This week we will be discussing pop culture and antiquity. The everlasting influence of antiquity can be still be felt in our modern culture, particularly, popular culture. Television shows, movies, and other mediums of entertainment have included ancient mythology and culture for generations. What are most interesting, however, are the examples of references made to ancient times and that are served without exposition.
Even without explaining the references story writers continue to incorporate ancient ideas quietly into pop culture, even into movies or shows that have very little to do with antiquity. Here are some examples you might have missed:
- The Simpsons
The Simpsons might have had a few classically themed episodes, including the episode featuring Homer as Ulysses in their own version of The Odyssey. But, one of the most fleeting yet deep classical references on the show would be Mr. Burns’ address. The local, billionaire Mr. Burns happens to live on the corner of Mammon Lane and Croesus St.
What’s the reference? You may ask.
Mammon, in the New Testament of the Bible, is greed or material wealth, and in the Middle Ages was often personified as a deity, and sometimes included in the seven princes of Hell. Scholars do not agree about its etymology, but it is theorized that Mammon derives from Late Latin mammon, from Greek”μαμμωνάς mammonas“, Syriac mámóna (“riches”), Aramaic mamon (“riches, money”), a loanword from Mishnaic Hebrew ממון (mamôn) meaning money, wealth, or possessions.
In Greek and Persian cultures the name of Croesus became a synonym for a wealthy man. Croesus’ wealth remained proverbial beyond classical antiquity: in English, expressions such as “rich as Croesus” or “richer than Croesus” are used to indicate great wealth to this day. Croesus is credited with issuing the first true gold coins with a standardized purity for general circulation.
Seen in the episode “Crimes of the Hot” is the indulgent automaton Hedonismbot. The name alone could remind one of certain circles in Antiquity but the overall design of the robot is certainly, yet never blatantly explained, to remind the viewer of a certain god of wine and pleasure- Bacchus. In the clip above, Hedonism bot sponsors an opera, which is reminiscent of the delegations of theater the Roman god Bacchus has.
Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain). This school of thought was practiced as a type of philopsphy one should live their life around not only during Greek times, but Ancient Roman times as well.
At one point or another you might have heard kids yell the word “Shazam!” with the same enthusiasm as other comic book sound effects like “Kapow!” To anyone without extensive knowledge of graphic novels it seems like a simple, fun, and made-up word. Although it is made-up its also an acronym using the names of a few entities you might recognize.
The comic hero Billy Batson (also known as Shazam or Captain Marvel) would yell the word “Shazam!” to invoke powers, specifically, the genius of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the unbreakable will of Atlas, the lightning of Zeus, the power of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. While the clip is a bit silly and retro, it gets the point across!
*Hercules is Roman version of the name while Herakles is the Greek. Zeus is known as Jupiter in Roman mythology, and Mercury is known as Apollo in Greek mythology. So, SHAZAM actually invokes both Greek and Roman deities alike.
4. Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles (Spoilers Below)
The Incredibles was an interesting and completely unexplained reference to the myth of Saturn. After some intense investigation one of the main characters discover the name of the main villain’s master plan: “Kronos” or (Greek god: Saturn, Roman god: Saturn).
Painting by Peter Paul Rubens of Cronus / Saturn devouring one of his children
Mad with jealousy and a desire “to even” the playing ground (or to be the strongest himself!) for those of the population without superpowers, the villain created a killing machine to defeat all superheroes. Unexplained to the children in the audience is how this alludes to Saturn’s madness for power that drove him to devour his children to prevent any one of them from growing stronger than himself.
Although it was a cool name, the villain should’ve remembered how it ended for Saturn.
5. MUSIC!- Arcade Fire – Reflektor
We’ve even seen allusions to ancient times in our modern music, such as with Arcade Fire’s album named Reflektor.
The album cover art is a photograph of Auguste Rodin’s 1893 sculpture “Orpheus and Eurydice”. Two songs in particular, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”, reference the Orpheus myth.
The Orpheus Myth is retold my the Roman poet Ovid in the Metamorphoses. I have written other post on Ovid such as Dating Tips by Ovid and The Original Fan Fiction.
This myth, perhaps not famously remembered by general audiences, is not explained in the lyrics themselves but the story’s romantic and tragic tones can be felt in the songs. The only direct reference is in “Its Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” which starts with the lyrics “Hey, Orpheus! / I’m behind you / Don’t turn around / I can find you.”
If you are interested in more classical reference in pop culture- check out my post about Disney Mythology vs. Greco-Roman Mythology.