May 3, 2002
Every culture has an entity they describe in their stories as a hero or protector. This hero takes many different forms; sometimes a man, sometimes a God. Sometimes this hero is both or neither. The purpose of this paper is to identify some of these protectors and explore how they are portrayed and how they became the heroes they are. The following research lists ten “Supermen”(and women). They all come from different cultures and/or are described using different mediums. The culture and the medium used to tell the story of these heroes often times is responsible in large part how that hero is perceived. The stories describing the deeds of these heroes are taken from a myriad of sources including books, picturebooks, comic books, and motion pictures.
Bibliographic citations and synopsis:
Shepard, Aaron (2001). Master Man: a Tall Tale of
Master Man tells the story of Shadusa, a Nigerian man who thought he was the strongest
man in the world and insists people call him
Martin, Rafe (2001). The Shark God.
A brother and a sister seek help from their village to save a shark that has gotten tangled in the fishing nets. When no one is willing to help them they go and try to help the shark themselves. The shark, seeming to understand the children’s purpose, lay still and allows the children to free it. The children, thrilled at their success, race back to the village. Along the way they pass the king’s drum. In their excitement they lightly tap the drum even though it is forbidden. The king, watching the children, makes no attempt to stop them. He has the children taken to be executed. The children’s parents plead with the king and with the village but to no avail; the king and village both have become hard-hearted. Finally the parents seek the help of the fearsome Shark God. The Shark God, hearing their tale promises to help the children because of their previous kindness. He tells them to build a canoe and bring offerings to his temple, he will send a sign. The parents do as they are told and wait. A fierce storm soon comes and washes the entire island under. The children are washed free of their prison and a giant shark pushes them on a raft out to their waiting parents. Reunited, the grateful family offers their thanks and go to seek a new home where people’s hearts were still good and kind.
Schanzer, Rosalyn (2001). Davy Crockett
Saves the World.
The world is in a heap of trouble. Halley’s
Comet is streaking toward
Birch, Cyril (1961). The Greatest Archer. From: Chinese Myths and Fantasies.
Yi, the heavenly archer, is sent to
Earth to help the saintly Emperor Yao when the ten
suns decide to rise all at once instead of their standard rotation. While
staying with the Emperor he gets word that three monsters; Chiseltooth,
the Windbird and the serpent of the
D’Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar Darin (1967). Thor and the Jutun Utgardsloki. From: D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants. New York, Doubleday and Company Publishers.
Thor decides he wants to match strength with the Jutun (giant) Utgardsloki since he heard he was the strongest of the Jutun. Since Utgardsloki is also the slyest of the Jutun, Thor decides to take along Loki. They stop one night along the way at the farm of a man to seek shelter. Thor provides the food for the family from his own goats but warns that they not damage the bones of the animals. Tjalfi, the farmers son, disobeys Thor and agrees to remain as Thor’s servant as penance. Along the way to Utgardsloki’s stronghold they meet another Jutun named Skrymir who shows Thor the way to Utgardsloki. When they reach the stronghold they met Utgardsloki during his dinner feast. Utgardsloki challenges the three to sporting contests. Loki says that he can out eat any man in the hall and faces a small giant named Logi, who beats him in a close contest. Tjalfi offers to race any man but is beaten by a giant named Hugi. Thor proposes a drinking contest but can barely empty any of the liquid. He is next challenged to lift a cat off the floor, which he fails to do. Angry, Thor challenges anyone in the hall to wrestle him. Utgardsloki’s Grandma Elle accepts and defeats Thor. The men are invited to stay despite their failure and they take their leave the next day. Once outside the stronghold, Utgardsloki reveals that Loki actually ate against Fire, Tjalfi raced a thought and Thor was drinking from the ocean, trying to lift the Midgard Serpent and wrestling with old age. Enraged, Thor tries to smite Utgardsloki but he has already disappeared.
Wisniewski, David (1996). The Golem.
The Golem in this story is a creation
of the Rabbi Judah Loew. He is created to save the
Jews from the persecution of the
Zeman, Ludmila (1992). Gilgamesh the
King, The Revenge of Ishtar
(1993) and Last Quest of Gilgamesh (1995).
This series tells the story of the
Sumerian man-God, Gilgamesh and his transformation from evil dictator to
beloved monarch and hero. Bitter and lonely the king Gilgamesh decides to have
a huge wall built around his city of
Puzo, Mario (1978). Superman. Alexander and Ilya Salkind Producers. Warner Home Video (1994).
This movie gives us the “
Clements, Ron (1997). Walt Disney’s Hercules. Alice Dewey, John Musker and Ron Clements Producers. Walt Disney Home Video.
In the Disneyfied
version of the Hercules myth, the godling is stolen
as a baby and made mortal through the machinations of the Death God, Hades. Surviving
an assassination attempt he is raised by mortals only retaining his great
strength. As he grows, Hercules’ power makes him an outcast from the humans and
he decides to seek his true destiny. Finding out that he is the son of Zeus,
Hercules learns he must become a true hero before he can take his place among
the Gods. He sets out to accomplish this with the help of Phil, his satyr
trainer, and Pegasus his winged horse. Fearing that Hercules will foil his plan
to take over
Various. The Adventures
of Wonder Woman.
The comic book follows the adventure of
Princess Diana, of the Amazons. Hidden away in their secret island the Amazons,
led by Queen Hippolyta, are sequestered from the
world of man. That is until Captain Steve Trevor washes up on their shores. The
Gods tell the Queen that one of her subjects will need to return Captain Trevor
and assist his country in winning the great war that
is going on. A contest is held and won by Hippolyta’s
own daughter, Diana, who was forbidden by her mother to compete. Unable to deny
the will of the gods she sends Diana to the
Analysis by character:
Even though the heroes researched run the gamut from God to demigod to human to non-human construct they share many of the same characteristics. These characteristics seem to form an almost stereotypical construct of the “Hero.” Like any stereotype, however, there are exceptions.
