By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! A little while ago we did a video about the word marvel to tie in with the Captain Marvel film. Now that The Avengers: Endgame has wrapped up, we thought we’d have a look at the word avenger, and see what it has to tell us about the hero figure. No spoilers, though!
The word avenge comes from Old French avengier, ultimately from Latin ad- “to” and vindicare “to claim, avenge, punish”. Vindicare in turn comes from vindex — no not that Windex — “defender, protector”, a compound made up of dicare “to devote”, and vis “strength, power, virtue” from which we get vim (as in vim and vigour), ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *weiə- “to go after something, pursue with vigour”, which also gives us such words as gain and violent. So an appropriate etymology for Marvel’s Avengers who are protectors of earth, but go after Thanos to avenge the death of half the life in the universe in the movie Avengers: Endgame. The Latin phrase vindex terrae “defender of earth” is used by the Roman poet Ovid to refer to the hero Hercules, the grandfather of the comic book superhero, who also appears in the Marvel Comics universe and is even a member of the Avengers, but more on him later. As for the word endgame, ultimately from the root *ant- “front, forehead” and Old English gamen, “game”, made up of the collective prefix *ga- and *mann- “person” from the idea of people participating together, it was first coined in the 19th century to refer to the final stage of a game of chess, before being broadened to refer to the card game bridge, and eventually other uses as well. As for the agent noun avenger, it was first used in biblical translations, such as the 14th century Wycliffe Bible and the 16th century Coverdale Bible, where it rendered Latin ultor “punisher, avenger, revenger” and redemptor “redeemer”, which in turn stood in for Hebrew nakam and goel. In addition to this biblical usage, Latin ultor was also used as an epithet for the Roman god of war Mars, meaning Mars the Avenger, and in a roundabout sort of way, Mars sort of is one of Marvel’s Avengers. You see Mars seems to have originally had thunder associations rather than being a god of war, and may therefore have descended from the Proto-Indo-European god Perkwunos, a god of thunder and oak, whose name comes from Proto-Indo-European *perkwu- “oak”, which became Latin quercus “oak”, as well as Old Norse fjörr “tree” and Old English furh-wudu “fir tree, pine”, also giving us Modern English fir tree. Trees and groves held an important place in Germanic religion and mythology, as in the world ash tree Yggdrasil in Norse myth. And another descendant of Perkwunos is Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and in the Marvel Comics universe, a superhero and one of the Avengers. We don’t know where the name Mars comes from (it may be connected to the Etruscan god Maris), and the name Thor or Donar in Old High German, related to the English word thunder, comes from the root *(s)tenə- “to thunder”, but the name Perkwunos does survive in the name of Thor’s mother Fjörgyn, ofter rendered as “mother earth”. Yes that’s right, in Norse mythology Thor’s mother isn’t Frigg, who appears as Frigga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as played by Rene Russo, making a significant appearance in Avengers: Endgame. The oak connection is also reflected in an early reference to Germanic religion in the Roman writer Tacitus’s ethnographic book Germania, in which he refers to Jove’s or Jupiter’s oak, Jove being the Roman equivalent of Greek Zeus, and who through the process of interpretatio romana, or the understanding of foreign mythologies through the closest Roman equivalents, was Tacitus’s name for Thor, so really Donar’s Oak. Incidentally Donar’s Oak, which was said to be located somewhere around modern day Hesse in Germany, was cut down by the Anglo-Saxon Christian missionary St Boniface, and the wood was used to build a church dedicated to St Peter. Christianity, being insensitive to local religious beliefs for two thousand years!
