Film & TV · Mythology

Wonder Woman: the Descent and Return of the Goddess

In the post on Aries Myths we met the Sumerian battle goddess Inanna: a fertility goddess and force of nature with roots that extend back into prehistory. She’s not a figure you would expect to pop up in a Hollywood movie, but then along came Wonder Woman. Unlike many superhero movies, it isn’t afflicted with the snark bug. There’s no nihilistic banter or ironic asides. Wonder Woman is an enjoyable film with a positive, life-affirming message.

“I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind.” – Patty Jenkins

Much has been made of the film’s feminist credentials and its general attitude of trolling the patriarchy. Diana Prince is guileless and open and totally immune to the everyday sexism she encounters in the World of Men. But aside from the positive tone, the story is similar to other superhero movies, just with a female lead instead. This is a Good Thing in itself, but probably not enough for the film to qualify as world-changing.

The most interesting thing for me, though, comes from changes made to the mythology. This always happens in Hollywood movies and perhaps it’s unwise to read too much into it. But whether it means anything or not, there are still some valuable insights to be drawn from the film. So in this post I want to focus on the spiritual meaning of the story and look at some of the symbolism, especially the differences between the original Greek mythology compared to the film.

There will, of course, be !!MASSIVE SPOILERS!!

Team Misfit

The story begins at the Louvre in Paris where Diana Prince has her office (and cover) as a collector of antiquities. The entire film plays out as a memory of her first experience of the world, triggered by the photograph she receives from Bruce Wayne – a reference to the previous film in the DC universe: Batman v Superman. The story goes like this:

Diana grows up with the Amazons on an island hidden from the world. She trains with Antiope so she can fight to defend humanity against Ares, the God of War, but it’s clear Diana isn’t like the other Amazons. There’s something special about her. When a plane crashes into the sea, Diana rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor, a spy on a mission for British Intelligence in World War I. He’s pursued by the Germans, who attack the island. The Amazons fight (awesome!) and win, but Antiope is killed. Diana is convinced the war has been caused by Ares, and leaves the island with Steve, taking the sword she believes is the Godkiller (and some nifty new togs.)

Steve takes Diana to London to deliver a notebook he stole from Dr. Poison, a mad scientist who also happens to be a woman. The notebook contains her formula for a new chemical weapon. Diana wants to go to the front line, find Ares and kill him because she believes that will end the war. Steve puts a team of misfits together, with financial backing from Sir Patrick Morgan, a politician trying to negotiate an armistice, and off they all go to Belgium.

There’s some bonding. There’s some fighting. Diana learns hard lessons about the nature of humanity and the complications of war and life and that kind of thing. When she kills General Ludendorff, the man she believes is Ares, and the war doesn’t stop, she’s disillusioned. Steve goes off to blow himself up, along with the chemical weapons, leaving Diana to deal with the real Ares – who turns out to be masquerading as Sir Patrick. She stabs him with the Godkiller sword but it disintegrates, and Ares reveals that it’s her: Diana is the Godkiller.

Ares messes with Diana’s head and tries to get her to go along with his little plan to destroy humanity. There’s more fighting. And shouting. Lots of lightning gets thrown around. Diana almost gives in, but then remembers how much she loves humanity, despite their faults. Ares blasts her with his lightning. She catches it, crosses her wrists and sends it back, and obliterates him.

Wonder Woman/Inanna enters No Man’s Land

Ancient Greeks become Christians

The Amazons in Wonder Woman were inspired by the Amazons of Greek myth, although there are some differences. In the film, the Amazons were created by Zeus and given the island of Themyscira as their home. They’re led by their Queen, Hippolyta, and her sister, Antiope, as their military commander.

But in the original myth, Otrera was the Queen of the Amazons and mother to both Hippolyta and Antiope. Their father was Ares. The rest of the Amazons were also fathered by Ares, but born to the nymph Harmonia. Ares was the son of Zeus, but he didn’t particularly hate humans; he just liked fighting – a lot.

None of this is much of a problem, story-wise – they could’ve made it work. In fact, it plugs into the Aries mythology of killing the negative father to renew life and claim your true identity. Instead, the film collides two different belief systems and this creates some issues…

Here’s a clip of Hippolyta explaining the history of the Amazons to Diana, plus some secret training sessions with Antiope:

So Zeus created humans and made them good and wise, but then Ares messed things up and corrupted mankind and turned them against each other. Zeus then made the Amazons to remind humans about love, but humans enslaved the Amazons, forcing them to fight for their freedom. When Zeus came to the defence of the Amazons, Ares went mental and killed all the gods, including Zeus. But before Zeus died, he created the Godkiller: the only weapon capable of killing Ares.

