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Analytical Essay on Superhero Characters: Hercules Myth

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“Superhero characters are a form of modern mythology. Argue for or against this view.”

Mythologies are often defined as “stories or historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”.[footnoteRef:1] This is the definition that many of us are used to and common examples are Greek and Roman mythologies. As such, it may seem absurd to think of Superhero characters as a form of modern mythology. After all, they are fictional characters that are mostly used for entertainment purposes. Yet, they are. In this essay, I will be arguing for the idea of Superhero characters as modern mythology by examining the similarities between Superhero characters to that of ancient mythological characters from the past and how they fulfil the functions of myth. Next, I will discuss why some might oppose against classifying them as a form of modern mythology and finally, I will be concluding the essay. [1: Merriam Webster (2019). Definition of Myths. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myths ]

Superhero stories are the modern parallels of ancient mythologies.[footnoteRef:2] In fact, many of the Superhero characters can be linked back to prominent ancient mythological characters from the past such as Hercules, the Amazons and Thor.[footnoteRef:3] Hercules was a Greek demi-god known for his strength and stamina who remained kind and displayed humility despite countless trials and tragedies. With his extraordinary prowess, he could have avoided the twelve labours imposed on him. Yet, he willingly put himself through them to atone for his sins.[footnoteRef:4] Comparatively, his modern counterpart can be represented by Superman. Just as Hercules, Superman is known not only for his supernatural strength and powers but also his compassion and morals.[footnoteRef:5] In fact, Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman mentioned that Superman was the result of “Samson, Hercules and all the other strong men rolled into one”.[footnoteRef:6] This reference to mythological characters illustrates the similarities between our modern superheroes and the ancient heroes of the past. Other references to mythological characters include Wonder Woman, an adaptation of the Greek mythology, the Amazons[footnoteRef:7] and Thor, the Asgardian god in the Marvel Universe whom is based on the mythology, the Norse god of thunder.[footnoteRef:8] Evidently, there are resemblances between our modern superheroes and ancient mythological characters of the past. Albeit subtle for some, there is a definite relationship between these two that cannot be ignored. Hence, Superhero characters are a form of modern mythology. [2: H, Winterbach. (2006). Heroes and superheroes: from myth to the American comic book. South African Journal of Art History, 21(1), 114-134.] [3: M, Kohut (2014). Superheroes: The Philosophy Behind the Modern Myth (Doctoral dissertation, Masarykova univerzita, Filozofická fakulta).] [4: S, Piggott. (1938). The Hercules Myth—beginnings and ends. Antiquity, 12(47), 323-331.] [5: R, Vaux. (2017). Characteristics of Superman. Retrieved from https://penandthepad.com/characteristics-superman-8384813.html] [6: P, Coogan. (2012). Genre: Reconstructing the Superhero in All Star Superman. In Critical Approaches to Comics (pp. 221-238). ] [7: M. C, Emad. (2006). Reading Wonder Woman’s body: Mythologies of gender and nation. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39(6), 954-984.] [8: M, Arnold. (2011). Thor: Myth to Marvel.]

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As we delve deeper into the idea of mythologies, one would realise that it is unwise to simply refer to mythology as a definitive word but rather, a term that encompasses varying functions. According to Joseph Campbell, the four functions of myth are; mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical[footnoteRef:9] and Superhero characters fulfil these functions. Superheroes convey more than just entertainment. Superheroes and their stories have accompanied many from childhood to adulthood, playing an integral part in shaping their lives by validating a particular social order (sociological), imparting values (pedagogical) as well as making sense of our mortality (mystical) and the universe (cosmological). For instance, Wonder Woman serves as a good role model to many women by portraying the idea that women too, can be strong and independent.[footnoteRef:10] This reinforces the ideology of feminism, one that our society today continues to advocate, thereby fulfilling the sociological function of myth.[footnoteRef:11] Additionally, Superheroes like Spiderman and Captain American are often portrayed as strong and kind-hearted, making them exemplary role models to the younger audiences by instilling moral values like courage, kindness and determination, thereby fulfilling the pedagogical function of myth.[footnoteRef:12] The mystical function of myth which relates the mystery of our existence as humans can be illustrated by Dr Strange of the Marvel Universe, a magical and mystical character who can travel through time, space and dimensions.[footnoteRef:13] It has been argued that his origins can be traced to Hindu mythology, particularly the comparison of the ‘Book of Vishanti’, a book of magical spells belonging to Dr Strange, to Atharvaveda, a Hindu sacred text consisting of dark knowledge regarding spirits.[footnoteRef:14] Lastly, the cosmological function which explains the workings of the world can be encapsulated by the universe of Superheroes. Though religious mythologies continue to be used in making sense of the world, the younger generations, who are not as religious, are now leveraging on Superheroes as means of explaining the world to themselves.[footnoteRef:15] Therefore, Superhero characters are a form of modern mythology as they fulfil the four functions of myths. [9: J, Campbell & B, Moyers. (2011). The Power of myth., pg 39] [10: P. C, Crawford. (2007). The legacy of Wonder Woman. School Library Journal, 53(3), 30-34.] [11: C, Cocca. (2014). Negotiating the third wave of feminism in Wonder Woman. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(1), 98-103.] [12: B, McMahon. (2016). In defense of superheroes as role models. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/01/07/in-defense-of-superheroes-as-role-models/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.daa97c050859] [13: J. M, M.S. (2016). The Psychology of Mystical Superheroes. Retrieved from https://www.shrinktank.com/psychology-mystical-superheroes/] [14: A. S, Inturi. (2017). ‘Doctor Strange’s Magical and Mystical Roots in Hindu Mythology. Retrieved from https://www.fandom.com/articles/doctor-strange-magical-mystical-roots-hindu-mythology] [15: J, Kraska. (2015). The psychology of comic books: Why we worship superheroes. Retrieved from http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-1/i-need-a-hero-why-were-wired-to-worship-superheroes]