Now getting to Marvel’s Avengers specifically, the superhero team was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, originally featuring the characters Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant Man, and Wasp, and soon after Captain America, with many other characters becoming Avengers over the years. The team replaced the earlier 1940s All-Winners Squad of Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics, and was the Marvel counterpart to DC’s Justice League, introduced in 1960 and originally featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. But Marvel’s Avengers were not the first to use the name. 1939 saw the introduction of the pulp-magazine character the Avenger, who was an amalgam of two other successful pulp characters, Doc Savage and the Shadow, himself known as the Masked Avenger. These characters would go on to become a major influence on the figure of the superhero, but more on that later. In 1955, a short-lived cold war superhero character called the Avenger was introduced by Magazine Enterprises, and of course there’s the British spy tv series The Avengers introduced in 1961, most famously featuring John Steed and Emma Peel.
There have been historical groups too known as Avengers. In the middle ages in Sicily, there were forerunners of the Mafia, secret societies, such as the Beati Paoli whom the modern Sicilian Mafia still hold up as a model, that meted out vigilante justice, often working counter to the state authorities and the church, and analogous to Robin Hood in terms of their popular conception in Sicily. One such group was the Vendicatori or Avengers in the 12th century, led by Grand Master Adiorolphus of Ponte Corvo in avenging popular wrongs, until he was hanged and the society was suppressed by King William II of Sicily. Incidentally, Vendicatori is the name used in Italian translations of Marvel’s Avengers. As for the word mafia, it likely comes from an Arabic source, as Sicily was ruled by the Arabs for two centuries in the middle ages, though the precise Arabic word it came from is a matter of some debate.
Revenge killing is of course not limited to the Sicilian mafia, but is a phenomenon in many cultures around the world. For instance the blood feud was a key element in early Germanic culture. The word feud, related to foe and Old English fæhþ “feud”, comes from Proto-Germanic *faiha- “hostile”, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *peig- “evil-minded, hostile”. In Germanic heroic culture, as depicted for instance in the Old English poem Beowulf and the Old Norse sagas such as Brennu-Njáls Saga or Burnt-Njal’s Saga, whose titular character is killed by being burnt alive in his house, revenge killings were an important element of family honour, with men duty-bound to avenge the death of a kinsman, and so blood feuds could continue without end, with each side exacting revenge on the other back and forth, sometimes over generations. The only remedy to unceasing blood feuds was to pay a wergeld or “man price”, though such restitutions were not always accepted. The second part of wergeld is related to the word yield and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *gheldh- “to pay”. The first element wer “man” is the same as the first part of werewolf, literally “man-wolf”, and comes from the root *wi-ro- “man” also giving us words such as virile and virtue (because apparently virtue was a specifically manly quality), and is a derivative of *weiə-, the root that lies behind avenger. Anthropologically speaking, the sort of behaviour that lies behind blood feuds is understood in the context of face, as in losing or saving face, and the guilt-shame-fear spectrum, in which a shame-based culture will act on the basis of pride and honour, and will try to avoid appearing shameful publicly, which thus can lead to acts of revenge if someone were to cause you shame. Similarly a guilt culture acts on the basis of internalized guilt, and a fear culture acts on the basis of fear of retribution.
Another word we get from the same roots as avenger that refers to this idea of blood feud is vendetta, from Italian, often associated with the mafia culture we mentioned earlier. In the world of comic books it is most known through the V for Vendetta series by Alan Moore, set in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic, fascist, and white supremacist Britain governed by a Nordicist political party. In the comic the main anarchist character V dons a Guy Fawkes mask in his pursuit of revenge and and revolution, in reference to the historical Guy Fawkes who attempted to blow up the British parliament in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot in order to re-establish the Catholic church. Subsequently, because of the popularity of the comic book and its film adaptation, the Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted as a symbol of the hacktivist group Anonymous.
Now returning finally to the biblical Hebrew words goel and nakam translated as ‘avenger’, in the early Jewish society depicted in the bible, the goel was a formal role of the next of kin who was responsible for such things as redeeming a relative from slavery, repurchasing of property sold, marrying a kinsman’s widow to produce an heir, or avenging wrongful death. The word Nakam was adopted by a group of Holocaust survivors in 1945 who wanted revenge on Nazis after the war. Comic book superheroes often reflected the realities of WWII, with some characters such as later Avenger Captain America being created specifically to battle the Nazis, and indeed many early comic book writers and artists were Jewish immigrants whose families came to America to escape European antisemitism prior to the war.
