Unless stated or identified to the contrary, I presume that buried under any plateful of mythological spaghetti lays a morsel of a really meaty meatball. Alas, our modern superheroes have been identified to the contrary – they are all meatball-less pure mythological pasta. Superman (and Supergirl too), Batman (and Robin), Tarzan, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, The Phantom, Buffy, Van Helsing, James Bond, and multi-dozens more are meatball-less.
Modern superheroes, those with abilities out of the ordinary, might also include those with exceptional mental and/or observational abilities as opposed to pure superpowers, brawn or athletic skills – examples might include Sherlock Holes, Perry Mason, Miss Jane Maple or Hercule Poirot; perhaps those with a fast gun like Paladin (TV’s “Have Gun – Will Travel”). Alas, they too are meatball-less fictional pasta.
The superheroes of yesteryear when mythology allegedly ruled didn’t have real superpowers unless they were deities of course. Even then the deity’s powers paled compared to our modern superheroes – a bit of lighting bolt chucking here; a bit of shape-shifting there (though that’s a pretty neat superpower). Even most of the gods needed chariots to get around, or horses or they had to hoof it themselves. There were a few exceptions like Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) who had special high-tech winged sandals and a winged helmet.
Eliminating that category – the ‘gods’ – the remaining superheroes of ancient times didn’t have real superpowers (X-ray vision, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet velocities) or super-ultra high-tech gadgets like jetpacks and vehicles like the Batmobile or rings like Green Lantern’s to assist them. However, they did have powers, usually nerves-of-steel and/or massive strength. Were they as fictional, as meatball-less as our modern day superheroes?
At this point I should clarify what I really mean by superheroes. It’s not so much having special superpower abilities, or possessing high-tech above and beyond the ordinary, though that’s part of it. It’s more that superheroes, past or present are heroes by profession, even if sometimes reluctantly. Or, superheroes are superheroes at least as a matter of personal pride or sense of duty and therefore it’s a serious hobby. Superman doesn’t save the world just once; he does it again and again. Jessica Fletcher (TV’s “Murder, She Wrote”) doesn’t solve one whodunit, but one murder mystery after another after another. Paladin doesn’t outdraw one outlaw, but routinely, episode after episode. Perhaps the concept of superheroes can be summed up as those with the “Right Stuff”.
Now surely logic dictates that the non-deity superheroes of ancient times share one common trait with the superheroes of ‘today’, ‘today’ defined as say back through the days of our grandparents and great grandparents to incorporate the superheroes of their times – that commonality is that they, then as well as now, are imaginary. Well, I’m not so sure.
I’ll restrict myself here mainly to the ancient Greek (and therefore Roman) superhero clan, plus a few others that fall outside that immediate pigeonhole. I’ll do that since 1) it’s those that are most familiar to us and 2) it saves this essay from developing into a book-length tome.
Here’s our cast of ancient non-deity superheroes (though some are demigods). Note that there’s nothing in the ancient texts that chronicles the exploits of these figures that explicitly states they are imaginary or fictional make-believe entities. There’s no such disclaimer. It’s just like there is no disclaimer that the Bible is a work of fiction though Biblical tales are way more outlandish than anything the ancient Greeks dreamt up in their philosophy.
Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) – There’s surely no question about the reality of this man, and while military ‘superheroes’ (depending on whether you’re on the winning or losing side) are a dime-a-dozen, every country in every era has some, Alex is also known heroically for taming the wild horse Bucephalus and for undoing the Gordian Knot (though in some versions he cheated a bit).
Bellerophon (Greek) tamed the wild and winged horse Pegasus, and killed a monster too (see below).
Beowulf was a pre-8th Century CE Scandinavian warrior whose main claim to fame was monster-slaying (again, see below).
Daedalus in Greek mythology is best known as daddy to Icarus. They both donned self-manufactured wax-wings in order to escape imprisonment in Crete, and while daddy cautioned his son not to fly too close to the Sun, son did just that and as a result the wax holding the feathers of his wings melted and young Icarus did a swan dive into the sea from a higher altitude than is normally recommended. Of course that part of the story is idiotic on two counts. Firstly, as you rise higher in the atmosphere the temperature gets colder. Secondly, the Sun is 93 million miles away, so whether you are at an altitude of 1000 feet or 10,000 feet or 100,000 feet it’s hardly of any consequence in terms of being that much closer to the Sun. That aside, Daedalus travelled far and wide on his hand-crafted wings, and is well represented across the Greek influenced Mediterranean region, for example on Sicily. That aside and prior to his acquisition of manufactured winged transport, Daedalus was credited with creating the Labyrinth on Crete in which the Minotaur (part man, part bull) was kept in order to devour young men and women.