Great physical beauty is apparent in each of the heroes with the exception being the Golem. The Shark God is terrifying in its’ aspect but the interpretation one gets from it is that of terrible beauty. The Golem’s unattractiveness is interesting in that he comes from Jewish mythology and there is more emphasis placed on the idea of religious heroism in Judaism and less on physical attributes. Most Jewish heroes fall into the “thinking man”hero as opposed to the physical hero, such as Hercules. It is interesting to note that many of these heroes are often motivated by the great beauty of the opposite sex as well.
For the most part, the primary motivation of the heroes researched is not attraction but more along the lines of a fierce need to prove themselves; either to themselves, a populace or a certain individual. Each of the heroes researched seemed to be burdened with a certain amount of emotional baggage that they needed to divest themselves of before they could be called a true hero. The Golem, Yi, The Shark God, Davy Crockett and especially Gilgamesh crave the acceptance of their people before they can allow themselves to be at peace. Others, such as Master Man, Superman, Wonder Woman and Hercules, needed to prove their worth and belonging to themselves. Thor’s motivation was of a more personal, macho nature but nevertheless still valid; he needed to establish himself against a worthy opponent.
Another universally shared trait among these heroes is a vibrant, joyous personality. Even the most stoic of our heroes, The Golem, still exhibited a childlike love of life’s more simple things; in this case a sunrise. Other heroes, such as Davy Crockett and Thor, were guided by this love of life and exhibited it in their every action and deed. A need to continue life indefinitely, even a fear of death, clouded the last days of Gilgamesh. This love for life and the living is, in no small part, a chief motivation for using their considerable power to preserve it.
By its’ very definition, to be a hero is to be unlike the rest of us. Heroes exist as an exaggerated form of the human, an ideal. Their attributes, strength, beauty, deeds and aura are all augmented from the norm. This is quite as it should be. Heroes exist to do that which is impossible for normal man to achieve. Not to say that man is not capable of heroism, but heroism on the grand scale requires something a little more exulted and special.
Analysis by Genre:
Genre is very important to the hero because it goes a long way toward defining that hero. Heroes from myth are portrayed differently from heroes from the comic books or movies. A hero’s tale told in the wrong or an unsuitable genre does nothing to further the story of the hero. It is where some of the heroes researched in this paper lose their power.
Hercules, at least the Walt Disney version of the myth researched here, is a prime example of the genre not serving the hero. Some of the elements of the actual myth are present in the movie but they are presented in such a manner that the true myth ceases having anything to do with the story on the screen. This commercialism is the chief complaint of purists when the Walt Disney people get their hands on a story. The good thing about Disney, however, is they do bring a story into the mainstream. It is the manipulation that Disney feels they need to impose upon the story to reach the mainstream that people finds objectionable. The Hercules myth was altered so radically that it ceased to be the story of the Greek hero and became the story of a big, strong Greek guy that just happened to be named Hercules.
The heroes researched
from comic books present a different perspective on heroism than the heroes
represented in myth. These heroes, Superman and Wonder Woman, are much more
clearly defined than their mythological counterparts. Consequently they seem
more three-dimensional and perhaps even less heroic and more human. They are
even more believable than the one real person researched Davy Crockett. It is
this humanity that brings these heroes closer to the consciousness of the
populace and makes them more a part of the culture than the heroes from myth. It
is the serialized nature of the story that is responsible for this. We are able
to follow the daily lives of these characters and in some cases, as with Wonder
Woman, follow them from birth to grave. Since it was the movie version of
Superman that was researched, that particular story suffers a bit due to the “
Analysis by Culture:
Each of these heroes comes from a different culture. Some
may come from the same place but from a different time period such as Davy
Crockett, Wonder Woman and Superman. These three operated in the
For many cultures the
hero fulfilled the role of protector. This is especially prevalent in the more
primitive cultures like ancient
For some other
cultures the hero does not protect but exemplify. They serve as symbols for
that cultures perception of itself. This is true in the stories of Thor and
Davy Crockett. The hardiness and joy of life that these particular heroes
exhibit is identical to the view we have of that culture. Frontier
Cultural perception is also evident in the last two stories, Master Man and The Greatest Archer. The Nigerian culture, like the Norse, value strength and cunning but it is more rooted in common sense and moralization. Shadusa is a strong man and the hero of his village but he comes across not one but two men who are even stronger. His fortunate escape allows him the luxury of re-examining his attitude toward his own gift. Yi’s power comes from a more subtle source, the bow. This fits in nicely with the Chinese ideal of the perfect warrior. Yi also has the intelligence to understand the consequences of his actions. He knows to try to capture the Windbird since a single arrow may not be enough to kill it and it could cause a great deal of damage wounded. Yi fits the mold of the think and then act philosophy of the ancient Chinese.
The primary difficulty I had with this project is also the reason I had such a good time with it. I enjoy mythology and the stories people pass along in that manner. All that is available to the elementary and primary student generally is Greek Mythology with a chance for some Norse mixed in. In an effort to find the heroes I was able to research several different cultures and become familiar with their mythologies and legends.
It was also fun to include some of the comic book heroes in among the myths. Comic books are quickly becoming a viable form of literature these days. The hurly-burly pace of the world coupled with the fact that the average comic can be read in about ten minutes has helped to propel this form of story and its’ characters into the mainstream of consciousness. Just where the hero belongs.