Myth and the Superhero: The Divine vs. Science

I my last two posts I have looked at the nature of the heroes and how they help us understand our culture.  I understand that each comic universe and set of heroes have a different agenda or aspect of the human condition that they wish to explore, so most of my comments are going to be generalizations or based on a particular comic that I am analyzing.

I wonder if our post-modern minds can actually understand the significance of myth or are we too inundated with notion that man is the measure of things that we cannot grasp the wonderment of supernatural divine nature of myth.  I think that the comic-book world is the closest this modern world has to myth. But do we understand what that means?  Most of the comic-book heroes are an augmentation from science but what about the heroes that aren’t?

I recently watched the movie Thor, which got me thinking about this.  Superheroes like Spiderman, or X-Men are creatures of science.  What makes them special is a scientific augmentation or mutation. Batman uses gadgets and science to defeat villains who are predominately created because of scientific environmental mutations.  Science is the catalyst, the creator, the power behind these stories.  These superheroes were created in the Age of Science and Enlightenment.  Science is in a sense the religion or the divine source of power and authority.

But what about a superhero like Thor?  Thor is not an invention of the modern, scientific mind.  He is much older, dating back to a time of mystery, myth, gods, and heroes. How then is Thor to be measured among the scientists?

  • I’ll be honest I haven’t read the comic books, so this judgement is based on the movie and Norse Mythology, which I do have some familiarity.

I watched the movie looking for how they handled the concept of the divine natures of the Asgard and its interaction with a modern world.  But the superhero Thor is not a god.  His people are described as aliens. There is no divine power to them or in them.  “Magic is just science we don’t understand.”  Thor says he comes from a place where magic and science are the same. It is the human nature that demands the scientific reasoning and not the Asgard.   But the scientific is how we understand the world now.  Nietzsche argued that man could not comprehend the world so in mankind’s primitive state he created the gods.  This is definitely the mindset that the marvel universe has adapted.  Thor’s people were perceived by the primitive Norse culture as gods and their great feats were done by magic.  But now in this “enlightened” age we can begin to understand the the magic was just science we did not understand.

I don’t mind the scientific explanations.  There is much to be said for taking a concept that is wreathed in mystery and putting it into a concrete form that we can understand.  It is part of the purpose of myth to do just that: take the abstract and give it concrete understanding.   Nevertheless, there is something “magical” and unexplained in the resurrection of Thor and dreamlike-all-knowing sleep that Odin is in for most of the movie.  Science cannot explain those events and, fortunately, they don’t try.  It is here that the Nietzschean philosophy breaks down.  There are still things in this world and even in the world of superheroes that cannot be explained by science.  Try as we might, science does not give all the answers.

I cannot help but wonder if something has been lost in the scientific exploration.   There is no room for mystery.  Jane Foster is not going to rest until she can figure out how to open the portal again.  Her science is going to be her driving force, but there is something that the science will not explain…her faith in the promise that Thor gave her.  He said he’d return.  There is no scientific proof for that, no rational reason for her to believe and yet Jane will.  Faith is part of the myth and mystery not science.  Faith is the real power. Science would tell her that the portal is gone and there is nothing that can be done to fix it. Science would tell her that since she cannot recreate the experiment that she needs to come up with a different hypothesis and start over. Faith is an aspect of the divine. And though there is a trend to mask the myths of old with science (the Norse myths lend themselves well for this treatment), there is still an aspect of the divine nature of the myth that cannot be completely explained away – faith and the power over death.

I appreciate the retellings and the stories of the superheroes, however, I still prefer the myths because they don’t try to explain away the unexplainable or simplify the truth even if it seems impossible to the scientific mind.


About LizzyBeth

There is a Story inside of me that I must give a voice. I write so that imagination can take me to Faerie and I can catch a glimpse of the Otherworld and hopefully so will you.

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Batman, Book Review, Characters, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, Movie Reviews, Myth, Rachel Burkholder, Superheroes, Thor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I like ..magic is just science we don’t understand…truer words!

