Do you ever notice how you see the same basic tropes over and over again in TV programs, movies, video games, comic books, and whatnot? Do you ever notice that you see the same basic tropes over and over again in mythology, folktales, religion, and whatnot? Now, why is that? Are these writers and mythmakers and so on just really lazy? Is this some sort of conspiracy to promulgate one type of view through the bowels of our pop-culture?
I would suggest that many of these most basic tropes are passed down through the centuries and millennia because they are deeply primal and embedded in the collective human psyche. And to explore this concept, I’ve decided to take a spotlight that most ubiquitous of comic book tropes, the Man/Woman/Boy Superhero Triad.
Batman, Batgirl, Robin the Boy Wonder:
Superman, Supergirl, Superboy:
Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr.:
Space Ghost, Jan, Jace:
Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, Drummer:
Especially for the Batman “trinity” (and that term will be important later), this type of configuration has an immediate resonance with the public. It feels…timeless. It feels “right.” But why? What is it about a triad featuring an older “father figure,” a younger woman, and a “boy” that is so appealing? Well, consider this:
That’s Horus (the boy), Osiris (the Father/Husband), and Isis (the Wife/Mother). There’s your “superhero” triad,” via Ancient Egypt. It was Egyptian custom to have one’s gods/goddesses in sets of three: triads. These triads fell into two basic types: Father/Mother/Son or Two Girls And A Guy. We’re going to focus on the more popular Father/Mother/Son here, and tackle Two Girls And A Guy in a future post; the dynamics between them are quite different.
The Father/Mother/Son triad was considered “perfect” to Ancient Egyptians because it represented the standard “core” family unit for that time period. Man (Osiris) + Woman (Isis) = New Life (Baby Horus); rinse and repeat. But it all goes deeper than that; because baked into the Osiris/Isis/Horus mythology is not only the story of how to produce New Life outside oneself, but inside as well (which is, again, a whole separate post—but important point to remember: this can refer to male/female-type energies as well as merely physical male/female forms).
The tale of Osiris is one of death and resurrection (you comic book fans are probably familiar with similar epic Batman/Superman/etc. death/rebirth stories). Osiris was tragically murdered by his brother Set, but brought back to life—resurrected, in a sense—by his wife/sister Isis. Isis even managed to impregnate herself with the seed of Osiris after his seeming death (which you could in theory do today w/frozen sperm).
Isis then gives birth to hawk-headed Horus, who grows up to challenge his uncle Set and avenge his dad. Meanwhile, Osiris has been resurrected…but as the king of the underworld. It’s up to Horus to run the show now, in the present plane of existence. We can imagine that this sets up a cycle: the boy becomes the man, and has his own Horus…the boy then becomes the man…and so on and so on…cycle after cycle. Again, if you’re a comic fan, you see this procession of cycles not only in the Golden Age/Silver Age/Modern Age mythology, as well as the trope of the former “boy” sidekick who grows up to take the mantle of his former mentor. It’s the primal cycle of life.
Occultist Aleister Crowley took this idea one step further with the idea of “Aeons.” He believed that the Osiris/Isis/Horus triad could be used to represent the various ages of humankind, each god/dess a metaphor for certain traits of each age:
Aeon of Isis:
The most ancient age, existing in pre-history, dominated by matriarchal societies and worship of the Mother Goddess. Very nature-oriented, nurturing, relatively peaceful.
Aeon of Osiris:
The age of patriarchal religions, including later Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, etc. The key here is submission to the fearsome patriarchal/father god (in other words, submission to “Authority”). Very obsessed with death imagery.
Aeon of Horus:
This is the hallowed “New Age” that is supposedly coming (or, is already here), the Age of Aquarius. A radical break from the authoritarian energy of the Aeon of Osiris, this Aeon promotes ideas of self-realization, iconoclasm, and individuality.
This triad has its counterpart in that of many other religions, such as the Holy Trinity of Catholicism: The Father, the Son, and the “Holy Spirit” (who is really the female Sophia, representing Wisdom; often portrayed as a bird):
Another popular variation of this in Catholicism is the “swapping out” of the Holy Spirit with the Virgin Mary…in which the ancient Egyptian origins is made just a bit more clear:
Now, consider Odin/Freya/Thor of the Norse tradition:
Or, take Zeus/Athena/Apollo:
Now let’s go back to the ever-popular Bat-Family:
Robin is even even named after a bird, making him resonate that much more with hawk-headed Horus! Now let’s move away from comic books and see how this trope plays out in other genres:
Morpheus (Father God), Trinity (I mean for pete’s sake, her name is actually “Trinity”), and Neo (Horus/ the herald of the New Age).
