Superman Is Cool, Pt. 2: Superman/Supermessiah

Last month, I kicked off a series of articles on Superman with the intent of educating people as to how cool he is. I began with a roundup of the stuff most everyone knows – a summary of the origins of Superman. It was mainly setup. Today’s update is going to delve deeper into the grander mythology that Superman inhabits – and shares – with some of religious history’s most well known champions.

Our hero’s journey begins when he is delivered, by his father Jor-El, from a world beyond human understanding to Earth in a last hope that we might learn some vital lessons from his presence. Krypton was a highly advanced society and it was perhaps some degree of arrogance that led to the degradation and eventual demise of their society. Thus, Kal-El is given to humanity not only as a savior, but as a reminder of what might happen to us if we fail to foster harmony and understanding between our own people.

In the ancient Greco-Roman tradition, the tales of the gods often functioned as parables that would teach humans something; about our arrogance or our values. Though they may have been populated with lofty imagery, the stories themselves were lessons about human nature and the perseverance of mankind as much as they were the great journeys and cataclysmic battles. The famous hero Heracles (better known by his Roman name “Hercules”) was a demigod provided to Earth by Zeus by way of the god of gods shacking up with the human woman Alcmene. Herc grew up to become a hero, overcoming the challenges of the gods while facing off against his enemy the King Eurystheus. Much like Superman, Hercules was seen as mankind’s benefactor.

As with Hercules or Superman, other religions made use of similar imagery and stories to educate society. Christian figurehead (and one-time attempted Jewish savior) Jesus Christ was similarly passed down from his father, God, to save his chosen people from moral decay and self-destruction. His act of self-sacrifice was perhaps his greatest miracle, a super-powered feat that helped unite a large group of disparate cultures around the core concept of what would eventually become Christianity.

And after living through various trials, both Herc and Jesus were allowed to enter their Father’s kingdoms. Heracles is granted access to Mount Olympus, while Jesus ascends to Heaven. Similarly, in the final chapter of All Star Superman, a near-death Kal-El witnesses a vision of his father and himself travelling above the surface of his homeworld Krypton. Superman is made fully aware of what his death entails, and he is given a choice: Experience the home he has never seen, if only for a moment, or return to life and Earth in order to take an active part in saving it from destruction, courtesy of Lex Luthor.

Lex who, like the gods to Hercules, or the Jews to Jesus, represents maybe the worst reflections of the hero himself. Luthor could be as much a Superman as his nemesis and (in most depictions) is also a son of Smallville, Kansas. The fact that these two could emerge from the same “womb” to confront one another so dramatically as adults is a common theme in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian lore cited in this article.

Hercules’ greatest enemies are his father’s wife, the goddess Hera, and the King Eurystheus, related to Hercules through the House of Perseus.
Jesus is put on trial by his own people.
Superman’s death comes about as a result of Luthor’s plotting.

In death, Hercules becomes a god, Jesus becomes a lasting symbol of Christianity, and Superman accepts his role as a symbol and paragon for humanity. And they do so unselfishly.

Superman becomes an icon; a point of reference from which we might learn something about ourselves. And, though it’s touched with irony, by entering the celestial source of his powers he still gets to ascend. He becomes the pivotal heart at the center of Earth’s sun rather than “returning” to Krypton. His final act is a complete adoption of ours as his homeworld; his last act becomes a means of sustaining us. His alien might collapses into his human sense of kindness, rendering him a bridge between man and god, and an advocate for us having to save ourselves through action rather than rhetoric.

So that takes care of the godly stuff. Next up, we’ll tackle Superman’s human side in The Three Faces of Clark Kent.

3 Responses to “Superman Is Cool, Pt. 2: Superman/Supermessiah”
  1. Jase says:

    The three-way comparison of Superman, Heracles, and Jesus is effective.

    In mythological terms, the death/resurrection aspect probably never became more clear than his death during the 90’s, bringing Superman in line with not only Heracles and Jesus, but also Balder, Osiris/Horus, and others.

    Lex himself becomes both a trickster and, in a way, failed culture hero in opposition to the solar god/actual culture hero that Superman represents.

    • Nas says:

      The comparison was definitely being driven home by Superman’s resurrection, and his links to other solar-themed gods is also a fascinating one. I’d like to research those connections to some more “obscure” deities in future and do some follow-up on that topic.

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