Superheroes of Religions, Legends

As originally first reported for the Clearance Bin Reviewand as a preparation for the panel I am on this Wednesday night, November 6th, at Dominican University, I wrap up my three part series on superheroes (part 1 and part 2) with this entry, in which I attempt to answer this question: do religious figures and the heroes of legend fall under the definition of “superheroes?”

First, let’s look at the heroes of legend who have not been canonized as central figures to one of the many organized religions around the world.  Here we focus on characters – mostly men – who have had their stories told and retold, from the oral tradition to the written pages.  Perhaps at one point there was a real person who served as the basis for the legend.  But over time, the stories became embellished and the truth, if there ever was any, grew fuzzy.  Reality gave way to a narrative designed to impart to its listeners and readers some moral lesson on how to behave in their lives.

We find such characters in legends and myths from around the world, from cultures that have come and gone, to cultures that have succeeded in having their stories dominate the world stage.  Some of these characters, due to the social power of their stories or the overall power of their cultures, have become well-known worldwide, to the point where they act as a template for other culture’s to adopt and adapt.

Consider, for example, Robin Hood.  The basic template of Robin Hood is a rich man who has forsaken his identity so he can defend the poor and the powerless from the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  This basic narrative and characterization can be seen in modern day superheroes, such as Batman and Iron Man, with DC’s Green Arrow not only acting like the character but looking like him, too.  But, then, is Robin Hood a superhero?

Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves

Well, Robin Hood was not his real name.  According to the stories, his real name – the name of the wealthy landowner he had been – was Robert Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon, also known as Robin of Loxley.  His codename, Robin Hood, was likely a reference to the costume that he wore (a cloak with a cowl).  Thus, so far, we have a secret identity with a codename that is linked to a costume motif.  In regards to superpowers, Robin Hood is often described as the best marksman in all of England, able to hit anything with his arrows.  While not a magical or superhuman ability, it is considered above par, reflecting great skill, and could be akin to the powers of superheroes like those who are adapted from him (i.e. Batman, Green Arrow).  Finally there is his sanctioned mission, which most likely also reflects the times in which the stories were told, both orally and in written form – a mission that has come to be summarized as “he robbed from the rich to give to the poor”.  To Western cultures influenced by Christian doctrines, this mission reflects the selfless life and the striving to be of service to the community through sacrifice.  Thus, Robin Hood, who has been around since the 14th century, could indeed be thought of as a modern day superhero.

If we go further back in time, then we can find other legendary, even mythical, figures who could be defined today as superheroes.  Indeed, a number of these characters have become superheroes in the Marvel or DC universes – such as the Nordic god Thor or the Greek/Roman demigod Hercules or the figures called upon by Billy Batson to become Captain Marvel.  However, there exist many more of these characters who have not been lionized in the pages of comic books.

Let us consider the figure of Perseus, who has had a rebirth as of late due to the films Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans.  According to Greek legend, Perseus was the result of a tryst between the Olympic god Zeus and the mortal woman Danae.  Danae’s father, fearing Perseus, cast them from his kingdom.  Raised in hardship, Perseus would go on to amazing feats: killing the Gorgon Medusa, rescuing the princess Andromeda from the sea serpent Cetus, and taming the Pegasus (which came not from the original myths, but later retellings, as the hero Bellerophon was the beast’s true tamer).  Now, all these stories were based off a real man, who lived and ruled and had descendants.  Unlike the Robin Hood stories, there was no codename in this legend: Perseus of the myths, as far as we can tell, was the same name as the individual of ancient history.

Perseus, in all his glory

So that criteria of the superhero definition is not met.  Next, did he have a costume motif?  The common visual portrayals of Perseus find him with winged sandals – in the myth, it was these that helped him fly, not Pegasus – a sword in one hand, and the severed head of Medusa in the other.  While not necessary a costume (the most clothing he seems to wear is a shawl), they are visually linked with his story and thus have become iconic representations of who he was and what he did.  As for superpowers, being born of Zeus, as he is in the myth, does afford him extra strength and fortitude, as well as connections to the gods mere mortals could not have.  These traits and connections served him in his quest to defeat Medusa and Cetus.  We could then see such traits and connections serving as superpowers.  Finally, in terms of a sanctioned mission, his story involves the rescue of a beautiful damsel-in-distress: a narrative that is one of the oldest in Western culture.  The idea of a man protecting a woman, who also represents her society, is an example of a socially sanctioned mission: it is the role of men to safeguard the weak and powerless.  While not fully meeting all of the criteria, there is so much similarity between the depiction of Perseus and our conceptualization of superheroes that were his story to originate today, he would most likely be considered as a superhero.

