Superheroes have existed in stories since forever, says Markéta Kulhánková

17. 08. 2023

Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wonder Woman... Our modern culture is rife with fictional figures wielding extraordinary abilities. However, superheroes are nothing new. One of their predecessors, found in the literature of the medieval Byzantine Empire, is the focus of Markéta Kulhánková from the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The interview with the researcher (below) was first published in the current Czech issue of the CAS magazine A / Easy.


Have you seen the latest Batman movie starring Robert Pattinson?

No, and frankly, I’m not planning to. I’m not really a fan of these types of movies. But my kids are experts on superheroes and my husband is really into them, too. When we were in New York, he would point out to us exactly which skyscraper Spider-Man had ever climbed and swung off of. Thanks to him, I know a little bit about today’s superheroes – I know that Batman is a member of the Justice League, not the Avengers. But for me, as a philologist, these seemingly superficial characters are interesting mainly because they are rooted deep in archetypes. Superheroes have existed in storytelling since forever, really.

So even classical antiquity had its Avengers?

Absolutely. After all, the earliest work of European literature – the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey – feature a whole pleiad of superheroes. And all of them, like those of today, are ambivalent, i.e., partially or utterly conflicted. They may have incredible powers, but each of them has a dark side or a weak spot. None of the characters are 100% good guys.

Not even the mythical Odysseus?

He was the cleverest of them all, but also cunning and rather unscrupulous. Parts of his conduct, then, could be considered despicable. Just like Achilles, the protagonist of the Iliad, whose mother bathed him as a child in the river Styx in the Underworld in an attempt to make him immortal. Because she dipped him into the water by the heel, it was the one vulnerable spot that remained on his body. His dark side was the cruelty that his bravery often degenerated into.

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Markéta Kulhánková from the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the CAS. (CC)

Superheroes have a pretty long genealogy then...

In literature, the archetype of the ambivalent hero can be found in every era. The Byzantine literature that I study is no exception. One of the most famous and most studied literary works of this period, Digenes Akritas, is a case in point. The eponymous protagonist of the only surviving Byzantine epic poem was a sort of Old Shatterhand [the hero of Karl May’s Western novels] of the Wild East. His ambivalent nature is evidenced by his name alone.

Can you break down the meaning?

Digenes means two-blood. His father was an Arab emir who later converted to Christianity, and his mother was a noble Byzantine maiden, so the protagonist was of Roman and Arab descent. Akritas can be translated as ranger or border guard (“border lord”) – the hero’s role was to patrol the no-man’s land between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. The region [in Turkey] is still called Cappadocia today, and it is where he became famous for his incredible feats.

Like what?

Just like Heracles, he managed to strangle a lion, like Saint George, he won a fight with a dragon. He also single-handedly defeated an army of a thousand men, slaughtered a bear with his bare hands, and tamed a wild horse. On the other hand, like the modern-day Hulk, Digenes sought out solitude and struggled hopelessly with his split personality. That’s because while this righteous philanthropist was capable of easily defeating anyone who stood in his way in the name of great love, he could not subdue his own lust.

He had a problem with his libido?

You could say that. He married the daughter of a Byzantine general, whom he loved unconditionally and everything he did was for her. In the story of the poem, however, he was unfaithful to her twice. The first time was with an Arab girl who had been left abandoned in the desert by a young Christian man. Digenes helped her, but before he did, he first sexually violated her. The curious thing about this is that his uncontrollable desire flared up the moment the girl told him she had already converted to Christianity. That’s when he lost control.

His dark side won out...

The second time, he cheated on his wife with an Amazon chieftain (this time, the encounter was consensual). However, in one of the surviving versions of the poem, he then mercilessly murdered her because he felt remorse for his infidelity. In fact, Digenes’ wife knew about his adultery all along and silently tolerated it, only occasionally retaliating with an ironic remark.

Sounds like a somewhat timeless struggle. When does the story actually take place?

The setting has many distinct traits of the ninth- and tenth-century Byzantine Empire. However, as with the Homeric epics, it is more of a mythical time that does not correspond exactly to any given historical period. Six versions of the poem survive today, the oldest dating from the late thirteenth century. They all tell roughly the same story and differ only in details, in how they present certain events.

Like modern remakes of superhero stories?

Basically. By the way, Western medieval literature had its own gang of ambivalent heroes, too. Just take a look at the Old English Beowulf, the German Song of the Nibelungs (Nibelungenlied), the Old French Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland), and the Castilian Poem of the Cid (El Cantar de mio Cid). The protagonists of these literary works have a lot in common with Digenes. They often live on the fringes of society, they all fight a dragon, and they all have a dark side, too.

Does that mean the authors of these works were plagiarising each other?

