It doesn’t take an expert in ancient cultures to draw parallels between the stories of our favourite comic book heroes and the demi-gods from Greek myths, prophets from religious traditions and monstrous characters from folk tales all over the globe.
Whether it’s really obvious, like the Norse god Thor or Wonder Woman’s origin story that’s steeped in Greek mythology, or a little more subtle, like the comparisons that are often drawn between Superman and Moses, history, literature and legend has played its part in influencing the comic book heroes you know and love.
The interesting thing is why there are parallels. Is there a Jungian collective unconscious that brings the same stories up time and time again regardless of our culture, the century we were born in or our location on the planet? Are we involuntarily fascinated with being powerful and God-like so create these characters out of Freud’s theory of wish fulfilment? Or did the Greeks and other ancient civilisations just tell a lot of damn good tales that everyone from Shakespeare to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster like to rip off?
It’s clear there’s something about Superman’s otherworldly strength and potentially life-threatening aversion to Kryptonite, Jean Grey’s unrivalled psychic abilities paired with her uncontrollable monster inside and the Hulk’s aggressive, shapeshifting alter ego that stand the test of time. From appealing to ancient Greeks, to the early comic book fans of the 1940s, to the ever-increasing demands of modern-day audiences getting their first taste of superheroes at the cinema, lets take a look at the influence of myth, legend and history on a few of our favourite comic heroes.
Superman: The super strong, otherworldly do-gooder
Superman’s story invites comparisons to Greek mythology so transparent that they need little explanation. But it seemed just plain wrong to write about superheroes and not talk about the Man of Steel.
Superman’s origin story has stayed the same over the years, despite the character being nearly 80 years old now. It’s possibly the one most of you are familiar with, but to cut a long origin story short, he’s not from earth, but from Krypton. Moments before his home planet was destroyed, Kal-El (that’s his birth name) is rocketed to Earth and lives with adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. He has superhuman powers, likes the human race and wants to save them. A lot.
Superman’s strength, stature and deity-like attributes draw parallels between his character and the super-human abilities of classic Greek figures. Particularly the likes of Hercules, who had a very similar story (just without the pants over his...toga?). His infamous weakness for Kryptonite also invites obvious comparison with other Greek legends, including Achilles, and even hairy Biblical figure Samson.
But it’s actually religious tales of prophets that are the most similar once you start getting into the nitty-gritty of everyone’s birth, childhood and motivations. Like Superman, Jesus wasn’t born from mere mortals, but had been placed on Earth instead. In many ways both Jesus and Superman are largely misunderstood, but still want to help people.
The same can be said for Moses, cast into the Nile to escape being killed by the Pharaoh before becoming a hero for the people. But it’s not just Abrahamic religions, but also Hindu ones that have a Superman-like character. For example, there are numerous similarities between Superman’s origin stories and the story of Hindu deity Krishna. Like Superman, Krishna was raised by a mortal couple other than his parents to escape the evil wrath of his uncle.
You’ll find many Superman-like characters throughout more modern examples of popular culture as well. Maybe because his story fits in with many common hero stories over the ages, especially Joseph Campbell's epic hero monomyth from his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It outlines a template that defines the archetypal hero through a series of events, including an adventure, a supernatural element, a transformation and a triumphant return. You can see it at play in everything from Luke Skywalker’s ambiguous family tree and moral obligation to do good because of The Force to Neo’s status as The One in The Matrix. The Superman and epic hero archetypes are weaved through some of the most compelling stories of the past century.
Jean Grey: The monstrous feminine and caged Phoenix
Ahh Jean Grey. She’s a confusing one. She’s a powerful psychic capable of controlling people and objects with her mind. But at the same time there’s a big problem here: she’s also harbouring a phoenix-like monster capable of destroying the universe inside her. Oh and FYI she can’t control any of her powers, because: female.
This all manages to get even more problematic when in the X Men: The Last Stand movie (but not in the comic book stories, to be fair) Professor X explains she can’t control her power and so he imprisoned it for her. And we all know how well that ends…
Jean, along with both Rogue and Mystique, can be said to represent an archetype that Barbara Creed coined as the “monstrous feminine” in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis.
She asserts that, “Historically, stereotypes have been used to represent female sexuality as monstrous in order to justify the oppression of women.”
Which is a particularly interesting reading in the context of X-Men, when we’re lead to believe that Rogue and Jean’s superpowers remain latent until some kind of traumatic (and most probably sexual) event. From there onwards at various points throughout their respective stories they’re not only a danger to themselves, but to humanity as a whole. Rogue, Jean Grey and Mystique each become a catalyst for possible world destruction at one point or another.
Now arguably there are a number of monstrous feminine characters throughout mythology. The most obvious is Medusa, using her appearance to literally turn people to stone. But there are other more subtle examples, like Pandora who just like Jean is unable to control her female urges and opens up her box (ahem). There are also other characters, such as the sirens, who use their sexuality to lure men to their death – at one point they weren’t beautiful mermaid-like creatures but were actually half-woman, half-bird.