  2. This post opens some interesting questions, both in the realm of myth and legend, and in the real world. One that I’ve been wondering about recently, spawned by an event on Stargate: Universe, is what constitutes a ‘god’? I mean, outside of specific religions that characterize gods with names and natures, to an unconvinced, intelligent agnostic, what would they need to see a being capable of doing to be willing to call it a god?

    Specifically, in Stargate: Universe, Dr. Rush talks about proof that the universe was created by an intelligent force. Yet he hesitates to call it a god At another time in the story, the crew finds a whole solar system that was apparently created and made habitable within just a few hundred years, suggesting that it wasn’t by nature.

    Is a being that can create a whole solar system ex-nihilo a god? What if it can do that, but can’t truely bring the dead back to life? What about something that could create an entire universe? What if it doesn’t know the outcome of it’s creation (i.e. what your personal choices will be)? Does method matter? If it can do these things through the manipulation of natural laws, is it different than if it doesn’t need natural laws to work? Wouldn’t even that itself count as some sort of natural law?

    In our modern, ‘enlightened’ perspective, where we understand that not only are other realities possible (though not proven yet), but that they don’t necessarily necessarily share such basic fundamentals with us as the concept of time, or cause and effect, what is the difference between a god and a super-powerful entity of science? Is there a difference?

    • Colin,
      These are all excellent questions and I’ll be honest I don’t have the answers to most of them. But I do know that what makes the Christian God unique is the fact that HE is all powerful; HE creates life out of nothing through the power of his voice; HE is all knowing; HE has the power over life and death; He is not limited to human understanding or human desires or human science. If God did not have these attributes He would not be who He said He was, which leads us to a Lewis quote about Christ: It makes him either a lair, a lunatic, or the real thing. I am inclined to say that He is more real than anything I know. The fact that God is all of these things makes Him the True God and that all others pale in comparison.
      Man struggles with creating his own version of god that can rival the True God. And oddly enough I would argue that the Stargate universe proves that over and over. Dr. Rush hesitates on calling an intelligent designer of the universe God because Science has become the religion of our society and it does not want to bow its head to the higher authority of God. But at the same time Dr. Rush and others of the SGC acknowledge that there are things in the universe that science cannot explain, that there are mysteries. These mysteries are the proof that science is limited to human understanding and desires and is bound to human intelligence, while the universe proves that there is something out there that is not limited to human understanding.
      I don’t know if any of this answered your questions but I do appreciate the thoughtfulness of your quarry and I hope that you will continue to search for the True Myth (See Tolkien and Lewis about the concept of the True Myth I think you will really appreciate their arguments. I recommend reading “God in the Dock” by Lewis and “On Faerie” By Tolkien).

  3. The question of what qualifies as a god is one of the themes in my upcoming book Among the Neshelim. It is an interesting, and extremely subjective, question. One interesting thing to note is that in the history of human religion Yahweh (Judaism and Christianity) and Allah (Islam) are the only two all-powerful, all-knowing, creative entities. Ahura-Mazda (Zoroastrianism) comes close but his power is limited by his chaotic counter part Angra Mainyu.

    Similarly, some worshippers of Satan will claim that he is all-powerful, or all-knowing, but this is not a general tenant of the religion. Other than these the gods we see in world cultures, while powerful and wise, are far from being ultimate beings. The Thors and Ras and Osano-wos of the world are what, historically, have generally been conceived of as gods. Even in the Old Testament Yahweh, while he claims to be unique in Isaiah (the only TRUE god it could be said), admits the existence of other gods by repeatedly warning his people away from them.

    He also goes out of his way to show his superiority to, and power over, other gods. The ten plagues in the beginning of Exodus is a good example of this, as is Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Because of this I do not think that it is appropriate to limit the definition of a god to an all-powerful, all-knowing, creative being.

    • I have wondered about that before, about how God often talks to Israel about other gods. He doesn’t call them idols. He doesn’t say that there are *no* gods. But He is the only *true* God.