The first true comic book superhero is generally considered to be Superman. He was the creation of the children of Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and there is something of that experience in the Superman character, as an alien immigrant who is trying to fit in to 1930s America. As teenagers, Siegel and Shuster had dreams of creating a comic strip. The first iteration of the Superman character, created at that time, had little resemblance to the superhero we know today. Siegel had been producing science fiction fanzines using the school mimeograph machine, and brought his friend Shuster in to illustrate his stories. The first version of Superman was one of these fanzine creations called “The Reign of the Superman”, but instead of a muscle-bound good guy, the main character was a vagrant Bill Dunn who had been given telepathic and mind-control powers by an evil scientist, and was depicted by Shuster as a bald villain rather more like Lex Luthor than the Superman we know today. Dunn uses his powers for his own benefit and malicious amusement, before the powers wear off and he is left a vagrant again. The name and the character of this version of Superman draw more on the concept of the Übermensch which Friedrich Nietzsche described in his Also sprach Zarathustra as “an ideal superior man of the future who transcends conventional Christian morality to create and impose his own values” (OED), which George Bernard Shaw translates as Superman in his play Man and Superman. Siegel would revise the character over and over again in the attempts to get him professionally published, making him a good guy instead of a villain, giving him superior strength instead of psychic abilities (though still given to him by an evil scientist), but no special costume yet. He then became a man from the distant future when humans had naturally developed superpowers, and eventually a child who was sent back from a future earth at the point of cataclysmic destruction. In the final iteration of the character, the one picked up by DC with Siegel and Shuster signing over the copyright of the character in a notoriously unfair but standard practise deal, Superman becomes the alien immigrant and orphaned child with a tights and cape costume that drew on the figure of the circus strongman and futuristic costumes of Flash Gordon, and as Siegel later recalled, he was “a character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one, only more so”. But perhaps the real masterstroke was the hero’s alter ego as mild mannered Clark Kent, a bumbling and bespectacled nerdy figure, much like Siegel and Shuster themselves, with the Lois Lane character in love with the bold hero Superman but repulsed by the nerdy Clark Kent, not realizing that they were in fact the same man. For Clark Kent, Siegel and Shuster drew on the face of the comedic actor Harold Lloyd, and his so-called Glass character with his horn-rimmed glasses and everyday manner.
Lloyd was one of the major comedians of the silent film era, along with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and spanning over into the era of the talkie films, and is perhaps best known from the iconic image of him hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street. Lloyd, who had married one of his leading ladies Mildred Davis and then discouraged her from continuing her acting career, kept tight control of the copyrights of his films after retiring from acting and only sporadically allowed them to be shown, as he didn’t like them to be edited for commercials for tv broadcast and didn’t want them to be shown in theatres with piano accompaniments as they were intended to be accompanied by the organ. His last film appearance was in a continuation of one of his earlier films, the 1925 silent film The Freshman, using footage from that earlier movie with newly filmed scenes with Lloyd as the central character in middle age. It was initially released in 1947 as The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, but was unsuccessful and was quickly pulled from theatres by the producer, the famous industrialist Howard Hughes, who by the way also produced the 1950 film Vendetta about a Corsican girl who pushes her brother into taking revenge for their father’s murder. Hughes shot some additional footage, re-edited it, and re-released it in 1951 as Mad Wednesday. Lloyd was upset with the whole thing and sued Hughes for damaging his reputation. Interestingly, Howard Hughes, businessman, record setting pilot, engineer, philanthropist, eccentric, and notorious playboy, was also an inspiration for a comic book character, Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man, one of the Avengers and a central part of the MCU. Many of Stark’s characteristics were based on Hughes, as well as his look, complete with a Howard Hughes moustache. As Stan Lee later stated, “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase” and “Without being crazy, [Stark] was Howard Hughes”. By the way, Tony Stark’s father was also named Howard.
