9 Famous Movies Based on Ancient Myths and Legends
Since the beginning of movie making at the end of the 1880s, films have touched on a plethora of mythological themes. From the 1970s classic The Asphyx, to the action-packed Wonder Woman, we’ve brought together some of our favorite mythological movies for your viewing pleasure.
The Asphyx (1972) – Bottling Up the Spirit of Death
Ever since the Victorian era, humankind has been fascinated with the idea of death and the existence of the soul. Scholars and scientists of the time attempted to conduct experiments, taking postmortem photographs or images of people on their deathbeds. So much so, that a popular pastime was attempting to capture photos of the soul leaving the body in an attempt to prove its existence.
The 1970s movie The Asphyx starts from this premise. In this classic British horror film, directed by Peter Newbrook and set in Victorian England, the researcher Sir Hugo Cunningham takes a photograph which seems to capture the image of “something” floating right above the subject's body at the time of death. Initially believing that this might be proof supporting the existence of the soul, after closer examination the scientist concludes that the shape wasn’t actually leaving the body, but rather coming towards it.
Throughout history, many have pondered the question of whether there is just one Death or a Death for each individual. In this mythological movie, Cunningham discovers that the ancient Greeks had their own theory; the belief that there existed a Death for each person called an asphyx.
This so-called asphyx was a tormented being, created at the time of a person’s birth, only to be set free at their death, severing ties between the body and the soul. Cunningham goes on to attempt to capture and trap the asphyx, to bottle it so to speak, believing he has discovered a way to achieve immortality. For if the asphyx is unable to reenter a body, then they would never be able to die.
Troy (2004) – Bringing the Legendary Trojan War to the Big Screen
The epic blockbuster movie Troy tells the story about the legendary Trojan war. While it is assumed by most to be based on a true story, these days historians wonder if the Trojan War actually ever took place. Although it is described in riveting detail in Homer’s Illiad, a work of literary genius which captures timeless truths about the savagery of war, there is still no real proof for Homer’s Trojan war.
At the center of the mythological movie is the character Helen of Troy, played by Diane Kruger. In Greek mythology, Helen was the daughter of Leda, tricked into copulating with the god Zeus disguised as a swan. Said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, once again the gods intervened by promising Helen to the Trojan prince Paris, in exchange for choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the gods. The wife of Menelaus, Helen is taken by Paris back to Troy, kicking off the whole messy affair, the wrath of the Spartans and the supposed Trojan War.
The mythological movie covers all the bases and complex relationships of the original story of ancient Troy: Brad Pitt plays Achilles, Orlando Bloom the part of the Trojan Prince Paris, Eric Bana is the Trojan prince and warrior Hector, and Rose Cyrne is Briseis, the virgin priestess of Apollo, given as a war prize to Achilles only to be taken away by Agamemnon. Although a pretty loose adaptation of the Iliad, it does bring the 3,000-year-old story to life through stunning combat sequences, with a little Hollywood sparkle.
Wishmaster (1997 - 2002) – Freeing the Wish-Granting Jinn
Pre-Islamic Arab mythology speaks of the existence of supernatural spirits known as jinn. These days, the jinn have been reduced to the Disney-like image of a colorful genie beings trapped within a lamp and being obliged to grant wishes. But originally, legend had it that they were beings not just worthy of respect, but also able to provoke immense fear due to their ability to cause mental illness and even disease. While the jinn could be good, evil or neutral, the Devil is considered to have originated from the ranks of the jinn.
Ancient mythology considered that jinn were able to take shelter inside all sorts of old objects, not just limited to lamps, including precious stones and especially opals. In the mythological movie series Wishmaster, the jinn starts out trapped inside a red opal and the movie begins with the following words:
“Once, in a time before time, God breathed life into the universe. And the light gave birth to Angels. And the earth gave birth to Man. And the fire gave birth to the Djinn, creatures condemned to dwell in the void between the worlds. One who wakes a Djinn will be given three wishes. Upon the granting of the third, the unholy legions of the Djinn will be freed to rule the earth. Fear one thing only in all there is… Fear the Djinn.”
Directed by Robert Kurtzman, these fantasy horror movies are set in modern-day North America, where an ancient, and in this case demonic, jinn is freed from the opal. In these mythological movies, the jinn is depicted as an evil genie who once freed starts a twisted and deadly rampage, creating curses out of innocent human wishes in the hope of garnering the three wishes needed to be able to “summon his brethren to Earth.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984 - 2003) – Incarnation of the God of Nightmares
Based on the premise that dreams can mirror reality, or vice versa, A Nightmare on Elm Street is probably the most successful horror franchise of all time. Created by Wes Craven, in these films fear is personified as Freddy Krueger, a modern incarnation of an entity which has existed since the beginning of time: the god of fear and nightmares.
Fear personified as an entity exists in ancient mythology from every corner of the planet, such as the Boogeyman from the West, the god Phobos at the ancient Greeks, and his Roman equivalent Timor (in fact, the term phobos itself means “fear"). Phobos used to be worshipped by heroes and warriors (including Agamemnon and Heracles) who had images depicting him on their shields, and bloody sacrifices were performed in his name.
