Healing the Wounds of the Past: ‘Black Panther’ and the Lessons of Classical Tragedy

Black Panther has made a huge splash in recent months as an excellent superhero movie that has spurred complex discussions of race, identity, and African culture. Interestingly, it seems to have acquired a literary and theatrical dimension: it has been called a “Shakespearean tragedy,” and it is true that Black Panther resembles Hamlet, in its emphasis on a son contending with the legacy of his father.

As we turn to the plays of ancient Greece and Rome, I’d like to suggest that what makes Black Panther particularly tragic (in a dramatic sense) is its use of a narrative pattern that comes to us from the mythological family sagas of Classical tragedy: the crimes and sins of previous generations build up overtime, come to a boiling point, and erupt into violent conflict, often based on the desire for power or revenge.

The following contains plot details from ‘Black Panther.’



Mythological Superheroes in “Something Just Like This” by Coldplay and The Chainsmokers

Spotify recently released their list of most-streamed songs of the year, and “Something Just Like This,” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay, has made it into fourth place, behind Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and two different versions of “Despacito.” As a result of its popularity, the song’s mythological allusions to the heroes Achilles and Hercules are some of 2017’s most prominent references to Classical mythology. I would like to take a few moments to investigate how the song makes use of these mythical references.

Before we move on, I encourage you to listen to the song, or read over its lyrics. Here is the official lyric video:

“Something Just Like This” opens up with the following lines:

I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
Spiderman’s control
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list

Here, the narrator names various heroes, from the mythological figures of ancient Greece and Rome to the superheroes of modern comic books and film, and states that he is not worthy of being included among them. What is the vision of heroism he is thinking of when referencing these characters, and why does he believe he is unfit to be one of them?

Thetis dips Achilles into the river Styx. Statue on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK.

Let’s begin with “Achilles and his gold.” Achilles is the son of the warrior Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, and is known for his exploits during the Trojan War. He is famed for his speed and strength in combat, and one explanation for his near-invincibility was that his mother dipped him into the river Styx when he was a child. All parts of him became invulnerable, except his heel, where Thetis was holding him, and this vulnerable spot, where he would be shot with an arrow and killed by Paris, is the source of the term “Achilles’ heel.”

The reference to gold is a bit odd, since Achilles was not known for his wealth. The only valuable treasure associated with Achilles is the beautiful set of weapons and armor made for him in the Iliad by Hephaestus, god of the forge, at the request of Thetis, so that he can return to battle after a long absence and avenge his fallen companion, Patroclus (18.368-616).

In one of the most fascinating passages of the Iliad, Hephaestus creates an intricate shield displaying all the moments of human life that Achilles will miss out on, for now that he has decided to return to battle, he is fated to die gloriously at a young age (view an artistic interpretation of Achilles’ shield here). With this set of arms, Achilles wrecks the Trojan army and savagely slays the Trojan hero Hector.

John Flaxman’s 1821 reconstruction of Achilles’ shield, on view in the Huntington Library. Image by Thad Zajdowicz: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thadz/31680177383

Achilles’ “gold,” then, is emblematic of several things: first, his divine parentage and connection with the gods, for it is his special link with his mother, and his mother’s relationship with other gods like Hephaestus, that gives him access to this set of weapons and armor; second, his amazing prowess in battle, for he uses these arms to devastating effect against the Trojans; and third, the fact that he will never again be able to experience ordinary human life, for he has instead chosen fame and glory in death.

As for Hercules (or Heracles, if you prefer the Greek form), he is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, and is renowned for the courage and incredible physical strength he utilizes to perform his famous 12 labors, which include the slaying of various monsters, like the Nemean Lion and the Hydra.

This wonderful relief sculpture from ancient Rome shows Hercules performing his labors.

After his death, he becomes a god himself, further distancing himself from human experience. His “gifts” likely refer to his divine connection, his strength and power, and his immortality, not only as a god, but also in the form of the fame he has earned through his glorious deeds.

So, the type of hero being referenced in this song is a powerful figure, who possesses superhuman or supernatural talents, which enable him or her to perform incredible feats beyond the ability of ordinary humans and thereby earn lasting fame and glory.

Taking into account the superhero references, it’s true Batman is only human, but the unique circumstances of his training, ingenuity, wealth, and access to technology as head of Wayne Enterprises grant him the ability to perform heroic deeds beyond that of a regular person.

Spiderman, meanwhile, is a superhuman figure whose power allows him to be a hero in a way that an ordinary person cannot. Perhaps it even demands it, as he attempts to adhere to the famous saying of Uncle Ben that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This moral imperative is probably the “control” of Spiderman mentioned in the lyrics.

In a later verse, there is a reference to Superman (“And Superman unrolls / A suit before he lifts / But I’m not the kind of person that it fits”), which takes us even further in this direction, as he is actually not human at all. Rather, he is an alien from Krypton, with a vast set of powerful abilities which come to him from the sun, a cosmic source.