Hercules: Now wait, isn’t Hercules really imaginary? Well, quite apart from the TV show and numerous movies that feature him and his mythology (some modern, some ancient), the man has at least four entire towns named after him, so you have to be pretty special and probably pretty real, which is more than I can say for modern superheroes. Is there a Batmanville or Superman City? What are some of those ancient sites that so honour Hercules? Well there’s Heracleion on the border between Macedon and Northern Thessaly; Heraklion (Crete); the port city of Herakleion (Egypt), now submerged some four miles offshore; and of course Herculaneum (Italy), which, along with Pompeii was wiped out when Mount Vesuvius did it’s ka-boom thing back in 79 CE. Apart from that there’s the Pillars of Hercules out by the Straits of Gibraltar. Least us not forget the rather numerous number of temples constructed and dedicated to him (there was many a Hercules cult back then), as well as more statues than you can find museums for – well not quite but there are an awful lot of them; statues that is. Then too his image is featured on various coins of the realm dating from the 4th and 5th Centuries BCE. Some sources accredit the creation of the Olympic Games to Hercules. Not bad PR for an imaginary character!
I maintain that if cities, towns, villages, settlements of any kind as well as other geographical features are named after people, they are named after real people, not mythological or imaginary ones. And once you admit that Hercules existed then his daddy also existed, and that was some minor character named Zeus!
Jason (and the Argonauts) went on a treasure hunt for the Golden Fleece with Hercules on board as crew (among many others). They had many great heroic adventures together!
King Gilgamesh – there really was a King Gilgamesh, ruler of Warka (Uruk) in the early 3rd Millennium BCE of Mesopotamia. The wall he built around Uruk is his archaeological claim to fame. He too had many heroic adventures as outlined in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”.
King Arthur, according to scholars, probably has some historical foundation, and probably lived around the 5th or 6th Centuries CE, albeit well removed from Excalibur, the Round Table and Merlin. There’s really little doubt there was some relatively famous chieftain back then that over time morphed into the popular image of King Arthur, Camelot and the Arthurian legends/mythology.
Odysseus (or Ulysses to the Romans) was the central figure in the ten year super heroic odyssey called by Homer, oddly enough “The Odyssey”. It was a companion volume to “The Iliad” and since “The Iliad” led Heinrich Schliemann to discover and excavate Troy (once thought to be pure fiction), then there’s every reason to think “The Odyssey” isn’t a work of fiction either (Homer never says so) but the historic chronicles of our superhero, Odysseus. Odysseus was also one of the heroes in the “Iliad” and of the Trojan War. He crafted the idea for the Wooden Horse among other heroic deeds in the Battle of Troy (see below for some more of his adventures).
Oedipus, in good old fashion whodunit detective logic solved the riddle of the Sphinx (and thus avoided becoming Sphinx-food). Now the Sphinx in this case was still a hybrid creature but the Greek version, not the more famous Egyptian one. The Greek counterpart had the head of a woman, the body of a lion and wings. From what ancient images survive of the Greek Sphinx, I gather ‘she’ was rather well endowed. Anyway, once bested, once her riddle was solved, ‘she’ committed suicide.
While the Trojan War is way too big in scope in terms of citing the exploits of all the heroes concerned here, one other mention will do. King Agamemnon of Mycenae who commanded the army loaded onto those 1000 ships (plus 13 more) launched by that face – the face of Helen, wife of Menelaus (King of Sparta) and brother to King Agamemnon. Mycenae was excavated by Heinrich Schliemann (of Troy fame). Though a relatively minor site in its time, Mycenae and its Lion Gate are now one of the more famous historic and archaeological sites in Greece.
The main occupation of our ancient superheroes was dealing with, usually killing monsters. I guess there was a shortage of mad scientists bent on world domination BCE; master criminals trying to illegally corner the gold market back then; and I gather alien invaders were invading somewhere else at that time as well. The job description for superheroes has certainly blown out of all proportion since the time of Hercules! Anyway, dealing with monsters was occupation enough back then.
Bellerophon, tamer of Pegasus the flying horse, also killed the Chimaera, a gruesome monster, a hybrid composite of lion, snake and goat.
Beowulf (the warrior) had his Grendel to slay, and once that was accomplished, he had to deal with Grendel’s pissed-off mother. That too was accomplished. However, 50 years of peace and quiet later, the now King Beowulf went down swinging against a dragon, but the dragon was struck out too. It’s a tied ball game with both players retired from the living.
Hercules encountered a lot of beasties when doing his twelve labours, most of which were the object of his ordeals. However, in only two labours did he apparently slay the critters; a monstrous lion and the multi-headed Hydra. Though he killed some man-eating birds, he drove away most of the flock of these predatory birds in his sixth trial. He captured a lot of animals alive as required in some of his other exploits, like a hind, a boar, a bull, some mares, a herd of oxen, and Cerberus.
