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Similarity Between Marvel's Iron Man and the Mythological Blacksmiths

Iron Man (2008) movie poster

Iron Man (2008) movie poster

Introduction

Today almost everybody knows Iron Man—the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, the alias of wealthy American business magnate, playboy, philanthropist, and brilliant inventor Tony Stark. However, we can also find similar characters in folklore and mythology. One of the most evident examples is Hephaestus (Vulcan in Rome), the ancient Greek god of metalworking, blacksmithing, and crafts, startlingly similar to Iron Man.

But besides Hephaestus, there are many mythical blacksmiths in various legends and different historical eras worldwide. Also, mythological plots about them are often very similar, which may be due to the cultural interaction of nations, but this explanation alone is not always sufficient. In some cases, it is more likely that with similar initial information, people tend to draw similar conclusions, which means that they perceive the activity of a blacksmith in a certain way, regardless of their place of residence or historical era.

So we can speak about the existence of the archetype of the mythological blacksmith. Perhaps not in the original, Jungian sense of the term archetype, since different nations did not perceive blacksmiths in the same way, but at the same time, there is hardly at least one traditional culture in which the attitude towards the blacksmith would be neutral.

Tony Stark, who appeared with the blacksmith hammer in his hand in the first Iron Man movie, shares many features characteristic of this archetype.

Statuette of Hephaestus the god of fire and patron of jewelers, armorers and blacksmiths Roman copy of a Greek original 1st - 2nd century CE Bronze Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Statuette of Hephaestus the god of fire and patron of jewelers, armorers and blacksmiths Roman copy of a Greek original 1st - 2nd century CE Bronze Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

The Story of a Kidnapping

At first, it is worth remembering how Tony Stark became Iron Man. In the original Iron Man comics, a communist tyrant kidnapped Tony in Vietnam and forced him to create his first Iron Man suit. However, for the 2008 film adaptation, the authors moved the origin point of Iron Man from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

There, terrorists from the Ten Rings band kidnapped him, and during the capture, he was wounded by shrapnel in his chest, with several fragments embedding dangerously close to his heart. After that, imprisoned scientist Ho Yinsen attached an electromagnet to Stark's chest to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him.

The terrorists forced Stark to recreate for them his latest invention, Jericho warheads. However, instead of working on weapons for them, Tony created a powerful exoskeleton with which he blew up the terrorist base and flew away, then landed in the desert.

A similar plot is quite common in mythology. For example, the story about Wayland the Smith (Völundr in Old Norse), a master blacksmith from Germanic heroic legend. Niðhad, king of the Njars (an ancient Germanic people of Närke, a traditional Swedish province), captured him, ordered him hamstrung, and imprisoned on the island of Sævarstöð. There Wayland was forced to forge items for the king. However, he managed to fly away from the island with the help of wings he made, a winged cloak, or another aircraft.

Also, we can see similarities in the myths about Pirkushi, one of the communal tribal deities of the highlanders of Eastern Georgia. Once captured by the devis (many-headed ogres in Georgian mythology), Pirkushi was forging weapons, gold, and silver things for them, until Iakhsari (a hero, son of the supreme god Gmerti) rescued Pirkushi from captivity on the condition that he make a bell for him.

Wayland the Smith (Völundr in Old Norse). An illustration from Fredrik Sander's 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda.

Wayland the Smith (Völundr in Old Norse). An illustration from Fredrik Sander's 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda.

Physical Disability

Here, it is worth paying attention to an interesting detail that, among other things, unites Tony Stark and Wayland the Smith. Namely, they both got injuries that caused their disability. And physical disability is a characteristic feature of many mythical blacksmiths. Most often, they have problems with their legs.

Except for Wayland, Hephaestus limped on one or both legs. He was born weak and ugly. Because of that, his mother, Hera (the goddess of marriage, women, and family), threw him off Mount Olympus. When he fell, he injured his leg, so he limped all his life. Another time, Hephaestus stood up for Hera and was flung down from the heavens by wroth Zeus (the sky and thunder god) and injured the other leg. However, depending on Greek mythology's branch, authors can also describe him as disabled from birth.

