First we see a teaser, a normal man or woman, maybe Russian, maybe not, who has their day interrupted by something otherworldly or downright weird. Maybe someone has a bizarre or monstrous encounter. Maybe there are bright lights in the sky or men in trench coats smoking menacing cigarettes. Jump scare, then someone is dead. Fade to black, and that iconic music starts. It is simple yet spooky, single synthesizer notes with a whistling accompaniment. Even now you can probably hear it in your head. Another episode of The X Files has begun, but you need to ask yourself: Are you simply watching just another TV show or modern mythology?… The truth is out there.
The Unidentified Trojan Object
The X Files was rated #81 on IMDB’s Top 250 TV Shows of all time. It won 93 Golden Globes with 202 nominations, including 3 Best TV Drama awards, and there is a reason for the show’s success… And we’re not saying its aliens, but… The X Files touched a nerve in the American public, some unforeseen and unknown element of our baser instincts and suspicions. It may have started the idea of the modern episodic story-arc that now dominates network and cable dramas, but there is more to it than good writing. The X Files is a modern myth, like the classics of Homer. It gives us a picture of a world both familiar and unfamiliar, like one only glimpsed in our dreams or our nightmares.
The X Files could only have arisen and existed in the 1990’s, and we’re not just talking about the plot conveniences of giant cellphones and lack of Google. The cold war was over and America was beginning to feel uncomfortable as the sole superpower of the world. As humans, but especially as Americans, we naturally tend to distrust the powerful, and with no more enemy to fear abroad we turned some of that distrust inward. Couple that with a country where slightly more than half of the population believes in extraterrestrial beings, add in every trope and cliche about abductions, folklore, and government cover-ups and you had a hit 1992 TV series. Yet, the appeal of The X Files was about more than just capitalizing on a mindset of the American people. It both participated and drove the conversation of conspiracy and aliens, just like any good mythological story.
Classical Greek and Roman myths have some very distinctive storytelling elements that are often mimicked in the show, which star the two will-they-won’t-they FBI agents. Classical mythology deals in the affairs of gods and kings, as Greeks were not concerned with the affairs of the common man. Among some of the major elements of classical myth are ideas about evil, responsibility, family, and inter-generational conflicts, but always a desire to explain the way the world works. Myth is meant to teach stories about the origins of the known and unknown, something The X Files attempts to do in every episode, whether it be the Jersey Devil or the Kennedy Assassination. It is the attempt to bring order and explanation to a disordered world. Mythology does this by relying on gods, monsters, magic, and prophecy, and though words like magic and prophecy do not appear very often in The X Files, the premise still remains the same. The supernatural and pseudo-science are used to fill the gaps of our modern mysteries and misunderstandings. Ancient audiences did not always believe their myths verbatim, but they realized that those stories were telling truths about their world and the influences that affected their lives. That is not too far off from how many viewed the adventures of Mulder and Scully, a fiction with a deeper truth.
Smoking Man and the Argonauts
To really understand the correlation between ancient mythology and The X Files, we need to look at it as the people of ancient Greece did, or as the people of the ancient 1990’s did. The world is run by gods and powerful men. There is no such thing as coincidence, because we are all being moved on some greater chess board by some greater hand. For the Greeks -and to a lesser extent the Romans- that meant gods. For Mulder and Scully that meant people like The Smoking Man and the Syndicate, the unforeseen forces that control the world. Even the American government is just a pawn in their greater schemes. Above them are the alien colonists whose bidding they secretly carry out and fight to supplant.
To the 1990’s American this idea was the same concept as a pantheon of powerful gods, not the aliens, but the humans that ran everything from the banks to the Presidency. They had unlimited power to cover-up, kill, or do almost anything that fit their agenda, and they were far from perfect. One of the major factors in mythology is that the gods have human traits and human flaws. They squabble and disagree, often causing chaos for the humans below them. The same is true for the Syndicate, this shadow government. It is often shown that the members do no agree, and rival factions takes matters into their own hands. These are not simple arguments, but conflicts that end with assassinations, kidnappings, and alien-human hybrids. Meanwhile this pantheon of shirt-and-tie-divinities sit above it all, often untouched by the chaos they create.
Sometimes the gods choose to visit the realm of mortal men and lend them aid. Deep Throat, in the first season of The X Files was one such supernatural helper. He often gave information and assistance to Mulder in his search for the truth, even as a member of the Syndicate. He paid the price for his help when he was killed. The Smoking Man is probably the most common of the gods to walk among men, often standing in the background like Hades or Ares, a lit cigarette glowing in the shadows. Others occasionally pay our favorite FBI agents a visit, but only when it suits their personal agendas and needs, much like the gods of old backing ancient heroes to further their own plans. In fact, it is often this tension of the hero’s will versus the gods’ machinations that create the central conflict of The X Files, and ancient mythology.
