Mary Sues & Gary Stus in Mythology
Hercules and Lichas
There's No Escape!
Week #7: Mary Sues & Gary Stus in Mythology
To say that the Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu phenomen is new is a total pile of crap. MSs and GSs have been around forever. Mythology is full of them. Some are folktales and fairy tales and legends. These characters are everywhere, and about 85% (at least) of the MS haters don’t get that. Myths and legends have been around forever, and they all include characters that are amazing and larger than life. Remember all the fairy tales you read as a child? Stories like Clever Jack, the little boy who outwits a giant when no man could? We’ve been influenced by that, and whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s eased into every character you or I or anybody has ever created.
Don’t believe me? Well, I’ve listed three Gary-Stus and three Mary-Sues from mythology, legend and folktale and broke the stories down into all the important details. If there’s a hater out there who reads this and doesn’t get my point …
Wow. The thought stuns me so much that I don’t have a witty remark to counter it.
ORIGIN: Irish Mythology
POWERS & TALENTS: Super strength, super speed, “salmon’s leap,” a demigod, possessed the horrific battle frenzy (legs and feet turned backwards, one eyeball sunk all the way to the back of his skull while the other protruded out on a long stalk, blood ran from his hair, his jaw descended,) was taught by the greatest warrior in the world (the woman warrior called Scathach,) was supposed to be drop dead gorgeous and had several beautiful wives and powerful sons.
FLAWS: Rage, bad temper, pride, arrogance, stubbornness, pushy
STORY: According to some variations of the myth (there are MANY), the sun god Lugh held Cu Culhainn’s mother as a “guest” in the Otherworld for 3 years, which during this time Cu Culhainn was conceived. First called Setanta, the hero killed a hunting hound belonging to a nobleman named Cullan, and the boy offered to sell himself into slavery to make up for it. Cullan turned down the offer, but he was impressed by the boy’s honesty and named him Cu Cuhlainn or, “Hound of Cullan.”
Cu Culhainn’s grandfather predicted that if one fought on a particular day it would bring great fame, but before he could finish the prophecy—stating that the warrior may become famous but he’d die and early death—Cu Culhainn still went out and killed dozens of men, revealing his battle frenzy appearance. He had gone so crazy that the incensed queen of Ulster and 150 of her women surrounded him and dunked him into three vats of cold water to snap him out of it—an embarrassing way to end a fantastic battle.
In time Cu Culhainn fell in love with princess Emer, but her father refused to allow them to marry until Cu Culhainn really proved himself as a warrior. Cu Culhainn was directed to go to and train with famous Lady Scathach, the greatest warrior in both the Human and the Otherworld. Cu Culhainn entered the Land of Shadows expecting only a few easy lessons but was stunned when an unimpressed Scathach trounced him. Scathach took him on as her student, teaching him how to fight with a spear and master the incredible “salmon’s leap,” a maneuver that would allow him to jump great distances in battle.
While in the Land of Shadows, Cu Culhainn fell in love with Scathach’s daughter and fathered a son. Shortly afterwards, he decided to challenge Scathach’s sorceress sister Aoife—something that Scathach tried to talk him out of repeatedly. Cu Culhainn was able to win this fight by tricking Aoife, and demands that she become his mistress and give him a son. Scathach’s daughter was so outraged when she learned this that she attacked Aoife, but when Scathach settled the matter she told Cu Culhainn to get out.
At last Cu Culhainn returned to marry Emer, but her father was still unimpressed, leading to a battle with Cu Culhainn and the king’s soldiers. Seeing that he was beaten, Emer’s father committed suicide by leaping off of his castle rather than encountering Cu Culhainn’s battle frenzy.
Later Princess Derbforgaill falls in love with Cu Culhainn and tries to visit him in the form of a swan. Not knowing who she was, he hits her with a sling, then manages to save her life. In doing so he cannot marry her so he gives her to his foster son. She is soon mutilated by 150 jealous women, and Cu Culhainn kills every one of them in vengeance.
Around this same time Cu Culhainn is approached by a young man who refuses to identify himself. Cu Culhainn runs the boy through with his spear, only to discover that he’s his son by Aoife.
