Say it with us—SHAZAM!
It’s the exclamation that makes heroes out of the young and young at heart, and always precedes a new fantastic adventure. It’s long since escaped the realm of comics, pervading 20th century pop culture as a favorite remark of surprise or excitement among readers of Billy Batson’s earliest adventures. And not just for what it represents, but because, let’s be honest here, it’s just really fun to say. But what does “SHAZAM” really mean? With new tidings of Shazam: Fury of the Gods fast approaching at DC FanDome, now is a perfect time to drill down and get familiarized with the DC Universe’s most powerful magic word.
As viewers of the first Shazam film know, young Billy Batson inherits the power of Shazam by speaking the name of the wizard who gave it to him. But that wasn’t always the Wizard’s name. Before 2011’s universe-altering Flashpoint event, the Wizard’s true name was Jebediah of Canaan. Post-Flashpoint, his original name is given as “Mamaragan.” Either way, the word “Shazam” itself is an acronym which stands for six patron deities, each of which bestows the Wizard’s champion with an aspect of their power. Which deities, and what aspects? Let’s find out!
S: Solomon (Wisdom)
The first of the patron gods of Shazam is Solomon, an ancient Jewish king who lived about 3,000 years ago. Solomon is not even a god, and not even Greco-Roman, as all the other characters on this list are. So, what’s the deal here?
Well, as Judd Winick attempts to explain in the 2006 series Trials of Shazam, the “gods” who lend their powers to Shazam’s champion may not literally be the figures from folklore, history and legend we know, but a separate pantheon of magical gods who express themselves through figures within the cultural lexicon who are best recognized for the attributes which each of them embody. So, while the historical and Biblical King Solomon was not a God, the Solomon of the “SHAZAM” sextumverate is one, and takes that name because Solomon is culturally regarded as a universal symbol of wisdom. Got it? Glad we cleared that up.
The main gift that Billy Batson and other champions of Shazam receive from Solomon is “Wisdom,” which is a very broadly defined term…and one which raises questions, since Billy himself often gets into scrapes by leaping before he looks. The answer is that the Wisdom of Solomon is mostly an active power as opposed to a passive one, and one which Shazam’s chosen must consciously activate in order to channel. With Solomon’s Wisdom comes perfect memory, battle tactics, mathematical aptitude, charisma in dealing with others, a limited clairvoyance which provides him with arcane knowledge and impeccable intuition, and natural fluency in every language.
H: Hercules (Strength)
The second of Shazam’s gods is Hercules, who is technically more of a demigod. But as we explained, Shazam’s Hercules may be a separate entity from the Greek Hercules, although married to the same core concept of standing as the ultimate symbol of strength. (Which is just as well or Wonder Woman may have some words.)
Strength is the easiest of Shazam’s powers to explain. With this gift, Billy Batson is super strong—just about as strong as Superman, which is incidentally also just about as strong as anyone in the DC Universe gets. It’s a pretty simple power, but sometimes it’s really all you need. Before he could fly—which was, in fact, an even shorter time for him between creation and first flight than Superman—the Strength of Hercules was how the hero then known as Captain Marvel would take to the air, launching into the sky with his powerful leg muscles.
A: Atlas (Stamina)
Atlas is, again, a Titan, which as far as Greek Mythology is concerned is different from a “god,” although older, but that distinction doesn’t really matter as far as DC is concerned unless you happen to be Donna Troy. In which case, best of luck to you.
You might think that “Stamina” would entail your typical suite of invulnerabilities, but that’s not the gift which Atlas provides. Stamina specifically refers to Shazam’s inability to tire. Unlike most transformation-based heroes, there is no limit of time or exertion on Billy’s transformation into his superpowered counterpart. If he wished, he could even remain his super-self indefinitely… and indeed, this proves a major plot point in stories such as Kingdom Come. The Stamina of Atlas also does away with the petty physical necessities of eating, sleeping or breathing, so that Earth’s Mightiest Mortal may operate at peak efficiency at all times and circumstances.
Z: Zeus (Power)
Finally, a God! And one of the big ones, no less. Zeus is the godhead of the Greek pantheon, and it doesn’t get much godlier than that. As such, all of Shazam’s stranger powers can be attributed to Zeus.
The most crucial of Zeus’ gifts is the power of the lightning itself. This facilitates the transformation which gives Billy Batson his powers, opening each of the powers of Shazam to him. This also allows him to shoot bursts of electricity and lightning himself, and a limited gift of teleportation which allows him to travel to and from the Rock of Eternity with just a thought. Perhaps most impressively of all, the Power of Zeus allows the potential to use magic and cast spells, in any imaginable form… But of all Shazam’s powers, this one requires the most focus, study and discipline, none of which can be considered Billy’s strong suits.
A: Achilles (Courage)
Achilles is a Greek hero who is said to have fought and died at the Battle of Troy, but is notably not a god, nor has any parents who are gods. He is, however, noted for near-perfect invulnerability, which the Achilles of Shazam represents.
While “Courage” is the term given to describe this power of Shazam, it’s practically used to represent his peak physical defenses, which make him nearly impossible to injure. Force, heat, energy, disease and even age are all paltry as far as the “Courage of Achilles” is concerned. And while Billy Batson is indeed a brave lad, it’s difficult to say whether that’s the gods talking, or if it’s that aspect which made him worthy of the Power of Shazam himself.
M: Mercury (Speed)
At last we come to Mercury, the Roman name for the God of Speed, who is at least a god, but not a Greek one. (If you’re keeping track, that’s really only two completely bona fide “gods” out of the six who give Shazam the name, but as established, we’re working on a different system here.) For parity’s sake, he should really be called Hermes to match the other Greek names, but “SHAZAH” doesn’t have that satisfying bilabial nasal sound to it at the end there.
The “Speed” Mercury lends to the Power of Shazam was practically limitless in the Golden Age, but now is more consistently said to be about as fast as, appropriately enough, a bolt of lightning. This speed isn’t just a matter of locomotion, but carries over to his reflexes and motor skills, allowing him to react to events as they unfold in super speed. Most crucially, Mercury’s speed is what grants those with the Power of Shazam the gift of flight, a must-have in the package deal for any A-list metahuman (sorry, Flash and Aquaman).
So, what makes the powers of Shazam different from, say, Superman? As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap. The differences really come out when it comes to Wisdom, and the capital P Power—but these days, what distinguishes the Power of Shazam most of all is the power of family, as it’s shared by Billy with each of his foster siblings. Put all hands on deck and get ready for Shazam’s next appearance—or at least the guy who plays him—next week at DC FanDome!
DC FanDome returns on October 16, 2021! For more articles like this one, and to stay up to date on all the latest news, visit dcfandome.com.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.