The origin story of popular myths and legends have a lot in common with the origin stories of saviours and comic book superheroes - by Nick van der Leek
First of all, a disclaimer. I'm not writing this article to convert you from atheism to Christianity or vice versa. I do expect that this piece will challenge your [mis]perceptions to your absolute core. Think you can handle that?
Before we delve deeply into this topic, let's skip along the surface. Similarities between Jesus Christ and Robin Hood. The most obvious is the use of three syllables - Je-sus Christ and Ro-bin Hood. 3 in each case. The nomenclature is made memorable by another device: Jha the way Jesus starts contrasts with Cha for Christ. Rha for Robin contrasts with Ha for Hood. If you think that is bizarre or coincidental, consider other iconic heroes with memorable names. Batman's alter ego is Bruce Wayne. Ba for Bruce contrasts with Wa for Wayne. Jesus' companions are Mary Magdalene and Simon of Cyrene. Robin has Maid Marion and Little John. Bruce Wayne has Alfred and Vicky Vale, Clark Kent has Lois Lane etc.
Interestingly even the names of both Jesus and Robin have evolved. Did you really think Jesus' contemporaries called him Jesus? If you travel to a country like Korea you'll find, in some churches, Asian versions of Jesus. Well you'd think there might be one possible version of that answer but there are dozens. Jesus derives from the Greek word Zeus, sometimes is derivates from Jason. The English form evolved from neither Hebrew [Yeshuah or Joshua Yesu] nor Greek but Latin. In other words, it came to us via 'Iesus'; a Roman lineage in terms of language. But the original was probably Y'shua, and as we know, the traditions surrounding Joshua is quite astounding.
Then there is Robin Hood. I suppose you think 1000 years ago a man called Robin Hood came along and that's who we ended up with? Not quite. According to Wikipedia:
Between 1261 and 1300, there are at least eight references to 'Rabunhod' in various regions across England, from Berkshire in the south to York in the north.
Robin Hood has been known variously as Robyn Hude and his meyne, the historical outlaw of Sherwood Forest Roger Godberd, the famous murderer, Robert Hood and the Earl of Huntington.
What's important isn't so much which permutation is the truest, but really that all of the above share the central core of the Robin Hood character - each version, whether historically accurate or somewhat true or even entirely allegorical - they share, they partake, they add to the whole and feed the Robin Hood myth. And what do they feed? This central theme, this idea of an individual who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Maybe he is a murderer, maybe he is an earl chased off his land, maybe both, maybe neither.
Now let's look closer at their companions. Jesus has 12 disciples, Robin has his Merry Men. Jesus was a carpenter, strung up on a wooden cross, Robin an archer [his bow and arrow made of wood, and of course an arrow strung across the chest of a bow resembles a makeshift crucifix]. Stay with me. Jesus lived in a time where his people were outlaws, so that he needed, and was seen as a revolutionary and thus a saviour, ditto Robin.
Jesus' life and service can be summarised as: he died to save our sins. Robin's life can be summarised as: he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. In both cases you have an average fellow that doesn't amount to anything in his life - doesn't become king, doesn't have much of an earthly kingdom, but due to a number of deeds, people feel very indebted to him. This is one of cornerstones for the making of a saviour - you feel you owe your respect or love or loyalty because something amazing was allegedly done in the name of a large group, a group that tends to represent virtually everyone. Is there any difference between sinners and the poor if we're referring to an audience?
Right, enough casual chatting on the topic. If you've read this far and are still interested, it's about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Lord Raglan's Hero Archetype
In 1936 a seminal book was published by Lord Raglan titled The Hero. Raglan insightfully identifies the traits that have been associated throughout human history with powerful mythical archetypes. There are 22 traits in all, which I'll elucidate in a moment. You'll recognise many of these. Before we get to them though, take note that the higher the incidence of these hero traits the more likely your character is a made-up archetype, the greater the possibility your sacred hero-kind is little more than a very old comic book superhero. These traits come to as via prehistory, but they maintain simple but powerful allegories - for example a king is a ruler. Any ruler. If someone approaches you today dressed as a caveman and demands, "Take me to your king!" You will know what he means.
Saviour gods like Jesus Christ, or legends like Robin Hood, or the demigod from Greek legends - Perseus [featured in the recent Clash of the Titans] are likely to share rather many the mythical characteristics below. Purely historical figures not so.
LORD RAGLANS SCALE
- The hero's mother is a royal virgin
- His father is a king and
- often a near relative of the mother, but
- the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
- he is also reputed to be the son of a god
- at birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
- He is spirited away, and
- Reared by foster-parents in a far country
- We are told nothing of his childhood, but
- On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
- After a victory over the king and or giant, dragon, or wild beast
- He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
- becomes king
- For a time he reigns uneventfully and
- Prescribes laws but
- later loses favor with the gods and or his people and
- Is driven from from the throne and the city after which
- He meets with a mysterious death
- often at the top of a hill.
