Ancient Mythologies & Modern Superheroes

As mentioned in my previous post, most of my August and September was wrapped up in a Smithsonian/edX pop culture class. To be honest, it has been a little hard getting my feet back under me since then. There are Seahawks games to watch. Kids who need help with homework. Extra time devoted to exercise and healthier cooking. And it really feels good not not be writing for a few days. Nice little break. Until I get my groove back, allow me to share what I composed for my class.

The first week was about the beginning of the comic book industry. We talked about the first heroes to make their way into pulp magazines and how the comic creators found inspiration in the gods and demigods of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Our first assignment was to find similar inspirations behind our favorite heroes (or villains or anti-heroes). The first of my geeky course work begins below.

The comic book characters that I am drawn to are those that wrestle with issues of faith and spirituality. Using their superpowers to fight against super villains often contradict their religious tenets; the conflict between their belief in pacifism and the moral responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves creates a tortured soul that I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my favorite characters frequently faces tension between being a hero and a man of God: Nightcrawler. As a mutant, Nightcrawler's abnormal features have been evident since birth. He has furry blue skin, yellow eyes, pointy ears, fangs, three fingered hands, and a long arrow tipped tail. Despite being a devout Catholic and his studies to become a priest, most people are afraid him because of his demonic appearance.

Nightcrawler's abilities make him an expert in combat and stealth tactics. Agile, flexible, and dexterous. He has heightened sense of balance and night vision. He can blend into shadows. But his most noticeable power is the ability to teleport short distances by briefly slipping through an alternate dimension.

In mythology, many gods were known for showing up out of nowhere but these sudden arrivals were not ascribed to teleportation. However, Islamic tradition (also found in earlier Persian and Arabic mythology) describe an order of beings that were able to teleport. These creatures were called djinn.

The djinn were beings somewhere between angels and demons. They were created by God – granted intelligence and free will like humans. With free will, djinn could be either benevolent or evil. They were often thought be the source of power for magicians and fortune tellers.

The Quran states the djinn live in an unseen world and were made of smokeless fire that could exist in both the physical and non-physical realms. Reports of their tangible form varied from dragons, to dogs, to the shape of men. Muslim lore lists the djinn as one of five different types of demons and describes them as travelling ceaselessly. Aladdin's story in Arabian Nights tell of djinns able to transport themselves from the Orient to Northern Africa in an instant.

The djinn serve as a perfect model for Nightcrawler. Djinn were of the order of demons, and Nightcrawler possesses a demonic appearance. He shares intelligence and free will with the djinn, and chooses to be altruistic. When travelling with Wolverine, Nightcrawler frequently engages in practical jokes much like the djinns that assisted magicians. The teleporting ability mirrors that of the tale from Arabian Nights. The unseen world of the djinn is similar to the alternate dimension that Nightcrawler uses to teleport. When teleporting, he disappears in a cloud of atmosphere that smells like brimstone; matching the smokeless fire of Islamic scripture.

The djinn have other connections in the Marvel universe - primarily Nightcrawler's parents.

Mystique was his mother. Like Nightcrawler, Mystique’s skin was blue and she was frequently considered a demon by locals. However, she is a shape shifting mutant that can alter her physical appearance. This mirrors the myths of djinn that could change their form. She uses her ability to mislead and fool unsuspecting people like the djinn’s use of magic. Her djinn like powers give her the ability to blend into the shadows by camouflaging herself. Mystique is given the same options to be good or bad just like the djinn. While she spends most of her life as a villain, she occasionally uses her power to help others and even temporarily joins the X-Men as a heroine.

Nightcrawler’s father, Azazel, has the most direct connection to the djinn. His name was taken from ancient Hebrew scripture. In apocryphal tradition, Azazel is a fallen angel and leader of other rebellious angels called Watchers. In Muslim culture, Azazel is an early name for Iblīs. Iblīs was a djinn who rebelled against God by refusing to bow down to Adam and was the one who tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Iblīs is the devil of Islam and the leader of Shayṭān djinn.

In comics, Azazel is the leader of the Neyaphem – demonic mutants from biblical times. His intentions are the same as Iblīs: to do evil. Azazel’s appearance is similar to Nightcrawler – only with red skin. And both characters share the ability to teleport. Azazel also shares Mystique’s power to disguise his appearance. And he inherited Iblīs’ immortality and ability to manipulate minds.

The mythology around djinn does not reveal much weakness. They seem to be all powerful creatures, yet their power does not extend to be greater than God’s. Marvel’s Azazel experiences this weakness first hand as an angelic army of mutants known as Cheyarafim defeated the Neyaphem and banished them to an alternated dimension.

For Mystique and Nightcrawler, having the demonic appearance of djinn is one of their biggest weaknesses. For this reason, people fear them and both have faced existential crises reconciling their purpose with their image. Mystique used that struggle in nefarious ways, but Nightcrawler pursued God and turned his weakness into a quest to be a force of good.

* Image courtesy of Marvel Comics Database

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