Another example might be Tlepsh, the mythological blacksmith from the Nart sagas of the Circassians, or Adyghe (an indigenous Northwest Caucasian ethnic group and nation native to the historical country-region of Circassia in the North Caucasus). In the Ossetian Nart sagas, his counterpart is the smith Kurdalægon. Once, he made swords for the Narts (heroes, ancestors of modern people): Uazirmes and his younger brother Imys. But Imys lost his sword in the river. Uazirmes has been stabbing his sword into the water to help him, and on the third attempt, he has managed to pin the brother's sword and get it. Seeing a pierced blade, Imys got angry with Tlepsh because he made a better weapon for Uazirmes. That night, Imys came to Tlepsh's house to take revenge and tied up the sword across the doorway. Then he walked away and called Tlepsh for help, shouting that someone was trying to kill him. Tlepsh hurried to aid and did not notice the sword that cut off his legs to the knees. After that, he had to forge iron legs to replace the lost ones.

There are several versions to explain such a common disability. According to the first, the lameness, causing the unevenness of the gait, allows the mythical blacksmith to be associated with the wavering flame of fire, which he commands and personifies.

According to another version, the blacksmith's lameness is due to his connection with the lower, chthonic (underground) world, the symbol of which is a snake—a creature that does not have legs.

The third hypothesis says that in ancient times, physically defective children, who could not serve the tribe as warriors, farmers, or cattlemen, were sent to blacksmith training. It was also possible to deliberately mutilate the blacksmith to limit his ability to move, such as in the case of Wayland.

Also, this feature could go to the blacksmith-metallurgist in the era of the production of arsenic bronze when the easily sublimated arsenic used to alloy copper could lead to occupational diseases. Arsenic poisoning is characterized, among other things, by increased irritability and damage to the central nervous system, leading to paralysis of the limbs. The poisoning with tin, which later replaced arsenic in the production of bronze, also caused paralysis of some parts of the central nervous system and excitation of others, resulting in stiffness of movements, sometimes convulsions. Other occupational diseases in blacksmiths associated with prolonged standing and lifting weights, leading to problems with the spine and leg joints, are not excluded.

Vølund Smed (Wayland the Smith). Stephan Abel Sinding (1846 – 1922). Photo by A.Davey

Vølund Smed (Wayland the Smith). Stephan Abel Sinding (1846 – 1922). Photo by A.Davey

Lack of Supernatural Powers and Crafting Stuff for Others

Tony Stark does not have any supernatural powers. He is merely an ordinary man without his Iron Man armor and has an influential position among superheroes due only to his ability to create various high-tech devices. Besides his armor, Stark made Spider-Man’s suit, War Machine’s armor, and many other weapons and gadgets used by the Avengers. He also repaired Captain America’s shield, created by his father, by the way.

The same is true considering the mythological blacksmiths. Although they have some supernatural abilities, they are usually weaker than other gods' and are directly related to their extraordinary craftsmanship. They often earned their distinction due to their ability to craft weapons and household items for other gods and heroes.

For example, Hephaestus crafted much of the magnificent equipment of the gods. He made thunderbolts for Zeus, a bow and arrows for Eros (god of love and sex), a trident for Poseidon (the god of the sea), a winged helmet and sandals for Hermes (God of travelers and thieves, the herald of the gods), the Aegis breastplate (the shield used by Athena and Zeus), the magical Girdle of Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty), an armor for Achilles (a hero of the Trojan War, the greatest of all the Greek warriors), a cuirass for Diomedes (a hero of the Trojan War, King of Argos), bronze clappers for Heracles (a divine hero, the son of Zeus), the chariot for Helios (God of the Sun), etc.

Wayland the Smith crafted a chainmail shirt for the legendary hero Beowulf and also is attributed to having made various swords for Charlemagne and his paladins, namely Curtana, Durendal, and Joyeuse.

Tlepsh crafted tools, weapons, and armor for the Narts and shoed their horses. He was such a skilled blacksmith that sabers of his making were very thin and so hard that they could cut through everything, yet his products were not succumbing to damage. His swords smoothly cut stones, iron objects, and other solids. Spears, he made, pierced everything. His arrows never missed and would hit the enemy, no matter where he was. Also, Tlepsh made swords with a strong magnet or a spring shape that jumped out of a box or chest and hit the enemy.

