8

Stories of flying people (or demi-gods or gods) go back all the way into pre-history. But in my experience, most or all of the early representations of super-human flight are either based on an item external to the user (such as a flying chariot or animal) or a more obvious, mechanical means of propulsion (such as natural or artificial wings). Magical levitation is also quite an old concept, but this generally involved simple hovering of a few feet above the ground, not weaving between the clouds.

But these days, a mainstay of popular culture is the power of superhuman flight, in which a person can propel themselves through the air at great speed without any obvious means of propulsion at all. Sometimes a cursory explanation is given (e.g. "it's self-directed telekinesis" or "their molecules can match the density of air"), but often it goes completely unexplained. They basically "just can." It's something that this character can do.

supermanmsmarvelzaheer

What is the earliest example of this kind of flight, one in which a humanoid character can hover, fly, rise and fall seemingly by thought alone? Did it develop immediately, debuting alongside a new character from their first appearance, or were there steps to its evolution (such as a character being able to hover at first, and then later being shown to actually fly, etc)?

  • There are probably earlier mythological cases, but the current wisdom is that the Submariner was the first to fly. goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2010/07/22/… – FuzzyBoots Mar 4 '15 at 18:22
  • Interesting. Well feel free to add that as an answer, and if no one can come up with something from mythology, fairy tales, or the 1,001 Nights or something, I'll accept it. – Nerrolken Mar 4 '15 at 18:26
  • Richard has it well covered. :) – FuzzyBoots Mar 4 '15 at 18:27
  • To some degree, the flight mechanic can be traced back to Greek mythology and theatre. Consider Icarus and the deus ex machina of early Greek theatre, where actors were flown in using a (barely) off-stage crane. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina). – Lance Leonard Mar 8 '15 at 6:54
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    In some medieval, european vampire myths, vampires can fly without any explanation. Ghosts have also been described as levitators, sometimes even without feet, in many cultures. – Renan May 19 '16 at 18:51
13

Peter Pan predates Sub Mariner by a good three decades with flight that matches the parameters you describe, in his first appearance in "The Little White Bird" (1902).

  • Excellent point! Remind me: the kids needed fairy dust to fly, but did Peter? Or was his flight purely a function of his own abilities? – Nerrolken Jun 9 '15 at 16:24
  • Peter initially could fly simply because "he was part bird", in the metaphorical sense. Remember the story is from 1902 where biology or genetics as the origin of powers lack meaning; similar to Icarus gaining fly through the metaphor of wings rather than literal, scientifically sound aerodynamics of bird wings. Another comparison would be Bigby Wolf being able to huff and puff because he's the Son of the North Wind. Peter Pan's bird-essence allowed him unlimited flight. In later accounts it was then tied to fairy dust, however. – manofsteelanswers.com Jun 14 '15 at 16:25
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    manofsteelanswers.com - in 1902 someone could buy a ticket for a Zepplin excursion in Germany. It was over fifty years since a child made the first heavier than air flight, and scientists had been working on the problem of powered heavier than air flight for decades, as well as 2 bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio. In 1902 any adult or kid who followed the news knew that science and technology was the path to flight. – M. A. Golding Feb 12 '17 at 21:28
5

As discussed here, the earliest fictional superhero capable of true flight was Namor, The Sub Mariner, appearing in Marvel Comics #1 (1939) and pre-dating Superman's first flight by nearly 4 years. Whether you could describe Namor's flight as "hovering" is debatable but he does seem to be able to control both direction and duration in his early panels.

enter image description here

Notably, the Human Torch (who debuted in the same comic as Namor) was 'leaping' rather than flying, something he wouldn't do for another half-dozen issues before he was also gifted with the ability to fly, hover and land softly in 1940.

enter image description here

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    Nice, Richard. Albeit, Namor has wings on his feet, possibly contradicting the OP's " without any obvious means of propulsion." – Lexible Mar 4 '15 at 18:34
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    If Namor counts, then Hermes marvunapp.com/Appendix/hermesmr1.jpg beats him by a few thousand years. Take that Namor. – user16696 Mar 4 '15 at 18:52
  • @cde - I meant to mention Hermes. He is of course mythical rather than superheroic though. – Valorum Mar 4 '15 at 18:53
  • Isn't Hermes flying using magic sandals? – Taladris Jun 9 '15 at 4:04
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    @Nerrolken - He does in Disney's Hercules :-) – Valorum Jun 17 '15 at 18:55
1

Ghosts.

Throughout history, ghosts have commonly been portrayed as levitators. Sometimes they are even portrayed without feet.

This is so timeless that I cannot give you an exact date on when it started.

There are medieval accounts of people seeing ghostly figures flying through the sky, such as the Wild Hunt (with records as early as 1127) (also notice that while commonly depicted as riders, sometimes the hunters are on foot). If such sightings were reported back then, I think similar things may have been happening much earlier, though undocumented.

The Wild Hunt of Odin

The painting above is from 1868 and is called The Wild Hunt of Odin, by Peter Nicolai Arbo. It depicts the legend from the 12th century. Notice the flying people.

I won't go into the a discussion about whether people seeing these things were hallucinating. The fact is that though some of the people who wrote about these things back then thought of them as real, the Hunt eventually became just what it is today - a myth.

  • Well, yes, this sort of thing probably extends into pre-history, but at some point you've gone past the bounds of speculative fiction into ancient myth and religion. – Molag Bal May 19 '16 at 19:14
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    @anaranjada Ghosts have been featured in plenty of works of popular culture, and the point remains true even if you restrict the sample to those works and exclude history and mythology. For example, the Ghost of Christmas Past in "A Christmas Carol" can fly, and that is undeniably a work of fantasy literature. – Nerrolken May 19 '16 at 20:30

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