Who would have guessed it? Theology abounds in Popeye!
As a kid arriving home from church on a Sunday morning one of the first things I did was to grab hold of the “funny papers” and read faithfully every funny. “Popeye The Sailor” was one of those comics.
Although I probably didn’t realize it at the time, there were those funny strip characters that drew me in more so than some of the others. Popeye was one of them. Perhaps it was because in my imagination I could see my self as Popeye always winning out over Bluto. To be honest, canned spinach was not then (nor now) high on my list of good tasting food. Yet, I faithfully ate lots of canned spinach without complaint. After all, when the going got rough, it was to canned spinach that Popeye turned for renewed strength. And what young boy does not want to win over the heroine?
While Popeye was my hero, I have to admit I liked Wimpy. I think simply because I too liked hamburgers.
Artist: Steve Manion
A while back I by chance happened to come across Steve Mannion’s* variant drawing of Popeye characters. In one he depicted Popeye and Bluto in rough combat for the hand of Olive Oyl. Not sure why, but for some reason the cartoon made me think, is there some deeper storyline to Popeye than the constant battle between Popeye and Bluto? I wondered if Popeye might say something our own personal Spiritual quests?
As I tend toward Structuralism when I look for storylines I started off by asking myself, who, or what, do the characters in Popeye represent in the terms of a larger life? You may see them differently, but here’s how I see them:
• Popeye is you and I, The Everyman, and as Everyman, the Hero.
• Bluto is both the Anti-hero within the Anti-hero without. The Anti-hero opposes the Everyman.
• Olive Oyl is the Heroine, the goal to be attained. Popeye (Everyman/Hero) and Bluto (anti-hero) both desire the Heroine.
• Wimpy is the alter-ego of Everyman. Wimpy is self-satisfied after eating enough hamburgers, but yet a wimp.
• Spinach is the strength-giving substance that must be used when our own strength fails. Interestingly, the spinach is always canned, never fresh. Could it be that Popeye never ultimately wins over Olive Oyl because the spinach is not fresh?
• Then there is Swee’Pea who was delivered as a baby to Popeye’s door in a box: Who is Swee’Pea? Why was he delivered to Popeye’s door? Who are the baby’s parents?
As each character has a role to play in the comic strip, each character has a role to play in “larger life.” Each represents a role playing out in each of our daily lives, roles that we will explore.
To begin our exploration we must begin with Popeye and his mantra, the most overtly theological gem in the comic strip, “I yam what I yam,” a phrase reminiscent of the numinous naming self in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.”
[Next: What does Popeye mean when he says, “I am what I am”?]
Who would have thought it?
When thinking of Popeye how can you not think of “I yam what I yam, that what I yam.”
And my mind being what it is, a bit weird, I naturally hear the divine voice in the burning bush, saying in Popeye’s rough sailor-like way, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam.” Too bad that we couldn’t be there to see Moses’ reaction to that.
My mind not only functions weirdly, it also meanders about thinking theological things. I guess one can just not remove oneself from his seminary days. Well, anyway, I couldn’t help but wonder is Popeye Jewish? After all, his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, was.
If you’re hard enough (and maybe twist a few comic panels here and there) you can find a few suggestive hints that maybe he was, or at the very least, Segar’s Jewish heritage enters into the comic strip now and then.
Here’s what’s I found:
In one animated cartoon Popeye faces a ranging steer and with just one punch sends the steer to the meat market where a piece of beef is marked “כשר.” For those among us who are not Jewish, that’s Hebrew for “kosher.” Can’t get much more obvious than that, can you?
Then again, maybe it was just a Jewish illustrator who felt convicted to mark the meat. And you do have to look closely because the mark could be “בשר,” meaning “meat.” Maybe it was a gentile illustrator playing havoc. The cut does look a bit like a ham.
The animated Popeye cartoons produced by Famous Studios was often set in the Lower Eastside where thousands of Russian and Polish Jews settled in the late 19th century, fleeing antisemitism. In those same cartoons Olive Oyl has a slight New York Jewish accent. Famous Studios, by the way, was the successor to Fleischer Studios, which was owned by two Jewish brothers.
Olive Oyl was conceived in Segar’s mind in 1919 as a late teen or early 20’s woman with a somewhat tempestuous persona. Growing up as a boy in an almost all Jewish Baltimore neighborhood I knew some Jewish women just like that (Hashem bless them!).
In Segar’s “Thimble Theater,” Olive Oyl’s parents, Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl 1 could easily pass for Eastern Europeans. Maybe Olive Oyl’s parents immigrated were Jewish immigrants from Russia or Poland?
In the 1933 animated short, “Popeye the Sailor,” produced by Fleischer Studios, Popeye meets up with Betty Boop, and as we all know, Betty was no shitza2.
Okay, I admit, I am stretching it a bit … actually, quite a bit. Yet, it is a tantalizing thought.
Popeye, for one, acts nothing like a Jewish male, although I did once know a Jewish sailor who reminded me an awful lot of Popeye. Just no spinach. Still, you have to ask, would any self respecting Yiddish Mame allow her daughter to hang out with a shegetz 3?
And while “Jew or Not Jew”4 give Betty Boop a Jewishness rating of 10, poor Olive Oyl can only garner a weak , although Nana Oyl would probably come off better, being a “shorter sort, with good meat on her bones (and in her chest).” A much better characteristic of a Jewish woman of Olive Oyl’s day. As a sidenote, “Jew or Not Jew” thinks Wimpy, “an unrepentant moocher taking advantage of someone who”s a little soft in the head,” acts the most Jewish in Popeye.