No, it doesn’t. The poems were written at a similar time, true, but the authors couldn’t have influenced each other. These are all archetypal motifs based on folklore. It should also be said that the heroes of all these oral tradition songs were well known to the contemporary audiences of those regions. In this way, too, these works resemble the stories of today’s superheroes. Simply put, the Byzantines knew who Digenes was and just wanted to hear about his ongoing adventures. Just like almost everyone today knows Spider-Man or at least knows of him, we have an idea of what to expect from a Spider-Man movie, and what we’re mostly interested in is the new plot and spin on the well-known story.

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Markéta Kulhánková’s focus is on Byzantine narrative literature. (CC)

You were the first to translate the oldest manuscript of Digenes Akritas from the original Greek into Czech. How much time and effort did it take you?

Nowadays we have at our disposal various dictionaries, studies, and translations into modern languages pertaining to the epic poem that were of great help to me. Even translating Byzantine verse into Czech is not that difficult. I worked on the translation with my colleague, Ondřej Cikán, a classical philologist and a marvellous poet himself, which was a great pleasure. What we worked on a lot was how to reproduce the style of the poem. Its language was quite distant from the spoken Greek of the time. Moreover, in the eye of the contemporary reader, it is something very old-timey, ancient, so a certain degree of archaization was desirable. But it mustn’t be overdone, and the text still has to be comprehensible to the modern reader.

But you didn’t merely translate the work, did you?

No, I didn't. I was surprised to find that, although there is a large bibliography on this important work, no monograph on it had yet been written. And so I decided to fill this “opportunity gap” and produce a comprehensive narratological commentary on the poem. In order to achieve this, I had to wade through a sea of various (and varying) interpretations of the text – every literary scholar sees something completely different in this particular work.

Go on...

Some see it as an allegorical novel about the quest for spiritual oneness, others as a morality play about human weakness. Other scholars claim it’s a critique of patriarchal society or even of the empire itself.

And what do you see in it?

For me, Digenes Akritas is a story about superhuman strength and human failure, love, and infidelity, as well as the loneliness and ambivalence of the soul.

Would today’s readers find the story to their liking?

It really depends. Nowadays, narrative literature is no longer written in verse, so we are not used to its presence in stories. We follow the plot and tend to filter out the rhythmic aspect. However, it’s likely this poem was spread primarily by word of mouth – so the audience of the time concentrated on the verse much more because they heard it. But Digenes will soon see a comic adaptation, and in this form, it might very well be attractive enough for modern readers.

An image from the forthcoming comic book about the hero Digenes Akritas.

What about other Byzantine works? Would they capture our attention?

A large part of Byzantine literature consists of specific medieval genres such as historiography and works about the lives of saints. But there were of course also romance and adventure novels (in verse), satirical poems, and humorous dialogues. These works could probably capture the interest of audiences today. However, only if translated into an understandable language and accompanied by a commentary on the contemporary context.

Could Byzantine literature thus harbour yet-unknown, potential bestsellers?

It sure is possible! What is certain is that from a scholarly point of view, Byzantine literary works are definitely blockbusters. When a reader delves into them, they’ll find that half of the techniques and tropes of postmodern literature or pop culture were already being used by the Byzantines long before the discovery of America. An example would be sophisticated intertextual dialogue, where authors of that time, like those of today, liked to refer to older existing literature and other texts. Or the already mentioned remakes of popular heroes’ or heroines’ stories adapted to contemporary tastes.

So patriarchal Byzantium had its superheroines, too?

There weren’t many, but they can be tracked down. For instance, in stories about saints and in certain novels. In those, women are sometimes even more (pro)active and geared towards action than the male characters, influencing and driving the plot forward. My colleagues and I are now planning to focus on heroines in late Byzantine texts as part of a project aptly titled “Cherchez la femme”, or, behind every (great) man is a great woman. I’m looking forward to finding out how many Wonder Woman predecessors we will discover!


doc. Mgr. et Mgr. Markéta Kulhánková, Ph.D.
Institute of Slavonic Studies of the CAS

She graduated from Latin, Czech, Modern Greek, and Ancient Greek language and literature studies at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University in Brno, where she subsequently taught Modern Greek and Byzantine literature. In 2017, she became an Associate Professor of classical philology. Her research focuses on Byzantine narrative literature and the perception of Byzantium in modern culture. Since 2022, she has been working at the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the CAS. She translates both modern Greek and Byzantine literature into Czech. She has completed a number of research fellowships in Europe and the USA.


The interview was first published in the Czech issue of the A / Easy magazine published by the Czech Academy of Sciences. The online version is accessible below:

1/2023 (version for browsing)
1/2023 (version for download)

Prepared by: Radka Římanová, Division of External Relations, CAO of the CAS
Translated by: Tereza Novická, Division of External Relations, CAO of the CAS
Photo: Jana Plavec, Division of External Relations, CAO of the CAS; Digenes: A Graphic Novel; Shutterstock

Licence Creative Commons The text and photos marked CC are released for use under the Creative Commons licence.

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