Erik Knapp

Storytelling 5440

May 3, 2002


The Superman: How different cultures view their protectors


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 Nigeria. New York, Morrow/Avon Publishers.

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 Master Man. One day his wife, Shettu, goes to visit a friend in a neighboring village; on her way home she stops to get some water from the well. Unfortunately the bucket won’t come up. Just then another woman comes to get water with her baby. Both ladies try to raise the bucket but it still won’t budge. Finally, the other woman asks her little baby to pull up the bucket, which the baby promptly does. Amazed, Shettu asks how the baby did it. The other woman says that, “it is easy when your father is Master Man!” When Shettu tells Shadusa her story, Shadusa gets angry and vows to teach that, “other fellow a lesson.” When he finds the woman she reluctantly agrees to take her to her husband. When Shadusa sees the man for the first time he gets scared and hides in a basket until the man falls asleep. The real Master Man awakes and starts chasing him. Shadusa comes across a group of farmers and a group of porters who all flee from Master Man. Finally, Shadusa comes across a giant of a man who claims HE is Master Man. The two men ignore Shadusa and begin fighting. Ultimately their fight takes them into the sky where they fight on to this day and noise they make is the thunder we hear during storms. Shadusa never calls himself Master Man again.


Martin, Rafe (2001). The Shark God. New York, Scholastic Press Publisher.

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. Hong Kong, Harper Collins Publishers.

The world is in a heap of trouble. Halley’s Comet is streaking toward America to blow everything and everyone to smithereens!  The president decides that only one man can save them now, the legendary Davy Crockett. The president puts an ad in every newspaper asking for Davy’s help, but Davy is out in the forest with his pet bear, Death Hug, learning to dance so he can woo the beautiful Sally Sugartree and never gets the message. Sally however has read the newspapers and meets Davy on the way to her cabin. Even though he doesn’t know what Halley’s Comet is, the president and his country need his help, so off he goes to Washington. The president advises him to climb the highest mountain, catch that comet by the tail and wring its’ tail right off. Davy climbs Eagle-Eye Peak and the comet sees him. It heads straight for him and Davy jumps on its’ back and starts to ride the comet. Davy rides the comet right into the Atlantic Ocean to put out its’ fire and melt its’ ice. Before the comet can grow back to its’ original size he slings it back into outer space and saves the world.


Birch, Cyril (1961). The Greatest Archer. From: Chinese Myths and Fantasies. New York, Henry Z. Walck Publishers.

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 tung-t’ing Lake  are also terrorizing the human world. Yi uses his arrows to strike down nine of the ten suns but before he rests, he vows to destroy the other creatures as well. Setting off to the south he finds and destroys Chiseltooth by shooting out his tooth. Fearing that one shot will not kill the Windbird he captures it using his arrows and cord then chops off its’ head. He then sets out to kill the Serpent of the Tung-t’ing Lake. Sailing out alone, he comes across the monster and after a fierce battle is finally able to kill the beast. He allows himself to float back to the shore and his labours completed, he finally rests.


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. New York, Clarion Books Publishers.

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 Church of Prague who spread the rumor that the Jews are using the blood of Christian children to make their matzohs. Fearing great violence the Rabbi prays for guidance. His prayers are answered with the word “golem.” The Rabbi and his son use their magics to create the golem from the living earth. He is sent to the Jewish ghetto to protect the Jews, which he does. When the jails start to overflow with the Christians taken by the Golem, the people begin to suspect that they have been lied to by the Christian church. This makes the Christians very angry and they form a mob to do away with the Jews once and for all. The Golem stands before the gate to the Jewish ghetto and grows huge. He destroys the mob and their remnants flee in terror. The next day the Cardinal of the church summons Rabbi Loew and agrees to stop the persecution of the Jews as long as he destroys the Golem. The Rabbi agrees and erases the first letter off the Golem’s head changing it from life to death. The Rabbi and his people take the remains of the Golem up into the attic of their synagogue cover the remains with prayer books and keep him there in case he is ever needed again.


Zeman, Ludmila (1992). Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar (1993) and Last Quest of Gilgamesh (1995). Montreal, Tundra Books Publishers.

