Friday, May 24, 2013

Mythology and Superheroes

I’ve been geeking out about mythology quite a bit lately, partly because I’m teaching a class on the subject and partly just because it’s just so cool.

Over the past decade, many of mythology’s ancient gods and heroes have cropped up in the most popular video games (e.g. God of War), movies (e.g. Thor and Clash of the Titans), and novels (e.g. Riordan’s The Lightning Thief and P. J. Hoover’s Solstice). What is more, the spirits of these characters—what Joseph Campbell called “archetypes”—now influence modern story tellers as much as they did thousands of years ago, and every Hollywood screenwriter since George Lucas has studied the stages of the classical heroic journey.

The Trickster
One eternally popular element of mythology is the trickster. Almost every culture in human history has myths of an individual who relies on his or her wits to outsmart stronger, meaner foes. Examples range from Coyote (of the central and south-western America), or Anansi (of West Africa), or Loki (of Scandinavia) and Hermes (of Greece).

Tricksters are always clever, and are usually driven by a large appetite (sometimes for food, sometimes for sex, and sometimes simply for mischief). Additionally, the trickster is an explorer and an inventor who brings new things into the world.

Despite these similarities, opinions about tricksters vary widely from culture to culture, and how they are portrayed tells a tremendous amount about the people telling the stories. They can also tell us a lot about ourselves.

Hermes vs. Loki
The ancient Greeks, inventors of philosophy and democracy, revered knowledge and cleverness, and their treatment of tricksters shows this. Hermes, the quick-witted guy with the wings on his sandals, was one of the most popular gods in the ancient tales. The story goes that he became one of big shots of Olympus because his mischief amused Zeus, and he is also credited with inventing music and bringing countless gifts from to the mortal world. And they loved him for it.

Loki is also an inventor and a prankster, but was not beloved. Even though he provided Odin and Thor with their greatest weapons and treasures, and (so the story goes) he invented the fishing net that was the livelihood of the ancient northerners who told these tales, he is still scorned and mistrusted right from the start. I have to believe that this reflects the attitudes of a people from a harsh, icy world, which held no tolerance for mischief or unpredictable things.

Batman and Iron Man
Take Iron Man and Batman, two of the most popular super heroes today, also fit the trickster archetype. Both of these characters are inventors, both rely on their intelligence to defeat stronger opponents, and both have a knack for unpredictability.

And both have sold more comics and movie tickets in the last few years than many of their more powerful peers.

It seems that the “nerdy” heroes like these two are becoming the leaders, while the “jocks” like Captain America, Thor, and Superman are starting to take the second-string roles. Our modern mythology is beginning to reflect that brains, not brawn, is what makes money, determines laws, and wins wars.

Soap Lazarchak
I’d like to think I was ahead of the curve when I wrote Mad Science Institute. This novel follows two protagonists: Dean, a two-fisted tough-guy, and his cousin “Soap,” a girl genius whose inventions cause accidental property damage wherever she goes.

Dean was fun to write because he had all the daring-do of any good action hero. But it was Soap who kept me guessing: I found I could toss her into any scrape and she would come up with some surprising solution, even if I didn’t know what that would be when I started writing. I could surround her with murderous bikers, handcuff her to a chair, or chase her with mutant lizard-monsters, and somehow she would always manage to MacGyver her way out of it… and probably blow something up along the way.

Dean is the Thor/Hercules/Superman of my pantheon, a classic alpha-hero. But Soap, like Hermes, Coyote, Batman, Odysseus, and so many tricksters before her, invariably proves herself mightier than the mighty, even though she is the most vulnerable character in the book.

A Question
The classical “trickster god” archetype is well known to scholars, but I don’t know of anyone else who has used it as a lens for viewing superheroes or modern culture. What do you think? Am I out to lunch? If you think so, please tell me. On the other hand, if you can see other examples of modern tricksters in action, I’d love for you to share them.

Be good, and dream crazy dreams

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on and his games on


Jordan Dane said...

Your point on tricksters really hit home when you brought in the appeal of Batman and Ironman vs a more typical action hero like Thor. That notion of trickster mythology might play into the crime fic thriller I just started, for my serial killer. Thanks for geeking out for us. Very timely.

And as I've said before, to you and many others, I LOVE Soap & The Mad Science Institute.

Great post, Sechin!

Unknown said...

Reading this, I kept thinking of Neil Gaiman and American Gods and Anansi Boys... there was some elements of Trickster in those books, non?

Oh man, I wish I was in your class:)

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks for the shout-out, and I totally love mythology. I talk about Joseph Campbell in every school visit I do.

Jordan Dane said...

I think Ironman & Batman seem more relatable since they are mere mortals underneath their gear. They are clever enough to invent stuff to make themselves invincible, something we all can imagine & find fun. Spider-Man is another example of this idea. A spider bite transform the average good kid into a crime fighter. Peter Parker is a trickster too.

But as far as you being "out to lunch," the jury is still out on that one...and that has nothing to do with comic book superhero theories. :) :) :)

Marshall Smith said...

It is interesting, though, to compare how the Greeks revered Hermes, to how the later playwrights reviled Odysseus. He became much more a Loki-style character, always scheming and taking advantage of the noble (but not too bright) heroes.

I never would have pegged Batman as a trickster. Mostly because he lacks the gusto and humor usually associated with the archetype. But, now that you mention it, I can see it.

When I think of modern tricksters, I tend to go to action movies more than comic books. The ur-example would be the TV show Leverage, which is straight out of the trickster playbook. There are similar heist movies, from The Sting to Oceans 11 to The Italian Job. Hannibal Smith of The A-Team is a classic trickster.

Jordan Dane said...

Great examples, Marshall. Thanks for adding to the discussion. You've really got me thinking about the novel I just started. Thank you.