How does pop culture revisit mythology?

The camera skims the marble flesh, as the eye would slide in a museum room over the petrified bodies of the gods of Antiquity. He touches the contours of a monument, which seems to have been sculpted and chiseled by a student of Rodin or Bourdelle, to the glory of new deities: masked idols descended from Mount Olympus to survey our lands.

Caught in their heroic attitudes, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk or even the archer Hawkeye occupy the image of their epic postures… Sumptuous, the credits of the film Avengers. age of ultronby Joss Whedon, released in France in 2015, is much more than a nod to Greek and Roman statuary: it fully restores these characters to the sanctuary of the ancient gods.

A coherent “modern mythology”

The sequence illustrates, in a striking shortcut, the powerful link that unites the Avengers (“Avengers”), Marvel’s licensed superheroes, with Greco-Roman mythology. In the labyrinth of their cinematographic adventures, these vigilantes have managed to found a coherent “modern mythology”.

This expression was claimed by the director Anthony Russo to present, in 2016, the feature film Captain America. Civil war. Assembled in a legion of superhuman heroes, would the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Wasp be the rightful epigones of Zeus, Demeter, Hera, or Apollo?

Updated old heroes

This affiliation, exalted by the cinema and the Hollywood industry, hardly surprises those who travel through these imaginary territories. “All this pop culture, or contemporary popular culture, is inseparable from the classical myths. Superman is a messianic figure, Thor comes from Norse mythology. These universes are intrinsically linked whether we like it or not.explains Thomas Olivri, creator in 2009 of the reference site Geek-Art, where he exhibits graphic works inspired by pop culture.

First superhero, born in 1938, Superman evokes not only figures like Hercules (or Heracles), but also by his destiny a character from the Bible, Moses. Just as Moses was abandoned by his parents in the Nile in a pitch-coated basket to escape the death that awaited him in the land of Canaan, Superman, a native of the planet Krypton, escaped the destruction of the homeland of the. thanks to his parents: they placed him in a spaceship, wrapped in a cloak.

A reappropriation of classical myths

“The essence of pop culture is adaptation. The stories of Greco-Roman mythology are an inexhaustible melting pot of heroes, creatures, and monsters. Just this morning, he was admiring Russian illustrator Oleg Bulakh’s cannibalistic mermaids and American artist Rat Wednesday’s amazing psychedelic dragons. It is in the essence of popular culture to recover these classic myths. In writing Star Wars, George Lucas also drew heavily on the work of Joseph Campbell, a specialist in mythology and comparative religion.recalls Tomas Olivri.

When he dedicated himself to this project, in 1973 -the film would be released four years later-, the filmmaker, who had studied anthropology, precisely remembered his reading of the essay. The hero with a thousand faces (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), published in 1949. In this work, where he studied the relationship between myths, symbols and spiritual traditions, Campbell explained: “The artist is the one who transmits the myths of his time.” To give shape to his work –his “immaculate reality”, as he would call it– George Lucas referred to the writings of the American mythologist on the universality of myths: linked together, they ultimately tell, through their allegorical itineraries, one and only story, and unfold a typical hero path – hence the notion of “monomyth”, which fits all universes, from Lord of the Rings in ita star wars or for avengers.

Back to the past

Revisiting the foundational mythologies to build one’s own universe: this is also the challenge of the work of the American Neil Gaiman, author of novels and comic strip scripts. With one of his masterpieces american godspublished in France in 2002 (Au diable vauvert), has established itself as one of the most powerful demiurges at this crossroads of fiction, where myths intersect and hybridize.

In this novel of fancyFollowing in the footsteps of his protagonist Sombra (the son of Odin, in Norse mythology), Neil Gaiman combines characters from ancient mythologies –from Mr. Everyl, alias Anubis, an Egyptian god, to Mama-ji, alias Kali, an Indian goddess– with urban mythologies and the new profane idols of America: technology, communication, money… “Despite their immense popularity and fame, I don’t think these contemporary pop culture heroes, from the Avengers to the Jedi, can supplant Anubis or Odin in our imaginations. Rather, they invite us to immerse ourselves in traditional mythos.rejoices Thomas Olivri.

An extensive royalty-free directory

Dedicated to the most recent manifestations of Antiquity in popular culture, the fascinating online Antiquipop notebook, directed by Fabien Bièvre-Perrin, Reception Professor of Antiquity (History and Culture of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, University of Lorraine), identifies and decodes references to this period, including mythology. “Antiquity is used as a common basis, it belongs to pop culture, which the public and artists constantly claim, by providing a wide royalty-free repertoire, open to all”remember, in the proceedings of the 2016 Antiquipop conference.

