Otto Rank (1884-1939) was a protégé of Sigmund Freud; although they eventually had theoretical and personal differences. Rank extended psychoanalytic theories to myth and art. His ideas about the psychology undergirding mythology, particularly hero myths, influenced Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. In fact, Campbell footnotes Rank on the first page of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), a book that would almost totally eclipse Rank’s 1909 work The Myth of the Birth of the Hero.
Using the methodology and terminology of Freudian psychoanalysis, Rank concluded that hero myths across cultures fulfilled universal psychological needs. He examined a wide array of Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, Germanic, and Indian narratives and discovered similar patterns in hero myths across cultures.
“The standard saga itself may be formulated according to the following outline: The hero is the child of most distinguished parents, usually the son of a king. His origin is preceded by difficulties, such as continence, or prolonged barrenness, or secret intercourse of the parents due to external prohibition or obstacles. During or before the pregnancy, there is a prophecy, in the form of a dream or oracle, cautioning against his birth, and usually threatening danger to the father (or his representative). As a rule, he is surrendered to the water, in a box. He is then saved by animals, or by lowly people (shepherds), and is suckled by a female animal or by an humble woman. After he has grown up, he finds his distinguished parents, in a highly versatile fashion. He takes his revenge on his father, on the one hand, and is acknowledged, on the other. Finally he achieves rank and honors.”
The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, 1914 edition, pg. 65
The full text can be found at:
Let’s take a closer look at Rank’s pattern in birth of the hero stories and see how it might apply to a comic book superhero, the Marvel Comics characters Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The information below is based on these characters as they have been portrayed in comic books, rather than in movies, video games, etc.
1. The hero is the child of most distinguished parents, usually the son of a king.
Wanda and Pietro’s mother, Magda, is a gypsy and their father, Max Eisenhardt (later known as Erik Magnus Lehnsherr) is from a middle class German family. However, after Max’s mutant power manifest he takes on the identity of Magneto and puts himself forward as the leader of mutant-kind. Magneto briefly conquers the nation of Santo Marco. For a time, he is the ruler of the nation of Genosha. In the storyline known as “House of M,” Wanda uses her magic to warp reality and make mutants the dominant species on the planet. Magneto essentially rules the world until reality is reset.
2. His origin is preceded by difficulties, such as continence, or prolonged barrenness, or secret intercourse of the parents due to external prohibition or obstacles.
Pietro and Wanda’s parents, Max and Magda, are survivors of the Holocaust. Max is also a powerful mutant. There are a number of conflicting narratives about when his powers emerge. In one version Max first makes dramatic use of his power the night Magda and their first child, Anya, are trapped in a burning building. Max rescues Magda, but as he tries to save Anya he is hampered by police. Max lashes out with his power, killing the police and part of a gathered crowd. Traumatized by her daughter’s death and terrified of her husband, whom she now considered to be a monster and a madman, Magda flees. Unknown to Max, she is pregnant with twins at the time.
3. During or before the pregnancy, there is a prophecy, in the form of a dream or oracle, cautioning against his birth, and usually threatening danger to the father (or his representative).
The ghost of Magnus, a 6th Century wizard, warns that the elder demon Chthon has been mystically imprisoned beneath Mount Wundagore, and should he ever be set free he would bring chaos to Earth. The sky over Wundagore Mountain is filled with mysterious light the night Wanda and Pietro are born and the new-born Wanda briefly glows with the same light. Darkholder cultist and part-time werewolf Gregor Russoff is summoning Chthon as Magda gives birth to the twins. The High Evolutionary and his Knights of Wundagore manage to banish Chthon once again, but before he is defeated Chthon places a portion of his essence and reality warping powers within the infant Wanda, with the intention that she will one day serve as the vessel for his resurrection.
4. As a rule, he is surrendered to the water, in a box.
There is no water involved, but their foster parents do first see them floating in the air in a box, which is a bit out of the ordinary.
5. He is then saved by animals, or by lowly people (shepherds),
As the time nears to give birth, Magda seeks refuge at the citadel of the High Evolutionary atop Wundagore Mountain. As his grandiose names indicates, the High Evolutionary is not exactly lowly, but he is surrounded by intelligent animals he has evolved. Turning his attention to more pressing matters, the High Evolutionary leaves Magda in the care of Bova, an evolved cow.
Magda fears that Max will find her, and she does not want him to know he has children. Soon after giving birth she flees the citadel in the midst of a blizzard. It is assumed she freezes to death somewhere on the mountain. The High Evolutionary gives the infant twins to a gypsy couple, Django and Marya Maximoff, who had lost their own twin children during the war.
6. and is suckled by a female animal or by an humble woman.
Bova has aspects of both animal and humble woman. She is an evolved cow with a humble demeanor and wears the garb of a peasant woman. The twins’ foster mother Marya Maximoff is a simple gypsy woman.
7. After he has grown up, he finds his distinguished parents in a highly versatile fashion.
Because Magneto has saved Wanda from a mob that intended to burn her as a witch, Pietro and Wanda feel obligated to join Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Yet neither the twins nor Magneto knows they are his children.
Magneto eventually discovers the truth. Soon after the birth of his granddaughter, Luna, Magneto reveals the truth to Wanda and Pietro.
8. He takes his revenge on his father, on the one hand, and is acknowledged, on the other.
Wanda desires a connection with her father and is anxious to believe that there is good in him. Pietro has a stormier relationship with his father, sometimes fighting by his side and sometimes fighting against him. Even during the times they are reconciled, Magneto tends to practice tough love.
When Wanda warps reality to give her friends and family their fondest wishes, Pietro proudly rules by his father’s side as part of the House of Magnus. Wanda creates a doppelganger to appear at all the Magnus family official functions so that she can devote her time to raising her (possibly imaginary) children.
- Finally he achieves rank and honors.
Wanda and Pietro go from being villains to being long-time members of the Avengers superhero team. After first opposing him, Pietro join Magneto in ruling the nation of Genosha. During the House of M event Magneto and his children are the royal house that rules over all mutants, the dominant species on the planet.