Now, these two examples come from Western cultures.  So as to demonstrate how these figures could be seen as superheroes regardless of where they originated, one final legendary figure I would like to discuss comes from Japanese culture.  According to history, Minamoto Yoshitsune was a tremendous warrior in the 12th century who served his country battling rebellions against the Emperor.  His skill in battle lived on in stories passed down orally, in written tomes, and later in movies, anime/manga, and even video games.  He was said to be a master swordsman and tactician.

Yoshitsune, master samurai

Like Perseus, Yoshitsune did not appear to have a codename: the stories of his exploits, as embellished through time, use the same name as the historical figure.  Unlike Perseus, there does not appear to be as common of a costume motif, outside of his depiction in the outfit and weaponry of a samurai, with only a tendency for such apparel to be red.  As for superpowers, we find a telling of his abilities that mirrors both Robin Hood and Perseus.  By many accounts, he is one of the finest swordsman seen in Japan, and by some accounts – from the narrative embellishments – he gained such skill due to mystical intervention.  There are even accounts in the stories of his ability to slice leaves apart as they fell from trees – skills above and beyond the range of even the best samurai.  Clearly he is portrayed in the stories as having superhuman skills.  Finally, as for having a sanctioned mission, it can be said that many of the depictions of Yoshitsune depict him honorably for his bravery in standing up against corrupt samurai lords.  If his story was not one of honor, then it would not have lasted for nearly a millennium.

But does that make him a superhero?  Of the three legendary figures discussed, his is perhaps the least likely to be seen as such.  His portrayal is often more tragic, given his brother’s betrayal and the seppuku that ended his life.  However, his abilities, his iconic representation, and his culturally sanctioned mission all highlight a legend that could easily become a superhero by today’s standards.

Finally, let us consider figures from the world’s organized religions.  To do so, I want to consider figures from two different religions that are still widely practiced around the world: Jesus of Nazareth, whose stories are central to Christian faith, and Ramachandra, whose story makes him a popular Hindi deity, specifically in Vaishnava scriptures.  Now, in talking about the possibility of these characters as being superheroes, I am not trying to belittle the importance of such figures to those who are members of the organized religions the characters represent.  Instead, I am trying to have us think about what a superhero means to us, in our modern age, and if we could see this meaning in the classical figures that have been so central to the beliefs of cultures around the world and throughout time.

Jesus Christ, superhero?

To begin, let’s consider Jesus.  Jesus’ story begins with the immaculate conception, linking Jesus to the Judaic deity Yahweh in a way similar to the linking of Perseus to Zeus.  However, their stories are immensely divergent, as Jesus’ journey is not one of violence but peace, preaching new ways for Mankind to live with each other and secure their future in the Kingdom of God.  However, similar to Perseus, he is also able to perform miracles thanks to his birth, such as healing lepers and paralytics, walking on water, or feeding the masses with scant bread and fish.  However, the most powerful miracle attributed to Jesus was his overcoming his own death after crucifixion by the Roman oppressors of Israel.  Were his story to have its origin today, the performance of such miracles might be termed by common superhero parlance such as “transmutation” or “telekinesis” or “regeneration”.  Thus, based on this connection, we could argue that the ability of Jesus to perform such miracles would have been his superhuman ability, that which made him the representation of God on Earth, and thus his superpowers.

Additionally, Jesus of Nazareth would have been his real name, with perhaps Jesus Christ his codename, especially for those of the Christian faith, to whom his real identity was the Son of God, and thereby God Himself on Earth.  To those of the Judaic and Islamic faiths, Jesus was not the Son of God or the incarnation of God, but was instead a prophet.  However, all three religions agree on his mission being sanctioned because of his goal to ease human suffering.  And while there may also be some differences in opinion on how to visually portray him, the most common portrayal around the world is of a white man with long hair, a beard, and simple, flowing garments.  Like Robin Hood, the iconic nature of Jesus comes closest to the criteria of costume motif for defining superheroes.