Now as we’ve seen, another influence on the superhero figure is the Greek hero, such as Hercules, or Herakles as he’s known in Greek. It’s not surprising that comic book writers drew on Greek mythological elements for their superheroes, since Greek myths often featured hero figures, demigods who had powers beyond normal human abilities, like Herakles and Achilles, and that, along with having a hero cult dedicated to them, was the basic definition of a hero in Greek culture. The word hero indeed comes from Greek heros, and may be related to the name of the Greek goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, and therefore also of Herakles, as he took on the name in order to appease the goddess since he was the product of Zeus philandering with a mortal woman. The ultimate root is Proto-Indo-European *ser- “to protect”, also the source of Latin servare “to keep, preserve” and thereby of English words like preserve, conserve, and reserve. The feminine form heroine is not used as often anymore to refer to female superheroes, since it has the connotation of the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued. This is not to be confused with the word heroin without the final -e, which is the now-illicit drug that was so named in the 1890s in reference to the euphoric feelings of power the drug gives you. The prefixed word superhero was used in 1908 as a translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch mentioned earlier, though it may also have been introduced to English through an earlier French use of the word. After the word gained its comic book sense it was registered as a joint trademark by both DC and Marvel Comics, and though the trademark status is likely spurious, who’s going to go up against the comic industry giants and their even more giant parent companies Warner Bros. and Disney? It’s interesting that the two comics publishers should get along on this as the two dominant companies in the industry, as they’re often seen as rivals, with very different approaches to their superheroes. DC artist Ramona Fradon described the difference between the two in mythological terms referring to two Greek dramatists, “You would never think of having Superman be neurotic or have doubts or anything like that. That was true of all the DC characters. It was like Greek drama: there was Aeschylus, where the gods were in their heavens, unquestioned, and then Euripides came along and decided to analyze them and bring them down to a human level. Maybe it was time—you can’t have those characters running around forever without beginning to wonder what they did in their off-hours.”
So what are the qualities that make a hero, either ancient or modern? In the modern world, heroes are often said to be strong, smart, selfless, caring, charismatic, resilient, reliable, or inspiring. The more of these characteristics a hero possesses, the more popular a hero is likely to be. Real-life heroes often fall into one of two categories: those who act selflessly for the benefit of others, such as a first responder; and those who have overcome adversity or trauma, such as someone who in spite of illness or disability is an inspiration for others. It could be said that typically superheroes fall into both of the categories, selflessness and adversity. Not only are heroes there to save the day, they often have origin stories featuring some kind of hardship, such as Batman watching his parents being murdered as a child, or Superman being an orphan and an immigrant trying to fit in, or Spider-Man dealing with the rejection and ostracism of being an unpopular nerdy teen, as well as feeling responsible for his uncle’s murder. Furthermore, superheroes often have an Achilles heel, such as Superman’s kryptonite, Green Lantern’s powerlessness over anything wooden, or the Hulk’s susceptibility to anger. Of course the very first Achilles heel was the actual heel of the Greek hero Achilles, by which his mother Thetis held him as an infant when she dipped him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, everywhere except his heel.