Kothar-wa-Khasis, a smith, craftsman, engineer, architect, and inventor of Northwest Semitic mythology, according to Ugaritic myths, made two magic clubs, Yagrush and Ayamur, for the supreme god Baal, with which he defeated Yam (the god of the sea). In the Epic of Aqhat, Kothar-wa-Khasis is the creator of the bow of the eponymous hero. He also built palaces for Baal and Yam.

Hephaestus hands in the new Achilles' armor to Thetis (Iliad, XVIII, 617). Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC. Altes Museum. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol

Hephaestus hands in the new Achilles' armor to Thetis (Iliad, XVIII, 617). Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BC. Altes Museum. Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol

The Ability to Create Living Beings

Besides other stuff, Tony Stark made robots (Dum-E and U) and A.I. assistants (J.A.R.V.I.S., F.R.I.D.A.Y., Karen, and E.D.I.T.H.), which helped with his work. He also created a group of drones to protect civilians and to combat support for Iron Man, called the Iron Legion, and, in collaboration with Bruce Banner, an artificial intelligence named Ultron to control the Iron Legion. However, Ultron instead became obsessed with bringing about the extinction of all life on Earth after concluding that humans are slowly killing the planet. We also can recall the medical developments of Tony Stark as he made bionic supports for his friend James Rhodes' legs undergoing physical therapy after a spinal fracture.

The mythological blacksmiths look very similar. They could create living beings or animated statues and often perform the functions of physicians restoring damaged body parts of heroes. For example, Hephaestus crafted Golden Maidens, woman-shaped automatons, to work for him. Also, the programmed auto-mobile tripods with golden wheels made by Hephaestus could automatically enter the assembly of the gods and again return to their residence. Furthermore, he forged silver and gold immortal dogs to protect the palace of King Alcinous and a pair of fire-breathing bronze bulls for King Aeetes of Colchis. Also, by order of Zeus, as a punishment for humans for receiving the stolen fire from Prometheus, Hephaestus made of clay Pandora—the first human woman, who opened a jar (pithos, commonly referred to as Pandora's box), releasing all the evils of humanity. Also, Hephaestus made an ivory shoulder for Pelops (the king of Pisa in the Peloponnesus region) instead of the lost one.

Pandora. Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). Walters Art Museum

Pandora. Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). Walters Art Museum

Goibniu was the metalsmith of the Tuatha Dé Danann (a mythical supernatural race) in Irish mythology. When Nuada, the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lost his arm in battle, Goibniu crafted him a new one of silver.

Tlepsh took part in the birth of one of the most famous Nart heroes—Sosruko, whom Tlepsh extracted from stone and then tempered his iron body in his forge. He also repaired the Narts' steel hips and skulls crippled in battles.

Ilmarinen, the Eternal Hammerer, blacksmith god, and inventor from the Finnish epic Kalevala, having lost his wife, made himself another of gold and silver. However, she was hard and cold and could not replace Ilmarinen's spouse. Dismayed, the blacksmith attempts to wed her to his brother Väinämöinen instead. But he rejects her, saying that the golden wife ought to be cast back into the furnace, and tells Ilmarinen to "forge from her a thousand trinkets." We can view the myth of the Golden Wife as a cautionary tale based on the theme that money cannot buy happiness. Also, it shows the impossibility of a blacksmith, even a divine one, to rival divine perfection when creating life.

Ilmarinen. Robert Stigell (1852–1907). Photo by Kulttuurinavigaattori

Ilmarinen. Robert Stigell (1852–1907). Photo by Kulttuurinavigaattori

Isolation of Dwelling and Workshop

We know from the movies that Tony Stark has built his residence pretty isolated on the top of a cliff in Point Dume, Malibu, California. The mansion also housed an underground for the manufacture of armored suits. After its destruction by the Mandarin terrorists in the third Iron Man movie, Tony Stark still has country property somewhere in a remote place, on the shore of a forest lake. There he spent time with Pepper Potts and his daughter Morgan.

The same isolation of the dwelling and the workshop is also a characteristic feature of the mythological blacksmith. Such isolation could be associated with a blacksmith's work with ores of metals and fire, which belongs to the lower world, causing fear of other people. In general, blacksmithing, especially at the stage of tribal social organization, was perceived as a form of magic.

