Post #31: Diana the Demigoddess
Post #31: Diana the Demigoddess
“I’ve killed things from other worlds before.” --Diana, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder 2016)
The film Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and released earlier this month, features as its main character a superheroine based on the ancient Greek myth of the Amazons named Diana. That women were both behind and in front of the camera has generated a considerable amount of discussion in the press. For instance, a Wall Street Journal article, recommended to me by my colleague Lauren Caldwell, remarks: “Its [Wonder Woman’s] success or failure will inevitably also become part of ongoing debates in Hollywood about representations of women on screen and their inclusion behind the camera.” In one sense, the Amazon myth is doomed as a feminist parable from the get-go, since, as Classics Professor Mary Beard has spoken about recently, the Amazons were misogynistic constructs that reinforced the patriarchal values of ancient Greek society. However, Wonder Woman alters the Amazon myth in numerous ways that intervene in the debate about the representation of women for the contemporary audience at the same time as Wonder Woman’s roots in ancient Greek myth retain the legacy of ancient Greece that have been so crucial to modern western identities.
There are several ways to analyze Wonder Woman’s treatment of the ancient Amazons. Classicists have written numerous excellent treatments of earlier comic-book iterations of the character, including Kelli Stanley’s article in a 2005 issue of Helios, C. W. Marshall’s chapter in 2011’s ‘Classics and Comics’, and Michele Kennerly’s and Carly S. Woods’ Eidolon piece. I did a report for Nerdist and wrote a blog post about the lettering on Diana’s shield in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder 2016) last year. For this post, though, I’m going to focus on the differences between the film’s origin story for the title character and an earlier version in the comic book (Mark Pyzyk took a similar approach to the relationship between comic books and Classics in a talk). In one of her first appearances, in the 1942 Wonder Woman #1, Diana is formed out of clay and given life by Aphrodite. In the 2017 film, by contrast, she’s a biological child of Zeus. I’ll explore why the film’s producers chose one origin story over the other, concluding that the biological child of Zeus variant is preferred because it enables an alteration of Greek myth, whose conservative narratives are thus molded to fit the contours of contemporary notions about gender.
Of all the superheroes created during the 1930s and 1940s, Diana is most rooted in the classical tradition. She is an Amazon, a member of an all-female warrior society that lives on the secluded Paradise Island (in later versions it’s called Themyscira, the name ancient Greek writers used to describe a city on the Black Sea inhabited by the Amazons). Wonder Woman #1 tells us that the Amazons originally inhabited ancient Greece but left for Paradise Island because of their brutal treatment at the hands of Hercules and his men (see figure 2).
In the audience’s mind, then, Diana is firmly associated from her beginnings with ancient Greece and its mythology. What’s more, Hippolyte makes her daughter a costume to wear when she travels to “man’s world” to fight injustice. That costume is red, white, and blue, emblazoned with an eagle, the shorts flecked with stars (see figure 3). In this way, Diana is a fusion of the ancient Greek legacy and the United States. She is a living representative of ancient Greek culture, but also modified to better suit the expectations of early twentieth-century America.
The narrator of Wonder Woman #1 describes how Diana was molded from clay by Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons under the tutelage of Athena and then given life by Aphrodite (figure 4). As my colleague Meredith Safran reminds me, this origin story mirrors Ovid’s story of Pygmalion in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses. William Moulton Marsten, the creator of Wonder Woman and the writer of Wonder Woman #1, gave Diana a classical pedigree with a feminist twist: rather than endowing a female statue with life to satisfy a man’s desire for a “perfect” mate, Aphrodite does so in order to fulfill the prayers of a woman for a heroic child. Diana is thus positioned as a rival, but nevertheless lacks the divine pedigree, of other traditional male Greek heroes.
