In my latest post about History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, and the ancient alien theory in general, I posited that the correlation between aliens and gods presented in the show is only proof that the two myths serve the same mythological function in two vastly separate time periods. As a follow up, I wanted to present a few more modernizations of mythological figures that I’ve noticed. Some are specific characters/figures, while some are broader archetypes that have changed throughout history. I’ll start off with some fun easy ones, then get into the deeper stuff, so enjoy!
G-men as Angels/Demons
I briefly mentioned this mythological figure in the previous post, but I thought it warranted some elaboration. The G-Man is interesting because these people actually exist, as we all know they do, yet they are shrouded in mystery. And for the most part, we allow them to be. This may be in part because we know they are working for our own security, or maybe we simply accept that there isn’t much we can do about it. Nonetheless, the figure has taken on a mythic function in fiction and society. The ‘Men In Black,’ (not the movie, as they are the protagonists and thus serve a entirely different function) represent agents of a higher power whose influence is as expansive as its purpose is mysterious. They have no will or identity of their own. Much like the the demons or angels of ancient tales, they are seen as extensions of the agency they represent, be it Heaven or Hell, good or evil, or just order and chaos. They appear on the scene, serve their function, and disappear just as quickly. Now certain angels and demons have, throughout their literary history, taken on other identities, personalities, and other functions of their own. There is certainly a difference between the representation of a demon in possession or exorcism stories and the function of the G-men, though you could correlate ‘hypnotized’ or ‘brainwashed’ victims of these agencies to the possessed, but that correlation is a bit murkier. For our purposes, we are focusing on the initial role of these figures in early myths.
The Spaceship as The Ark
This is a pretty obvious one. If you’ve seen movies like Wall-E or Titan A.E., you’ve probably made the connection yourself, and the producers make no attempt to hide the correlation. It is interesting, however, due to the universality of the deluge myth, both in ancient times and today. Of course, today, you’d have a hard time selling that the entire earth would flood, and that we could survive and continue our race on a giant boat. But change boat to spaceship and flood to meteor or some other global disaster, and voila! another retelling of probably one of the most widely-told stories in history. The most important aspect of the myth, though, is the one that has not changed. The idea that after a global disaster, mankind must have a way to continue itself. Another interesting aspect of this morphing myth is the span of time between the two tellings. The deluge myths from ancient times were mostly said to have happened in ancient times to the audience then, meaning the story would be doubly ancient to us. Antiquity’s antiquity. And these new retellings of the myth take place in a future vastly beyond our own. Much like the ancient alien theory, this is evidence of our strange self-reflexive time in history, where our most ancient stories are morphing into our most futuristic ones.
A.I. as the Golem (or Frankenstein)
The golem is a far lesser known figure than the others mentioned here, but you may recognize his successor, Frankenstein’s monster. I chose the golem over Frankenstein because of his folktale roots, though he is also much more recent than the other figures in this article as well. If you haven’t heard of the golem, he is a creature from Jewish folklore who is created by someone close to God (traditionally a rabbi), and in their pursuit to be like God, attempts to mimic His creation of man with the creation of a golem. Because man does not have the same powers as God, the golem comes out a little less human than we’d prefer. He has no soul, no free will, and no sense of morality. In the most famous story of the golem, from Medieval Prague, the rabbi creates the golem to protect the city, but the golem, basically blazing the trail for Frankenstein’s monster, instead goes on a murderous rampage and has to be destroyed. It’s a simple cautionary tale about the dangers of man’s reach exceeding his grasp, a theme that you could link back to the much older biblical story of the Tower of Babel, though it was God who destroyed the tower, so it doesn’t have that self-destructive element that we all love.
If you haven’t made the connection by now, let me spell it out for you. The most recent incarnation of the golem story, which most people only go so far back as Frankenstein for its roots, is the figure of the A.I. computer or robot. Whether it’s the HAL 9000 computer from Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the machines from the popular Terminator or The Matrix franchises, these self-aware or simply malfunctioning gizmos have become a staple of sci-fi plots. And while they may seem new to the scene, and one might assume that they are unique to our time period because of the advent of computers, the basic idea behind them goes back to the golem: creating an intelligent being that ends up destroying us.
So now we’re getting into the deeper stuff. Not only because of the subject matter of these new ‘mythological figures,’ but because of the broader and more abstract archetypes that they now fill. Keep in mind here that I am referring to how these characters fit into our mythos. I do not intend to make any political or sociological comments on these acts or their perpetrators, so I hope that no one takes them that way.