What generally makes superheroes different from ancient heroes, though there are exceptions, is their motivations. Superheroes do heroic things for the common good, whereas the main motivation for ancient heroes is glory, pride, and fame, things that superheroes usually go out of their way to avoid, to such an extent that they often maintain a secret identity, with the exception of fame-hogging heroes like the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. This makes sense, given that ancient heroes come from orally transmitted myths from a time before writing was invented. In such a pre-literate world, the only way to be remembered is to have people tell stories about you, and so you try to win fame and glory. It’s a kind of immortality. This naturally leads to ancient heroes possessing the quality of pride and engaging in ritualized boasting about the deeds they have done or intend to do. Today, we typically use the words proud and pride, which came into Old English through Old French from Latin prodesse, literally “to be in front”, in the pejorative sense, referring to someone who has an overly high opinion of themselves, influenced by the Christian notion of pride as one of the seven deadly sins, though having pride if you’re part of a typically downtrodden group can also be a positive trait. In the ancient world that positive sense is perhaps more to the fore, with pride being considered a virtue in ancient Greece and Rome. In the Germanic heroic tradition, pride and boasting were also expected of the warrior. Germanic heroes would engage in ritualized boasting sessions, called a beot in Old English, which for instance Beowulf does before each of his monster fights in the Old English epic. In the Norse tradition was the heitstrenging in which a warrior would place hands on the bristles of a sacrificed boar and make oaths of heroic feats to his chieftain, often while very drunk. The word boast doesn’t actually appear in English until the Middle English period, from Anglo-Norman bost, but it likely still comes from a Germanic source, Proto-Germanic *bausia “to blow up, puff up, swell”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European imitative root *beu- “to swell”, also giving us such words as pocket, pouch, puff, and boil. Old English beot is a contraction of the prefixed verb behatan “to promise, vow, threaten”, related to Modern English behest, from hatan “to command, name, call”, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *keiə- “to set in motion”. This root also gives us words such as excite, incite, telekinesis, and cinema, reminding us of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which got us to this point in the first place. Related to all this boasting by Germanic heroes is flyting, a kind of ritualized exchange of insults or witticisms. Flyting can occur in lieu of a battle, as in the encounter between Beowulf and Unferth in which Unferth calls Beowulf a faker and Beowulf calls Unferth a drunken coward, or it can occur just before a fight as in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, in which the English leader replies to the Vikings asking to be paid off to leave without a battle by saying they’ll give them a payment in the form of spears, in other words they’ll throw spears at them. LOL. And this is somewhat reminiscent of the witty banter between comic book superheroes and their supervillains. It’s not enough to just defeat the villains, the superhero always has to get the last laugh with their witty retort. In the Germanic tradition the greatest heroism often lay in fighting a losing battle. Since the hero had made vows and boasts of his heroism, it would be shameful to run away from battle and he was expected to continue to fight for his lord even if it meant his doom. This heroism of a losing battle is perhaps most notable in the myth of Ragnarok in which the Norse gods battled their enemies to the death, including Odin being swallowed by Fenrir and Thor killing and being killed by the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, with the battle ending in the destruction of the world, a story which inspired the MCU film Thor: Ragnarok, not to mention the apocalyptic ending of Avengers: Infinity War.
