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superman

Why do many superheros and villains have Arabic or Hebrew names?

Superman is called Kal El. Batman’s enemy is Ra’s al-Ghoul. Many names in the comic universe have an Arabic or Hebrew flavor. Why is that? And what do they mean?

In the following article, I will analyze some names of superheros and villains and check whether they may be of Arabic or Hebrew origin.

DC Comics is one of the largest and oldest American comic book companies producing Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, or Supergirl. The Marvel Universe knows Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, and the Avengers (just to name a few). I will mainly focus on DC Comics.

Superman and Supergirl

Superman was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish-American children of European refugees. There are surprisingly many books about the Jewish influence in superhero comics.

Let’s focus now on some names.

Kal El (Superman)

Superman’s real name is Kal-El.

  • The word El (אֵל) in Hebrew is a word which expresses God. In names, El (אֵל) normally refers to Elohim (אֱלֹהִים), the Hebrew God.

For sure, you know the names Michael, Daniel, and Gabriel. They all contain the Hebrew word for God. Michael actually is an entire sentence (a question) and means Who is like God (מי כאל); Gabriel (גַבְרִיאֵל) can be interpreted as God is my strength and Daniel (דָּנִיֵּאל‎) as God is my judge/my law.

  • The word Kol (קוֹל), in Hebrew, means voice which is perhaps what the comic writers had in mind. The word Kal (קַל), however, means light in the sense of easy. English speakers may pronounce the Kol similarly to Kal. Thus, Kal-El may be perhaps rendered as “Voice of God”.

The story of Superman has some biblical reminiscences. Kal-El’s parents put Superman in a basket and send him down to earth. In the book of Exodus, Moses is left in a basket in a clump of reeds (bulrushes).

Kara Zor El (Supergirl)

This name is more difficult to decipher.

Depending on the transliteration, Kara can have many meanings in Hebrew. Let’s check some of them:

  • Kara could be the Hebrew verb to bend, to kneel (כָּרַע).
  • Kara could be the Hebrew verb to happen (קָרָה).
  • Kara could be the Hebrew verb to read (קָרָא).
  • Kara could be the female adjective of cold (קַר).
  • Kara could be the Turkish word for black.

Zor is tricky.

  • Zor could be the Persian word زور‎ denoting violence, force, rage.
  • Zor in Turkish means hard, difficult.

El could be the Hebrew name for God which we mentioned above (-> Kal El).


Batman and Arrow

Ra’s al-Ghoul

رَأْس الْغُول (head of the ghoul) is one of Batman’s most feared enemies. Ra’s al-Ghoul was born to a tribe of desert nomads in the Arabian Peninsula some 700 years ago. He is the founder of The League of Assassins (الحشيشيون). Many of the members have names which indicate an Arabic origin.

The pronunciation in several comic series is quite funny. You will hear “reysh” and “gul” (with g as in girl). The water of the Lazarus Pit enables him to evade death and live for centuries.

So, we have a mixture of Arabic mythology and Christian saints. Lazarus of Bethany is mentioned in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus restores him to life four days after his death.

The Arabic word Ghul (Ghoul)

The Arabic word ghūl (غُول – Plural: أَغْوال or غِيلان ) may be used to denote evil spirits (رُوح شِرّيرة).

The ancient Arabs described it as a fabulous being which inhabits desert places. It appears in various forms, and only its ass’s hooves remain unchangeable. The main aim of a ghul is to lead travelers astray and to fall upon them. Most ancient Arabic considered it female. A ghul, often in the appearance of an attractive woman, tried to lead travelers astray. Then, it killed and ate them. (So watch out: although the word looks masculine, the grammatical agreement is in the feminine!). The word denotes two different ideas: the ability to change the appearance and the treacherous attack.

The famous Arab writer Al-Jahiz (الجاحظ) mentioned that the ghul rode on hares, dogs, and ostriches. Men could kill it, but only by giving it one single blow; a second blow would only bring it back to life again which is why the Ghoul always asked anyone courageous enough to strike again. Interestingly, Mu’tazila scholars (المعتزلة), e.g., al-Zamakhshari (الزمخشري), stated that such beings do not exist.

Note: In several forums it is said that DC Comics announced that the name Ra’s al-Ghoul contains the Hebrew word for head. That word, however, would be rosh (ראש‎).

Ra’s al-Ghoul, according to several DC accounts, is the founder of the League of Assassins.

Ebeneezer Darkh

Another leader of the League of Assassins was Ebeneezer Darkh. Ebeneezer, in Hebrew, is Even Ha’ezer ( אבן העזר)‎ and literally means the stone of help. It is a place that is mentioned in the Books of Samuel as the scene of battles between the Israelites and Philistines.

Note: In Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol, the main character is called Ebenezer Scrooge.

Talia al-Ghul

Talia al-Ghul (تاليا الغول) is a daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul and had several romantic relationships with Batman. Talia and her father, Ra’s al-Ghul, are meant to be of Arab descent. The origin of the name Talia is not clear. It is already found in the Assyrian language.