I’m going to sidestep the ‘You can’t kill gods because they’re immortal’ argument because it’s silly. This is just the typical “God is dead, we’re on our own, and man is the measure of all things,” lunacy of humanism. Wonder Woman even demolishes a church steeple to take out a sniper during a fight (see the clip in the Aries Myths post).

However, later in the film, the real message kicks in and that’s when we discover that Zeus isn’t Zeus, and Ares isn’t Ares, and Diana is…

But before we get there, I need to tackle the creation of the Amazons. Zeus created them to remind mankind how to return to the light, which makes them sound like angels. The Amazons were created to serve Zeus, just as angels are created to serve God. In the film, we see them emerging, naked, from the sea:

The Amazons emerge from the sea…

This made me think of mermaids or sirens, but then I remembered Aphrodite, the goddess of love, coming out of the sea in her shell. Aphrodite is the Greek version of Inanna, linking the Amazons to the fertility cults of the Goddess and the ritual of sacred marriage.

So the history of the Amazons in the film appears to be about the fall of the Goddess cults and the rise of the patriarchy. It’s often believed that the goddess-based cultures were more peaceful, living closer to nature and without a pesky ego to cause problems. I’m not sure that’s strictly true – there was a lot of sacrifice and death, hence Inanna being a battle goddess too.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Zeus backed the Amazons, but in the original myths, he was the one leading the charge against the older goddess religions (refer: him killing Typhon). Zeus was the new kid on the block, the ultimate patriarch, and he wasn’t about to hand his power over to (gasp!) a woman.

Zeus fails to kill Ares…

But in Wonder Woman, Zeus has morphed into Yahweh, the creator god of the Bible. In the film, he’s is shown zapping Ares in a way reminiscent of the fresco of The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. The film presents a Christianised Zeus, who created humans and Amazons. Diana was also made from clay and given life by Zeus in the same way that God made Adam from dust in Genesis.

In the film, Zeus/God created humans in his own image as fair and good, but humans turned out to be flawed. Does this mean that Zeus/God is flawed? Not if you have another god fiddling with the creation – enter Ares. It’s Ares who poisoned men’s minds and turned them against each other.

So now we have a Christianised Ares who has morphed into the Devil. Ares hates humanity because Zeus prefers them over him and the other gods. He messes with their heads and gets himself blown up by Zeus for his trouble. This sounds like the war in heaven between the angels, ending with Lucifer being thrown out and cast down into the pit.

However, the story is closer to the mythology of Iblis found in Islam. Iblis is banished from heaven and becomes Satan because he refuses to bow down before Adam. He then seeks revenge by turning humans against God in a way similar to Ares in the film. But Iblis isn’t an angel, like Lucifer, because angels can’t disobey God. Iblis is a Jinn, made from fire.

Ares being Iblis, possibly

So much for Greek mythology. What about the Goddess?

Goddess Symbolism in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is bursting with goddess symbolism, which isn’t surprising. The name Diana relates to the Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon, who is equivalent to the Greek goddess Artemis. Diana is a maiden goddess and never married. She’s fiercely independent and often shown dressed in a short tunic and armed with a bow and arrow.

The word Diana has the same root as words for ‘daylight’ and ‘god’, and the goddess was often called Diana Lucifera – the Bringer of Light – because as the moon, she turned night into day. Lucifera is the feminine version of Lucifer and both were used as epithets for gods and equated with the Morning Star, i.e. Venus.

The link to Venus is also shown on Wonder Woman’s tiara:

Clockwise from top: detail of Mesopotamian star on stele of King Melishipak; symbol version of Star of Inanna/Ishtar; Diana’s tiara

Venus has an eight year cycle with the Earth that traces a 5-pointed star in the sky and produces the pattern of a rose and a heart. The 8-pointed star was often used to symbolise the heavens, but then became associated with Inanna, and therefore, Venus. It’s interesting that Wonder Woman’s version looks more like a Christian cross with a smaller cross at an angle behind it.