Odysseus, on his way home to Ithaca from Troy, gave the Cyclops called Polyphemus a hard time. Unfortunately this was a bad move as it really pissed-off the god of the sea, Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans). Now if you are undertaking a sea voyage, trying to get back home to the little lady of the household after a ten year absence – fighting that Trojan War – you really don’t want to annoy Poseidon. Anyway, between Poseidon’s tricks and other obstacles, our superhero had to face man-eating giants; the enchantress Circe; the Sirens (bird-like creatures with feminine faces and exquisite singing voices that could tempt any man); some ‘wandering rocks’; a couple of sea monsters (Scylla & Charybdis); but as a ‘reward’ finally ended up in the arms of Calypso for seven years. Then he got that seven-year-itch and continued on his way back home to still more obstacles and adventures.
Perseus lopped off the head of Medusa, old snake-hair herself and chief of the dreaded Gorgons. Perseus also did the time-honoured hero-thing and saved a damsel in distress – Andromeda, chained naked to a rock, an offering and snack food for a hungry sea monster. The weapon of choice – Medusa’s head, since whoever or whatever looked at Medusa, even when that head was in a rather state of extreme rigor mortis, got turned into an even greater state of rigor mortis – pure stone. That applied to sea monsters too. After the fight it was love at first sight – some heroes have all the luck even though some trials and tribulations were still ahead for Perseus.
Saint George had a run-in with a dragon – St. George 1; dragon 0. Now I gather you do not obtain the honorary word “Saint” attached to your name if the granting powers-that-be thought that you were imaginary.
Sigurd is the legendary hero of Norse mythology. In German he’s cited as Siegfried (known mainly today via the Wagner operas “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung”). In either case, among many other and heroic adventures, a bit of dragon slaying was the order of the day.
Theseus slew the Minotaur in Crete, much to the relief of possible future human sacrifices.
Monsters aside, if you tone down some of the more probably embellished bits, there’s not anything really improbable about these superhero tales. Of course some tales have to be taken with more than just a grain of salt – perhaps an entire salt-shaker worth – like the Biblical Samson since there’s no way anyone can connect hair length with physical strength, so Samson, for example, is pure fiction.
Unfortunately these ancient exploits and heroics aren’t usually the kind of things that tend to leave behind firsthand hardcore archaeological evidence. There is of course lots of second-hand archaeological evidence – images and carvings – and that’s a start. I have to base their bona-fides or reality on 1) the numerous authors of these epics that never hinted that they were anything but the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; 2) the common people of those eras accepted those heroic events as real history in much the exact same way as we absorb and accept unfolding events we get from the press or radio/TV news bulletins; and 3) the ancients often went to some quite considerable trouble to honour and preserve these stories and characters via private and public images, as official emblems, on coinage, pottery galore, jewellery/amulets, on armour/shields, via statutes, dedicated temples, and even naming entire cities dedicated to their memory.
It’s pretty amazing that these ancient mythical characters and events – if mythical they are – are still with us thousands of years later. That’s real staying power. I wonder whether 3000 years from today anyone will remember or have access to the tales of Wonder Woman, Paladin, or Miss Marple.
While there certainly were some imaginary heroes (though not either equipped with superpowers or who made heroics their profession) in relatively ancient times from “Jack and the Beanstalk” to “Hansel & Gretel”, for some really weird reason, there seems to be a relative lack of superheroes between the times we associate with ancient history and say the early 20th Century when Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars (or Barsoom to the Martians), Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers appeared. Even then no superpowers were involved. It wasn’t until Superman came to be in the 1930’s that the true age of the modern superhero, accent on superpowers, had arrived.
Where are all the current real larger-than-life superheroes – the kind who seemingly make super-heroism an everyday profession? Certainly over the past several centuries there have been numerous heroes (and of course heroines) – Medal of Honor and Victoria Cross winners, those employed in various emergency services, as well as ordinary citizens who rise to extraordinary heroics when a special and usually one-off set of circumstances arise. But where are our professional dragon slayers? Okay, no current dragons therefore no currently employed dragon slayers. That aside, there clearly are no longer those superheroes around equivalent to those that were so well known and beloved by the ancient Greeks and other citizens of related ancient cultures. Wrong!
If you credit the tales of Jason and the Argonauts or Odysseus with superhero status, overcoming obstacle after obstacle while striving ever forward, then perhaps that status should be bestowed on say those unknown and unnamed explorers (voluntarily or involuntarily) who discovered and colonized Hawaii, Tahiti or Easter Island. And if they are worthy of superhero status, then certainly ditto that for the likes of seafarers Columbus, Magellan, Captain Cook, and Darwin of the HMS Beagle, and of course dozens more. In fact, that equally applies to all those other explorers who boldly went where no one went before; to the polar regions as well as the tropics, from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the sea, and on to the Moon – a list of superheroes far too many to name. They too had the “Right Stuff”!
Science librarian; retired.
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