That said, some might oppose against the idea of Superhero characters as modern mythology since Superheroes are purely fictional. Unlike mythological characters whom people truly believed existed, Superheroes are made-up characters. No one worship them the way they do to ancient gods and goddesses by erecting temples and paying tributes.[footnoteRef:16] Hence, it is tempting to conclude that Superhero characters are not a form of modern mythology. However, the use of ‘modern’ emphasises an important distinction of the context, that is, we are no longer referring to the past, but the present. Indeed, mythologies we are used to often refers to ancient heroes and Superhero characters are vastly different. Yet, in this ever-changing world, we must be able to adopt past adaptations into our context today to remain relevant. For instance, Laurence Maslon, the author of Superheroes believes that Superheroes are our form of Greek myths. Simply put, they are not what the Greek myths were to the Greeks but rather, they represent the society we live in today.[footnoteRef:17] Similarly, while Superhero characters are fictional, their stories and background provide a relatively accurate representation of our society as it reflects the technology, societal norms, attitudes and values of our generation.[footnoteRef:18] Being timeless, they can be passed down for many generations to come.[footnoteRef:19] Therefore, while they might not be the past mythology, they are a form of modern mythology. [16: A, Kapelrud. (1963). Temple Building, a Task for Gods and Kings. Orientalia, 32(1), nova series, 56-62. ] [17: A, Bland. (2016). Comic book superheroes: The Gods of modern mythology. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/27/comic-book-superheroes-the-gods-of-modern-mythology] [18: A, Moriarty. (2013) Superheroes and Society: Tracing the socio-cultural trajectory of American mainstream superheroes.] [19: Umberto, Eco (1972) “The Myth of Superman.” Translated by Natalie Chilton. Diacritics 2: 14–22]

In conclusion, Superhero characters are a form of modern mythology as they share great similarities with mythological characters of the past. Additionally, they also fulfil the four function of myths; sociological, pedagogical, mystical and cosmological. While some might argue that superheroes are simply fictional, the idea of modern mythology implies that we should adopt past adaptations into our present context to obtain meaningful interpretations.

References:

  1. Arnold, M. (2011). Thor: Myth to Marvel. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  2. Bland, A. (2016). Comic book superheroes: The Gods of modern mythology. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/27/comic-book-superheroes-the-gods-of-modern-mythology
  3. Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (2011). The Power of myth, pg 39
  4. Cocca, C. (2014). Negotiating the third wave of feminism in Wonder Woman. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(1), 98-103.
  5. Coogan, P. (2012). Genre: Reconstructing the Superhero in All Star Superman. In Critical Approaches to Comics (pp. 221-238).
  6. Crawford, P. C. (2007). The legacy of Wonder Woman. School Library Journal, 53(3), 30-34.
  7. Eco, Umberto. (1972). The Myth of Superman. Translated by Natalie Chilton Diacritics 2: 14-22.
  8. Emad, M. C. (2006). Reading Wonder Woman’s body: Mythologies of gender and nation. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39(6), 954-984.
  9. Inturi, A. S. (2017). ‘Doctor Strange’s Magical and Mystical Roots in Hindu Mythology. Retrieved from https://www.fandom.com/articles/doctor-strange-magical-mystical-roots-hindu-mythology
  10. Kapelrud, A. (1963). Temple Building, a Task for Gods and Kings. Orientalia, 32(1), nova series, 56-62.
  11. Kohut, M. (2014). Superheroes: The Philosophy Behind the Modern Myth (Doctoral dissertation, Masarykova univerzita, Filozofická fakulta).
  12. Kraska, J. (2015). The psychology of comic books: Why we worship superheroes. Retrieved from http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-1/i-need-a-hero-why-were-wired-to-worship-superheroes
  13. McMahon, B. (2016). In defense of superheroes as role models. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/01/07/in-defense-of-superheroes-as-role-models/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.daa97c050859
  14. Merriam Webster (2019). Definition of Myths. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myths
  15. Moriarty, A (2013) Superheroes and Society: Tracing the socio-cultural trajectory of American mainstream superheroes.
  16. M.S, J. M. (2016). The Psychology of Mystical Superheroes. Retrieved from https://www.shrinktank.com/psychology-mystical-superheroes/
  17. Piggott, S. (1938). The Hercules Myth—beginnings and ends. Antiquity, 12(47), 323-331.
  18. Vaux, R. (2017). Characteristics of Superman. Retrieved from https://penandthepad.com/characteristics-superman-8384813.html
  19. Winterbach, H. (2006). Heroes and superheroes: from myth to the American comic book. South African Journal of Art History, 21(1), 114-134.

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Analytical Essay on Superhero Characters: Hercules Myth. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analytical-essay-on-superhero-characters-hercules-myth/
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