Now coming back to the parallels between superheroes and Greek heroes, we can also see how they function as myth, as Stan Lee described superheroes as “twentieth century mythology” with “an entire contemporary mythos, a family of legends that might be handed down to future generations”. Superhero stories function similarly in society, especially in their theatrical forms, a common cultural currency that everyone can draw on, and experienced together in an almost ritual-like way in the movie theatres. Ancient myths often have multiple, sometimes conflicting versions as they are told and retold in different media and over many generations. The same is true of superheroes, whose origin stories often change over many retellings both in the comic books and in the movies. And both types of heroes fit well into the hero’s journey pattern outlined by theorist Joseph Campbell. I should preface this by stating that there are a lot of problems with Campbell’s theory, I mean A LOT, because it tries to reduce all hero stories to a single one-size-fits-all pattern that mirrors the psychological process of a boy passing into manhood. Not only does this not really work for girls becoming women, but it isn’t even a universal experience of all boys, as it’s founded upon some very outdated, and very western, psychology. Nevertheless, it’s useful to know about since writers of comic books and films often draw on Campbell for structuring their stories. Basically the way it goes is a boy, upon reaching the age of maturity undergoes a rite of passage, going out into the dangerous world after receiving a call to adventure, and with the help of supernatural figures, undergoes a series of trials or labours, achieves some kind of enlightenment or boon, and returns to society much the wiser for his adventure. So most famously Herakles had his twelve labours that he had to perform to atone for the killing of his family (which, by the way he was made to commit by Hera). During one of the labours Herakles fought the half-giant Antaeus, son of the Poseidon, god of the sea, and Gaia, the earth goddess. Antaeus was invincible as long as he was in contact with the earth, drawing power from his mother, so Herakles defeated him by holding him aloft and then crushing him in a bear hug. The name Antaeus means literally “hostile, opponent”, from the same root that lies behind the word end of endgame. Revenge is a frequent element in Herakles’s myth, for instance Hera taking out her jealousy about Zeus on his illegitimate son, or Herakles himself taking revenge on those who wronged him. Similarly, the plot of Homer’s Iliad revolves around Achilles taking revenge on Hector for killing his friend Patroclus. And in the story of the Roman hero Aeneas, a survivor of the Trojan War, who avenges Troy by founding what would become Rome which eventually subjugated Greece as part of its empire. Also, reflecting the Iliad, in the climactic moment of Virgil’s poem the Aeneid, Aeneas takes revenge for the death of his friend Pallas by killing his killer Turnus. A 1962 Italian film about the Aeneas myth was given the English title The Avenger.
As for female heroes, examples from Greek mythology, are few and far between. There are some female protagonists, such as Medea or Clytemnestra, but their stories are still (in our sources at least) secondary to the male heroes in myth; there are figures we may find admirable, like Penelope or Antigone, but they don’t have the superhuman abilities of their male counterparts; from an ancient perspective, the best example would be Helen, who was the daughter of Zeus and was worshipped as a demigod in her own hero cult, satisfying the main ancient definition of ‘hero’. Typically women were figured in myth as victims or prizes for male heroes to win, almost always passive — the active women were usually villains! One notable fairytale example of a female hero who does play an active role in her story is Gretel in the Hansel and Gretel story recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It’s Gretel who pushes the cannibal witch into the fire and frees her brother Hansel. And though there are female superheroes, with some exceptions like Wonder Woman and the female heroes in the Avengers, many of them are simply the “girl” versions of male heroes, like Supergirl and Batgirl. The original Fawcett Comics Captain Marvel, now known as Shazam, had a female equivalent too, Mary Marvel twin sister of Billy Batson, who was actually created before Supergirl. The new Captain Marvel film was the first in the MCU to focus on a female superhero, with the character subsequently appearing in Avengers: Endgame. In addition to female spin-offs, superheroes often have young sidekicks, the classic example being Batman’s Robin. And like the superheroes themselves, the side-kicks are often orphans as well, as is the case with Robin. The original Captain Marvel had Captain Marvel Jr., disabled newsboy Freddy Freeman, who along with Mary Marvel appeared in the new Shazam! movie. It’s interesting to note that in the comic, when Freddy Freeman transforms into Captain Marvel Jr., he stays a kid, as did the original Mary Marvel, unlike Billy Batson. Captain America’s kid sidekick was Bucky Barnes who supposedly died in World War II, later reimagined as the adult Winter Soldier, and now part of the MCU as well. This pattern of hero and sidekick is prevalent in ancient myths as well, with Gilgamesh and Enkidu of Sumerian mythology, Herakles and his nephew Iolaus, and Achilles and Patroclus.
One special type of hero in mythology is the culture hero, who discovers or invents something of great value to society and is thus often seen as a founder of that society. For instance Prometheus gave fire to human beings in Greek myth, thus allowing for all of Greek technological progress, and Aeneas, escaping from the fall of Troy, founded the Roman people by bringing in a superior culture to the Italian peninsula. Odin can even be seen as a culture hero, for acquiring the Mead of Poetry and discovering runes in Norse myth. We can maybe see a hint of this kind of hero in Iron Man and Batman, whose heroism comes from their intelligence and inventiveness rather than any superpowers.
