The Reading Room

Marvel’s Eternals and Miltonic Euhemerism: Making Gods

The Eternals, the latest installment in the Marvel cinematic universe, premiered this weekend. While the Marvel universe has not been incorporated into the Online Library of Liberty—surely a temporary oversight—one of the film’s heroes is Gilgamesh, whose Sumerian epic is not only in the Library, but is the source of its “amagi” symbol (the earliest written reference to “liberty”).
I haven’t seen this latest incarnation of The Eternals yet, but I have been reading Jack Kirby’s original series which introduced these characters to the Marvel universe. One of the film’s producers, Nate Moore, has suggested that the new film is more closely based on Kirby’s original run than on Neil Gaiman’s more recent (and more popular) revision of the series.
While I am skeptical that the film draws in any serious way on Kirby’s mid-to-late 70s storylines, the Marvel universe as a whole certainly invokes the cosmic scope embraced by Kirby in his later work, both at DC and ultimately at Marvel in The Eternals. As it happens, this aspect of Kirby’s original series put me in mind of another author featured in the OLL: John Milton. In particular, I am interested in the ways in which Kirby’s world creation in The Eternals echoes the euhemerist narratives found in the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Recognizing the euhemerist element in Kirby’s own world-building, I think, helps to illuminate both the pleasures and the perils of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
So what, exactly, is euhemerism? It’s a fancy word for the belief that myths develop out of stories about historical events and rulers that are (accidentally or intentionally) transformed into religious accounts of deities. Originally a mode of atheistic rationalism for Greek skeptics, Christian authors quickly recognized the power of euhemerism as a tool for undermining the legitimacy of competing religions.
Milton’s particular flavor of euhemerism in Paradise Lost involves presenting the fallen angels or devils of his Christian cosmology as the founders of competing religions, both competitors to Judaism identified in the Old Testament as well as the pantheon of classical deities. Though Milton was hardly the first to make these claims, his invocation of euhemerist thinking in Paradise Lost is surely the most frequent introduction to these ideas for contemporary English readers.
In fact, Kirby’s Eternals were also inspired by a work of euhemerism, albeit a more recent one. Released in 1968, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? popularized the idea that surprisingly advanced architecture in “primitive” cultures was evidence of past visits by aliens (rather than of human ingenuity), and that both primitive art and mythology contain descriptions of these aliens and their spacecrafts.
Kirby builds on von Däniken’s euhemerism by presenting his Eternals—genetically-enhanced creations of the alien Celestials—as the “misremembered” originals of classical mythology: Zuras (for Zeus), Thena (for Athena), Makkari (for Mercury), Sersi (for, well, Sersi) His narrative incorporates other mythologies as well. The classically-named Ajax, for instance, is also presented as the deity behind both Incan and Aztec mythologies, while Ikarus (for Icarus) and Druig are presented as the descendants of the leader of the Polar Eternals, perhaps suggesting that they are based (in character if not in name) on Norse mythology’s Thor and Loki, whom Kirby had already incorporated into the Marvel universe during his time at the company in the 60s.
Despite their rather significant differences, two factors unite both Milton’s and von Däniken’s euhemerism. First, both move away from the skeptical origins of the euhemerist tradition by positing speculative rather than rational or empirical premises as the historical events on which mythologies were developed. Whether real or imagined, neither alien visitors nor Christian cosmology offer a less speculative alternative than the mythologies they aim to replace. This means that they are rationalizing rather than rational hypotheses.
Second, both of these euhemerist narratives are reductive, seeking to replace a diversity of stories and accomplishments with a single master-narrative. In each case, the religious wisdom of multiple traditions are reduced to the single story of either demonic seductions into idolatry or misunderstandings of alien encounters. These accounts reduce the diversity of human experience into a unified and more orderly (though not more rational) story, but at the expense of a wider chorus of competing voices and narratives.
While it seems unlikely that Kirby was committed to the truth of von Däniken’s claims so much as to their value as fodder for an appealing comic book yarn, the world-building vision of The Eternals was one that implicitly favored a rationalizing master-narrative over the expression of diverse voices.
Ironically, Kirby himself ran into difficulties with the desire of his employers to craft even a loose master-narrative for their comic book universe. Marvel understandably wanted to incorporate their new comic book series into the Marvel universe—but Kirby resisted folding his own story into the company’s larger narrative world. Though he acknowledged the existence of Marvel characters as comic book heroes within the world of The Eternals, he resisted officially incorporating his new creations into the existing Marvel universe.
So strong was his resistance that, rather than allowing a guest appearance by the Hulk (a character of his own creation), Kirby insisted on writing a two-issue showdown between his Eternals and a Maryland Institute of Technology robot Hulk, built by students as a mascot for an football game, that was accidentally energized and animated by “cosmic energy” to become a fully Hulk-like combatant. Within six months, Kirby would leave Marvel comics yet again, at least in part because of his resistance to having his personal vision sullied by the demands for a unified Marvel voice.
Not unlike the Marvel comic universe, the Marvel cinematic universe raises similar questions about the appropriate balance between the individual voices of creators and an over-arching “brand” style. While it would be unfair to suggest that no Marvel products demonstrate a unique voice—the dead pan humor of the Deadpool movies and the quirky Disney+ WandaVision series offer clear counter-examples—the impulse to unified world creation is a central virtue of this universe.
That virtue, however, must be weighed against the restriction of unique voices within Marvel universe. I do not think that it is an accident that most innovative (and satisfying) movie involving a Marvel character in the recent past was the animated Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, licensed to Sony Pictures and not restricted by a commitment to maintaining the vision of the MCU. While there is an undeniable magnificence to comprehensive world-building, I am more inclined to favor a diversity of voices over a master-narrative.