From the fantasy series game of Thrones (where the emblem of the Free City of Braavos, a Titan and his broken sword, evokes the colossus of Rhodes or the bronze giant Talos) to the saga The Hunger Games (whose adventures recall the exploits of Theseus in the labyrinth), passing through Harry Potter, prey to the spells of the sirens in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: references to Greek mythology, for example, permeate these literary works adapted for television or movie.

The same is true in cyclades (Alkonost, 2022), a phenomenal interactive gamebook inspired by the books in which you are the hero. Here the writer Emmanuel Quaireau and the illustrator Patrick Fontaine offer the reader a divine experience: traversing the Greek archipelago in the footsteps of Aphrodite, wife of Hephaestus, playful goddess of love.

During his journey, for which he will write the scenario according to his choices, the adventurer-reader meets characters from mythology. Among these encounters, Hades, the god of the Underworld, an omnipresent god in pop culture, and especially in video games, where he gave his name to one of the hits of the moment. Inside hell (supergiant games, 2020), the player is invited to take control of the destiny of Zagreus, son of the god of the Underworld, to help him reach Olympus. The designers have admitted that they wanted, from the beginning of their project, to anchor their game in mythology. “The idea was that every time you play, it’s like a new version of the myth of Theseus”explained Amir Rao, one of the creators of the Supergiant Games studio.

Video games, an ideal medium for myths

Video games have become one of the favorite fields of mythological heroes. Epic The legend of ZeldaDeveloped since 1986 by Nintendo, it invokes and amalgamates Egyptian (Anubis), Greco-Roman (the Cyclops, to name just one example), Amerindian (Thunderbird) and Germanic (Odin) mythology, while also drawing on religious references from the Bible. (the Leviathan)!

Emblematic series in the world of video games, the franchise assassin’s Creed, from the Ubisoft studio, is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating creations. After exploring the Italian Renaissance, the Victorian era or reconstructing Cleopatra’s Egypt, Ubisoft immersed us in ancient Greece with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018): The game begins in 431 BC. BC, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, between the cities of Sparta and Athens.

If, as usual, this video game fiction proceeds with a remarkable reconstitution, from the islands of the Aegean Sea to the forests of Thessaloniki, the setting offers escapes to mythology. It is possible to rub shoulders with the Minotaur, the Nemean lion, the Cerynia deer or the Sphinx, or even discover Atlantis. And the Norse myths have joined a new adventure, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. the dawn of ragnarok (2022).

An inexhaustible attraction

At the base of our traditional and contemporary cultures, “These myths knew how to give, by the force of their stories, a powerful perception of our human destiny, analyzes by Dominique de Font-Réaulx, director of mediation and cultural programming at the Louvre Museum. They tie in with our overriding questions: where do we come from? About us ? Where we go ? They created models not only narrative, literary and poetic, but also visual, aesthetic. History painting from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries [à laquelle appartiennent les sujets mythologiques] It fed the cinema, which later inspired video games, which today influence contemporary artistic creation. »

This art historian curated the exhibition. “Founding Myths. From Hercules to Darth Vader », presented at the Petite Galerie du Louvre in 2015-2016. Through 70 works, he revealed the genius with which cartoonists, sculptors, puppeteers, painters or filmmakers had seized myths to interpret or transform them. Escaped from the mythology of the Star WarsDarth Vader, the incarnation of evil, spread his malevolent shadow between the walls of the Louvre.

Due to his superhuman strength, his temperament, Darth Vader evokes the figure of Hercules, “a Hercules who would not have been offered redemption”recalls Dominique de Font-Réaulx. “Cinema has been the privileged spectacle of mythical narrative. The advantage of myth is both that it tells a story, which is why there is this theme of cinematic storytelling, and that it offers an extraordinary inventory of images. »

For her, the appeal of these founding mythologies will never end, as they echo universal questions and primal emotions. “We often forget it, but the western, for example, is also a transposition of the myth: it is the narration of wandering, redemption, the interior opposition of good and evil… We will always need wonder, stories and words. that carry the spirit and the hearts. »

The history of the founding myths
Since the dawn of time, man has invented stories to explain the origin of the universe and the meaning of his life. Populated with gods, rich in extraordinary events, these stories have been transmitted throughout the migrations, adapting to each civilization. And each age revisits them, according to its needs. From Prometheus to the heroes of pop culture, this issue offers an overview of the myths of the world and recounts the dreams, fears and hopes that shake humanity from prehistory to the present day.
Special issue La Vie-Le Monde, 164 pages, €14. In newsstands and on boutique.lavie.fr

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