There are also parallels between Jean and the phoenix story itself. Jordan Phillips in She Has to be Controlled says not only is the monstrous feminine at play here with Jean’s character, but something called the “phoenix complex”.
The idea that “as with the phoenix, the female hero is reborn from the ashes of her former self in defiance of the naturalised, hegemonic order. She must constantly elide defeat and containment in any way that she can.” He believes that in this way women often follow a Phoenix-like trajectory — but rarely have the opportunity to rise from their metaphorical flames.
Stephen King’s Carrie is a great example of the monstrous feminine in action in later literature. Her telekinetic outburst at the prom representing a great example of her inner Phoenix finally refusing to be caged.
Batman: The vigilante and reluctant hero
Often considered a superhero in the same vein as Superman, Batman’s story, motivations and strengths are actually drastically different. For starters, he doesn’t have superpowers. Instead he uses techy gadgets, wit and intelligence to outsmart his opponents instead.
In this way, you can actually draw many parallels between Bruce Wayne’s night-dwelling alter ego and characters throughout literature with admirable skills that play more of a detective role than one of a superhero, like say Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel.
But it’s probably Zorro, also a rich playboy-type during the day and a dark, costumed-type by night who seems most like our favourite masked vigilante.
There aren’t any really comfortable parallels in Greek mythology, but heroes like Odysseus, Jason, Theseus, Perseus and Bellerophon were certainly all men who challenged gods armed with no super powers themselves, but with wit, will and mystical gifts at their disposable. In some ways he’s also comparable to Hades. He ruled over the underworld in the same way Batman could be said to rule over the underbelly of Gotham.
It’s also important to remember that his origin story actually paints him as a reluctant hero. He didn’t choose to be one, he wasn’t born one and he doesn’t feel a sense of altruism or moral conviction like Superman. Instead he’s actually motivated by vengeance for the death of his parents and has a personal vendetta against the big bad. So although different in many ways, he has a similar motivation to the likes of The Punisher and even Wolverine, even if you'd struggle to otherwise draw comparison between the three.
Wonder Woman: The female warrior
Tracking Wonder Woman’s evolution from 1941 to the present day is something of a whirlwind, as she manages to represent a character that’s extremely progressive and yet really problematic at the same time. But hey, being the first female superhero is clearly a heavy cross to bear, right?
Although her origin story has had a number of different revisions over the years (at one point she was born from clay and later that was revealed to be a lie to cover up an affair between Hippolyta and Zeus), most would agree she’s Diana Prince from Paradise Island. A princess of the Amazons, a mythic race of warrior women, and daughter of Hippolyta — whether through a pottery project or a seedy tryst.
Despite becoming the Justice Society’s secretary at one point, she’s mostly depicted as a strong warrior-like woman from a line of strong warrior-like Amazonian women. Yet, in the earlier comic books it was her intelligence, diplomacy and Lasso of Truth that was more important than her propensity for violence.
Obviously her origin story is already rich with Greek mythology. But she shares many of the same traits as the female gods of the Greek Pantheon, representing a mixture of the skills of Demeter and the power and strength of the likes of Athena, the Greek goddess of war.
Depending on which aspect of Wonder Woman you focus on you’ll find different characters that are similar throughout folklore and legend. From the Valkyrie, winged warrior women who cleared up people from the battlefield, to Freyja, the goddess of way in Norse mythology, to the Hindu warrior goddesses Kali and Chamunda.
In terms of more modern cultural parallels, it’s hard not to see similarities between Wonder Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or at least it is for me). Buffy is also a woman descended from a line of special women, the Slayers rather than the Amazonians.
The Hulk: The monster man who no one understands
Hulk is the superhuman, super-aggressive, super green alter ego of emotionally-reserved physicist Bruce Banner. Sure he’s a great superhero-as-monster hybrid, but his transformation can also be read as a rather explicit analogy for the very different sides of human nature.
Of course the idea of a regular guy turning into a monster, often against his will, is a rather common trope throughout literature from the likes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through to the Twilight Series. Of course Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic is the most similar, as both Dr. Jekyll and Bruce Banner brought their monstrous change on themselves.
But really the story draws plenty of parallels to werewolf and shapeshifter myths, which have popped up in folklore all over the planet for centuries, from early Africa to Germanic legend to, you guessed it, Greek mythology. In fact, the Greek myth is a particularly gruesome tale in which Lycaon fed Zeus a baby, so Zeus punished him by turning him into a wolf.
According to The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition by Caroline Taylor Stewart, most cultures all over the globe have some form of shapeshifting mythology, more often than not a werewolf one. And if there were no wolves around, the stories were just the same but with the scariest predator, like a lion in Africa. There are lots of ideas about where the myth came from, but potentially from seeing the effects of rabies after being bitten by a wolf. Or Stewart suggests it could also be from people wearing wolf skins for ceremonial or hunting purposes.
Nowadays shapeshifting narratives and characters form an important part of fantasy literature for stories from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Harry Potter.