I feel no need to give a comprehensive review of Avengers: Endgame (Disney Marvel 2019; directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo) because it has already been extensively reviewed. Rather, I will say that I like the way that Disney Marvel chose to end this phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The plot was mostly resolved, and I suspect that any unanswered questions will be addressed in subsequent movies since they don’t seem to involve the original characters.
Yes, their were some logical flaws and a couple of confusing visual sequences, but the splash panel scenes were terrific. Various beloved characters suffered injury, died, grew old, retired, came back to life, were reunited with their friends and families, and so forth. In other words, this paralleled real life, and the movie hit many of the right nostalgic notes. The big question remains. Then what?
Overall, I think the MCU has been a good escape, a prolonged fantasy from within which we can re-examine reality. Its characters are not real, but they have become friends of our imagination over the last eleven years. Losing any of them can produce a mild sense of grief. It is very human to desire permanence and immortality, to think as if the people and things we love will continue forever. You could say we were designed for it.
The cinematic gods are mortal, and so are the actors who portray them. Disney Marvel will continue churning out entertaining movies and making a huge pile of money. Eventually, we all die, and it behooves us to seek answers to that ultimate question…
Norse mythology strikes me as being visually literal. What I mean by this is that spirits and creatures look like humans and animals – sometimes exaggerated in size, sometimes not – but they typically are not hybrids or chimeras of different species. Serpents look like serpents, gods like men, goddesses like women, etc. Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, is an exception to this rule due to his eight legs, but I think it largely holds true. Of course, the gods are able to change form, sometimes into those of animals, but they tend to look like ordinary animals, albeit sometimes exaggerated in size.
So what does this have to do with Valkyries? Well, they look like women – fierce, war-like women, but women, nonetheless. I wanted to illustrate a Valkyrie named Anni for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my artistic ability to make her look sufficiently impressive, so I added wings. In this sense, she looks a bit like the stereotypical imagery from a Wagnerian opera.
So what are Valkyries? That’s a good question. I can tell you what they do in Norse mythology, but it’s a bit harder to explain what they are with complete clarity. Much of what we know of them comes from The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson and other works such as The Saga of the Volsungs.
Valkyries are females who fly over battlefields to choose the best of the slain for entrance into Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Are they otherwise normal women who aspire to or are chosen for this calling, or are they spirits who can take on physical form? One scholarly opinion I read favors the former, but I don’t know the overall consensus since it is outside my field of expertise (molecular biology). Either way, they are a blend of the natural and the supernatural. This is often the case with Norse mythology and Greek mythology. Valkyries could interact with the living and even marry them. In The Saga of the Volsungs, a Valkyrie named Brynhild is betrothed to Sigurd, the main hero.
Valkyries are not normally portrayed with wings, so portraying them impressively is all about presentation. By this, I mean picture composition. I have chosen some examples which for various reasons have impressed me. Valkyries are often shown as wearing armor and/or riding horses, but there are some other tricks that can be used as well.
Okay, this might be cheating a little. The Valkyrie doesn’t have wings, but her horse does. Of course, I’m no purist in creative matters like this. Based on the kinds of stories I like to write, I think it’s cool when artists and writers borrow different elements from different mythologies. Pegasus quickly comes to mind from Greek mythology.
In this example, the expressions, postures, and poses of the Valkyries and their horses make for an interesting composition which is heightened by the artistic style and choice of color. This really drew my eye.
Here is a more abstract approach which blends them with elements of nature – in this case, clouds. Note how the sense of scale, the dark birds, and the windblown trees accentuate the effect.
In the next two examples, we again see interesting and dynamic poses combined with a sense of context as Valkyries are shown riding in the air. Winged helmets serve as further suggestions of their power of flight. For reasons of personal taste, I especially liked the second of these. Look at the eyes of the horse on the left.
This next one might be my favorite. Has the Valkyrie merely taken off her implements while keeping dutiful watch, or is she awaiting the return of the warrior she loves? I think art is really doing its job when it encourages us to imagine and speculate.