As we’ve already seen, Inanna is a fertility goddess with roots in pre-patriarchal cultures that honoured the cycles of nature. There are many myths that involve the descent of a goddess into the underworld, followed by a return to life. Inanna visits her dark sister, Ereshkigal, and is hung on a meat hook to rot. But through careful preparation, she contrives to return to life and ascends back to her throne as Queen of Heaven.

These myths represent the union of life and death. The descent and return are spiral paths, with life at one end and death at the other, endlessly spiralling into and out of each other. The Great Goddess contains both the dark and the light, which is why Inanna and Ereshkigal are sisters: one at each end of the spiral.

Amazons interrogate Steve Trevor in the throne room

In Wonder Woman, the Amazons have a pretty impressive temple in a cave that has three thrones. These represent the triple goddess, the phases of the moon, and the three phases of a woman’s life. Behind the thrones are two circles and a spiral. The circles might represent the moon, or perhaps the cycle of life, unity, wholeness, or Mother Earth.

Spirals are one of the most ancient symbols and they’re often found in cave art and petroglyphs. They’re sometimes thought to represent the Sun, but they were also used to depict the creation of the world. The spiral is a profound symbol of evolution and involution. Spiralling clockwise brings things into being and gives them life, while going anticlockwise dissolves them back into the void.

So the spiral is the journey of life into death and back again. It’s the turning of the World Axis around the pole star at the top of the World Mountain or Tree. It could also refer to the hidden or secret sun around which this galaxy spins – thought to be Sirius – and the real cause of the precession of the equinoxes.

The spiral is also a labyrinth and the inward journey into enlightenment at the still centre of the heart – the interior equivalent of the pole star.

Before leaving the goddess symbolism, there’s one more to mention: the sacred mound or omphalos or World Navel – the centre of the goddess’ womb and the source of all life. This is clearly represented by the island paradise of Themyscira: a scared mound surrounded by water. We also get a glimpse of the World Mountain (a later version of the same idea) in Olympus, the home of the gods, as well as the pyramid outside the Louvre at the start of the film.

The Deification of Diana

Diana takes her own spiral journey of descent and return over the course of the film. She starts out naïve and childlike, driven by her passion and ideals. She meets various humans who are all fighting their own inner battles, and learns about the complexity of life away from paradise. Like Inanna, she’s stripped of her ideals and goes through disillusionment before she can be reborn.

There’s a good reason for this. Diana needs to experience the full range of love and loss before she can tap her true powers and defeat Ares. She has to become whole.

At the end of the film, Ares reveals that humanity is flawed after all. Humanity was never as good as Zeus and the Amazons believed, and Ares knew it. He argues that he’s the God of Truth, not War, because he has revealed mankind’s true nature by giving them enough rope to condemn themselves. It’s humans who choose to do bad things. He may put ideas into their heads, but they act on those ideas.

When Steve sacrifices himself to save the others, Diana loses her shit and Ares encourages her anger – like the Emperor goading Luke in Star Wars, or Satan baiting Jesus in the wilderness. Ares tells Diana that the humans don’t deserve her, and for a moment, she believes him.

But then she remembers Steve’s goodness and his sacrifice, and understands its significance. She sees the potential mankind has to be good and that love is our true purpose. She takes the lightning Ares fires at her and turns it against him.

Diana flies up and hovers in the air in the classic Jesus pose – arms out – and zaps Ares into oblivion.

Diana has become the Godkiller. But what is it that actually kills Ares? Is it the lightning, or is it something else?

Diana defeats Ares by wielding the power of the gods: the lightning. This is the fire of the gods, the fire that Zeus used to create the world and give it life. Ares also possesses this fire, but he can’t wield it the way Diana does. So what makes Diana different to Ares?

When Diana crosses her wrists it symbolises the balancing of the opposites: feminine and masculine, life and death. Her wrists connect and it closes a circuit. She has mastered the lightning of the gods and has become the new link between heaven and earth, gods and humans.

Perhaps by loving a flawed human (Steve) she has taken on some of his humanity, or perhaps she just understands humanity better because of her experience. She descended into hell and witnessed the darkness in humanity and transmuted it into compassion. But she couldn’t use this power of love until she had been through the descent. Her experience of darkness allowed her to master the light.

It wasn’t the fire of the gods that stopped Ares – it was Love.

“I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light and learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world…” – Diana Prince

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Images: Film Stills; Stele Star; Symbol

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