The DC authors perhaps had the Hebrew name Talia in mind: טַלְיָה. It is nowadays a feminine given name. Dictionaries like Morfix also give the meaning of female lamb.

Nyssa

Nyssa al-Ghul oder Nyssa Raatko (نسا راتكو) is an enemy of Batman and also appears in the Arrow universe (where she is said to be married to Oliver Queen).

She is a daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul and the half-sister of Talia al Ghul. In Arabic, it probably is آنِسة (plural: آنِسات, plural: أَوانِسُ) which means Miss or young lady.

Malaq

Malaq (مَلَق) is a member and henchman of the League of Assassins. He appears in the Arrow universe. If we assume that the q stands for the Arabic letter Qaf, we get مَلَق which is the infinitive noun (مَصْدَر) of the I-verb مَلِقَ (to flatter).

Where does the word assassin come from?

During the 16th century the word assassin entered the English language via Anglo-Latin and French. The word comes probably from the Arabic word Hash­shāshīyūn (حَشّاشِيُّون) which may denote hashish consumers. But it is not clear at all.

The Hash­shāshīyūn were a fanat­ical Muslim sect at the time of the Crusades, with a reputation for murder­ing opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by consuming hashish.

The word assassin is often believed to have derived from the word Hash­shāshīyūn and shares its etymological roots with hashish (حَشِيش) which, in Arabic, literally means grass.

The story of the Assassins (or Hash­shāshīyūn) goes back to 1090 (483 AH) when they stormed the mountain castle of Alamut. Alamut (Persian: الموت‎‎, meaning Eagle’s Nest) was a mountain fort­ress loc­ated in the Alamut district of the South Caspian region, approxim­ately 100 km (60 mi) from present-day Tehran. The lead­er of the assassins was Hasan al-Sabbāh (حَسَن الصَّباح), a Persian Nizārī Ismā‘īlī mis­sionary. The Nizārīya (النِّزارِيّة‎‎) are the second-largest branch of Shia Islam.

The group assassinated members of the Persians, Abbasids, Seljuqs, and Christian Crusaders, mainly for religious but also for political reasons. The Hash­shāshīyūn even tried to kill Saladin (صَلاح الدِّين). When the Mamluks took over in the second half of the 13th cen­tury, the end of the Assassins was initiated.

Although it is commonly believed that the Assassins were under the influ­ence of hashish during their killings or during their indoctrina­tion, most scholars nowadays think that drug-use was perhaps not the key feature behind the name. In Arabic texts the term Hash­shāshīyūn has been used without any further explanations.

Later, in Europe, Marco Polo described them as a sect con­suming hashish, celebrating orgies, and killing important people with poison or dagger. He did not give sources, so it was more or less based on what he had been told. The earliest known liter­ary use of the word assassination is in Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1605).

Other names looking Arabic or Hebrew

Gog

Gog is mentioned in the Bible and in the Qur’an. It is the story of Gog and Magog – in Hebrew: גּוֹג וּמָגוֹג‎, in Arabic: يَأْجُوجُ وَمَأْجُوجُ. The names may be of Assyrian origin.

Gog and Magog appear as individuals, tribes, or lands. The appearance of Gog is meant to be fulfilled at the end of days.

In the Quran, Gog and Magog are a people who do great mischief on earth. They are suppressed by Dhul-Qarnayn (ذُو ٱلْقَرْنَيْن‎), literally, the two-horned one. They are separated by a barrier. When the time comes and the end of the world is near, Allah will remove the barrier.

In the comic universe of Superman, there are several versions. One goes as follows: In one possible future timeline, a boy named William (who later becomes Gog) is the only survivor of the destruction of Kansas by a nuclear explosion. Rescued by Superman, he regards Superman as a savior and founds a church dedicated to him.

When Superman tries to correct this misguided view, William sees in him a demon whose failure led to the destruction of Kansas. Empowered by the cosmic beings known as the Quintessence, Gog travels through the dimensions of hypertime, killing versions of Superman wherever he finds them.

Lyla

Layla, which means night (لَيْلة) in Arabic and is used a female given name (لَيْلى), is a telepath that stole Superman’s powers to escape in hopes of making the people of Earth worship her as a god.

Arkham

Arkham looks Semitic, but it is probably not. In German, there’s the word arg which can denote many things: very or bad or fierce. Ham denotes a place as in Nottingham, Birmingham.

Jezebel Jet

Jezebel (איזבל), in the Old Testament, was the wife of Ahab, king of Israel. In the comic universe, she is the president of a small African nation, a successful model and philanthropist who became romantically involved with Bruce Wayne.

Amba Kadiri

  • Anba is انبا in Arabic. It is pronounced amba due to the collision of ب and ن and denotes a title of the Coptic Church, normally used before the names of bishops and saints.
  • Kadir could be قَدِير which denotes skilled, powerful.

In the comic world, Amba is an Indian thief and leader of the Afro-Asian block of the Underworld Olympians. She is an accomplished thief and martial artist who bears steel-clawed fingertips.

Any thoughts or ideas about this? Leave a comment!

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