Fox Mulder is the epitome of an ancient Greek hero. As a prominent and Oxford educated FBI profiler he is not an every-man. Like the Greek stories The X Files are not about common people, but about two highly trained and prestigious government agents. In ancient Greece, in order to be considered a hero you had to be of noble or godly birth. Mulder’s father was a member of the Syndicate, which in essence makes our hero half-god. There is even later hints that the Smoking Man may be Mulder’s true father, but regardless who his father is, the father/son conflict drives The X Files‘ plot and greater mythos, just as it did in ancient times.
To be a true hero one also had to perform extraordinary feats or trials. Mulder proves himself week after week in a various series of trials. Specifically, we are referring to the “Monster of the Week” episodes where our two FBI agents must uncover the truth or defeat a literal monster of the week, whether they be flukemen, inbred brothers, or the Loch Ness monster. Like Hercules defeating the hydra or Perseus slaying Medusa, every hero faces trials and challenges, and like those ancient heroes Mulder always seems to triumph against the odds.
A hero of ancient myth is more than just a good person, they often possess a superhuman-ness except for one fatal flaw. Achilles is the most famous, with his invulnerable skin, except for his heel. Mulder is like this, but we would relate him more to Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy. She was gifted with the ability of prophecy but cursed with the fact that no one ever believed her. Mulder’s true strength lies in his belief, his faith. Scully puts it best when she says, “You’re in the basement because they’re afraid of you, of your relentlessness, and because they know that they could drop you in the middle of the desert and tell you the truth is out there, and you’d ask them for a shovel.” Yet, that is also his flaw because it makes him sound crazy, even to his partner. Mulder’s tenacity is almost superhuman, but it sometimes causes to him leap before he looks or talk-out regardless of how loony he sounds. Like Achilles, it a strength and weakness born from a significant childhood event.
Another interesting characterization of a Greek mythological hero is an ignoble death. Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, dies when a beam from the Argo falls on him. Mulder is presumed dead a few times throughout the series, and at one point might have actually been dead -it get’s weirder in later seasons. Of course, he does not actually die. However and more interestingly, Peter Boyle, who plays a psychic that can foresee people’s deaths does mutter something about autoerotic asphyxiation to Mulder, so an ignoble death is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
Dana Scully, though noble in her own way, does not fit the bill of a Greek hero. Instead, she fills the role of the deuteragonist, the second most important character. Many mythological heroes had deuteragonists, Hercules had Iolus, Achilles had Patroclus, and -though this is not a Greek myth- Gilgamesh had Enkidu. In each of these examples, the deuteragonst is one of the most important people in the antagonist’s life. Achilles goes crazy after Patroclus is killed at Troy, in the same way that Mulder goes crazy after Scully is abducted. However, a deuteragonist is more than just a sidekick or second-banana. They also serve as a foil for the hero, highlighting aspects that the hero is lacking, such as how Scully’s logic and science often compliment Mulder’s intuition and paranoia. The irony is that even when Mulder is right, Scully still looks like the smart one.
Odds and Odysseus
Odysseus offers perhaps the greatest classical correlation to Fox Mulder. Both are men caught in the whims and games of the gods, and both choose to oppose them. Odysseus defies Poseidon just as Mulder defies the will of the Syndicate and the Smoking Man. Each is a hero who wins through their intelligence and force of will, and each is driven by their obsession to return home. For the main character of The Odyssey home is a real and familiar place with loved ones. For Mulder that means reuniting with his sister, Samantha. It is a place that no longer exists and stopped existing the minute his she was abducted. Over the years his family crumbles and dies, and Mulder is left to fight for the ideal of his lost home and family, and the truth behind why they were taken from him.
In the Season 1 finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask, Mulder discovers crucial information at 1616 Pandora. With that season finale both Mulder and The X Files opened a literal Pandora’s Box, launching the shows overarching mythology. There have also been plenty of other references to Greek myth throughout the show, but more telling is the fact that we call the show’s main story its “mythology.” The word itself has become ingrained with the show, and for good reason. The correlations between Ancient Greece and 1990’s America may be few, but the similarities of the mythologies that define each time period are striking.
Perhaps the comparison is not always perfect, but every myth embodies the time in in which it was created and The X Files is no different. It speaks to something greater within us, what we believe, what we think, and what we feel. It captures a time and a national mood that existed in an era of woman’s shoulder pads and a Clinton Presidency. Like any good myth it touches on truth and fantasy and makes us all say, “We want to believe.”