I’ve followed a lot of the discussion about pop culture heroes, particularly those entries by Sannion, Dver, Christine Kraemer at Patheos, Galina Krasskova,and P. S. V. Lupus. It’s kind of daunting to wade in as it is such a complicated subject, and so much has been said. And to be honest I just can’t wrap my head around someone offering hero devotion to say Tony Stark or Superman. While some superheroes may inspire and remind us of heroes from ancient or more recent times, nevertheless they never lived and pose a number of significant problems.
To start with, I think there’s a huge lack of discernment, something I see much more broadly at large in the polytheistic communities, like with all of the people who claim the gods chit-chat with them about the most trivial matters. Our minds are powerful and have many usually hidden or unacknowledged dimensions. To say something rises from our subconscious is not to be dismissive, not at all—but acknowledge that is its source. But back to action figures and characters from Hollywood franchises and Marvel Comics, do these fans really think these characters have agency? That they actually can respond to them? I find that dismaying.
Some bring up the blurry line between traditional myth and fiction, and I grant that it is blurry. Cuchullain? P.S.V. Lupus asserts that this to some extent comes down to aesthetics. I know I do like mine well aged like a very fine wine; Arthurian figures might have scraps or kernels of old deities within them, but they were characters crafted by skilled medieval storytellers. However, Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, or Marie de France weren’t pop culture writers (there were no pop culture writers in that era, the populace was illiterate). Arguably pop culture, which is not the same as popular culture didn’t even exist before the advent of industrialism and mass marketing. However elitist many in today’s consumer society may feel about this, until a generation or so ago people were clear about the distinction between high culture and pop culture. Creations of high culture were crafted to be elucidative, ethical, aesthetic, illuminating of patterns of truth, as well as to be entertaining. Many writers working today in many genres still work for that, but pop culture franchises are designed around one purpose: to be high money making instruments for the capitalist economy. I wouldn’t at all deny that some of these franchise creations may have echoes of valid archetypes, but usually they are not made by people who are magical or religious. Intention (with knowledge) of the creator does matter, something by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison will certainly have more validity than something by Stan Lee.
Great artists create new myths or rework old mythic patterns for new times: think Tolkien and Joyce, maybe Gaiman. And I suppose this is a point to look at what we mean by the mutable word myth. Myth has different meanings for different segments of the population, it largely means lie or false belief in popular and official culture in the West. For pagans/polytheists, Hindus and new agers often it means narratives that touch on sacred matters, that give spiritual meanings and spiritual truths. The word meant very different things in different periods in ancient Greece. In Hesiod, mythos and logos are contrasted, but perhaps surprisingly to modern ears, the latter is associated with dissimulation, the former with truth—the usage will vary a lot over the course of Greek history but Plato definitively gave it the meaning of falsehood (see Bruce Lincoln in Theorizing Myth for a full history of the meanings of these unstable terms).
Fiction is another trickster word, (English is so poor in vocabulary dealing with non-empirical things) and deals with truths if it is good (and fiction is one of the best vehicles for communicating emotional truths we have) and we can and should make modern myths, stories that can provide guides to understanding life, and hopefully understanding spiritual matters, but we should not confuse levels of being. A good character may echo or enact an archetype like Gandalf or Gollum, but these are not ontological beings with agency outside their narratives, though readers can invest them with power (readers are co-creators).
But let’s take the case of Iron Man again, as an example. The narrative might seem relevant as it takes place in a world that purportedly reflects our current geopolitics. It may offer a sense of empowerment for viewers. This is limited though, by the over-simplified black and white moral universe of the superhero genre, to say nothing of hidden ideological assumptions many of us don’t want anything to do with. Perhaps, most importantly it is part of a huge franchise and no amount of purchasing of posters, action figures, tied-in games, and costumes will allow for Stark to take on the reality of someone who actually lived in our middle world. And on some level, instead of opening onto the Other, instead of that extraordinary task of getting outside of ourselves, the fan stays within their own mind and maintains consensus reality (and makes it more difficult as they are constructing even their spiritual identity by brand allegiance). Getting out seems to be more difficult than ever in human history, and so more needed than ever. Yet as Dver has lucidly written much about at Forest Door, many polytheists seem to only see what they can get out of it, and I would add on the most superficial egotistic level of self, and as we look around at the way modernity is causing such untold destruction, is so distracted in pop culture trivia, and mightily maintaining its deafness to misery in much of the world, the demise of countless fellow species, depleted oceans, and rapidly changing climate, I can’t help but see this pop culture worship as being part of this myopia. Paganism/polytheism used to have a critical edge; is that gone, except in a few corners?
One other thing that raises my ire about fandom being mistaken for a religion and claims for hero cultus being claimed valid for superheroes is the implication that somehow it is uncool to actually consider people who have done great things recently as heroes, whether we’re talking about people who have dedicated their lives to human rights, environmental justice, reviving our traditions, or furthering peace on this troubled planet. People like Dian Fossey, Chico Mendez, Judi Bari, Benigno Aquino, Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Isaac Bonewits, Alexei Kondratiev, people who were heroic and in most of these cases sacrificed their lives for something larger than themselves, pop to mind. If we want modern heroes there are many to choose from. I think it is sad that people find it easier to relate to cartoons than to real life heroes.
Finally, heroes are the Mighty Dead. They lived. They died. They may live on in various ways, in various abodes and they may have narratives and prophecies that say they will reawaken some day like Arthur or Barbarossa, but they have died. Superheroes for the most part don’t even die in their stories. There are so many inspiring heroes in our traditional lore, (for a good list of both traditional heroes and ones from the pagan revival, see Galina Krasskova’s website http://krasskova.weebly.com/our-pagan-and-heathen-heroes-and-martyrs.html ), but some are so locked into the ideology of the new, of ‘progress’, that apparently they find them boring. I’ll choose Scatach, Achilles and Dian Fossey any day over any superhero or cartoon character, even ones I really like.