Why are we so drawn to superhero stories?
Many cultures all over the world have been fascinated and inspired by heroes and superheroes for centuries because they always illuminate the human condition – and they do so precisely because they operate at a slightly inhuman level. Superheroes are like us, but more so: stronger, cleverer, faster. They suffer from the same human frailties as all we do, but because of their superior powers, these struggles are played out in a more dramatic arena than our own.
Who was the original superhero?
Superman? Spiderman? Or perhaps it was Wonder Woman? Well, all we need just to look into history. Thousands of years ago the Ancient Turks, Greeks, Romans, Norse and other ancient civilizations were already creating their own heroes with superhuman powers. In fact, many of our modern-day superheroes draw on the characteristics and skills of these extraordinary classical characters.
Here are some ancient mythological superheroes who show Batman and Iron Man how it’s done.
King Arthur – ‘Celtic Superhero’
King Arthur, the legendary monarch who rose to the throne by pulling his sword Excalibur out of a stone and ruled Britain with the help of the knights of the round table and the wizard Merlin, may or not have been real. Though debate has gone on for centuries, historians have been unable to confirm that Arthur really existed. Still, the legend however persists throughout Western culture and folklore.
The hulking Hercules is a star of Marvel comics and the eponymous character in an animated Disney movie. But the legend of Hercules is actually thousands of years old.
Renamed by the Romans he was first a demi-god called Heracles, created by the Ancient Greeks.
The son of Zeus was born with superhuman strength and stamina that, amongst other remarkable feats, enabled him to complete 12 “impossible” tasks, slay numerous monsters, hold up the heavens (to give Atlas a break), win every single event at the inaugural Olympic games, and even wrestle and defeat Death himself.
It’s possible that, as at least some 5th century Greeks believed, Herakles was based on some remote historical figure—possibly a man whose life was so filled with misfortune and bad luck that his contemporaries just assumed a goddess had to be after him—and that, like King Arthur years later, stories about him later grew in the telling, continually reshaped to suit the needs of each teller.
In Germanic mythology, Thor (whose name comes from Old Norse) is the hammer-wielding God of Thunder – associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, and strength.
He has in his possession the magic hammer Mjolnir, which handily enables him to fly and also manipulate the weather in order to fulfil his main purpose: the protection of mankind.
His namesake, Thor Odinson, who appears in the Marvel Comics, is based on the very same Norse mythological deity.
Beowulf is the famous hero in English literature (you can still see echoes of him in modern heroes like Superman). The main character of a poem written in Old English centuries ago, Beowulf is a great warrior who uses his incredible strength to defeat three monsters. Some superheroes and other heroes of popular culture act basically like Beowulf even though they were created over a thousand years later.
Heroic poem “Beowulf’ believed to have been composed between 700 and 750 A.D. Considered by many to be a literary masterpiece, the work spans thousands of lines and details the heroics of a brave Scandinavian fighter named Beowulf, who frees Danish King Hrothgar’s hall from the murderous demon Grendel.
Although superhero men have dominated the ancient myths, some legendary mythological female figures with power, intelligence and influence took on the world with not less success.
In Greek mythology the Amazons are a tribe of brutal and aggressive warrior women. (Not from the Amazon jungle at all, confusingly.) In the Iliad, The Amazons are described as experienced, man-like fighters – a match for any male opponent in terms of their physical strength, prowess and bravery.
These strong, warrior-like women are the inspiration behind the DC Comics’ hero of page and screen, Wonder Woman. Originally, her origin story was that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta and blessed with gifts of power and skill from the Greek gods.
Long before she was the heroine of a popular Disney movie, Hua Mulan was inspiring generations of young people in her own country of China. The legend of this woman warrior has existed since at least the 6th century and has hardly waned in popularity today.
Chinese folk song “The Ballad of Mulan” tells Mulan’s original story of disguising herself as a man to protect her father from being drafted into the war. As a soldier, Hua Mulan goes into battle for 12 years, becoming a skilled and esteemed warrior of the Chinese army. But when the emperor tries to bestow honors upon her for her service, the dutiful daughter retires and returns home to her family.
Eight ancient mythological superheroes that show Marvel how it’s done BBC
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
The Iliad by Homer