Even Alexander the Great dedicated sacrifices to this god before the battle of Gaugamela, asking that his enemy, Darius, be overwhelmed by fear. As a result, Darius fled the battlefield, leaving Alexander the Great triumphant. Fear has fascinated and terrified humankind throughout the ages, so it isn’t all that surprising that a character personifying fear itself (a.k.a. Freddy Krueger) has obsessed mythological movie audiences for decades.
Wonder Woman (2017) – Princess of the Amazons Fighting to Protect Humanity
Starring Gal Gadot, the 2017 Wonder Woman adaptation was created by DC Films. Put simply, the film follows Diana Prince, a Louvre art historian / Amazon princess, who sets out to stop World War I. Her quest begins after a pilot crashes on the island nation Themyscira, the shifting female utopia of the Amazonians which is protected from the outside world by a magical fog. The aim of the movie is to establish the background and motivations of the comic book character Wonder Woman.
Historians believe that the Amazons of Greek mythology were a closed society of women, of enormous physical strength. They were mentioned in ancient literature, such as the Iliad, and the Argonautica. Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the Amazons as a tribe of fierce warrior woman, now believed to have been the descendants of the nomadic ancient Scythians and Sarmatian people, according to archaeological discoveries if female warrior burials.
In the movie version, Diana is daughter of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, and niece to Antiope (played by the spectacular Robin Wright), who trained Diana as a warrior. When she finds out about the great war, Diana abandons the island to stop Ares, who has plotted to cause the downfall of humanity. After she kills him, she continues to fight for good as Wonder Woman.
Hellraiser (1987) – The Gateway to Hell
The first in a seemingly never-ending franchise of movies, the 1987 film revolves around a magical puzzle box, supposedly created by a French toymaker known as Philip Lemerchand and named The Lament Configuration. This outwardly innocuous puzzle box has the ability to open up a gateway to Barker’s version of Hell, the world of the Cenobites.
These cenobite demons were once humans, transformed in their quest for physical gratification. Once the box’s gateway is opened, the Cenobites harvest the souls of unwitting victims. In Hellraiser, the character Frank Cotton attempts to escape the Cenobite realm when the blood of his brother reopens gateway, and tries to regenerate his own body with the blood of other victims.
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- Wonder Woman And The Myth Of The Mighty Amazons
Medieval legends talked about gateways to Hell, also known as hellmouths, while similar concepts have been recorded throughout Asia, as well as in Hawaiian and central American mythology. Based on Clive Barker’s 1986 novel, The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser the movie is a modern-day take on ancient legends discussing these mythological concepts.
Coco (2017) – Sharing Aztec Mythology with a Younger Audience
Disney and Pixar joined forces in 2017 to make what The New York Times described as a “family-friendly cartoon about death.” Using color and magical graphics, it manages to share the culture and beliefs of the Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Through the story of Miguel, a young boy who dreams of being a famous musician, it takes viewers on a marvelous journey into the Land of the Dead
Coco even presents its young audience the with the concept of the Xoloitzcuintli, the hairless dogs who guided the souls of the dead through the underworld. It’s a marvelous feat indeed, that a film about death and skeletons, can make you feel quite so warm and, well, fuzzy. The importance of family, both living and dead, and ancestral history comes to the fore in this memorable PG production.
Leprechaun (1993 - 2003) and Hellboy II – The Golden Army (2008) – Representing the Mythical Elementals
Ever since antiquity, the mythical elementals have been associated with the elements of nature. From salamanders and undines, to elves and gnomes, in modern times elementals have been reduced to absurd and comical images like those of Santa's elves. However, in the past, they were highly feared beings, whose existence was not subject to human concepts of morality and conscience, and who considered humans as inferior. In fact, legends place elementals beneath gods, but above humans.
If you’re looking to explore the original legendary concepts of the elementals, it’s worth watching both the Leprechaun horror series and Guillermo del Torro's film Hellboy II – The Golden Army. In fact, Hellboy II is based on a very old myth which talks about the gnome king Mathias, who is said to sit on his throne, albeit asleep, in a giant subterranean room hidden somewhere deep inside the earth along with his army. Legend has it that, when the time comes, a chosen one will unsheathe the sleeping king's sword, thus waking him along with his army and therefore obtaining the chance to change the world.
Child's Play (1988) – Exploring Concepts of Voodoo
Throughout history, African diasporic voodoo has fascinated and terrified, inspired and scared. The 1988 movie Child's Play tells the story of a serial killer who transfers his soul into the body of puppet doll, by invoking Damballah, one of the primary voodoo loa spirits known as a spirit of the sky and a creator of life. Associated with snakes in Haiti and New Orleans, Damballah is also depicted in snake form.
Child’s Play, created by Don Mancini, inspired a franchise of sequels, some of which were box-office sensations. Since he first appeared on the big screen, Chucky, the possessed voodoo doll (which no sane parent would ever buy for their child!) has become a horror movie icon, known for comic and unforgettable one-liners such as “Hi, I’m Chucky. Wanna Play?” or “You just can’t keep a good guy down”.
Top image: Wonder Woman is just one of the mythological movies based on legendary myths told throughout ancient history. Source: Stanislav / Adobe Stock
By Phoenix Vald
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