Are superheroes a modern thing?

Caped crusaders, men of steel, witty web-shooting university students; we all know them, we all love them. But, are superheroes a modern concept? Or can we trace them somewhere back in time?

Let’s start by defining the word ‘superhero’. Typically, a superhero, or a superheroine, is “a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also: an exceptionally skillful or successful person”[1].  Now, a needed clarification: the ‘extraordinary’ part does not necessarily mean, for instance, the ability to shoot destructive beams from one’s eyes. It could very well imply the mastery over a certain skill, or immeasurable brain power (Batman and Iron Man are both great examples of this).

Heroes in general seem to follow a certain moral code. This code may vary from refraining from killing to shielding others from harm at any personal cost. One thing is sure: a hero will always fight for the good side. This is really important, because as we are about to see, many fictional characters can fall into the superhero category, with the exact same criteria.

Let’s go back 130 years. It was the year when ‘A Study in Scarlet’ was published. And Sherlock Holmes was brought to the world (can’t thank you enough, Sir Doyle). Why  does Mr. Holmes qualify as a superhero, you might ask. Well, the ‘extraordinary’ part of the definition does apply to the supreme detective skills of the man in the deer-hunter hat, does it not? Sherlock Holmes’ mind was a vast vault full of knowledge that could be applied to almost any situation. Oh, and did I mention that Sherlock could kick butt? His loyal companion, Dr. John Watson tells us that Sherlock is “an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman”.[2] By that time’s standards, Sherlock Holmes could very well be characterized as a superhero.

We can go even further back, to the magical Forest of Sherwood. Our example here is the bowmaster known as Robin Hood, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. His code of defending the wronged and unjustly hunted is enough to grand him the hero status. It is his inhuman level of archery that could very well place him in the superhero league.

This might all seem anachronistic, and it is. But, it is very important to understand that, in the past, people also used to have their own heroes; they were fans of them, just like us. If we go all the way to Ancient Greece and Rome, or even before them, to Akkad, we can see what is probably the origin of today’s superheroes: The demigods.

Sons and daughters of gods, with powers far exceeding even the wildest dreams of the people in those times. Their missions varied, but all had a common thing going on, and that is their constant struggle against the forces of evil. They were not above doing some vile things (Thesseus ripped Procrustes in half, Gilgamesh is an oppresive ruler before he travels the world in order to save it), but that was a far different time than ours. We have to remember this, because for people in between 2000-1500 BC power was something to be revered and respected. It was not their place to question the authority of the gods, or their offspring.

Where does all this lead us to? Were the first superheroes actually created in ancient times? Well, yes and no. They do fall in the category, yet not so much. They were, I believe, the inspiration for our modern heroes. It is, I think, a person’s need to create a figure that does fight for the right reasons. In ancient times, they were the offspring of gods, born with the powers to smite the unjust. Later, they would be honorable thieves, or masters of crime-solving. Today, they are young adults bitten by radioactive insects, who wear the mask for the sole purpose of protecting our world. Who knows what the future holds?

P.S. No, a hero is NOT a person who shares their food or drinks! Sorry, Luffy and Zoro 🙂

[1] Mirriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”.

 

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