Wonder Woman’s current run is rich with greek mythology. Before, Diana was born from clay and her mother Hippolyta’s desire to have a daughter. In 2011, though, DC Comics revamped its entire universe, that now is called the New 52. In this new take on the character by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang, her origin was reinvented. The clay was just a lie Hippolyta made up to cover an affair she had with Zeus, from which Diana was born.
Was this a good change to Wonder Woman’s canon? Many fans felt disappointed, as the heroine’s clay origin was already dear in their hearts. It was a radical change. In another point of view, some fans were pleased with the plot opportunities this new beginning provided. In this essay, I don’t pretend to get to a conclusion to this question–because I don’t have an answer. But the fact remains that Diana is now a bastard of Zeus, positioning her side to side with Olympus’ highest gods. Which means that, in this run, there is more Greek mythology than ever.
As an American comic, the majority of Wonder Woman readers have grown up in an occidental religious context. In this kind of faith, god and everything divine are inherently good. Sometimes, these readers don’t understand why the Greek gods do what they do, from randomly giving superpowers to humans to psychotically killing people. As seen in previous runs, Diana has had to deal with mischievous gods and sometimes fight with them herself. But she comes back to her temple at Themyscira and worships them. Why? Well, first things first.
Most of the characters in this comic are deities, and the first thing you have to understand about Greek gods is that they are not super powerful people, but concepts with consciousness. So, for example, Ares, the god of war, is the concept of war itself. Throughout the story, the gods are referred to as the name of the things they represent, as in Ares is called “War,” Hades is called “Hell,” and Poseidon is called “Sea,” for those are their true nature.
The starting point of this story is that Zeus is missing. He simply does not exist anymore. Zeus is the personification of power–an old white man power, if you ask me. Power can be good: he is the governor of Olympus and puts everything and everyone in its rightful place, enabling the wheels of the world to spin in a somewhat orderly fashion. But so much power can be maddening too. Zeus has done some pretty messed up things, like trying to kill his son because he didn’t want competitors to the throne. Just like we witness in real life, his authority grows as the subject’s perceived worthiness in society falls–but his authority was already pretty huge to begin with. The King of Heaven oppressed mortal women in the most unfair power play, often ending with rape. So taking this power figure out of the scene is very interesting. How will the world adapt to this new situation? It is Game of Thrones, Olympus edition.
Which takes us to Hera, wife of Zeus and theoretically next in the succession line. She is the goddess of matrimony–a good one to pray to if you wish for a gentle husband or strong children. Hera’s symbols are the peacock and her crown. But she does not take extra-marital affairs lightly. She hunts Zeus’ bastards and cruelly eliminates them, as well as their mothers. So she starts this arc as the master villain, but that’s Greek mythology. Nothing is as simple as that.
So Hera wants to murder this mortal Zola, who is pregnant with Zeus’ child. Happily, there are good guys around the town to save the day: Wonder Woman and Hermes. The messenger god is as fast as wind and a master of stealth. He is also the god of thieves, trade, travelers, wit, and athletes, and guide to the Underworld. He is often symbolized by winged sandals, but in this comic he has actually winged bird-like feet and a feathery body. His main symbol is the herald’s staff–the kerykeion in Greek–that consists of two snakes wrapped around each other. The kerykeion is faithfully represented in Chiang’s version, and plays an important role in the plot because it allows its holder to travel between realms. But what are Hermes’ motivations? Why is he helping out Diana? I’m not even going to say he is an ambiguous character because all of them are. He is a Greek god. That is their essence.
At this point, Diana finds out that she is Zeus’ illegitimate daughter, a demigoddess. She also finds out she is far from being the only one. The king of Olympus had a liking for mortal woman, and seducing them wasn’t very hard since he is a shape-shifter. Of course, Hera does her best to exterminate them all, but being demigods, some have powers that protect them and others were saved by Zeus. Their shared hate and fear of Hera bonds them together. Wonder Woman gets to know Lennox, a mysterious and helpful man made of stone; Siracca, a sad and angry wind elemental; and Milan, a dirty hobo with the ability to see everything. There is also Zola’s baby, whose power is still to be fully explained, and Cassandra, who has the ability to manipulate the will of others with her voice. None of them were drawn from Greek mythology, but there are a lot of Zeus’ bastards in the old tales from whom Azzarello and Chiang could have taken inspiration. For example, Hercules is a famous one who was born with the gift of superhuman strength because of his parentage with Zeus. Minotaur is the product of Zeus raping Europa while in the form of a bull (gross!), producing a half human half bull creature. The mother of Alexander the Great claimed that Zeus himself had fathered her son, explaining all his heroic deeds and greatness, although, not surprisingly, many people were skeptical about this.