Han Solo (who was originally supposed to be a far older character), Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker (the “New Hope,” a la Neo, a la Horus, etc.).
Star Wars Prequels:
The Father is first Qui-Gon, then Obi-Wan; the Mother is Amidala; the Son/Horus figure is Anakin.
The “Father” is the T-800 (you could also say it’s technically Kyle Reese, resonating the dead/missing Osiris), the Mother is Sarah Connor, the New Hope/Horus figure is John Connor.
The Lego Movie:
This is basically a very conscious “redo” of “The Matrix,” with The Father=Vitruvius, The Mother=Wyldstyle, and Emmet=The New Hope/Horus.
The Father=Kevin Flynn; The Mother/Isis=Quorra; The Son/New Hope=Sam Flynn
The Father gets split into a good/bad dichotomy: Skinner/Smoking Man (Set); The Mother/Isis figure is Scully, and the New Hope/Horus is Mulder. But Mulder himself also plays at Osiris as the series goes on, disappearing & leading (the now-pregnant) Scully on a very “Isis”-type quest.
The Fantastic Four:
Reed is Pops, Sue is Mom, and the younger Storm is the Horus character. What about the Thing, you may ask? The two Richards and Storm are actual related family: a triad of two father/mother types and one younger “kid.” OR: Reed/Sue/baby Franklin Now let’s get a little weirder.
I believe Spock=The Father, as he resonates a very male/Osirian energy…he, like Osiris, dies/is lost, leading an Isis-type search for him. McCoy=The Mother, as he resonates a very emotionally-based, almost female energy; like Isis, he spearheads the search for Osiris/Spock. And Kirk=Horus, the New Hope.
In this scenario, the Doctor is both the Father and the Son, locked in a mythology of resurrection; with the oft-female Companion competing with the feminine womb-resonating TARDIS as the Mother/Isis. What was interesting about the Eleventh Doctor seasons was that they more consciously replicated this Sacred Trinity formation, with DW/Amy Pond/Rory.
The Big Lebowski:
There are several characters competing here for their place in the Trinity. Walter “Shomer Shabbos” Sobchak is clearly the Patriarch (prone to explosive fits of rage, very focused on appeals to Authority and following the rules). I am tempted to put Jeff Lebowski into the Horus category, but he almost feels like an Isis-resonating character (he goes on the quest, collects the severed body part—the toe—as Isis would collect the severed phallus of Osiris, tends to be much more easy-going and passive). This would make Donnie—who resonates much younger—as the Horus figure. But then you could say by the end of the movie that the sacred trinity is Jeff (The Father), Maude (Mother), and “the little Lebowski” (Horus).
The point is…we can go on like this forever. The Father/Mother/Son triad is a fundamental trope in storytelling and the collective human imagination. And, like other primal tropes, whenever it’s present in a story, you can be sure that tale will be given that “extra oomph” in terms of mass appeal.
A couple of other interesting points before we go. First there is a bit of criticism regarding “female versions” of established male superheroes from both sides of the ideological fence. But actually, if we look back to ancient Egyptian times, they were doing the same thing with their gods and goddesses. Often female goddesses were invented from male gods to round out a triad on the spot, forcing a crude “feminization” of an established name. For example, Horus would have a feminine suffix attached to it, creating Horît. And from Amon came Amonît.
So that was a thing. Secondly, do you ever notice that when an established pop-cultural mythology gets too “crowded,” it sometimes loses its effectiveness and popularity? Case in point, the aforementioned “Bat Family.” The core trinity of Batman/Batgirl/Robin is the most effective, because it keys-in on that primal archetype. But then you start adding several Robins, and more people in Bruce Wayne’s inner-circle who know his identity and have instant access to the Bat-Cave, and…it just waters everything down.
So here’s a rule-of-thumb to close this post with: The further away the narrative moves from core primal tropes, the less mass-appeal it has. Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t challenge established tropes. Or that new tropes aren’t being born—that’s what the whole Aeon of Horus thing is about. But that it’s important to understand these tropes and where they come from and what they represent…to understand the immense power these tropes still hold to this very day. Because to attack these tropes without this thorough understanding puts one at a distinct disadvantage.