As I said, stretching it—The only thing we know for sure is that Popeye’s creator, Segar was a Jew. Being thick in the head though, I am not quite to let this go, no matter how off-base it appears I am.
There’s still Popeye saying, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam.” To me, sounds suspiciously like Voice in the burning bush…
[Next: The Voice in the burning bush saying, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam. Or something like that.]
1. It is rather obvious that Cole Oyl (olive Oyl’s dad) is a play on “coal oil,” but perhaps less obvious that Nana Oil (Olive Oyl’s mom) is a play on banana oil. Younger brother, Castor Oyl completes the Oyl family.
2. Her films provide all the evidence needed, from her yiddish-peppered patois to her yarmulke-wearing abba, “Shitza,” a gentile woman (Yiddish). I may have to do a Betty Boop series. Fleischer Studios thought that Popeye needed a more famous character if people were going to come watch the movie.
3. Shegetz, non-Jewish male (Yiddish)
“I Yam What I Yam”
Okay, so here’s Moses hearing the voice in burning bush saying, “I yam what I yam, that’s what I yam. Well, in Hebrew it’s more like “YHWH,” which without those little niqqud (diacritical vowel marks), which of course aren’t there when someone speaks, is virtually unpronounceable for us who weren’t around to hear the voice. Scholars, making a hopefully educated guess come up with “Ya-way.”
Even though I know this, I still fixate on why did Popeye say this? Popeye is not G-d?
Or is he?
Whenever I hear those words, I can’t help but think of Popeye. But surely, Popeye is not G-d?
We’ll come back to that question a latter time. For now let’s look at story of a weaselly Moses (Exodus 3) trying to weasel the name of the Voice in burning bush. The Voice won’t have it. Moses says, “When the Israelites ask me what is the name of this god of our fathers, what should should I say?”
Sneaky, sneaky. In the ancient world to know the name of a person was akin to having power over them. There name was who they were. This for example is why Adam names the animals in the Eden.
So, Moses asks for the divine name. Can’t you just imagine Moses’ thinking about the power it would give him? He might have very well been thinking, “I can control G-d. Wow! What power I will have.”
Can’t help but think that’s what we often try to do with all our praying and naming “Jesus’ Name.” “G-d you got to do what we ask. We’re in control. We know your name.” Sounds like superstitious magic to me.
The Voice will have none of it. The divine simply replies, “I am, I am” (Ya-way). If we were drawing this as a cartoon, we’d have Moses shaking his head and pointing at the burning bush saying, “Sure you ARE, but what’s your name?” And the voice in burning bush would reply, “Moses, can you get any denser?”
Moses, being the Pharaoh”s adopted son and a Hebrew to boot would surely not be that dense. In the ancient world, the name for G-d revolves around the very primitive, “Ya”1 (the Hebrew variation.) This was the G-d of Abraham. Moses would have know that. He’s playing a game with G-d.
To be fair to Moses, maybe he just didn’t want to go the Israelites, let alone the Pharaoh, and say, “Ya spoke to me.” They’d all be saying, “Yeah sure. Better get a grip on it Moses. Heatstroke.”
Don’t worry, we will getting back to Popeye. Just hang in a bit longer.
G-d’s answer was a play on words in Hebrew, which ultimately boils down to, “No way, Moses. Get over it. You don’t get to say my name out loud! The word that G-d gave is a tetragrammaton – four Hebrew letters [יהוה (yud-hey-vav-hey), transliterated into English as YHWH). YA-way, which sounds pretty darn close to the Hebrew verb “to be.” In other words, “I be,” or to quote Popeye, “I am what I am, and that’s what I am.” And that tells you everything you need to know about me. Period! Or to put it all tenses of the verb “to be,” “I am, I always have been, I always will be.2” “Okay Moses, stop the game playing and get on with what I want you to do.”
Which at last brings us back to Popeye and my question, is Popeye G-d when he says, “I yam what I yam, and that’s what I yam”?
[Next: “Is Popeye G-d?]
1. Spiritual scholars suggest that this name was originally in the Semitic languages, “Yahu.” When ever you come across a name or place, either in the scriptures or today, that has “Ja” or “Ya” in the word, you have a link back to the ancient pre-Israelite divinity. “Eli-jah,” for example means “halleleu-yah” (praise Ya).
2. The word appears over 6,800 times in the first scriptures, and is so holy that a devout Jew, even to this day, will not pronounce when it appears in the text. Most often it is read as “Adonai,” meaning, “Lord.” To say it is to take the Lord’s name in vain. Something I am afraid that we Christians do quite frequently. This is why I have used “G-d.”
This is why the Jews stone Jesus when he said, “I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM (John 8:58).”
Is Popeye G-d?
Is Popeye is God, or perhaps thinks he is? Popeye sure acts like G-d on occasion, but then so does Bluto, especially if we hold to that traditional angry G-d who zaps us for some unknown reason. Could both be a g-d-type? I wonder. I am still working on this. I mean Popeye is what he is. “I yam what I yam,” he says.
But why then does Popeye need spinach for strength? Isn’t G-d the numinous All-Stregth? Or for that matter why does Wimpy grave hamburgers? Is that what makes him Wimpy? If he ate spinach would he be Popeye? Would that make him a competing G-d? And how come, Bluto doesn’t need anything. He does seem to be all efficient. Yet, he does crave Olive Oyl, but then so does Popeye. And while we are covering all of the main characters, who in the world is Sweet Pea, a G-d in waiting? So hang in there with me please. The answer – well, perhaps only a answer and not the answer to all of these crazy questions is coming soon (I hope).