When Cu Culhainn was seventeen, powerful Queen Mebd of Connacht’s army swept into Cu Culhainn’s home of Ulster. Mebd is on a quest to capture the Brown Bull of Cooley, an animal that would help cement her status as Ireland’s most dominant queen, but each of her champions is defeated by Cu Culhainn.
During this time, a beautiful young woman approaches Cu Culhainn and offers her love but he dismisses her. Furious, the woman reveals herself to be one of the Morrighan, the triad group of goddesses of war. She attacks him in three animal forms, and each time he severely injures her. When she appears to him a fourth time, she is an old woman with horrible wounds, so Cu Culhainn heals the goddess.
Then he is forced to confront his foster father on the battlefield, but they call a truce. Later Cu Culhainn is forced to fight and kills his foster brother. He once had captured queen Mebd but released her because he didn’t think it was right to kill women.
While still married to Emer, Cu Culhainn falls in love with the fairy woman Fand, but her father passes a cloak between them to wipe out their memories of each other to keep them from marrying.
Finally, Queen Mebd plots with Lugaid, the son of a man Cu Culhainn has killed, waiting until Cu Culhainn has broken all of the taboos placed upon him and thus weakening him. Using a magical spear, Lugaid fights and mortally wounds Cu Culhainn, but, rather than die on his knees, Cu Cuhlainn uses his belt to tie him to a standing stone so he could continue to fight. The Morrighan, in the form of a gloating raven, settled on his shoulder and watched him die.
ORIGIN: Greek mythology
POWERS & TALENTS: Above everything else, superbly strong. Excellent archer. Ladies’ man. In some myths, clever. Brave. A demigod. Used an olive branch club as a primary weapon and used arrows dipped in Hydra poison.
FLAWS: Often drunk. Aggressive. Sexually aggressive. Not particularly smart in some myths. Violent. Stubborn. Demanding. Proud. Challenging. Takes what he wants, and often violently. Some might argue this, but according to the myths he’s a repeated rapist. Murderer. Bad temper. No patience. Occasionally had young boys as romantic partners.
STORY: Hercules is the son of Zeus and Queen Alcmene. While King Amphitryon was away to war, Zeus disguised himself as the king, claimed to be home for a visit, and seduced Alcmene. When the outraged Queen Hera of Olympus iscovered the pregnancy, she delayed the birth of Hercules and his twin brother and instead sped up the birth of their cousin Eurystheus, ensuring that he would become king first.
Hera harassed Alcmene so much that the queen abandoned infant Hercules to die on a hill. In some myths Hermes rescued the baby and brought him to a sleeping Hera to suckle, while others had Athena trick Hera into pitying the unknown baby and nursing him. Hercules caused her such pain that she recognized him and flung him to the ground. Athena saved the baby and returned him to his mortal parents who then named him “Hercules,” translated as, “Glory of Hera” in hopes that it would please her. Instead, Hera sicced two pythons on baby Hercules—who, at a year old, easily killed them.
As a teenager Hercules became so frustrated and angry with his tutor that he beat him to death with his lyre. As punishment he was sent to tend cattle, where during this time he met two nymphs. One offered him an easy life, the other offered him a glorious but difficult one. He chose the glorious life.
Later Hera drove Hercules mad, causing him to murder his wife and sons. In atonement, he placed himself in service of King Eurystheus, who was so terrified of Hercules that he sent him out on Twelve Labors—impossible quests and challenges against horrific monsters—in the hope that he’d be killed. Hercules, though not very bright, was clever enough to trick the Titan Atlas into fetching the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for him, and then figured out that by burning the stumps of the Hydra’s neck that he could prevent the heads from growing back.
Hercules became an Argonaut until his slave and possibly his lover Hylas was lured away by water nymphs and Hercules went to find him.
Hercules competed in an archery contest to win Princess Iole, but when the king reneged on the promise Hercules forcibly kidnapped Iole and killed her father and all but one son, Iphitus. Iphitus and Hercules became friends until Hercules went mad and threw the prince over the city wall. Again, in atonement, he sold himself into slavery this time to Queen Omphale. She forced him to wear women’s clothes and work at a loom, but eventually they married and had a son.