      It makes me wonder about the activities of angels on earth. Didn’t angelic beings mingle with humans at one point? Could they have been mistaken for gods? Demons, fallen angels, do exist and can exercise power over people and the physical world. Did they set themselves up as gods? Are they a source for some myths?

      I may not be seeing the whole picture here because I don’t know Hebrew, so i can’t look at the original texts.

      • Scripture is filled with abstract references to gods. At once point Paul (I believe) even calls the Sanhedrin ‘gods’. The term is used in a variety of ways to mean everything from Yahweh, to other spiritual beings, to idols which have no actual existence, to very powerful men. So from the use of the word alone we can’t really make this supposition.

        However, when we combine the use of the word with God’s (Yahweh’s) blatant actions intended to (and successful in) showing his superiority over a number of pagan gods (Various Egyptian gods, Baal, the Baals [Baal was a mesopotamian god, the Baals was a reference to a group of gods, usually lesser gods but sometimes including Baal himself – the term was also occasionally used to refer to groups of powerful kings]), then we can safely argue that they were not ‘made up’ or ‘imaginary’ beings. It is interesting that scripture does not accept every religious belief or practice as have spiritual reality, but also does not reject every religious belief or practice other that faith in Yahweh as ridiculous.

        According to Genesis something (whether or not it was fallen angels is disputed) did have congress with human women, which resulted in something resembling supermen. I have also wondered if this isn’t where myths about great heros like Heracles, Perseus, et al come from. I do think that it is entirely possible, even likely, that demons set themselves up as gods. However, to simply assume that every non-christian religion is the result of demonic influence is to deny both the evidence of scripture and the extent of man’s creativity…I think that the great spaghetti monster is proof of that…may you not be touched by his noodley appendage. 🙂

      • I agree with noothergods that many of the false religions of the day had demons as inspirations, my personal guess is that most if not all that practiced human sacrifice were such. We can’t really know for sure which did and didn’t, or which today do or don’t, but I think either extreme (all or none) is unlikely in the extreme.

        Moreover, this again brings up the question of what is a god? What do we mean when we call Zeus a god of Roman mythology? What did the Romans mean? Certainly most of the gods of old mythology don’t hold a candle to the described power of the Abrahamic God. Moreover, many of the things these gods are described as achieving (in individual instances at least) are things that wizards of similar stories could achieve, or things that men today could achieve through technology. That last part really brings us back to the movie Thor. If someone today went back to ancient Scandinavia with a flamethrower, a jetpack (they actually exist), or even a modern rifle, much less a squadron of F-22s or a nuke, wouldn’t they be called gods by the Norse?

        Today we think of gods as supernatural spiritual beings, but that’s not always how the terms we translate as ‘god’ were meant. Many people were worshiped as living gods. Many of the polytheistic gods lived decidedly petty lives with their powers, and were themselves capable of being born, dying, and having children. They lived on Mt. Olympus, or in the far north, or some other distant and unreachable, but most definitely REAL place. Today, if we encountered an alien race that was able to create matter from nothing, just in the palms of their hands, how many would call them gods?

        And Rachel, I do have “God in the Docks”. It’s quite a read. I honestly prefer “Mere Christianity”, though, for it’s… let’s say raw blunt force logic and theology. :p

  4. I agree with Rachel about the misuse of science to eliminate mystery–as if the universe being revealed by quantum physics (for example) isn’t MORE mysterious than anything in fiction! To assume that science can understand everything, even in principle, is to misunderstand the nature of science, which is a useful tool for investigating one aspect of reality. When scientism (as opposed to actual science) invades fiction, it is always a let-down. Interpreting the Aesir as space aliens is one example. Another one is the introduction of “midichlorians” in the Star Wars Prequels to try to give a scientific basis for the Force. Lame, lame, lame! One of many reasons why the original trilogy was better.

  5. Thanks for writing that.Lol

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