- his children, if any, do not succeed him.
- his body is not buried, but nevertheless
- he has one or more holy sepulchres.
- Oedipus scores 21
- Theseus scores 20
- Moses scores 20
- Dionysus scores 19
- Jesus scores 19
- Romulus scores 18
- Perseus scores 18
- Hercules scores 17
- Llew Llaw Gyffes scores 17
- Bellerophon scores 16
- Jason scores 15
- Mwindo scores 14
- Robin Hood scores 13
- Pelops scores 13
- Apollo scores 11
- Sigurd scores 11
- If the Hero scored less than six:
- This means that the Hero may be a historical figure since historical figures do not conform closely to the UR-Archetype. This is not definite proof that the person existed, since most cartoon characters score fairly low. For those who are known to have existed, there are two ways that this score may still increase over time.
- If the Hero is still alive, the Hero may gain as many as five more points before death, as the archetypical story focuses largely on the birth and death of the figure. For the previously mentioned reasons this is, however, fairly unlikely.
- If the story of the Hero is passed along largely by oral tradition, the story may be altered over time to conform more closely to the archetype. Stories about historical figures are often altered in this way, while those that are written down are largely 'frozen' in whatever form they are recorded.
SHOOT: Despite the Bible's insistence that it is God's word placed directly on paper, we know that Robin Hood is a story that is probably 1000 years older, and is based to a very large extent on oral tradition. The Bible is at least twice as old as Robin Hood, and almost certainly wasn't written in one go, it was preconceived as an oral tradition. The Old Testament, including the stories of Joseph and Moses and really the entire first five books of the Bible - also known as the Pentateuch - stand apart as a perfect example of how the Bible materialised from an oral tradition. The stories were recycled, the orders of various books and sequences changed and adapted left out or added until they were 'just right'. The story of Joseph for example is regarded by experts as entirely fictitious - used to knit together the fragments of the other books to make the Pentateuch more of a seamless whole.
What's also interesting is that the New Testament really represents a Greek oral tradition, thanks in large part to Saint Paul. Obviously Jewish scholars have a problem with the Greeks hijacking their oral tradition, and to this day reject the New Testament. This is really based on one simple problem - it's not their oral tradition.
The Greeks were the Hollywood Movie Machine of the period of history surrounding the birth and death of Christ. Their own myths - such as those of Hercules and Perseus had much in common with Jesus. The same applies to Roman myths predating Christianity, such as Apollo, and even Egyptian myths, predating both - such as the mythical figure of Horus. In more generic terms, the worship of a sun god is almost universal amongst prehistorical societies. Thus an association with light, or thunder, or the sky is always strong. Salvation has been seen through the ages to coincide with harvests, with rain, with security against an overwhelming enemy.
- If the Hero scored more than six:
- This means that the Hero most likely does not closely represent a historical figure, as it is unusual for a historical personage to score above six. This does not mean that the Hero is entirely fictitious, but does indicate that many aspects of the life of the Hero have either been lost or replaced by those of the archetype.
- Why do the stories of heroes get altered to conform to the archetype?
- There is a human desire to make the hero into a larger than life figure, and to shroud the various aspects of their life in meaning. Since chances are, in a society that passes stories along by oral tradition, there is a value placed on the creativity of a story teller, otherwise mundane aspects of life are likely to be embellished, especially if the true details of that aspect of a life have been lost. Beyond that, I do not know but I welcome any and all speculation in this area.
SHOOT: There is another reason these stories are so powerful. Let's remember that at heart they are about commoners - or exceptional achievers living as commoners who do some deed that their communities give them tremendous credit for. Let's face it, all of us feel that we have it in us to answer some of the problems of our communities. We know the solution if only our friends and families etc would listen to our advice. We secretly yearn to be valued as saviours/heroes/celebrities. If these myths were real people, having achieved what they supposedly did, why did they not become kings? Why, if they were so adored by their neighbors, were they not elevated in the world? Because they are in the end, just like us. The downtrodden who wished to be powerful - a hope common to all, which is why these beliefs are formulaic - often used in blockbuster movies in some form - think of Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Matrix - and have as a result such viral power.
The most effective metaphor for all of these stories, whether they are seem as quasi historical or not, is the modern mythos of the comic book superhero. Whether it is Superman or Batman, we know that there is a basic inviolable backstory. There are specific characters with names, and a basic or generic character to the various heroes and anti-heroes. Emphasis may change. We have seen Batman become darker, more broody and violent. But he never violates the self-imposed law that makes him good. He may hurt, but he never kills. We have also seen Jesus as depicted in films become more violent and bloody [as epitomised in Gibson's contemporary Passion of the Christ]. This emphasis speaks to the human condition, and we can see from it and through it that people realise how dark and violent and in some sense apocalyptic our situation is. Think of the latest Terminator Salvation, AVATAR, the ALIENS franchise, the latest permutation of Robin Hood. All of these are hard, gritty films that point to darker, more troubling circumstances.