Hercules battled the Divine Eagle and freed Prometheus from his chains on Mount Atlas.
Hercules was forced to kill his centaur teacher Pholus after he accidentally drops a poisoned arrow onto his foot and suffers in agony.
Hercules conquers Troy after he rescues the princess Hesione from a sea monster but the king refuses to honor their deal. Hercules spares Prince Podarces, later known as King Priam.
In order to rescue the Cattle of Geryon from a female dragon monster, Hercules has to have sex with her. He fathers three sons with her.
He fathered 50 sons with 50 Thespian princesses in one night. In total throughout his life Hercules has fathered 84 children.
Hercules fought and defeated a river god in order to win the right to marry Princess Deianira. En route home, Deianira was kidnapped by the centaur Nessus. Hercules shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow, and as the centaur lay dying he told Deianira to dip her mantle into his blood and told her to use it as a love charm, knowing that the Hydra venom in his blood would kill Hercules.
Shortly afterwards Hercules returned home with Iole and planned to marry her. A very upset Deianira gave Hercules the poisoned mantle, which then clung to his skin and burned like acid. In extreme agony, Hercules threw himself onto a funerary pyre and killed himself. He was resurrected and brought to Olympus to live as a god, and there marries Hera’s daughter Hebe.
ORIGIN: English legend
POWERS & TALENTS: Owns the sacred sword Excalibur. Was the only person capable of pulling the Sword from the Stone (not Excalibur.) Allied with Merlin the Wizard, who uses his formidable magic for Arthur’s gains, and the Lady of the Lake, who gave him Excalibur. Rules the beautiful city of Camelot. Married to the beautiful Guinevere. Created and commands the Knights of the Round Table. Defeated monsters and giants. Launched the Quest for the Holy Grail.
FLAWS: Grew more and more proud and overly confident. Spent too much time with the knights and jousting than with Queen Guinevere. Slept with a lot of women and fathered children on them. Didn’t seem to have much respect for women. Drove out the fairies. Ambitious.
STORY (keep in mind that this is drawn from the generally agreed upon mythos—this is not related to any current written fiction): Arthur’s father was Uther Pendragon. With Merlin’s help Uther disguised himself as his enemy Gorlois in order to sleep with his wife Igraine. When Igraine gave birth to Arthur, Merlin took the baby and hid him with Sir Ector to protect him from Uther’s enemies. Uther eventually became king, but he gradually went insane and left no direct heir before he died. When England demanded who would be king, Merlin inserted a sword into a boulder and proclaimed that the one and true king would be the only one who could draw the sword.
On a jousting trip with his foster family, Arthur’s foster brother Kay needed a sword and sent Arthur to find one. The only sword Arthur could find was one stuck in a large rock and he drew it out with ease. He was immediately crowned king.
With Merlin as his advisor, Arthur began to construct the city of Camelot as his capitol. Arthur began campaigns against various warlords and monsters using the sword from the stone, but the sword broke while slaying a giant. Merlin immediately took Arthur to a nearby lake where the fairy Lady of the Lake presented him with the sword Excalibur, asking for it to be returned upon Arthur’s death.
Arthur later married Guinevere and was given the great Round Table from her father as a dowry. Immediately Arthur began to draft plans for a great order of knights to center around this table, leaving his wife lonely and unappreciated, eventually spurring on a chain of events that leads to his downfall.
Arthur summons great knights such as Kay, Percieval, Gwain, and Lancelot—who will become an enemy—to his table. During this time Arthur is seduced by his sorceress half sister Morganna, still angry that Arthur’s father had disposed of her own father and tricked her mother into having sex with him (in other variations they don’t know who the other is and in others she was raped by Arthur.) She conceives their son Mordred, whom she plans to use against Arthur.
When Arthur discovers that any child born on May Day would defeat him, he places all of the babies on a ship and sends it out to sea, with Mordred floating back as the only survivor.
Midway through his reign Arthur orders for his knights to undertake the Quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail was said to be the cup that collected the blood of Christ as he died on the cross, and they believed that no one but the God-fearing knights of Camelot should own such an artifact. It turned out to be a foolish quest, resulting in the deaths of many knights and not one was able to return to Camelot with the Grail.
