Superheroes: Way before Writing Was Invented, and Way, Way before Movies

Our culture seems to be fascinated with superheroes lately. This year at the movies it has been the X-men, Captain America, and Spiderman, and before that it was The Avengers, Superman, and Batman…and the list goes on and on. And those are just the heroes wearing the snazzy costumes. Anytime we watch a movie where the fate of the world…or the fate of an individual…depends on the strength and courage of one person—that’s a superhero movie. But is it just our society that is so captivated with the superhero? And is this fascination really such a recent event? Of course not.

The superhero appears in cultures around the world and as far back in history as people have been telling each other stories; way before writing was invented, and way, way before movies.

The ancient cultures all had their hero stories. The Greeks and Romans liked to tell of Hercules whose hardships were so extreme and whose deeds were so mighty, that when he died, he was brought up to Mount Olympus to live with the gods. In India, they told of Rama, who rescues his wife from the ten-headed, twenty-armed demon-king, Ravana. And in Mexico, the ancient Aztecs were all familiar with Quetzalcoatl, who transforms himself into a black ant and journeys deep into the earth in search of food for his beloved humans.

These heroes are the archetypes, or the original models, for our action heroes today. Their stories reflect timeless values, such as courage and honor, and deal with universal ideas such as good and evil, life and death.

It’s not the stories that have changed so much over the centuries; it’s just the way we are telling them.

Take for instance an early archetype of the beautiful, yet strong female hero figure: Brynhild; the original “bad girl” of Norse Mythology. She is the daughter of Odin and leader of the Valkyries, who rides on wolf back among the dead and dying in battle to choose the bravest warriors for the afterlife of Valhalla. However, she gets in trouble with her dad when she defeats a king that Odin had promised victory.

As punishment, her dad tells her that she has to get married, but since Brynhild has sworn she will only marry a man who is fearless, Odin places her on a high mountain surrounded by a circle of fire where she must sleep until a hero with no fear can ride through the flames to rescue her. When the hero, Sigurd, does, the two fall passionately in love and he promises to return and marry her. On his way back though, Sigurd is distracted by another beautiful woman who slips him a love potion and he forgets all about his promise to Brynhild. In her heartbreak and jealous rage… Brynhild has Sigurd killed.

Okay, so she overreacts a little, but you just don’t want to break this woman’s heart.
More important, is what this story tells us about the people who told it; they valued
Brynhild’s qualities: she is strong, smart, sexy, brave, and above all, honorable. Qualities the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote about thousands of years later in The Scarlet Letter. His hero, Hester Prynne, is a beautiful unmarried woman convicted of adultery in colonial Boston. She is condemned to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her chest as a permanent sign of her sin and brought before the entire community with her child and commanded to reveal the identity of the baby’s father. She refuses. He remains silent. Over the course of the novel, as the child’s father slowly self-destructs in shame, Hester steadily regains her dignity and the respect of the community.

A century and a half later, this same character appears in the movie Juno. Although the film is about a beautiful, intelligent, independently minded young woman who gets pregnant and is not married, and it may share some themes with The Scarlet Letter—it is definitely not the same story. But the hero of the story, Juno MacGuff, is the same archetypical character as Hester Prynne, a woman who is self confident enough to stand on her own, face up to her responsibilities, and make difficult decisions. Juno decides to give her baby up for adoption at the end of the move, because in her heart, she knows it is the right thing to do.

Not exciting enough for you? How about the modern movie version of our Valkyrie, Brynhild, as the character of “The Bride” in Quentin Tarantino’s bloody revenge epic, Kill Bill? After surviving a gunshot to the head and five years in a coma, this woman goes on a mission of revenge to kill the man who betrayed her. Her bloody—and I mean bloody—journey of vengeance takes her around the world where she finally catches up with her would-be assassin, only to discover that the child she was pregnant with and thought she had lost in the shooting is alive and well and waiting to be rescued from the film’s smooth-talking villain.

Making these kinds of connections over time and among different cultures is not just a nerdy game of trivia for movie buffs or high school English teachers; it is part of our basic need as humans to communicate.

This is what is truly important in life: one’s ability to communicate. True communication requires empathy; seeing through another’s eyes, walking in another’s shoes. Whether the stories are spoken around a campfire late at night, read silently from the pages of a book, viewed in the cool dark of a crowded movie theatre, or watched from the living room couch at home, storytelling accomplishes this. Our shared experiences make this happen. Our stories connect us to the past, the present, the future… and to every other human being on this earth.

We need to make these connections. And the superhero story is one way we continue to do so. Remember, above all, stories reveal the values, hopes, fears, and dreams of the people who are telling them. A good superhero story, with its fantastic characters, impossible settings, and despicable villains, seems to get right to the heart of the matter, because what these stories are really telling us is how a culture sees itself.

Think about your favorite superheroes. What is it that you admire most in them? Is it their incredible strength, their power to fly, or their ability to turn invisible? Is it their x-ray vision? Or is it that when things are at their worst, when all seems lost, and all hope is gone, when anyone else would call it quits… crawl home… pull up the covers and turn out the lights… our super heroes keep going. Their greatest power, after all, is their courage and their honor. These heroes, pushed to the limits of their powers, find the self-confidence to stand on their own, face up to their responsibilities, and make those difficult decisions. This is because what we admire most in our superheroes is really what we want to admire most… in ourselves.

--Philip Hoy

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