Summer is upon us and, with it, come barbeques, beaches, mosquitoes and...of course... superhero movies. By Hollywood standards, summer now starts in early May. But, nevertheless, now the solstice is past, there is no denying the season is here. And, depending on your counting, we're at least two superheroes in so far and more on the way.
So in honor of these stalwarts of the blockbuster season, I'll be devoting a few columns this summer to considering the interplay of classical mythology and various superheroes. It has long been theorized that superheroes are modern American replacements for mythologies of other cultures. Clearly, mythological heroes have the enhanced speed and superior strength of superheroes along with the crippling psychological baggage. (Oedipus, anyone?)
So, to start, we may as well talk about the oldest and, arguably, most iconic of superheroes, Superman. (The MAN OF STEEL opened recently, so he's the easy choice – sue me.) Pretty much everyone knows Superman was created by two first generation Jewish guys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The accepted back story of their creation is the isolation and voluntary non-entity arising from the Jewish experience of assimilating into Anglo-centric America. Like immigrant Jews, Superman was an outsider trying to pass for normal. Like many of the first generation, he abandoned his true name, Kal-el, for a nondescript English-sounding moniker; just as Stein became Stone and Sommers became Summers, Kal-el became Clark Kent. Like most Jews operating in the usual American day-to-day, there was a hidden side to him of which non-Jews were unaware and would likely not understand. As far as myth and legend goes, it's said his creators modeled his attributes on the biblical hero Sampson (while taking his name from the writings of Nietzsche, ironically Hitler's go-to philosopher.) In the beginning, in the early comic book days, Superman was similar in power to Sampson, with the strength of ten-plus men, although with significantly more bullet-proofness than poor Sampson, as was dramatically illustrated during the unfortunate episode in the temple at Gaza. The other powers Superman eventually had were developed over the years, largely by other media. His ability to fly came with the great Max Fleishman cartoons of the forties; prior to that, he just leaped huge distances, a power that was deemed, probably with good justification, to be too silly looking for an animated cartoon. The x-ray vision, super breath and the rest was added in cartoons and B-movies, so that, in the 1950's, someone thought to give him a weakness in the form of Kryptonite, just to save him from becoming insufferably boring.
Given this background, I find it interesting that the makers of MAN OF STEEL have chosen to circulate "sermon notes" for use by Christian pastors, apparently equating Superman with Jesus Christ. Needless to say, this move has ticked off most of the targeted pastors. Particularly, since the climax of the movie is not, reportedly, in sync with either the teachings of Jesus,
the Ten Commandments or the established character of Superman. (Full disclosure: I have not seen the movie. I will usually avoid spoilers, but I insist on avoiding them when I really do not know what I'm talking about.)(Fuller disclosure: I have seen the trailer. I'm waiting for the DVD. Ain't no one going to fit all the information Zach Snyder hinted at in the trailer and do any of it justice without the timeframe of a mini-series to handle it all. For the love of Pete, the series SMALLVILLE handled about the same subject matter and it took ten years just to get to the blue tights!)(Even fuller disclosure: What happened to the red briefs? Brain Singer got enough guff by making the briefs burgundy, so the new gang decides to solve that problem by making Supes look like a naked, well-built Smurf, from the neck down?)
Ah hem. Well, this is away from my original point, which is to parallel Superman to an equivalent in classical mythology. This is not as easy a job as it may seem. Sure, classical mythology is rife with strongmen. In addition to Sampson, you have the Greek Heracles, who got sucked into Roman myth as Hercules, the Celtic Irish Cuchulainn, the Germanic Siegfried, who was the Norse Sigurd, the list goes on. (If you wonder why I didn't mention Thor, it's because one of my internal rules is to limit this exercise to heroes and demigods, rather than full out gods. You have to have at least one mortal parent to play!) However, all these guys had one specific characteristic that differentiate them from Superman: they were each an arrogant jerk, aka, wanker in England and Australia, kolotripa in Greek, Arschloch in German, pol thoin in Gaelic, rasshull in Norwegian and gringo in Mexican Spanish. (Thank you to youswear.com, a wonderful website that teaches you to swear in any language, which apparently include texting and Wookie...the word in Wookie is hauiu! In case you're interested. No Klingon, go figure.)