Arthur had assigned his greatest knight and best friend Lancelot to be the bodyguard to Queen Guinevere. Guinevere was lonely and soon afterwards the two became lovers. During this time an adult Mordred had infiltrated the royal court, and during the uproar caused by the discovery of Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair, Arthur went to war against Lancelot and Mordred was left to rule Camelot.
While Arthur was on his campaign, Mordred announced that King Arthur was dead and then seized the throne. Arthur rushed home and confronted Mordred and his army with Arthur’s own. Nearly every knight there was slain, and while Arthur succeeded in killing Mordred, the prince had already run Arthur through with his sword, mortally wounding the king.
As he lay dying, Arthur instructed his last knight Bedivere to throw Excalibur into a lake, where the Lady of the Lake caught it and brought it back to her home underwater. Shortly afterwards a barge appears in the lake, helmed by Morganna and her attendants. They take the dead King Arthur onto the barge and set sail for Avalon, where he will stay until England cries out for him. When England is in her direst need, King Arthur will awaken and return to defend his country.
ORIGIN: Fairy tale from various European countries
POWERS AND TALENTS: Clever. Beautiful. Smart. Quick thinking. Witty. Adaptable. Skilled.
FLAWS: Shyness. Boldness. Calculating (if you consider those to be flaws)
STORY: Princess Furball was the daughter of a wealthy king who never had any time for her. Her mother had died long ago, and this left the princess in the care of her tutors and the kitchen chefs. She grew to be a beautiful and intelligent young woman.
One day her father announced that he was going to marry her off to a hideous ogre in exchange for ten carts filled with silver. The princess barred herself in her room and refused to come out. When her father threatened to beat down the doors and drag her out, the princess demanded four impossible gifts.
First, she ordered for a dress to be made, one as silvery and sparkling as stars. The king, not to be deterred, ordered the dress to be made. Stunned, the princess then ordered for a dress as blue as the sky and sea to be made, and she was shocked when the king achieved it. Furious, she demanded for a dress as brilliant as the sun to be made. Again, the king achieved it.
Growing frantic, the princess finally demanded that she have a fur coat, one made with the skin of a thousand different animals. She thought that the task would be impossible, but she was crushed by her father’s greed and heartlessness when he returned with the coat.
The night before her wedding, the princess took nine empty walnut shells. In the first three she filled with her favorite spices for soup. In the next three she placed a gold trinket her dead mother had left her: a thimble, a spinning wheel, and a ring. In the final three she folded each of her dresses. Wrapping up her hair, she pulled on the fur coat, climbed out her window and fled into the winter-strewn woods.
She traveled for miles until she became so tired that she climbed up into a hollow log and fell asleep. She woke up in terror to the sound of baying hounds and was suddenly and violently dragged out of the log. She thrashed and screamed until the hunters realized that what they were holding was not a bizarre animal with a thousand different furs, but an outraged and frightened young woman in a heavy fur coat.
As the hunters helped her to her feet, the rest of the hunting party pushed their way through the brush. At the head of the party was a handsome young man, a king from a foreign country. He was surprised to see the disguised princess, and after she spun a believable lie, he said, “You poor little furball. I’ll take you back to my castle. There you can work and have a warm place to sleep.”
The king took Princess Furball to his castle and put her to work in the kitchens. The head chef was very mean to her, and Furball tolerated his abuses only to make sure that her real identity wasn’t discovered and she wasn’t sent back to her father. She cooked and picked herbs and peeled vegetables, working all day until she went to sleep in the woodshed. It was far from her former life, but she preferred this to marrying an ogre.
Eventually Princess Furball fell in love with the king. She’d hide in a doorway and watch him during his banquets until she couldn’t stand it any longer. One night she went back to her shed, combed her hair, washed her face, and put on the sparkling star dress. She couldn’t get into the ball without and invitation, but she took the secret back halls and slipped into the dance unnoticed—until the king saw her. He was taken away by her beauty and they danced until midnight, when she pulled free of his arms and fled into the night.