Serial Killer as Chthonic Beast
If you don’t know the term ‘chthonic,’ or can’t pronounce it, it refers to something tied to the earth, usually in a negative way. The connotation in mythology and psychology refers to the chaotic primal nature of people or creatures. The term ‘chthonic beast’ in mythology refers to any of a multitude of creatures from ancient stories who are usually defeated by a culture hero, signifying man’s conquering of nature to give way to civilization. This concept has seen somewhat of a reversal in recent history, reflected in the transcendental and existential movements, which propose a return to the values of nature to correct the injustices of modern society. What these thinkers overlook is that this peaceful, tranquil return to nature is only possible because of our past conquering of it, but that’s another topic for another time. Some chthonic beasts include the Sphinx conquered by Oedipus, the Minotaur conquered by Theseus, and Leviathan conquered by God, as mentioned in the Old Testament. While these figures still appear as beasts today, as can be seen with movies like Jaws or Jurassic Park (Spielberg was into chthonics apparently) and still serve the same function, I believe a new chthonic beast has appeared on the scene and is unique to our time.
Serial killers have fascinated the populace for a couple centuries now. Not that there weren’t serial killers before, it’s just they were usually called Kings or Emperors. But ever since Jack the Ripper, we’ve been at once terrified and excited by serial killers. It’s impossible for us sane and decent human beings to imagine the mind of a person who could commit these acts, so we label them psychopaths, humans born without the capacity for empathy or moral decency. And it is the chthonic nature of a psychopath to kill. This is what terrifies us about them. The chthonic beast is meant to remind us that our idea of civilization is an illusion that we all buy into. That at any time that illusion can be shattered by the will of one person, and the serial killer is that person. Their depiction in film is a testament to this. The ‘slasher’ film always seems to start with a tranquil neighborhood, or a peaceful weekend getaway, or some other representation of the safety of modern society. Yet as soon as the killer arrives on the scene, the society turns into a chaotic playground where it’s every man or screaming teenage girl for him-or-her-self. In this new world, the chthonic beast is king.
Terrorist as Trickster
The trickster is another mythological archetype that spans all cultures and civilizations. From the Norse god Loki to the Native American raven, the trickster is a character who doesn’t play by the rules. He sets his own moral compass, or simply lacks one, and tends to give the finger to anyone making any laws or setting themselves on a pedestal. The trickster is usually morally ambiguous, not an agent for good, but not wholly evil. If he doesn’t have his own interests in mind, he does what he does simply to piss people off. Yet the trickster is not just good for fucking shit up. In most stories of fire being given to man, a symbol of the advent of technology, it is the trickster who steals it from the gods or just somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be. He didn’t do what he did for the betterment of man, but man benefitted from his act nonetheless. He is an indifferent mover and shaker with his middle finger in the air smoking a cigarette as he blazes through your town in his Camaro with the muffler removed. But he takes another form in our modern society: that of the terrorist.
Terrorism is a serious issue for most of the world right now, so it’s not unusual that terrorists would take a place in our mythos. You might think that the terrorist would hold a similar place as the serial killer, being a force of chaos that disrupts our idea of civilization, but the terrorist is more like the trickster in that he usually has a motive behind his acts, even if it is just to cause a fuss. For the purposes of this post, I am not simply talking about senseless acts of violence, but the broader spectrum of terrorism, especially including cyber-terrorism. The way in which the terrorist reflects the trickster is that mankind can sometimes benefit from terrorism as well. The ‘cyber-terrorist’ group known as ‘anonymous’ has made this connection themselves, choosing the character ‘V’ from V for Vendetta as the face of their anonymity. By doing so, they are associating themselves with terrorism for the benefit of mankind, just as V executed in his graphic novels and film. Cyber-terrorist Julian Assange is another example of this, and even Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, believed he was committing his acts for the betterment of man as well.
*Special Case: The Joker*
In the most recent Batman franchise, the character of the Joker made a glorious comeback into the modern mythos. Heath Ledger’s legendary performance inspired a new vision of the Joker that is possibly more terrifying than the last. In the movie, in true Jonathan Nolan style, the character explains his entire purpose within the context of the story. He states that he is an ‘agent of chaos’ whose only motivation is to upset the established order. With his speech, he teeters on the fine line between the chthonic beast and the trickster character, but seems to weigh heavy on the chthonic side. This revamp of the character inspired many critics to equate him to the shark in Jaws and other monstrous villains, since he lacks a back-story necessary of a human character. However, it seems obvious that the original intention of the Joker was meant to be a modern version of the trickster character. The name ‘The Joker’ even seems to be a play on the term ‘The Trickster.’ The original version of the character had a back-story, and often set innocent victims up to play cruel and maniacal games for their lives or the lives of others. Though it would be tough to argue that anything the character does benefits mankind, it is easily seen that he does have a motive, and therefore is better equated to the trickster.
So there you have it! Granted there are probably many more modernizations of ancient myths and mythological figures, but I don’t have the time or attention span to get into all of them. If you can think of any, please feel free to share them below!