Yes, most of the strongman heroes of ancient times were miserable individuals, cruel, arrogant, misogynistic bullies whose myths often involved them being taken down several pegs before they died, often under vaguely humiliating circumstances, and became constellations or full-fledged gods or something. In the case of Heracles or Hercules, if you prefer, add dumb as a rock to the adjectives. These were not guys you got together with for a pleasant relaxing evening. Now, on the other hand, Superman, as it has often been observed, is a Boy Scout, a Mountie, a prince of a guy, honest, decent, clean and...yawn... brave. You try and find someone, anyone, in ancient myth with those attributes!
Giving up on Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse mythologies, I found a pretty interesting parallel in the Great Hindu epic, The Mahābhārata. The Epic, which roughly translates as the "The Great Search for Knowledge," is essentially the story of the Kurukshetra war between royal Indian families, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the rule of the Indian Empire. It contains various philosophical books, like the Bhagavad-Gita, and
mythological tales, the Ramayana, interwoven with the Iliad-like history of the war. The major character in the epic is the god Vishnu's avatar Krishna, who joins the war on the side of the Pandavas, who represent good. Krishna becomes the charioteer and spiritual guide to the conflicted warrior prince, Arjuna. Arjuna is, to Hindus, the model for humans to aspire to, because he bends all his doubts and fears and follows his prescribed path, as revealed to him by the god Krishna.
He's not the guy I'm going to compare to Superman though. The hero I think is a better fit for Supes is Arjuna's nemesis, Karna.
According to the legends, Karna was probably the greatest warrior of The Mahābhārata. He was the son of the sun god, Surya, by Kunti, an Indian princess, who later becomes the mother of Prince Arjuna. Karna's birth was miraculous; a sage granted the princess a boon to overcome her fate of a difficult childbirth. Under the boon, the princess could call upon any god to give her a child, rather than suffer. Kunti, intrigued by the boon, tried it out and got Karna from the sun god. Unfortunately, she triggered the boon prior to marriage, and felt she had to get rid of the baby to avoid the stigma with being an unmarried mother. So, in the time honored fashion of heroes and demi-gods all the world over, she put him in a basket and set him adrift on the Ganges River. He was rescued and adopted by the family of a charioteer.
Being adopted, however good, carried a big problem for the little boy – although he may have been, by rights, a warrior prince and demi-god, that background was unknown and, socially, he was now the kid of a charioteer. In ancient India, your education, training and general life was completely dictated by your family's caste. So even though, he was a skilled archer, great athlete and a magnificent warrior, no guru would train him because he was of the wrong caste. In spite of this disadvantage, he finally found a teacher to train him, only to be cursed by his guru when the sage learned he had been deceived by Karna as to his true caste, even though Karna did not know his true caste himself.
This haplessness was something of a hallmark of Karna. Just as Superman is a magnificently superior person hampered by his "mild mannered" persona, so did Karna find himself generally underappreciated and ended up falling into several more curses by mistake. He gets cursed for accidently killing an old man's cow while dutifully practicing his archery skills. He gets cursed by Mother Earth by injuring the soil to help a rather bratty child.
Finally, Karna was elevated to a minor kingship by Duryodhana, a mighty prince of the Kaurava clan, the ultimate enemies of Arjuna and his Pandava clan. Unfortunately, this incident pretty much sealed Karna's fate, for, while Karna was loyal, brave, honorable and good, Duryodhana was a lousy bastard. In exchange for the elevation, Karna swore eternal friendship and loyalty to Duryodhana. Although the Kauravas and Pandavas were cousins, the two clans fell out and
Duryodhana, as the head of the pre-eminent Kaurava family, exiled the Pandavas and a war commenced, in which Karna succeeded in making Duryodhana the Emperor of India. In addition, Karna and Arjuna became sworn enemies. This put the world out of balance.