Pulling on the fur coat, Furball raced down to the kitchen and made the king’s favorite soup. This time she added some of her spices and dropped the gold ring into the soup.
The king was amazed at the quality of the soup and was surprised to find the gold ring at the bottom of the bowl. Knowing that Furball made his soups, he called for her and asked why there was a ring in the dish. Furball acted surprised and said that she didn’t know. The king was confused but dropped the matter.
Several months later, the king held another banquet and Princess Furball appeared in her beautiful blue dress. The king was elated to see her, and they danced until midnight, when she ran away and disguised herself as Furball again. She made his soup with the spices, and this time added the gold spinning wheel. When the king confronted her about it, she denied knowing where the spinning wheel had come from. The king became suspicious.
Two weeks later the king held another ball. The princess returned in her brilliant yellow dress, finding the king anxiously waiting for her. They danced all night, and just before midnight, the king slid the ring onto the princess’s finger. When the bell tolled she bolted back to her shed and pulled on the coat, then made the soup. This time she dropped the gold thimble into the soup.
When the king received his soup, he stirred through it until he found the gold thimble. He demanded to see Furball on the pretense of asking her about the thimble. When the princess arrived she immediately denied leaving the thimble in the soup, but she was distracted and she gasped in shock when the king reached down and grabbed her hand. She had forgotten to take the ring off.
Helping her take the coat off, the king asked her why she had lied to him about who she was. When she told him the truth, the king asked her to marry him, and then made her his queen. They had a beautiful family and lived happily ever after.
ORIGIN: Greek mythology
POWERS AND TALENTS: Very intelligent. Clever. Extremely loyal. Steadfast.
FLAWS: Did not turn away her suitors sooner, leading to the violation of her house, the corruption of her servants, and was unable to protect her son from the suitors’ threats and bullying. Her inability to take control before the suitors took of her house lead to the suicide of her mother in law. Silently endured their threats and harassment.
STORY: Penelope was the loyal and faithful wife of King Odysseus of Ithaca. When he departed for Troy he left Ithaca in the care of Penelope. She was a capable queen and held Ithaca together for the ten years that Odysseus was away in Troy. When rumor reached Ithaca that Odysseus was lost at sea, power-hungry men swarmed Ithaca under the pretext of courting the newly widowed queen.
As holy Greek law stated, Penelope had to host her guests, and she provided them with food and rooms. But the suitors became rowdy and harassing, vandalizing her home, refusing to leave, and trying to force her into choosing one of them. Greek law also stated that guests who violate the home of a host must be severely punished, but Penelope had allowed too many suitors into her palace and now things were out of control.
Penelope never gave up hope that Odysseus was alive and she refused to marry any of the suitors. This made the men angry and they threatened violence and destruction if she didn’t choose one soon, so Penelope replied that she had to finish weaving a tapestry for the goddess Artemis, and all of her focus had to be on that task first.
The men relented a bit, leaving Penelope to weave the tapestry during the day. At night she snuck back into the room and tore the threads out of the tapestry. She would reweave the tapestry during the day but unravel it during the night again, doing this for ten years until one of her maids betrayed the secret to a suitor. The outraged suitor burst into her room and smashed the loom and the tapestry. He ordered for Penelope to make her choice, and the stunned but calm queen replied that she would make her choice the next morning ….
But there had to be a test first.
The next morning, Penelope presented the test to the suitors: the one who could string King Odysseus’s bow and successfully shoot through the holes of a row of twelve battle axes would be her husband and the new king of Ithaca. She then left the room, turning away her face so the suitors couldn’t see her smug expression; only Odysseus knew how to properly string that bow. The suitors would never be able to do it.
While waiting in the women’s quarters, Penelope and her maids were warned by a servant that there was about to be a massacre in the banquet hall. Penelope rounded up the women and barricaded the doors, keeping the frightened women calm as they listened to the screams outside.
At last, the servant returned to the women’s quarters and told the queen that it was safe to come out. The old man told her that the real King Odysseus had returned. Penelope was suspicious and followed the servant into the great hall, where Odysseus sat in his throne. The man looked like Odysseus, but he was older and worn, and gods have a way of disguising themselves.