Hera wants all these bastards dead, but as if that’s not enough confusion, Olympus’ throne is empty, remember? Well, Zeus’ brothers might have a good claim.
Poseidon is the lord of the Sea. He is usually depicted as a humanoid with a trident, but Chiang has taken some liberties that ended up great. This Poseidon is a marine monster, giant and fearful. Like his more classical version, he controls water horses, but I don’t think he is able to mount them in this form. His typical trident was abandoned, probably also because of anatomical reasons, but he still shows off his crown. In ancient Greek art, he was depicted as sometimes angry, sometimes peaceful, just like the moods of the sea. Wonder Woman’s new uncle has a pretty grumpy face, but maybe we just haven’t seem his more loving side yet.
Hades, the oldest brother, is the lord of the Underworld. He is rarely seen in classical art for he was feared so much. Even his name was unpronounceable, and when men made sacrifices to him they turned their faces away. But he was not an evil god, being generally just and passive (excluding some misdoings but, well, gods). Thus, there are few references to Hades’ appearance, and it is common for contemporary artists to portray him like an average male. But, again, Chiang took a risk and made it well above expectations. In WW, Hades is a little man, the size of a child, with lit candles melting in his eyes, a completely new symbology.
There are also the twins Apollo and Artemis, the sun and the moon. Apollo, or Sun, is the god of light, truth, prophecy, healing, music, and poetry. He is important for the plot because he makes shocking prophecies, and, as is known, reading the future never ends well. Artemis or Moon is the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, and virginity. Artemis Roman name is Diana, which makes sense in the made-of-clay origin. Various goddesses, including Moon, gave boons to Hippolyta’s daughter, so Diana’s name might have been a homage. In this version, Artemis and Wonder Woman fight each other, which I think is sad, but happily they reach an understanding.
Other supreme ruler candidates and relevant pieces in the game include Dionysus, god of wine; Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths; his wife Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexuality; Demeter, goddess of harvest; and Eris, goddess of chaos. The only missing one is Athena, who was important to past Wonder Woman arcs. Is she to make a plot twisting appearance, or is she just not present at the moment?
And there is Ares, who is causing controversy between fans. The clay origin wasn’t the only bold change. In the Golden Age, Ares was Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis. He is the God of War and gets stronger when there is conflict in the world. Athena is also a goddess of war, but she only agrees to fight when it is wise. Ares, at the other hand, is shown both in mythology and in Wonder Woman Golden Age comics as blood lusty. He wanted the whole world deep in hatred and blood. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, fearing War could be successful, created the Amazons to be her loyal followers and spread Aphrodite’s Way. But, as often happens in comics, writers don’t agree with each other. In a later version, Athena is the patron of the Amazons, creating them as a warrior people—just, brave, and fierce—to oppose Ares’ army. Although none of this was maintained in the New 52 reboot, the current Themiscyra looks more like the second version, a place to develop fighting skills, not science. In at least one thing the older versions agreed: Ares was the enemy. But no more.
In Wonder Woman #0, a younger Diana was eager to learn more about battle. Walking around the forests of Themiscyra, she bumps into a strange figure: War himself. Since that day, she and Ares began to secretly train every night. Her master taught her everything he could, and soon she became the best warrior on Paradise Island. The two of them departed when Diana refused to kill the Minotaur because she pitied the beast. Besides their ideological differences, they still cared for each other years later. He even calls her “little one.” The new Wonder Woman patron is War, he who is a symbol of “manly courage.” A heresy, surely. But I count on Diana to revert this irony in her favour and crash all these “masculinity” labels.
Anyway, the new Ares also looks different. He is portrayed as an old man with deep holes in the place of his eyes, a long beard, and bloodstained clothes. He used to be a muscular and shirtless “hottie,” so again this series’ character design surprises with its originality. The only remaining symbol is his helmet, fashioned in the way of Spartan warriors. This Ares is sad-looking and resentful. Apparently, that’s the way of War.
Chiang’s visual reinterpretation of the mythos reflects modern ideas. War has changed a lot from classical antiquity to nowadays, as did his brothers and sisters. A bloodlusty armored muscular guy doesn’t make sense anymore. But that doesn’t mean War is dead—the concept is still alive. Judging by this comic’s depiction of Ares, these days War has to drink a lot to forget all that he has seen.
Greek mythology is never black and white. This makes Wonder Woman outstanding beside Superman’s moral and physical perfection or Batman’s “bad just because they are so bad” villains. Diana knows that, and she also knows that if the Sea does something bad, it also brings life. The Sea, as all other gods, is what it is, neither good nor bad but magnificent, and that’s why she prays.
Theoi Greek Mythology: theoi.com