This iconic nature, combined with the miracles, the identity, and the sanctioned mission means Jesus could be described as a superhero.  And the ability to define Jesus as such is not lost on modern day superhero storytellers.  Like Robin Hood, his narrative will often serve as the template for superheroes: the basic narrative of being sent to Earth to do good for the people through self-sacrifice.  It is a narrative most known for the common depictions of Superman as having been sent to this planet by his father to protect and serve humans through the sacrifice of a normal life – as depicted in the 1978 Superman film.   The analogy was also present in the 2006 Superman Returns film, most notably when Superman sacrifices himself to save Earth and is portrayed in a pose as if crucified.

Superman’s sacrifice in “Superman Returns”

The last figure I wish to discuss is perhaps most known around the world as the hero of the Ramayana, an epic Hindu tale of Rama, or Ramachandra, an avatar or incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.  The epic tells of Rama’s journey to save his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana.  In Hindu beliefs, Vishnu, in the second age of mankind, walked the world incarnated as Lord Rama; in this incarnation, he defeated Ravana, ending his reign of terror and restoring peace to Earth.  Similar to the role Jesus plays in the Christian faith, Rama is portrayed as the ideal human, a pantheon for how to live as a human during one’s time on Earth.  During his journey to defeat Ravana, Rama wields the brahmastra, an unimaginably powerful weapon created by the god Brahma, and he is helped by other gods who provide him with the knowledge to defeat the demon king.

Lord Rama, dressed for battle

Thus, like Jesus, he is related to a higher deity by being that deity’s incarnation on Earth, set there to complete a great task.  Unlike Jesus, Rama completes this task with great violence, although that only comes after offering his enemies the chance for peace.  Rama then has a similar dual identity: he is both a member of a royal family, as Lord Rama, and an avatar, as Ramachandra.  As with Perseus, his abilities are granted because of the weapons and connections he has with other deities; and, as with Jesus, he also has superhuman skills due to his status as an incarnation.  Rama is commonly visually represented as a blue-skinned human, often carrying a bow and arrows used for his battle with Ravana.  However, like Jesus and Yoshitsune, the visual depiction is not thematically linked to his identity or his abilities.

As to whether or not his mission is socially sanctioned: the whole journey he undertakes meets this criterion in two ways.  First, he is attempting to save his wife from the lecherous clutches of Ravana: the role of the husband protecting his wife, and his own reputation, is commonly sanctioned as the proper role for a man in many cultures.  Second, in his battle with Ravana, he is tasked with bringing about the end of the demon king’s evil reign on Earth, restoring some of the peace and harmony felt in the previous age of mankind.  Thus his journey is the ultimate one of good versus evil, a motif so common across cultures and time that it may be one of the most fundamental stories of our species.  Considering all of these aspects of Rama, there appears to be quite a bit of overlap in how we have told his story with how we define superheroes.

I have only discussed five characters in today’s column – five out of thousands.  What of other mythologies such as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumaritan, Nordic and so forth?  What of other religious figures, such as Moses, Mohammad, and Siddhartha?  What about legendary figures from other cultures, such as El Cid, Beowulf, the Outlaws of the Marshes, and Paul Bunyan?  Would we consider any of these to be akin to our modern day superheroes, due to their portrayals and stories?

A long time ago, huddling around fires, stories would be told of great men, and women, with great abilities who performed great tasks to save and protect us poor mortals who have to huddle around fire for warmth.  These great men and women were the figures of our legends, our myths, and even what would become our modern day religions.  We have never stopped telling these stories, inventing new characters for new times whose stories are told in new media – books, films, radio, comic books, television.  They became pulp heroes, and then superheroes.  But looking back through time, how we see superheroes today is very similar to how our ancestors saw their heroic figures.

In the end, superheroes are perhaps the latest in the lineage of personalities whose stories can bring us hope and bring us an idea of how to live in the world and with those other mortals all around us.  And as long as we need that hope and those ideas, we’ll never run out of superheroes – or whatever comes next.

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