Heroes and Legends Before Superman
No hero created before or since Superman has ever quite matched up to him.Warner Bros.
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a... well, you know the rest. Everyone does, because everyone knows Superman.
The man of steel is the first and most iconic superhero of all time. But before Superman came a long line of heroes in fiction who used their superhuman strength for a larger cause.
Gilgamesh acted decidedly unheroically when first making using of his super strength, using his talents only to win athletic competitions.Getty Images
Although in fact an actual person who reigned over ancient southern Iraq more than 4,500 years ago, Gilgamesh has been mythologized as a giant with superhuman strength who was two-thirds divine and one-third man.
Initially loathed as someone who uses his extraordinary abilities only to further his own aims, Gilgamesh begins a new life of adventure of meeting Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods. Amid meeting gods, fighting ogres and slaying beasts, the two bond and form a powerful friendship. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh spends the rest of his life pursuing the secret of immortality, a quest which will reuinite him with the ghost of his companion.
Heracles is a hero whose name has become synonymous with great strength.Corbis Images
Heracles might be the closest ancient mythical parallel to the modern superhero. Son of Zeus, ruler of all the gods on Mount Olympus, Heracles was endowed with super strength from infancy, even fighting off two serpents sent by Zeus' wife, Hera, who wanted to kill Heracles.
Of all the feats the hero accomplished, his most celebrated are collectively known as the 12 trials of Heracles, in which he slayed the nine-headed Hydra, single-handedly diverted two rivers and briefly held up the entire earth and sky while enlisting the help of Atlas, the Titan who carried the whole world on his shoulders.
This painting of Achilles shows him dragging Hector's body after killing the Trojan prince in revenge for slaying his cousin, Patroclus.Getty Images
The greatest hero of the Iliad, Achilles was, like Heracles, a demigod. The son of the nymph Thetis, who endowed Achilles with armor forged by the blacksmith deity Hephaestus, Achilles was as famous for his skill in a fight as he was for his temper. When insulted by the Greek King Agamemnon, Achilles withdrew from battle, only to return to kill Hector after the Trojan prince killed Achilles' half-cousin, Patroclus.
Like Superman, Achilles had a fatal weakness: His armor didn't protect his heel. An arrow shot by Paris, Hector's brother, and perhaps guided by the god Apollo struck Achilles in his heel, causing a fatal wound.
Just as Superman draws power from the sun, Samson's super strength comes from his hair.Getty Images
Another hero with a legendary weakness comes out of the Old Testament of the Bible. Bestowed the divine gift of superhuman strength, Samson derives his ability from his hair, making it as much a source of his strength as it is a fatal weakness.
Samson also had a soft spot for the opposite sex. This vulnerability allowed Delilah to get close to Samson, who was then betrayed, shaved and enslaved in his subdued state by the Philistines. Blinded and tortured, Samson turned the tables on his captors when his hair finally grew back. During a pagan ritual in a temple, Samson brought down the entire structure by tearing down the building's two central pillars, killing and burying everyone inside, including himself.
Beowulf killed the monster Grendel using a magic sword found in her lair.Getty Images
A Danish king who had the strength of 60 men, could hold his breath underwater for days and kill monsters with his bare hands, Beowulf is a hero who comes to the modern age through a single surviving manuscript written in the Anglo-Saxon era.
Beowulf overcomes adversaries who are not human, but beasts and monsters, even a dragon who attacks the king when he has reached old age. Like Superman, Beowulf makes sacrifices of himself in order to save those in his charge, slaying the dragon single-handedly but losing his life in the process.
According to legend, Cúchulainn once engaged in a dual to the death that lasted four days.Wikimedia Commons
A Celtic hero who was the son of a god, Cúchulainn is less familiar than other names on this list, but has been compared to Achilles.
Like the Greek hero, Cúchulainn was famed for his skill as a warrior, but lived in a short life marked with eternal glory. When he finally met his end in battle at the end of a magic spear forged by the children of one of his vanquished enemies, Cúchulainn tied himself to a stone pillar so that he could die standing upright.
The legend of Paul Bunyan came out of tall tales told around logging camps.Corbis Images
Carving an entire nation out of the wilderness takes a lot of manpower, and that's exactly what a hero like Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack, is cut out for. Just as Superman was indicative of the unlimited potential of an industrialized America in the 20th century, Paul Bunyan, originating in 19th century folk tales, represented of the ambitions of the settlers of the American West.
Bigger than life when he was just a baby, Paul Bunyan needed five storks to carry him to his parents. As a boy, he used bedding for socks and kegs for shoes, and grew so quickly he couldn't live in his parents' house. As an adult, Paul left his mark by creating landmarks around the West, including Puget Sound, Lake Superior and Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, which are just the footprints of hit pet blue ox, Babe.