My previous article talked (at some length) about surface issues relating to spiritualism and myth regarding the Japanese manga/anime icon, Sailor Moon. While it is true that many times East versus West articles set up opposing systems for comparison, I hope to not imply that one of my favorite comic super heroines is, in fact, not spiritual. Wonder Woman is a character cut from the spiritual fabric of the Western World just as Sailor Moon is cut from the traditions of Shinto and female shamanism. While I hope I was able to explain some of the elementary theories regarding Sailor Moon and spirituality (while I admit I did not go enough into what Shinto — which is amazing — is, like I should have), I can reasonably cover some of those ‘lost points’ here with Princess Diana and her bonds to the Greek pantheon of gods.
Wonder Woman and Female Heroes of the West
To set up what makes Wonder Woman so fascinating, let me backtrack just a smidge to last week’s column about Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon can be considered something of an ‘iconic’ Japanese creation because, in a sense, she can be seen to serve as a manifestation of the kami. A kami, this being a short-hand idea for a spiritual being with its own identity — one that dwells in all things, animate or not — can be embodied in diverse ways. When one thinks of Sailor Moon as the manifestation of the goddess of the moon, thus ‘representing’ the spiritual power of the moon, you’re thinking with a Shinto-mindset.
The Greek gods were drastically different. Instead of traditionally representing a system of power they were systems of power made manifest. Where as in the East, divine powers can take on many forms because, in their essence, they are also those forms, the Western pantheon are more literal. Zeus is himself a unique, singular being who happens to make thunder fly from his hands.
With the Eastern kami, or with most Eastern religious entities, one can understand the connections you have with those beings and how they in turn connect back to you. Eastern religious energy exists as a cycle, a kind of river that continually flows from the source only to eventually return. The divine world of Greece saw power manifest as unique, singular, powerful objects/ideas that dominated the landscape and indelibly established a ‘godly’ and ‘non-godly’ status-quo. Myth scholars such as the famous Joseph Campbell connect the Western religious idea to that of the Fall (from Biblical tradition), ie: we in the West forever know we’re not divine and we live at the mercy of the divine agents, be they Zeus, Yahweh, or Other.
So, in terms of Wonder Woman, where does this knowledge take us?
Warrior Messengers in Battle Skirts …
In the literary traditions of the world it is often common for humanity to need messengers in some form or another. Often these messengers come with accounts from the gods, or as representative bodies of said divine energies (like Sailor Moon and, well, the moon). In Greece, it was common for demi-gods and other supernatural agents to serve as the bridge between the world of Man and Divine, as I once mentioned in a column regarding Heracles and the comic Empowered.
Wonder Woman fits the tradition of ‘Messenger’ to literal perfection as her first major role was serving as a kind of ‘warrior ambassador’ between the Amazons and the rest of the world. Greek heroes were often the ‘corrector of wrongs,’ mainly because this was also the most effective way for their amazing abilities to be put to the best dramatic work.
Hearing about a demi-god who fixed up your fence? Dull. Hearing about a demi-god who slew 1,000 raving bandits and still had enough energy to fight an ogre? Now that’s a story! Wonder Woman set her fists to the Axis Powers in a display of strength that saw her creator, William Marston, literally try and show WWII being stopped by a divine Greek demi-god being. If ever there were a ‘modern equivalent of a raging army of darkness,’ it was the Nazis. What was most unique about Wonder Woman was not her fists, however. She was indeed mighty but, like all good messengers, she was created to impart a special message – love.
As I previously commented on in Champions of the Gods Part 1, it is often (but not always) a tradition for Western heroes to set out of quests to make use of their gifts and/or to impart a message were Eastern-tradition heroes only really become engaged after their own family or lives are touched by a crisis, often to never again use their powers. Western heroes are ‘Seekers of Mighty Causes,’ as befits their tradition of wandering and setting issues right where they find them for the good of all men/women.
Wonder Woman was crafted in order to, by the standards of William Marston, correct a wrong that had been set into the tradition of print comics. Specifically, she showcased the ideals of a new kind of liberated woman, one who was capable of great strength but who was also the embodiment of Truth and Love. Two very hard things to walk a line on, but Marston and his co-creators, his wife Elizabeth, and their mutual lover Olive Byrne saw Diana as the best possible way to present a complex and modern female heroine to the masses.
Wonder Woman carried with her a diverse range of magical implements, from an invisible jet to a lasso of truth, but it would be her character that would prove to become her most enduring feature. She was far from being a gullible, hyper-sensitive damsel. She was an Amazon, a character whose real world equivalent were fearsome warriors and whose DC Comic inspirations were no less frightening.
