Back to the Tribe

The Digital Mythology of… Super Mario

Many people say that myths and superstitions are a thing of the past. They say that they are the mark of a backwards culture and that our globalized society has been smart enough to move beyond them. But did we really? Did we do the right thing dismissing superstition and mythology as mere folly? Maybe, the important question to ask here is: is there really no myth left in the next nature?

Mythology still surrounds us, we just relate to it differently

Mythology served a purpose in the old days: to help humans make sense of the world around them. It helped people go through the hardships and the events of life in a meaningful and positive way. The world was filled with spirits and gods, gnomes and fairies, and by attributing importance to them, the ancient man was able to navigate its own universe in a better way.

Ancient greek vase portraying level 12 of “The Path of Hercules” facing  Cerberus, the three headed guardian-dog of the underworld.

Today, it is no different. Mythology still surrounds us, we just relate to it differently.

What happens is that in the next nature, games and movies have replaced pantheons and folk tales. Fairies and gnomes left forests and rivers and moved to virtual realities. And one very notable thing is how even inside screens and interfaces, these fairies and gnomes still preserve some of their old familiar features. Enter Super Mario.

Super Mario – The Plumber, the Videogame Superstar, the Myth.

Super Mario is a tale intended for the young, just like folk tales, and it preserves all the characteristics of an ancient hero myths, like Hercules or Horus. It’s a collage of ancient myths, packaged for the digital age. Here are a few examples of how that is the case.

Super Mario is about a red-hatted hero whose ability is augmented by the consumption of a white-dotted red mushroom, the Super Mushroom. Sometimes they give him another life. Other mushrooms, the Koompas, are bad and hurt Mario. This is reminiscent of the myths of Siberian shaman (later morphed into Santa Claus), who used to wear red hats and bring people the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, that made them stronger and bigger. The white-dotted and red capped mushroom also appears in the norse tales of the berserkers, fierce warriors who would go in a battle-frenzy after consuming a powerful magic potion, alegedly containing magical mushrooms.

Super Mario is a re-composition of mythological leitmotifs

Mario wants to save Princess Peach from a tyrant monster, Bowser, and to do that he passes through seven worlds (in some versions) and undergoes many challenges. This theme is the crux of many myths and tales from all over the world. Saving the princess and beat the metaphorical dragon are a common motif, from modern versions like Star Wars or Sleeping Beauty, to the old japanese tale of Yamata no Orichi, Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea-monster Cetus or even the christian tale of St. George slaying the Dragon or Serpent.

A hero whose counterpart is his mirror or shadow-image; a reverse version of his own ego (and of the letters in his name: Mario/Wario); a trickster figure. Not unlike Loki, of norse mythology, here we see the archetype of the shapeshifting prankster whose mischief serves as a counterbalance to the hero’s actions. Other folk tales like those about Reinaert, a Dutch fable, also deal with the theme of the prankster. In this case it assumes the shape of a sly fox. Bugs bunny can also be said to retain some of this jolly and mischievous character.

Today myths have migrated towards more elaborate interactive media

A hero who has many helpers from the animal and plant world along his way, such as the Fire Flower, the Super Leaf, the Tanooki Suits and even Yoshi. Argus was the loyal dog-companion of Ulisses, in the Homeric epic tale of the Odissey. Bellerophon, the ancient Greek hero, has been helped by the mythical flying horse Pegasus. In the task of canonizing heroes like Alexander the Great into the Pantheon, the mythographers felt the need to invoke his horse Bucephalus. Even the Fool card in the Tarot features a dog as a faithful companion.

A hero who fights to retrieve the wands (the power) of kings who had it stolen from them. Like Arthur retrieving Excallibur, and even the more recent Aaragorn reclaiming the shattered Andúril, Mario must defeat Bowser’s children to return the wands they had stolen from the kings of each of the worlds.

Ultimately, Mario is a hero with a quest about overcoming evil in a world in which the objects of everyday life are not dead, but instead are bustling with life and personality; alive with friends, foes and neutral elements alike.

The Internet is also alive, flourishing in human meaning

The narrative of Super Mario is a re-composition of varied mythological leitmotifs from around the world. So next time you think about how we live in an age without meaning, without magic and without mystery think again. As tools of psychic self-actualization, today myths have migrated from folk tales and mythological narratives towards more elaborate interactive media. The Journey of the Hero, or of the Tarot’s Fool is mirrorred in our technologically obsessed culture – from RPG’s to anime, to blockbusters, small movies, the music business and even the world of celebrities and jet-set. They all draw from the primordial, collective pool of archetypal images and themes. The motifs employed are older than any of these stories and any of its characters, and they exist unmanifested within every human psyche as an archetype. They are part of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, a meta-pattern central to the human condition. The Internet is also alive, flourishing in human meaning.

Fairies and gnomes left forests and rivers and moved to virtual realities

It is composed of archetypal stories, told through bits and bytes, processed by artificial memories, around the same old motifs that are so endemic to the human mission. When we look at the Internet, can we really say that animism – the belief that the objects in the world around us are alive and have agency – is really dead? Do we not see living, emotional currents of thoughts and ideas floating in the technosphere?

In a world where nature and technology are fusing and mingling, this continuously crafted mythology is a subtle but pervasive way of providing meaning to the digital generations. Let us not be fooled by the apparent simplicity and innocuousness of the Mario formula. The process that Mario undergoes mirror the way in which we, humans, make sense of our life and the world. Yes, next nature is also alive with meaning and myth. We are all Mario, just like we are all Hercules, Odin, Horus, Ulysses and Arthur. Even online.