will go to any length to destroy him. Hera’s first attempt to destroy started Heracles when he was only eight months old, Hera sent two snakes into his cradle to kill him. Even at this time Heracles possessed great strength and overcame the serpents, saving not only himself but also his brother Iphicles. This antagonistic relationship would last Heracles’ entire life and lead to many epic adventures, the most famous of which are the twelve labors that made Heracles the most famous Greek hero from antiquity.

The Twelve Labors of Heracles were a penance given to Heracles by the Oracle at Delphi after  he killed his family in a fit of insanity given to him by Hera. The Oracle told to him to serve King Euystheus for twelve years. In each of the labors Heracles is asked by King Euystheus, Hera’s representative, to kill or subdue and animal or retrieve a plant. The sites selected by King Euystheus were either a stronghold to Hera or the entrance to the Greek Underworld. All of these labors were designed in mind to kill Heracles or so hard, they could never be accomplished. In one of these labors Heracles is accompanied by, what we call in the superhero genre, a “sidekick,” his nephew, Iolaus, helped him kill the Hydra.  This caused King Euystheus to not count not only this labor but the Augean Stables as well because he received payment for the work. To reach the required twelve labors King Euystheus required Heracles to retrieve the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capture Cerberus, the three headed hound guarding the gates of the Underworld. While these labors where designed to destroy Heracles, they only cemented his place in the Greek pantheon of heroes and made him the archetype for the superhero genre.

Lastly, the Greek hero whose life is the subject of a whole epic poem by Homer was Odysseus. While Odysseus showed strength beyond that of a mortal man by being the only one strong enough to string his bow,  he was better known for his wit and cunning. It was Odysseus who designed the plan to break the stalemate with the Trojans by creating what came to be known as the Trojan Horse. This ingenuity and cunning are reflected in modern comic book superheroes like Batman, who uses his wits to survive against super-villains who have him outclassed physically. These three heroes are part of the development of the Homeric hero cult that Whitley discussed in his article. While these three epic heroes helped develop the hero cult, it is the hero cult that helped develop them as icons. As a result, they became ubiquitous, appearing in architecture, pottery, and even weapons and armor.

Roman mythology is based around a founding hero myth in The Aeneid and perhaps is the ultimate expression of the Greek hero cult. Rome took from heroic Greek legends and meshed them with local legends. This allowed them to create a continuity that went back to ancient Greek civilization. This continuity extends back through myth and legend to Aeneas, a Trojan prince was able to escape the sack of Troy. Just as many Greek heroes, Aeneas is the son of a mortal Prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. This carries on a tradition started with the Greeks that their heroes must have some sort of divine parent or ancestor in their background.  Aeneas is one of the few Trojans who did not get killed or enslaved at the end of the Trojan War and was commanded by the gods to gather the survivors together and find their way to the Italian Peninsula were they would be the founders of Rome.

Once Aeneas and the survivors arrive in Italy, they were greeted by King Latinus, who gives his previously betrothed daughter to Aeneas as a wife. This angers Lavinia’s former fiancé, Turnus, and he gathers an army to get revenge for the slight against his honor. Aeneas wins the war but Lavinia’s father, Latinus, is killed. To commemorate the victory and to honor his wife, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium. Later when Aeneas dies his mother, Aphrodite, asks her father, Jupiter, to make her son the immortal. Jupiter grants this boon raising the Roman founder to the level of a god. Aeneas is a Roman archetype in that he overcame great odds and through strife and chaos was able to bring order to the world around him.

While Samarian, Greek, and Roman mythology supplies a wealth of archetypes on which to base comic book superheroes, it is perhaps Christian mythology that has the most profound effect on the genre. This effect has its origins in the Old Testament heroes such as Noah, Sampson, and Moses all the way through the New Testament accounts of Jesus. As Joseph Campbell states, “Jesus, for example, can be regarded as a man who by the dent of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a God descended and took upon himself the impact of the human career. (Campbell 275) Through Jesus, God’s wisdom is imparted to Western Civilization by means of the Golden Rule which states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and is reinforced by Jesus in his parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  In this parable Jesus tell the story of a Jew who is beaten and robbed while traveling. He is happened upon by first a Jewish priest and later another Jew, both of whom ignore him. It is only when a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, finds the beaten man, does the man get help.

The widely accepted interpretation of this story holds that we should help others because we hope that they would help us in times of need.  Jesus’ story is one of the central themes of the superhero and a hard lesson learned by Spiderman shortly after he gained his powers. Nowhere and comic books is this parable more evident than in the Spiderman origin story. In the beginning, Peter Parker used his newly gained powers for personal gain. Because he was so selfishly focused on getting money to impress girls, he ignored the plea from a police officer to stop a fleeing robber. There is robber went on to murder his Uncle Ben. From that point Peter Parker swore to use his powers to help society. Perhaps if Peter Parker had followed “The Golden Rule” he would still have his Uncle Ben. When Peter Parker ignored this creed  passed down to us through Christian teachings, he ignored a mandate developed in a Christian society.


These mandates and archetypes were integrated into western society throughout the Middle Ages in a profound way and were reinforced when the Church created the cathedral as a means for communal participation in the Christian virtues and archetypes. If we extend this back through the civilizations before the rise of Christianity we might equate this with a type of “hero cult” where Jesus and the saints are held up for worship. To help this worship the Church used art to tell the stories. This art took the form of murals and stained-glass depicting various scenes from the Bible and various biblical figures. This iconographic imagery instilled in the viewer a sense of wonder and awe that allowed them to participate in the worship practice and carry it out into the community where the Church’s moral agents were able to act upon the population and spread Christianity.

The spreading of the Christian virtues gave the hero a moral base from which to operate. This is shown in the Christianization of old pagan stories such as Beowulf where Beowulf attributes his strength due to his closeness to God. Not only did Jesus’ teachings influence old stories’ but they also influenced the creation of new stories such as the Arthurian cycle of stories that use Christian morality to impose order into the lives warriors. The knightly virtues such as “valor, justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to weakness, and devotedness to the Church” (Bulfinch 349) are virtues that appear in one form or another and the modern superhero archetype.

To Be Continued in Part 3 True Believers.


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Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd. Novato: New World Library, 1968.

Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Chase, Richard. American Folk Tales and Songs. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

—. Grandfather Tales: American-English Folktales. Ed. Richard Chase. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.

—. The Jack Tales. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943.

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comic Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Univesity Press of Mississippi, 2009. 77-.

Jung, Carl. Psychology and Religion. Vol. II. New York: Yale University Press, 1958.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Milligan, Peter and Davide Gianfelice. Greek Street. 1. New York: Vertigo, September 2009.

Ndalianis, Angela. “Do We Need Another Hero?” Superheroes: From Hercules to Superman. Ed. Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie Wendy Haslem. Washington D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2007. 1-10.

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos. Perf. George Newbern, et al. 2010. DVD.

Whitley, James. “The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica.” American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (1994): 213-230.

Younis, Raymond. “”Restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach its end”: Nihilism, Reconstruction and the Hero’s Journey.” Superheroes: From Hercules to Superman. Ed. Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie Wendy Haslem. Washington D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2007. 97-110.

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