Another cause of the separate settlement could be compliance with fire safety since the blacksmith worked with fire and could unwittingly cause the death of the entire village. And, of course, there was also the need to keep production secrets secure.

For example, Ilmarinen set up his forge in a swamp. And the Tlepsh's forge was in a cave at the edge of a large forest. People were not allowed to enter there since the blacksmith secretly forged weapons. If the Narts needed Tlepsh, they should approach the cave and call him three times.

Hephaestus placed his forge in his palace on Mount Olympus, where the path to ordinary people was closed. Also, after Zeus threw Hephaestus from the abode of the gods, he fell to the island of Lemnos, where he established a forge in the bowels of Mount Mosihl. In addition, the Ancient Roman myths described the forge of Vulcan (the Roman equivalent of Hephaestus) in the Aeolian Islands (Lipari Islands or Lipari group) and under Mount Etna.

Vulcan forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Museo del Prado. Photo by Dodo

Vulcan forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Museo del Prado. Photo by Dodo

Feasts and Parties

As a billionaire and head of a multinational industrial company, Tony Stark attended conference after conference and party after party and often arranged upscale parties himself. The foyer on the main floor of his mansion in Malibu was large enough to host many guests, and outside was enough space for several cars. In The Avengers movie, we also can see Tony Stark treating The Avengers to shawarma at the Shawarma Palace, a small restaurant in New York City, following the Battle of New York.

Similarly, the mythical blacksmiths often played a specific role at the feasts of the gods. For example, Irish mythology described Goibniu as the host of the Otherworldly Feast—Feast of Goibniu. Goibniu brewed a special ale from the fruits of an Otherworld Tree. Those who drank it became immortal and remained eternally youthful and vital. The echo of this ancient myth is, perhaps, a strange article in the laws of medieval Wales, according to which the court blacksmith was the first to be served drinks at royal feasts.

Hephaestus also carried nectar to the guests at the Olympic feasts—the divine drink of immortality. And that amused the gods when they watched the lame Hephaestus wobbling from side to side, serving nectar around among them.

Kurdalægon, in the Ossetian Nart sagas, also liked to host eminent Narts in his heavenly abode and attended the famous Nart feasts.

Kurdalægon. Makharbek Tuganov (1881–1952). Illustration for the Nart sagas

Kurdalægon. Makharbek Tuganov (1881–1952). Illustration for the Nart sagas

Responsibility for Justice and the Correct World Order

However, Iron Man is a superhero. Even though Tony Stark is partly an arrogant egoist, he lives following a personal code of honor from which he does not deviate. He does not directly protect the weak and innocent, but they receive security because of his desire to preserve justice, law, and peace.

Another characteristic feature of the heavenly patrons of metallurgy is their responsibility for the truth and the correct world order.

In the Zoroastrian religion Kshatra Vairya (Desirable Dominion), one of the great seven Amesha Spenta (bounteous immortals), emanating from the highest divinity Ahura Mazda, was considered the patron of metals and personified the power of Ahura Mazda’s kingdom. The believer can realize this power in action guided by Excellent Order and Good Mind.

Ogun or Ogoun, the god of war and metals and the patron of ethics and justice in the Yoruba religion, also appeared in Haitian Vodou and West African Vodun. Followers of traditional Yoruba religion could swear to tell the truth in court by kissing a piece of iron in the name of Ogun. Interestingly, he also likes women and alcohol, just like Tony Stark.

Statue of Ogun shrine at the Sacred Grove of Oshun. Photo by Yeniajayiii

Statue of Ogun shrine at the Sacred Grove of Oshun. Photo by Yeniajayiii

Conclusion

In conclusion, we can quote Tony Stark from the first Iron Man movie: "Iron Man. That's kind of catchy. It's got a nice ring to it. I mean, it's not technically accurate. The suit's a gold titanium alloy, but it's kind of provocative, the imagery anyway."

Indeed, it is no coincidence that such a complex and ambiguous character as Iron Man, with both positive and negative features, has much in common with mythological blacksmiths. After all, their common symbol is iron—a metal, on the one hand, symbolizing tools, labor, and creation; on the other—weapons, war, and destruction.

Sources and Further Reading