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 Uruk. At first the people are fine with this but soon, forced to work non-stop, they grow resentful of the kings lack of concern for their welfare. They pray to the sun-god for help. The sun-god sends Enkidu to the forests outside Uruk to live with the animals. Gigamesh soon learns of Enkidu and is upset that he seems to be as strong as Gilgamesh himself. Gilgamesh sends the lovely Shamhat out to lure Enkidu to the city. Shamhat and Enkidu fall in love and Enkidu swears to go to the city and destroy Gilgamesh for her. Gigamesh and Enkidu fight and just as he is about to win, Enkidu saves Gilgamesh from certain death. Gilgamesh has learned his lesson and gained what he truly wanted most in the world, a friend. He and Enkidu work to protect Uruk and make her a paradise for its’ citizenry. All this causes the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and when he rejects her, Ishtar strikes down Enkidu with an illness. Left without his friend and fearful of death, Gilgamesh seeks the secret of immortality. When he finally gets his reward it is once again taken from him by the vengeful Ishtar. Enkidu’s spirit returns to Gilgamesh to show him how his fabulous city of Uruk has grown and prospered. Gilgamesh realizes that this is in fact the immortality he has sought.


Puzo, Mario (1978). Superman. Alexander and Ilya Salkind Producers. Warner Home Video (1994).

This movie gives us the “Hollywood”version of the greatest super-hero of them all. Placed in a spaceship by his father to escape the destruction of Krypton, his home planet, the infant Kal-El rockets to Earth where his father deduces he will have super powers due to Earth’s sun. Found in Smallville, Kansas by Jonathon and Martha Kent they raise him as their own. After Jonathon’s death Clark sets out on his own and finds his Fortress of Solitude where he learns his true origin. All grown up now he goes to Metropolis and becomes the cities and the world’s protector and a reporter for the Daily Planet. He meets Lois Lane in his disguise of Clark Kent and falls in love with her. The evil Lex Luthor plots to destroy part of California with nuclear weapons and sends missiles toward California and New Jersey to insure that Superman will only get one of them. Lois, sent to California by the Daily Planet, is killed in the insuing destruction. The grief-stricken Superman uses his powers to turn back time in order to save her. Lex Luthor in arrested and put away and Superman continues his work fighting for truth, justice and the American way!  


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 Olympus, Hades sends an agent, the beautiful Meg, to find his weakness. That weakness turns out to be Meg herself as Hercules has fallen in love with her and she with him. Offering to give up his power for 24 hours to save her, Hades then tells Hercules of Meg’s deception then goes off to conquer Olympus. Hades sends a monster to kill Hercules while he is powerless but Meg saves him and gets mortally hurt in the process. Meg’s injury allows Hercules to regain his strength and he rushes to Olympus to free Zeus and the other Gods to foil Hades. Meg however dies and Hercules then rushes to Hades to save her soul. Giving up his own life to save Meg makes Hercules a true hero and thus immortal, saving them both. Now able to take his place among the gods Hercules decides to give it all up and stay with Meg. They live happily ever after.


Various. The Adventures of Wonder Woman. New York, DC Comics Publishers.

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 U.S.A. to help Captain Trevor, who Diana has fallen in love with. Diana takes the name of Wonder Woman and helps the allies win World War II. After the war, Diana decides to stay in the world of man. She gives a portion of her immortality to Steve so that they can live together for the rest of their lives. Steve and Diana have a daughter who takes the mantle of her crime-fighting duties allowing them to retire. When their time finally comes to a close they are ushered to Olympus by Hermes to take their place among the Gods.



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 “Hollywood”elements that were included but the movie does a good job of adhering to the story.


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 United States but Davy was a frontiersman and Wonder Woman appeared to aid the Allies during World War II. Superman, at least the version researched, did his heroing in modern America.


For many cultures the hero fulfilled the role of protector. This is especially prevalent in the more primitive cultures like ancient China, Polynesia, the Jewish ghetto of Prague and frontier America. These heroes took on and succeeded in the tasks the normal man was not capable of fulfilling. The Golem is a perfect example of this. The Jews were unable, for many reasons, to guard their own interests so they created an inhuman monster to do it for them. They show the pragmatism of this idea by destroying their hero when his mission is accomplished. One interesting facet of these particular hero stories is that the hero is oftentimes not the focal point of the story. As with The Golem and the story of the Shark God it is the protected that the story revolves around. This separation further amplifies the differences between the hero and the common man.


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 America was a place where only the strong and cunning survived; thus it’s hero is the strongest and most cunning of them all. The same holds true for the Norse myths where strength and honor were the only way into the afterlife. This type of transference is also evident in the stories involving Superman, Wonder Woman and Gilgamesh but not as distinctly as in the other two.


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.