At this point, the god Krishna, an ally to the Pandavas, stepped in to try to make peace, but Duryodhana refused his overtures. Krishna then turned to Karna. He revealed to Karna the truth of his birth – in reality he was the eldest son of the queen Kunti and, as such, the heir of the Pandavas and brother to Arjuna. If Karna changed sides, the god promised him the crown. However, because of his oath of fidelity to Duryodhana, Karna refused.
Over several days the battles raged. Karna defeated all who came before him. Even Krishna himself tells Arjuna that Karna is the perfect hero and invincible. But over the war, Karna expends all his magical protections, often with the behind the scenes help of Krishna, Indra and other gods of the Hindu pantheon, who supported the Pandavas as the representatives of good, over the evil Kauravas.
Finally, the great day of battle came. Arjuna faced Karna, but since Arjuna was protected by Krishna, he was invincible even though Karna was technically his superior. In addition, all the curses Karna carried were triggered. Karna began to fail, as the curses made him lose his ability to use his weapons and made his chariot stick in the mud. Stuck, he requested Arjuna to wait, which was a rule under the etiquette of war. However, Krishna tells Arjuna he may ignore the rule, because Karna supported evil (in the form of Duryodhana) all his life. Even though Arjuna is loathe to break the etiquettes of war, he listens to the word of god and riddles Karna with arrows. However, because Karna was such a charitable and noble individual, he was not killed. Not until Krishna urged Arjuna to redouble his efforts, did Karna finally die.
As a final test, Karna's father Surya and Arjuna's divine father, Indra, debated which of the two warriors was superior. So the gods disguised themselves as beggars and appeared before Karna, who was laying, dying, in the mud. He tells them he has nothing left, but they point to some gold in his teeth. He promptly grabs a stone and smashes his teeth to extract the gold for the beggars, proving he is, in fact, the superior man. In spite of all that occurred, Krishna performs the death rites for Karna.
Clearly, Superman's fate is much sunnier than Karna's, but both are "super men," aliens who are greater than their adopted parentage and endowed with superhuman powers. Depending on the version of the Superman story, he was once a great and loyal friend to Lex Luthor, who ultimately was revealed to be the personification of evil, not unlike Duryodhana. Had Karna heeded Krishna's advice, he might have ended up as the arch nemesis to his former friend, as Superman was to Lex. Ultimately, Karna stands as the perfect figure who is destroyed by his loyalty to the wrong side. His is the tragic mirror to the story of Superman.
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Jul 8, 2013 9:12 AM
|I enjoyed this well-researched column. Another Jewish mythologiocal hero was the Golem, a super-strong, super brave and large creation who would rescue the (pretty much always) endangered Jews and triumph in the end. Please keep up the interesting columns. Thanks.|
Jul 8, 2013 10:32 AM
|The Golem is an excellent example and I'd forgotten about him, since I usually I think of him in terms of icons like the Frankenstein monster! However, that's unfair of me, since the Golem was a defender of mankind, or at least a particularly ill used segment of mankind. Thanks for reminding me!|
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|A Musing in Movieland|
Every other Sunday
One woman's attempt to find meaning in movies, from movies, and between movies and to figure out why movies should matter to us, all while trying to find a laugh in the whole, screwy business."
I'm still cautiously optimistic that there really is a pattern to our lives and am striving to find mine, although I secretly suspect that life is really just about a Big, Space Baby. Which would be disappointing. And confusing. But, hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about it all, right? Philosophical stuff aside, I am an attorney, an artist and a performer and, if I could figure out a way to make the last two pay the bills, I'd dump the first one tomorrow.|
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