In modern Hellenic polytheism, hero worship is part of the whole shebang. There’s a lot to work with in the body of primary literature from Classical Greece and beyond. Heracles was hugely popular and most Ancient Greeks would have known his story from Hesiod. The Iliad and the Odyssey both are full of bigger than life characters: Ajax, Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus to name a few. Then there’s Perseus, Theseus, Atalanta, and others.
Some people are more into it than others, and I’m one of the ones who isn’t really, except–
Except that I have an undying love of Captain America, that Wonder Woman influenced me from childhood, and so much more. My heroes are of old if, by “of old,” you mean “within the last hundred years.” And I do. I may have had Wonder Woman underoos at some point as a kid and I may or may not have worn them to death. Remember when Superman died? Oh, gods, I thought my heart would crack at the idea of it. Superman can’t die! He’s Superman for gods’ sakes! And now, the newest crop of Marvel movies have basically enslaved my soul. Thor’s divinity was what originally attracted my eldest girl to these and now she regularly reads Hulk comics and loves Iron Man. She worships the heroes of our day now, too.
Their stories are told and retold, rebooted and then rebooted again. Our Homer is not any of the prose authors raised upon pedestals by many an English teacher, but the quirky white-haired Stan Lee. Our clever Odysseus, once clad in bronze armor, now bears the name Tony Stark and if he has a house in Ithaca, it’s in New York. The Hulk is our Ajax. Achilles is now… Cyclops? And then there is James Tiberius Kirk, another Odysseus, perhaps, a hero with his wayward crew on a journey to seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before! My heroes are many and their deeds are greater than any mortal man could accomplish. Flawed in their characters, they persevere through hardship after hardship, plunging into the darkest parts of the humanity and emerging again, greater than before. My heroes’ stories are played out in that descendant of the old Greek theater, the widescreen digital Dolby sound movie screen and the 52″ beauty in my living room, now in Blu Ray– better than technicolor. What more could a girl want than a bottle of wine and science fiction on the screen? Hail, Dionysos! Glory be to the Heroes! Jim Kirk is dead. Long live (and prosper) Jim Kirk!
“But they’re not real.”
I’ve heard this before and there may be one or two of you thinking this very same thing now. “Not real.” Generally, this is followed by a litany of historical persons, many of which I’m sure you can name without thinking too hard about it. There is nothing at all wrong in giving due reverence to these bodhisattvas of our world and it is to be encouraged. Someone like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, for example, deserves that much. To quote Epic Rap Battles of History, Martin Luther King has “so much street cred, they put his name on the sign.” But giving your spiritual props to a historical person doesn’t mean you can’t also worship the ideals of patriotism, integrity, justice, and bravery that we embody in our superheroes. And they are no more or less real than the figures from Homer and Hesiod.
Our heroes show us through their stories what arête looks like so that we can find it within ourselves. Captain America loves freedom without being a zealous nationalist and the difference between Professor X the hero and Magneto the villain is a desire for peaceful coexistence rather than dominance. The X-men regularly protect and defend the very same humans that would take their rights from them. Even their flaws help us seek arête. Peter Parker’s tragic indifference leads to Spider-Man’s great responsibility. Tony Stark is the poster boy for hubris and it bites him in the bum every time he writes a check his gold titanium alloy butt can’t cash. He always bounces back and and it’s a teaching moment for hero and reader alike. Iron Man 3 is a great representation of this.
More nerdy little kids have learned ethics and morality in complex and nuanced ways from superheroes than from reading Hesiod and Homer. We (Hellenic Polytheists) should certainly tell the stories of our ancient gods and heroes, but we don’t have to exclude these modern heroes simply because they are “not real.” And the stories of our superheroes do not diminish, but rather enrich the stories of great historical people. Elie Wiesel’s struggles are better understood if you’ve ever followed the X-men. Replace “mutants” with “Jews” or “African-Americans” or any ethnic group you could think of and you’ve got a detailed story about real prejudice, how insidious it can be, and how to and not to deal with it in daily life.
The point of a hero is not that they are real persons who did great things. The point is that they somehow embody arête and though we are not as great as they, we can emulate their excellence on a human scale. So perhaps I am into hero worship, but have been calling it fandom this whole time.
Below is a recipe I came up with for Avengers’ week dinner and it alludes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe where Bruce Banner spends time in India and South America. We also had spaghetti night (Captain America), pizza (Hawkeye), Serbian beef with beets (Black Widow), and fresh strawberries (Iron Man). A couple notes on my choices here: Serbian beef is not Russian, but is similar to some Hungarian cuisine, which she might have had in Budapest. Italian food really caught on in the US after WWII as soldiers who were stationed in Italy sought out something to eat that wasn’t rations. Hawkeye lives on pizza in the comics. Unfortunately, shawarma is hard to come by around here or we’d totally be having shawarma. Thursday, Thor’s day, we shall be having A GREAT FEAST OF LEFTOVERS! because it’s leftover night and I always make too much spaghetti.
[For clarifications on my views of heroes vs. superheroes vs. gods, please see next week's column.]
Bruce Banner’s Chicken Curry over Quinoa
6 boneless/skinless chicken thighs
1 large sweet potato
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika because my stepdad is of Hungarian descent and paprika is a vegetable, okay?
3/4 cup lamb or other broth
sprig of rosemary
a little bit of chives
1 cup quinoa
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
Peel and cut sweet potatoes into 1/4 rounds about 1/4 in. thick. Cut carrots to a similar size. Grease a 9×12 glass baking dish with olive oil and toss in carrots and sweet potatoes. Add chicken. Combine turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and paprika. Sprinkle spice mixture (no, it’s not too much. Go with it.) over the whole shebang. Add something spicier if you want to. Toss this around to evenly coat everything with spices, add broth, and place in the oven for about one hour or until chicken reaches a safe temperature.
Twenty minutes before chicken is done, chop up the chives and toss with rosemary into a small saucepan with the quinoa and a cup of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.
Serves 4 (or 1 Hulk)