The man insisted that he was Odysseus and, not thoroughly convinced, clever Penelope turned to her servants and said, “Fine. If he says that he’s Odysseus, then I must believe him. Go and return our bed to the center of the room.”
Horrified, Odysseus leapt to his feet and cried, “You moved our bed? Penelope, how could you? I carved that bed myself, out of the great olive tree that grows in the middle of our room! Why would you cut it down?”
Only Odysseus could have known about their bed carved into the trunk of the tree, and a sobbing Penelope threw herself into his arms. He wept too, happy to be home and laughing at his wife’s ingenuity.
POWERS AND TALENTS: Goddess of love and sex (not marriage), extramarital affairs. War. Rebirth. Mating and fertility. Childbirth. Rain. Matron of sacred prostition.
FLAWS: Anger. Vindictive. Challenging. Relentless. Easily insulted.
STORY: Inanna is known for having tried to seduce king Gilgamesh, but her story goes back much further. Once she received a message from her sister, the queen of death Ereshkigal, which prompted Inanna to descend into the Underworld. The exact reasons aren’t known, and Inanna’s favorite servant begged her to merely send a note in return. Inanna refused.
Adorning herself with her best jewels, dresses and veils, Inanna proceeded to descend into the underworld, telling her servants that if she had not returned by summertime, someone must go after her. With that said, Inanna strode into the darkness, walking until she had found the first of the seven gates.
There the watchman stared at the Queen of Heaven as she demanded entrance. When she furiously asked if he knew who she was, he just stared. When Inanna threatened to smash down the walls of the Underworld and free all of its monsters, the watchman said that he would let her pass if she would give him her crown.
Thinking little of it, Inanna gave the man her crown, and he let her pass. At the second gate the watchman demanded her earrings, which she gave up. At the third the watchman ordered for to surrender her necklace, which she did.
As Inanna continued on, her beauty and power began to wane. When she found the fourth gate, Inanna gave up her cloak and actually became cold. At the fifth she removed her sandals. At the sixth gate Inanna gave the watchman her belt, and at the seventh and final gate she gave up her dress. Now she walked cold and naked into the palace of her dark sister, the corpse-like Ereshkigal.
Inanna shakily announced herself to her sister, and the vile Ereshkigal responded, “Foolish sister, you have entered the house of death. For you, there is no escape. You have come here to die.”
Outraged, Inanna lunged for her sister, but in a blast of black power Ereshkigal struck her dead. Lifting Inanna’s body, Ereshkigal ran a massive hook through her dead sister’s corpse, and left it to hang and rot on the wall.
On the world above the sun grew dim and the plants began to die, and all of the gods knew that Inanna was dead. The god Enki created two small demons, gave them the water of life and sent them to the Underworld. The demons scurried into the palace, and Ereshkigal watched as they pulled down Inanna’s body and poured the water of life on her.
“Take her,” Ereshkigal said bitterly. “But understand that she must send another in her place.”
The demons carried Inanna to the above world, and she immediately searched for a victim to take her place in the Underworld. At last she found her husband Dumuzi, not mourning her as he should—and is with another woman! Just as the Queen of Heaven was about to strike her husband down, the woman leapt to her feet and proclaimed to be Dumuzi’s sister, and that she would willingly take his place in the Underworld.
Inanna was not completely pleased with the offer, but she was able to make a compromise: Dumuzi’s sister would spend half the year in the Underworld hanging on that rusted hook, and Dumuzi would spend the other half there, his body festering and fly ridden just as Inanna’s body had been.
This satisfies Inanna.
Books You Should Read: Myths
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Did you know there's such thing as a Mary-Sue villain? Yup, a villain that's incredibly evil and impossible to stop and has zero depth or motivation. If you have an MS villain, time to fix it!!
A common accusation regarding Mary Sues is that they're just a stand-in for the authors themselves. Hey, guess what? That's not a bad thing--and a lot of famous authors are guilty of the same thing.
She sang, she danced, she acted, she fought for civil rights, she spied on the Nazis ... is there anything Josephine Baker *didn't* do?