I might as well end with another selection from my copyrighted but currently unpublished story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it shows a farmer named Einar being born aloft by Anni, the Valkyrie.
This is another spiritual being from mythology and folklore which makes my imagination run. So much has been and can be done with Naiads. In Greek mythology, they were water nymphs who were particularly associated with bodies of freshwater such as rivers and streams. Certain of them were among the various classes of nymphs and sprites who were courted or raped by some of the male gods.
Their behavior toward humans is described as variable in various legends. These feminine spirits could be helpful, frivolous, or jealous. They could also be dangerous. They have sometimes been shown as abducting…
… or even drowning men. The pictures below take two different and compelling approaches. In The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper, we see a type of “before” picture. For me, the strength of this painting is in the combination of its title and the relaxed posture and facial expression of its subject. A subtle intensity smolders in her eyes, and the relative peace of the composition suggests her lethal capability.
This next painting is of the “during” variety. The posture of the Naiad is submissive save for the grip of her hands on a fisherman’s arms. This contrast is poignant, and the poor man is doomed while still alive.
A question I have asked myself is whether or not the representations of women as being helpless or dangerous might have arisen as a result of attitudes which limit their roles in society. In such cases, are those who cannot be controlled regarded as threatening? I’ve gotten on my high horse before. Now I’ll beat my dead one by saying again that I think there is tremendous room for creativity in the way that female characters of many kinds can be portrayed in the mythologies we create for our entertainment and instruction. In my own poem, I have tried to use the Naiads’ combination of perceived vulnerability and lethal capability in portraying them as something which I hope is different.
As I said near the top of this post, Naiads are usually described as being freshwater nymphs or spirits. I will end with the creative approach in the painting below by Gustave Dore in which these mysterious creatures are shown in a different setting. They almost seem to be part of the rocks in this seascape.
This is an interesting god conceptually. He is the watchman of the gods in Norse mythology, and he serves as the keeper of the Bifrost (rainbow bridge) at the entrance to Asgard.
Here is a somewhat older rendering from Marvel Comics …
… and a more recent one.
I have lauded the Disney Marvel universe in my series, The Modern Pantheon (see black strip at left), and I mentioned then that I am intrigued to see how they develop his character further (perhaps in Thor: Ragnarok?). He is interpreted interestingly by Idris Elba, as can be seen in Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and (briefly) Avengers: Age of Ultron.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. One of my uncles (Bud on my mother’s side) was actually there and survived to tell about it. That same month, American comic books were invaded by the gods (well, a demigod, anyway) when Wonder Woman debuted in an issue whose company would eventually merge with another to form DC.
I must be out of my mind. One mistake, one vital piece of information missing, and veteran comic book fans will eat me alive. Cries of “Charlatan!” will resound through the blogosphere. Sins of omission will go unforgiven. To my future detractors, I resign myself to my fate and offer this acknowledgement of my inferiority: do your worst.
Similar invasions have occurred since then. Thor first appeared with Marvel in August of 1962, and other gods have entered the graphic atmosphere like an ongoing meteor storm. Many of these gods are technologically or “scientifically” explained, but the best examples hark back to the roles played by gods in Greek and Norse mythology (hopefully minus some notorious examples of very bad behavior). I will make no effort at doing a comprehensive job of this. I have simply found that certain characters in certain comics have grabbed my attention, and I would like to put my own spin on them. Remember, you have entered MY universe. More next week.
Since I like to create my own mythologies in the books that I write, I am fascinated by a modern pantheon that has really caught on in popular culture: the Disney Marvel franchise. For this next series of posts, I will limit my comments to what has been revealed in these movies up to this point in time. It would be foolish of me to reveal my woeful unfamiliarity with the actual graphic novels. The films are a bit of an anomaly for the superhero genre in that they feature outstanding writing, production, directing, acting, AND special effects. They work on several levels.
