The world of Watchmen is a complex one, full of tiny details that are easy to miss when you get caught up in the plot and the action. In particular, I have noticed a lot of Greco-Roman references, some more subtle than others. They are more frequent than one might expect and I have here included a few of the more hidden or relevant references.
The subtle hints of Greco-Roman start as early as the second chapter. Sally Jupiter has retired to Nepenthe Gardens. Nepenthe is Ancient Greek and refers to a medicine for sorrow, in literature through forgetfulness, Homer even mentions it in the fourth book of the Odyssey. This reference reflects the ideas Sally Jupiter expresses in this chapter, like how she forgives Blake because she has allowed herself to forget the pain of his assault.
Two other running world elements show up multiple times in Watchmen: the Promethean Cab Company and the Gordian Knot Locksmith Company. The Promethean Company shows up on the first page of Chapter Three, behind the newsvendor stand that acts as a focal point.
Later on in this same chapter, their slogan appears: “Bringing Light to the World.” This text is accompanied by a rising sun in the background and a line from the Black Freighter tale about a hopeless dawn, while at the same time the newsvendor is exclaiming about the disappearance of Dr. Manhattan.
After reading the article by Whitson, “Panelling Parallax: The Fearful Symmetry of William Blake and Alan Moore”, where he mentions another work by Moore, Promethea, I decided to looked it up on Wikipedia. It turns out that the title figure Promethea is tasked with bringing about the end of the world. I see the two as related, despite Promethea‘s later publishing date. At the very least, the association of a Prometheus figure, a proto-god who suffers eternally for bringing fire to mankind in Greek myth, and a modern apocalypse exits in the concrete for Moore. The linking of the cab company, then, and the first inkling of the Russian threat can be no coincidence. The concept of light as deadly recurs frequently given the focus on atomic warfare and its obliterating flash of light — as seen in Dreiburg’s dream in Chapter Seven and intimated by the frequent references to the Hiroshima bombing. These two elements combined add to the apocalyptic atmosphere of the work and the fatalism.
The Gordian Knot appearances are in a lighter vein while also showing in-world consequences to the character’s actions. Every time Rorschach breaks into a house, Gordian Knot shows up and tries to keep him out. They fail, repeatedly. It becomes a comedic element, though a subtle one, given their very untrue slogan: “They’ll Never Undo This Sucker!” Both Moloch and Dreiburg use Gordian Knot, and yet in the match between Rorschach and Locks, Rorschach wins every time.
Gordian Knot refers to a historical tale about Alexander the Great:
In 333 bc, Alexander the Great, on his march through Anatolia, reached Gordium, the capital of Phrygia. There he was shown the chariot of the ancient founder of the city, Gordius, with its yoke lashed to the pole by means of an intricate knot with its end hidden. According to tradition, this knot was to be untied only by the future conqueror of Asia. (Britannica Online)
He uses his sword to cut the knot and from this originates the idiom “cutting the Gordian knot” as “a bold solution to a complicated problem” (Britannica Online). This glorious beginning only highlights the incompetence of the locksmith company and the indifference with which Rorschach approaches obstacles.
The interweaving of Greco-Roman references enriches the already complex universe of Watchmen and connects it more thoroughly to the past it shares with our universe. Moreover, it allows for additional nuance to arise without being forced or overly obvious and rewards a thorough and repeated reading of the text. After noticing details like these, I certainly paid more attention to the background elements in every chapter.
For more on Watchmen check out our blog’s thorough coverage of the subject, but beware out there there be spoilers: “Sexism in Watchmen?“; “3 reasons you should stop hating the Watchmen movie“; “Zach Snyder’s Watchmen: The Triumph of Outstanding Opening Credits“; “Death is the Only Escape in Watchmen“; “Remediation in Watchmen“; “Doctor Manhattan, are you Einstein?“; “Am I just too desperate for there to be drama?“; “Focal Point: Methods of Emphasis in the Comics Medium“; “Race in the Watchmen“.
“Nepenthe.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. 3 February 2013. Web. 21 February 2013.
“Promethea.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. 30 September 2012. Web. 21 February 2013.
“Gordian knot.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
Personal Scans of Watchmen, the collected edition. The very obvious paintbrush marks are also mine.