A similar idea to this but applied to the understanding of history is the Great Man theory of history, developed by Thomas Carlyle. He identified six types of Great Men, which he called heroes, who were most responsible for the progress of history: the hero as divinity (such as Odin), prophet (such as Muhammad), poet (such as Shakespeare), priest (such as Martin Luther), man of letters (such as Rousseau), and king (such as Napoleon). This theory of history was very popular in the 19th century, for instance with Nietzsche, but was not without its critics, such as philosopher and polymath Herbert Spencer, who also coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was responsible for social Darwinism, who argued that such great men were the products of their society, not the other way round. The American psychologist and philosopher William James in turn gave a defence of Carlyle, criticizing Spencer. Counter to the Great Man theory of history in the 19th century was the idea of the Zeitgeist or Spirit of the Age, developed by Johann Gottfried von Herder, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. According to this view it’s the cumulative effect of this Spirit of the Age which drives history, though Hegel himself didn’t see these two approaches to history as necessarily incompatible. Today social history and history from below or people’s history approaches have largely replaced the Great Man model.
Now of course the contexts in which Greek heroes and modern superheroes operate are quite different. Superheroes exist in a world which has a civil authority, so they are therefore acting as vigilantes, breaking the law for the greater good by doing what the police can’t (or won’t) do. On the other hand, Greek heroes, in myth at least, live in a world with only minimal state authority and no police force, and so they aren’t seen as transgressing but as providing necessary protection against the many dangers too great to be overcome by ordinary people. By the imperial Roman period there were such institutions as the Vigiles, related to the word vigilante, who acted as both firefighters and as a night watch, keeping an eye out for burglars, but full police forces didn’t come until later. The word vigilante, related of course to vigilance, actually comes into English from Spanish, and initially referred to members of a vigilance committee in the American West, who were groups of private citizens who enforced the law with respect to things like cattle rustling, gangs, and gold prospecting, because official law enforcement wasn’t effective on the American frontier. Ultimately the word comes from Latin vigil “awake, on the watch, alert”, from Proto-Indo-European *weg- “to be strong, to be lively”, appropriately enough for superheroes, which also gives us words such as wake, wait, and watch. And “who watches the watchmen?” a question originally posed by the Roman satirist Juvenal and famously used in the Watchmen comic book, which deconstructs the very notion of the vigilante superhero. Vigilante precursors to superheroes who also take the law into their own hands to defend the defenceless include characters such as Robin Hood in the middle ages and Zorro, who was invented by Johnston McCulley in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century only a little before the invention of the superhero, but whose stories are set in the period of Spanish California in the late 18th and early 19th century. Zorro with his mask and black cape was a particular influence on Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Indeed the adventure heroes of the pulp magazines and later comic strips were a major influence on the comic book and superhero genre, with heroes such as Zorro, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. Many of these heroes were translated to the big screen serials which were also a huge influence on the then teenagers who a few years later were to invent the many superheroes of the 1930s and 40s.
A lot of the action of superheroes was inspired by swashbuckler films with such actors as Douglas Fairbanks, who was the first to portray Zorro and also famously portrayed Robin Hood and d’Artagnan in an adaptation of the famous adventure novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. The word swashbuckler means literally “one who makes a menacing noise by striking his or his opponent’s shield with a sword”, from swash, an onomatopoeic word imitating the sound of either splashing water or the fall of a heavy body or blow, and buckler, a type of shield. Buckler in turn comes through Old French from Latin buccula meaning the boss of a shield but originally the mouthpiece of a helmet, the diminutive of Latin bucca meaning “cheek”, possibly borrowed from a Celtic word but ultimately from that same imitative root *beu- which we saw lying behind the word boast.