What I would like to key on are some of the mythological elements in these productions, especially certain god-like characters. It could be argued that, while abnormally powerful, they are not portrayed as full-fledged spiritual beings, but this is not a foregone conclusion. Though they are somewhat “scientifically” explained, the Marvel characters I will mention in later posts are not unlike the members of the Greek pantheon. These gods were physical enough that they sometimes procreated with mortals to produce demigods. Nor is this concept of embodied spirituality foreign to Judaism and Christianity. In the book of Genesis, there is a description of Abraham entertaining angels, who actually ate the food he offered them. In the New Testament gospels, we can read of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these and other cases, the boundaries between the spiritual and the physical are described as rather fluid.
The Perseus Series by Edward Burne-Jones (continued):
When her mother inappropriately (according to the convoluted etiquette of the gods) boasts of Andromeda’s beauty, this offends Poseidon. He inundates the coast of Aeithiopia (a fanciful Ethiopia) and sends the sea serpent, Cetus, to plague that country. The citizenry and rulers (i.e. her parents!) settle upon the “obvious” solution of offering Andromeda as a sacrifice to Cetus. Enter Perseus to rescue the naked (of course) maiden while she is chained to a rock at water’s edge.
He kills the sea serpent and frees Andromeda. In the following picture, The Doom Fulfilled, the action to the right is contrasted with the relaxed, almost reposeful stance of Andromeda.
All works out well in the end, and Perseus marries Andromeda. In The Baleful Head (the last painting of the series), we see a scene from the nineteenth century poem which I mentioned in Part 8. I now know that it is titled The Doom of King Acrisius and was written by William Morris (Thank you, Nevil Warbrook.). Perseus is showing Andromeda the head of Medusa by its reflection in what appears to be a bird bath or outdoor wash basin. Note that this time the hair of the Gorgon is shown as consisting of snakes.
The legend of Boreas and Oriethhyia serves as the subject of a visually interesting painting by Evelyn DeMorgan. In the original story, Boreas, the north wind, abducts Oriethyia after failing to woo her. The sexual assault of women (and sometimes men) by gods or spirits is fairly common in ancient mythology and reflects some disturbing aspects of those cultures concerning attitudes towards women. Of course, it also reveals the unfortunate reality of how women were physically treated throughout history. While this is and always has been a problem, its prevalence has varied from place to place and from time to time.
Now for the painting itself. What drew my attention were the winged Boreas, the flowing fabric, and the background landscape. Neither of these is as impressive by itself as they all are in combination. This visual synergy draws the eye. Curiously, there is no obvious evidence of distress on the face of Oriethyia.
Next week’s post will look at two more paintings by this artist before we move on to another.
Heroes in mythology interact with a variety of constituents. They are cursed or favored by the gods. Sometimes they are sired or born by them. Romantic liaisons have been described between gods and mortals. A hero may be called upon to do battle with (or enlist the help of) some kind of fantastic beast, and it is not unusual for this to be in response to the wrath of (or a commission from) the gods. Men of ancient valor have also been portrayed as lovers, assailants, or rescuers of beautiful maidens.
This brings us to the “AND” in the title for today’s blog. Myths feature heroes, gods, monsters, and (perhaps tellingly) helpless and often scantily clad women. As an example, try finding a portrait of Andromeda in which she is not wearing nothing or next to nothing. Then, of course, there are the chains. All of this is in accordance with the written account of her rescue from the sea serpent by Perseus, and it may be argued that this reflects historical and cultural attitudes toward women and their roles in society.
New mythologies can be of social benefit by fashioning noble and honorable niches for female characters. Regardless of what the reader might think of the movie Avatar (directed by James Cameron), it does contain some of the characteristics of a modern myth: a spiritual element, a hero, an invading army, monsters, and a love interest. Neytiri (as played by Zoe Saldana) is in some ways stereotypical, but she is far from weak. Okay, she is scantily clad.
In the stories I write, I try to portray women and girls as having more strength and depth, and I am currently attempting to develop plot lines for future works in which they assume more central and heroic roles. I owe that much to my wife and my daughters.