Modern and ancient heroes share common themes, BYU professors say

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Superhero fans gathered together at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City for a major announcement regarding celebrity appearances at Salt Lake Comic Con. SLCC attendees often dress up as their favorite superhero, many of which are inspired by ancient Greek and Norse heroes. (Salt Lake Comic Con)

Superheroes have been featured in movies, comics and video games, and are often impersonated at conventions like the upcoming Salt Lake Comic Con, which will be held September 21–23.

Comic book heroes have become increasingly popular over the years and share a connection to heroes from ancient mythologies, according to BYU professors.

The earliest example of written Greek mythology, Hesiod’s Theogony, can be dated back to 700 B.C., according to History.com. Writings from Hesiod, Homer and Plato have since inspired countless works of art, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans,” and modern-day superheroes.

The superhero archetypes can, in part, be compared to similar warrior and hero archetypes from ancient Greek and Norse mythology, according to BYU humanities professor Seth Jeppesen.

“Hercules’ primary characteristic is his strength, which is a quality you see in a character like Superman,” Jeppesen said. “One of the ways in which these characters are similar is a special skill or quality that these individuals possess to an extreme degree that makes them stand out from their peers.”

Modern superheroes are based on archetypes drawn from heroes in ancient Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies. (Sam Bigelow)

Some superheroes, like Thor, are directly drawn from ancient mythology, and the use of these well-known figures is clever and efficient, rather than lazy, Jeppesen said.

“None of the characters in comic books are exactly the same as their ancient myth counterparts,” he said.Authors use stories of antiquity as building blocks. The reason we still tell these myths is because they are psychologically important and motivating,”

Jeppesen said one reason people are drawn to ancient and modern heroes is they inspire people to be better, whether the heroes act as an inspiration or a cautionary tale.

“For the Greeks, the heroes weren’t totally good,” he said. “Hercules did some pretty awful things, but superheroes are a useful vehicle for understanding themes of dealing with conflicts within ourselves.”

Jeppesen said flawed heroes help readers feel better about themselves and are easier to personally identify with.

Modern comic book heroes also share a visual link with their ancient counterparts. BYU professor of illustration Robert Barrett said every culture has had superheroes since illustration and visual storytelling was developed.

Superhero fans gather together for a group picture at FanX 2017. BYU professor Robert Barrett said cosplay at comic conventions indicates society’s fascination with modern superheroes. (Salt Lake Comic Con)

Barrett said superheroes share the hyperbolic qualities often portrayed by Greek and Norse figures. Characters in both mediums share idealized proportions, which emphasize perfection while still allowing for great detail — implying internal flaws. Modern heroes are able to display these same qualities, he said.

“Batman and Iron Man are reincarnations of Agamemnon, who acquired much of his power from wealth obtained in the Trojan War,” Barrett said. “In Norse mythology, Thor was a hammer-wielding god associated with lightning, thunder and strength who goes on numerous adventures and exploits.”

BYU philosophy professor Travis Anderson said the concept of a demigod is often shared between ancient heroes and modern comic book heroes.

“The Greeks had the notion of beings who were half god and half men,” he said. “These demigods represent a union between god and man, and are often attributed with shared characteristics … I would suggest the notion of a superhero comes from that idea.”

Anderson said Oedipus, while not being directly identified as superhuman, displays qualities of being stronger, smarter and kinder than those around him while still being imperfect. This idea is reflected on superheroes, he said.

Anderson also said superheroes can be comforting to readers because they suggest a link between mortal men and divine beings.

“Superheroes often sacrifice their own lives for others, hence the famous line ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ which suggests that superheroes are comforting to us, and represent a greater moral sphere,” Anderson said.

BYU professor Seth Jeppesen talks about the links between modern and ancient heroes in this audio clip.