Another famous swashbuckler novel that had a big impact on the superhero figure is The Scarlet Pimpernel written by the Baroness Emma Orczy in 1905, only in this case the most important element was the idea of a hero with a secret identity. In the novel, the eponymous character, known only by his symbol of the flower scarlet pimpernel, is actually the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who appears to be just a wealthy fop, but is in fact a fine swordsman and cunning escape artist, who uses his abilities to rescue French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror at the start of the French Revolution. This double life of a mild-mannered witless man-about-town on the one hand and daring hero on the other, is perhaps most recognizable in the playboy characters Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow), Bruce Wayne (aka Batman), but is in fact the first clear example of a hero with a secret identity, inspiring superheroes from Superman to Spider-Man. An even earlier forerunner of this concept is the main character of Alexandre Dumas’s other famous adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the framed and falsely imprisoned main character Edmond Dantès takes on the identity of the mysterious Count in order to exact revenge, so not exactly heroic, though his powers do seem superhuman.
Now in order to maintain their secret identities, heroes often wear masks, as Don Diego de la Vega does when he becomes Zorro, though notably Superman instead “hides” his face behind glasses when he’s Clark Kent. The word mask appropriately has rather obscure origins, and may in fact represent the merging of several sources. What does seem clear is that mask, along with its relatives masque and masquerade, comes into English through French masque from Italian maschera “mask, disguise”. This may in turn come from a Proto-Germanic root *mask- meaning “mesh” from the Proto-Indo-European root *mezg- “to knit”, also the source of the word mesh, from the idea of a mesh breathing mask used to filter out soot and dust, like a modern surgical mask. Or it may come from a pre-Indo-European root mask- meaning “black, blacken” also related to Latin masca “evil spirit, spectre, witch”, which also produced the word mascot. Or yet again, it may be related to mascara, the make-up you put on eyelashes, and go back to Arabic maskarah “buffoon, mockery”, from sakhira “to ridicule, laugh at”, from a Proto-Semitic root meaning “to be fearful, intimidated”. We can see a number of these aspects reflected in the superhero mask, including the element of buffoonery and laughter related to the idea of comics. For the superhero, yes the mask is part of maintaining their secret identity, providing them with anonymity to act outside the law and protecting the safety of their family and friends, but it also acts as a symbol. For instance, Batman takes on the disguise of a bat to frighten and intimidate criminals, an idea evoked by the Proto-Semitic etymology of the word mask. What’s more, the anonymity itself is a symbol: Batman could be anybody and is therefore not reducible to any one individual. And psychologically the mask transforms the civilian into a superhero, creating an identity distinct from the self. Wearing a mask is a conscious creation of a new and powerful identity, who can both frighten and inspire. Plus, crucially, a mask hides the face, which is one of the most important elements of identity and self, and of nonverbal communication, thus cutting off those channels. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the superhero the Question, who has a plain featureless mask, completely without identity, created by Steve Ditko as a hero who could operate completely objectively without the subjectivity of having an identity or expressing emotion.
William James, that defender of Carlyle’s Great Man theory, also developed a theory of self which divided a person’s mental image of the self into two categories, the “me” and the “I”. The “I” is pure ego, the thinking self of the stream of consciousness, a phrase James coined, whereas the “me” is empirical, and includes your material self, your social self, and things like your core values. What’s more he believed that one’s clothing is second in importance for the material self only to the body, and that clothes were crucial for forming one’s self-image. And obviously that’s even more true for a comicbook superhero.
So, the story of the mythological hero can be seen as a quest for identity — gaining a new role while coming to terms with who you really are — while the stories of superheroes often focus on them having to negotiate between two or more conflicting identities, with or without the help of masks and suits and costumes. And we can see that theme all the way through Endgame, as each of the Avengers has to come to a decision about his or her role and identity in the world left behind by Thanos’s terrible actions — and in the fight to restore it.
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