Still, the Amazons were female and, as such, Marston showed them as being a new kind of female representation – the Amazons were confident, strong, wise, and a highly capable society. While Marston himself was still prone to including some rather questionable notions into the mythology of Wonder Woman (mainly that Diana lost her powers when she was tied up), Wonder Woman was a step forward in the process of forging new and dynamic female heroines in print comics.
Being a female princess, a demi-god, and then a full god …
One of the most fascinating aspects about Princess Diana, as opposed to Usagi Tsukino/Sailor Moon, is that Diana is ‘technically’ not a super hero in the classic sense. She does not hide her identity. Her powers are public. She is an ambassador with an official rank and title from her people. She has family who knows all about her exploits and adventures and, sometimes, they even join her. Princess Diana is also not human, something which becomes a unique part of her character, depending on the writing team.
In the lore of the Wonder Woman mythos, Diana has always been an Amazon. Amazons, while not having the most grounded historical background for detailing their culture, were known to the ancient Greeks of antiquity as being fearsome warrior women who, similar to the Spartans, lived and died by warfare. Diana’s first incarnation saw her as a mortal who succeeded in winning the right to return crashed pilot Steve Trevor back to the US (and, also fight the Axis powers). Diana would later be changed to the child of Queen Hippolyta who received blessings of different deities while as an infant (think Sleeping Beauty meets Gladiator).
Other variations of Diana’s birth have her created rather than being born. Diana is a clay child who receives the gift of life from the gods, thus making her a golem/construct who then becomes a demi-mortal. The transitioning of Diana to mortal, to demi-god, and then sometimes even back to a mortal again is a part of what makes Diana’s background so interesting. Her very nature is fluid, like the Greek myths.
Writers and storytellers can change her to suit the needs of the story and, by extension, to reflect the role of the cosmos being defined. While Sailor Moon very distinctly has roots in Shinto, Diana represents both the Greek gods and the mythos of the DC Universe. She has roles with two kinds of stories, ones where she assumes the role of God of War from Ares or where she and Superman are the future progenitors of strange new dynasties of super-beings. Diana is a morphic heroine and that serves her ability to be adjustable, unlike Superman.
The many changes that Princess Diana has gone through mirror the ideals of Greek myth. Tales of mortals changing from humans to divine beings, or from divine to mortal/fallen beings, are common. Western audiences for stories tend to have a compulsory desire to understand what we can be as opposed to what we are. Diana herself has become a powerful character who has existed in many forms and whose origin story has many changes.
While it might be confusing to try and ‘see’ Diana’s origins on a timeline (retcons and universe shattering Crisis events have made lining out her existence … tricky …), her role as one of DC’s ‘Big Three’ has remained popular enough that she has withstood changes that other characters never would have. Like genuine Greek deities, Diana has had her place in society change among comic readers, but her importance has never been questioned. She serves as a powerful female creation whose meta-origins were to advance a new ideal of ‘female’ to the world. In that regard, it could be argued that Marston succeeded. Wonder Woman, as a character, would go on to promote countless comics, animated series episodes, the famous TV show, and merchandise that would embody certain aspects of the Women’s Movement.
The Place for Myth
Princess Diana and Usagi Tsukino are both princess characters, i.e. they were born into royal families and they serve their respective nations. These female characters also have come to be iconic representations of female power, both for their home countries (American and Japan) and for individual girls everywhere. Some girls want to think of their power as coming from make-up and skirts and earrings like the Sailor Scouts where-as some girls like to think they are strong because of the physicality and speed. Both Diana and Tsukino, regardless of where their power comes from, are kind hearted, love-centric, and they value their families and friends.
While Diana and Usagi embody vastly different cosmologies and religions, both showcase how in our modern day we are still using myths to put forth heroes. True, our very modern and ‘real’ world does not need super heroes to set problems right, but what we do need are young women who believe in themselves and who have just as capable role-models as men (Although, as a boy, I thought Sailor Moon was a much cooler super hero than Superman). Heroes that teach us how to be human, human in the right ways, are the best kinds.
Usagi and Diana both have extra-normal backgrounds, be they Moon Princesses or Amazon/Demi-Gods, but their humanity is what defines them, even more than their powers. If Usagi were not the cry-baby, fun-loving, loud, hungry heroine she was written to be, she’d have made a rather boring Sailor Moon. Diana’s commitment to justice, her people, and to fighting even when things seem hopeless are all qualities to replicate and admire when you see them in others.
The ‘place for myth’ is no longer to explain how the world was created, but rather to give examples of how we can fix the world and ourselves. Understanding hubris, greed, and our place as a part of a family are as important to understand now, even through comics, as the lessons were in ancient days when the stories were told orally.