An example of this type appears in this version of the origin story with Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, and a supreme example of a hero in Greek myth who represents (Greek) civilization in contrast to the anti-civilizational forces outside Greek society. For the Greeks, Amazons were such anti-civilizational forces, and Greek heroes like Hercules clashed with them often. According to the mythographer Apollodorus, Hercules encountered the Amazons during his ninth labor, which involved him obtaining the war belt of the Amazons’ queen Hippolyte. At first, the labor seemed like it would be wrapped up peacefully--Hippolyte was willing to concede her belt to Hercules. But Hera, ever angry at Hercules’ paternity, stirred up trouble and caused the Amazons to attack Hercules.
Wonder Woman #1 depicts this incident very differently. Hercules and his men are violent braggarts who have been sent by Ares to trick Hippolyte into giving up her belt and then enslaving the entire Amazon nation. The goddesses give the Amazons the strength to turn the tables, and they escape captivity.
The film version at first follows Marsten’s origin story. As a child on the male-less island of Themyscira, Diana is told by her mother that she made her out of clay and that Zeus gave her life (see figure 5). Diana later learns from Ares that she is Zeus’ biological daughter (see header image). This origin story is considerably different from Marsten’s 1942 iteration, and first appeared in the 2011 DC reboot of the Wonder Woman comic-book series, written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang (see figure 6). The film foregrounds its choice of Azzarello’s spin over Marsten’s by having Hippolyta tell her daughter the Marsten version, only for it to be rejected later in the film by Ares. Marsten’s origin is a lie Hippolyta tells to protect Diana from the fact that Zeus created her to protect the mortal world from Ares.
A recent Vox piece attacked this origin story for bringing Diana into patriarchal structures, as opposed to Marsten’s iteration. The film’s origin story is also version of the Christ narrative: Zeus sends his child into the world to save it from the Satanic Ares (who wants to destroy humankind for its tendencies toward evil). I challenge this interpretation, though. Diana as Zeus’ daughter puts her closer to “traditional” ancient Greek heroes and thus enables her to engage closely with the classical tradition. In Jenkins’ Wonder Woman Diana is a demigod, an offspring of a god-mortal pairing, and a “hero” by the ancient Greek definition. Homer, for instance, describes the warriors fighting at Troy as “a race of demigods” (ἡμιθέων γένος ἀνδρῶν) at Iliad 12.23, and at Works and Days lines 159-60 Hesiod speaks of “the divine race of heroes who are called demigods” (ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων θεῖον γένος οἳ καλέονται/ἡμίθεοι).
The referent of these two passages are male offspring of god-mortal unions, but there are a few female offspring as well. As opposed to their male counterparts, though, demigoddesses are often depicted negatively as destructive hurricanes who cause great calamity and destruction for patriarchal society. The most notorious example is Helen, the offspring of Zeus and Leda, whose beauty causes Greeks and Trojans to slaughter one another for a decade. “Her face looks very much like the immortal goddesses’,” a Trojan elder remarks of Helen in Iliad 3 (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν, line 158), underscoring her divine heritage.
Although she is also a daughter of Zeus, Diana is depicted positively, and she participates in the heroic exploits typically limited to male heroes in Greek myth. Indeed, in the DC Extended Universe Diana will help usher in a new age of heroes. She has an important role in the forthcoming Justice League film, in a recent trailer for which she says, “They said the age of heroes would never come again.” Diana is figured here as the last of the demigod heroes who will help create a new age of heroes with the coming together of the superheroic Justice League, whose other members are male (Batman, Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and Superman).
By making Diana a demigoddess, the producers of 2017’s Wonder Woman fashion her simultaneously as a representative of the ancient Greek tradition and contemporary society. As a child of Zeus, Diana co-opts that same ancient Greek legacy, working both inside the tradition as a typical Greek hero like Hercules but also outside of it, as a challenger to it.
Header image credit: Warner Brothers Pictures. Screen capture from trailer ("WONDER WOMAN Ares Trailer (2017) DC Superhero Movie HD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqanGDmh3CM)