The reason for the narrator’s sense of inadequacy is understandable, given that he is trying to measure up against these heroes: he is an ordinary human, lacking the power of these figures and incapable of the great deeds they have accomplished, and as a result, he feels unworthy. However, in the next verse, his lover or significant other responds:

But she said, “Where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not looking for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some superhero
Some fairytale bliss
Just something I can turn to
Somebody I can kiss
I want something just like this”

She is saying that the narrator does not need to go on a quest for power, glory, and fame to be worthy of love and affection. There is no need for us to risk it all to be perfect heroes and perform great deeds; simply being human, with all the flaws and weakness that entails, is enough to be loved. We just have to be exactly who we are, and accept our imperfect human qualities. This is what is referred to in the phrase “something just like this.”

In this song, Coldplay and The Chainsmokers reject a traditional notion of heroism that has existed since the ancient days–that of powerful figures who push themselves past the limits of human ability and human existence to attain greatness—and instead suggest that we should be comfortable with our own humanity.

This is what these great heroes represent, if we think of them only as monolithic cultural symbols: Achilles, the invulnerable warrior, or Spiderman, the moral webslinger, or Superman, the alien who delivers justice. But we have to remember that it is often the humanity of these characters which ultimately allows them to become greater heroes.

This 19th century painting depicts the famous moment from the Iliad when Priam supplicates Achilles and begs him to return Hector’s body.

In the Iliad, after avenging Patroclus by slaying his killer, Hector, Achilles remains so infuriated that he refuses to return Hector’s body for burial and continually drags the corpse around. But he puts aside his anger and gives the body back to Hector’s father, King Priam, when he recognizes the similarities between the Trojan king and his own father, Peleus, and learns to acknowledge the common sufferings of humanity (24.471-676). Achilles and Priam share a meal and for a moment overcome the divisions of war and violence. It is arguably at this very human moment that Achilles is at his most heroic.

Hercules, when he is driven mad by Hera, Zeus’ wife, winds up killing his family, and it is the guilt over this horrible act and the desire for atonement that motivates him to accomplish his 12 Labors. It is a real, human emotion that leads him to accomplish his heroic deeds.

Jonathan and Martha Kent with a young Clark Kent.

The grief that Bruce Wayne goes through when he lost his parents to a criminal act of violence motivates him to become Batman and fight criminals, so that no one else would have to go through such a loss. The death of Uncle Ben, and the guilt of knowing he could have stopped his killer, drive Peter Parker to become Spiderman and live up to his responsibility as a hero.

Superman is not even human, and yet, it is his ordinary upbringing in Kansas by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, that imparts him with the values and sense of justice needed to become an American hero.

In the end, we should not reject the idea of heroism altogether, but instead recognize that our humanity enables us all to be heroes in our way. The album artwork, seen in the video above, says it best: the imagination, spirit, and optimism of the young boy allows him to be the hero he wishes to be.

Reflections on Trump, Thersites, and Disability Experiences in the Iliad: Personal Encounters with Classical Texts

It can be easy to think of ancient stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey as unconnected to our modern world because they come to us from a distant time and mythological reality. But a recent — and uncomfortable—parallel between the Iliad and today’s politics has caused me to re-evaluate my view of the text in light of my own personal experiences. (more…)

Homecomings and Reunions in Game of Thrones: Echoes of the Odyssey?

The following post contains minor spoilers for “Spoils of War” (episode 4 of Game of Thrones season 7).

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones, say in a behind-the-scenes video that Arya’s homecoming scene in the latest episode of Game of Thrones was inspired by Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey. But the parallels with the Odyssey in that particular scene are not all that strong. (more…)

‘Wonder Woman’ and Greek Gods At War: The Mythology Behind the Film

The new ‘Wonder Woman’ movie provides a goldmine of opportunities to discuss the influence of Classical mythology on modern media. Diana of Themyscira is an Amazon, part of the mysterious tribe of women warriors described in Greek mythology, and the backdrop of the Amazon origin story in the film is a clash of divine proportions between the Greek gods.

It is this battle between divine forces that I would like to explore, especially the portrayal of Zeus, the king of the gods, and his son Ares, the war god. Although the film relies heavily on many elements of ancient Greek mythology, it does not align very well with the themes of those myths, and instead relies on a more Christian perspective to inform its narrative.

The following contains spoilers from ‘Wonder Woman.’


Worshiping the Gun: The Evolution of Vulcan from Roman Mythology to ‘American Gods’

The essential conflict of STARZ’s American Gods is between the Old Gods, who are being weakened as fewer people worship them, and the New Gods of modernity and technology who are rising to dominance. To retain relevance and a source of worship in this rapidly-changing world, Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, adapts himself to American culture by “franchising” his faith and transforming from the god of fire into the god of firearms.

The following post contains potential spoilers for “A Murder of Gods” (season 1, episode 6 of American Gods).


Latin — Wanted, Dead or Alive? (Latina — Desiderata, Vivens Mortuave?): Elegiac Experiments in Latin Composition

Latin inscription on the tomb of the poet Vergil: Photo by Schoen at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20197230

In my experience, Latin education at the advanced level rarely emphasizes, strangely enough, how to speak or write Latin. Though often helpful at the introductory level, these skills seem to carry limited advantages in the end because Latin is a “dead” language few people communicate with today. Instead, the goal is generally to read Latin texts in order to understand them, interpret them, and learn about the society that produced them.