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Ancient Egyptian Hawkman

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When Hawkman debuted in the pages of Flash Comics in 1939 we were introduced to Carter Hall, a man who was the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian prince, Khufu. There have been countless additions to his story over the 79 years of his existence in comics, cartoons and live action television, but the idea that he was once a member of the ancient Egyptian royal elite has been kept relatively intact for much of his life on the page. But was any of this origin in any way drawn from real life? Is there any fact in the fiction? Like Carter Hall I'm a self-studied "armchair Egyptologist" so when it came to writing about Hawkman for Hawkman Day on November 10th, using ancient Egypt as my topic was a no-brainer.

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For anyone not familiar the origin begins with Carter Hall receiving a strange gift that sets him on his path to becoming the winged warrior. That gift comes in the form of a glass dagger of seemingly ancient Egyptian design and when he takes hold of it for the first time, Carter falls asleep. His dreams take him back to the distant past and he remembers a life cut short with his great love Chay-Ara at the hands of the villain Hath-Set; and his identity as Prince Khufu.

 

 

 

 

King Khnum-Khufu, whose name translates roughly to "[god] Khnum protects me" (and known by the incorrectly used term Pharaoh) was born in 2609 BCE in the 4th Dynasty and according to the Turin Kings List ruled for 23 years. Not much is known about this king and his reputation of greatness exists primarily because of his monumental legacy, the Great Pyramid of Giza. We may never know exactly why Khufu was chosen for the origin of Hawkman (beyond his fame associated with the Great Pyramid). Khufu was not known by the title of "prince" at the time of his death and Khufu was likely chosen for his popularity at the time. Later retcons (of which there are plenty) would adjust Hawkman's ancient Egyptian name to Khufu Maat Kha-Tar and that he lived during 1260 BCE, or the 19th Dynasty. Ramses II was king of Egypt during this time but there is no indication that any of his 28 sons were named Khufu, or Kha-Tar. I very much enjoy the idea that Hawkman was an undiscovered son of Ramses II, as the Middle Kingdom of Egypt was a time of prosperity in almost every way. Almost 1500 years after the building of the Great Pyramid and long after the age of the pyramids in general it was a time where temples flourished and were exceedingly elaborate and decorated. Art was everywhere. The height of the Middle Kingdom is probably the closest match to the popular modern consensus on what ancient Egypt looked like and in the world of the comic book, image goes a long way.

 

 

Hawkman is known well by his image as a winged warrior and in ancient Egypt there was a mythological being who fits that image quite well. The god Horus, known in multiple forms in ancient Egypt such as "Heru Sa-Aset" (Horus, Son of Isis), was a commonly revered falcon deity that many of the ancient Egyptian monarchs associated themselves with for the animal's prowess in the sky to oversee the land and strike its prey swiftly from above. Early kings even believed that they took on his power and became him in death, similar to how Hawkman, in so many ways became the vengeful and protective war god. There is a mythological account of a battle between Horus and his uncle Set, the god of storms and chaos and, that Carter Hall would come face to face with a villain known as Hath-Set seems to have another layer connecting Hawkman to his ancient Egyptian origins. In the myth Set initially defeats Horus and the younger god vows to overcome his uncle in the end. Horus is victorious in the end and defeats Set in a battle for the crown of Egypt.

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Set is not a truly villainous deity though. In truth, all of the hundreds of known ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses exist in a state balanced between what we consider good and evil. Set is no different and in many myths is considered a heroic figure. During the Old Kingdom it was acceptable for temples to Set to be built, where he was worshipped as the primal and necessary force that he was. In many modern interpretations though, Set takes on purely villainous characteristics through oversimplification. Hath-Set in the comics is named after Set, in a way complimentary to ancient practice. There are famous kings, for example Seti and his descendants, who take his name to reference his strength. So, even though Set isn't really a villain he does make for a good adversary and that Hath-Set would start Khufu on his path to becoming Hawkman, by killing him and his great love with a special dagger made of glass, does contain some vague allusions to the battle between Horus and Set. That Hawkman and Chay-Ara would enter themselves into a cycle of endless rebirth for justice is surprisingly appropriate.

 

 

The concept of reincarnation is an accepted part of the ancient Egyptian cycle of life. To them though, when a person died their soul would traverse the underworld and their heart would be weighed to determine their moral standing. People who upheld positive values of life were granted access to their concept of heaven, which was essentially an idealized version of the world, but one free of the hardships we face day to day. They would have immortality to live in this world, free of sickness or death. When Carter Hall is murdered, Hath-Set unwittingly sends him on a journey through time, cursed to die and be reborn and ultimately defeat him. There is a healthy dose of these ancient beliefs adapted into the origin of a comic book character; an ancient Egyptian prince who was given, because of his virtue to fulfill the promise of the cosmos and live forever.

 

While the individual details may change over time and new truths are added into Hawkman's origin, there is still a significant amount of ancient Egyptian influence. The character has soared for 79 years and counting, thrilling us with tales of excitement and adventure. Much like the Great Pyramid of Giza, Hawkman lives forever with an unmistakable image and rich history of his own. By drawing on a timeless mythology Hawkman was created as the modern Horus and his stories have entered into modern myth.

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The Greatest Comic Book Covers #3
Norm Breyfogle: 1960 - 2018

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Comments 1

Nate Silver on Saturday, 10 November 2018 21:47

A point to clarify: the 19th Dynasty is part of the New Kingdom and the text confusingly suggested Rameses II was king during the Middle Kingdom. Sorry for the confusion, folks!

A point to clarify: the 19th Dynasty is part of the New Kingdom and the text confusingly suggested Rameses II was king during the Middle Kingdom. Sorry for the confusion, folks!
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