Star Wars and Anthropology

31 Oct

Happy Halloween!  I’ll be wearing a simple Darth Vader t-shirt for a costume.  Did you know that Star Wars was inspired by anthropology?

As you’ve probably heard, Lucasfilm, production company of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, was purchased yesterday by Disney.  They have plans to release multiple new Star Wars films, beginning with Episode VII (set after Return of the Jedi) in 2015.  Nothing could have surprised me more, since George Lucas has always suggested that Episodes VII, VIII, and IX would never be made.  I’ve written before about the relationship between Indiana Jones and real-life archaeology, but Star Wars was also shaped by anthropology, though I certainly didn’t realize this as a child.

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980’s, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Star Wars on my childhood.  I played with Star Wars toys, slept on Star Wars sheets, drank from Star Wars cups, listened to the Star Wars soundtrack (on vinyl records!), dried myself with Star Wars towels after a bath, and on and on… (The character Yogurt in the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs was only exaggerating a little bit with his “Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower!” line).  Star Wars was everywhere and my generation was culturally immersed in it.

It was only many years later that I learned about anthropology and thought of Star Wars and anthropology as being related in any way.  The parallels between Indiana Jones and anthropology are fairly obvious.  Indy was an archaeologist in our world, albeit a fictional version of our world with lots of supernatural occurrences.  Star Wars is, of course, set in a completely fictional galaxy far, far away.  The Star Wars galaxy is a product of George Lucas’ human imagination and it includes many aspects of real-world anthropology, history, and mythology.

In college, I read Joseph Campbell’s classic of world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I was especially intrigued by the cover art on my paperback edition of this book which featured archaeological motifs, ancient heroes, and a picture of Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Although Campbell’s book was first published in 1949, Luke was pictured on this edition as an example of a hero for my generation; a generation increasingly removed from more traditional sources of mythological storytelling.

When George Lucas made the original Star Wars (1977), he was very interested in using film to tell modern mythological tales.  And he was very familiar with Joseph Campbell’s research, frequently citing it, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and anthropology as inspirations for Star Wars:

“I’d started out studying anthropology, and I’d learned about mythology, and eventually went into film.  But I was able to, sort of, use some of my earlier educational experience to help me go through a movie like this.”

As Lucas’ education inspired Star Wars, Star Wars has inspired educators in many fields.  Next month, Wiley is publishing a book called Star Wars and History.  Here is the publisher’s description:

“From Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire to the French Revolution and the Vietnam War, Star Wars and History explores the major historical turning points, heroes, and villains in human history and their impact on the creation of the Star Wars saga. Star Wars and History shows how the atomic and hydrogen bombs led to the Death Star; how Princess Leia’s leadership in the Rebel Alliance resembled the daring work of intrepid women in the French Resistance during World War II and the Mexican Revolution; historical parallels between the Jedi Code and Bushido as well as those linking the Jedi culture with that of the Templar Knights and other warrior monks; and all of the history that underlies the Star Wars galaxy. Read how our own civilization’s civil wars, slavery, international corporation states, and teenage queens were transformed into the epic Star Wars history and discover how Tatooine reflects the lawless frontiers of the past and Coruscant our own history of glittering and greedy capitals.”

It definitely sounds like a book that I need to read.  Beyond history, I once heard about a college course titled “The Anthropology of Star Wars.”  I often use examples from Star Wars in my cultural anthropology, archaeology, and even linguistics lectures, but doubt I could convince my academic institution to let me teach an entire course on Star Wars – somehow the prospect of getting paid to talk about Star Wars seems too good to be true!

Now that Disney has purchased Lucasfilm, and Lucasfilm is headed by Kathleen Kennedy, George Lucas will be less directly involved with the production of the new Star Wars films.  Who knows what the new movies will be like?  Will they still have anthropological themes?  Will they disappoint many people the way the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) did?  We don’t yet know anything about their characters, storylines, parallels with the real world, etc.  But, starting in 2015, I hope to be here discussing their anthropological relevance.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

6 Responses to “Star Wars and Anthropology”

  1. Peter Wogan 11/09/2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Hi Jay, Great to see an anthropologist with such dedication to “Star Wars”! You’d probably enjoy Lee Drummond’s book, “American Dreamtime.” It’s a an anthropological analysis of popular movies, and chapter 5 is an entire analysis of “Star Wars.” You can download the whole book for free on Drummond’s website:

    May the force be with you and your blog…

    • jayfancher 11/12/2012 at 1:35 pm #

      Thanks, Peter. I will check out Drummond’s book and your own “Hollywood Blockbusters” book looks like a must-read as well. I pursued film and anthropology as an undergrad and maintain strong interests in both (teaching anthro and citing Yoda whenever possible :). Glad to see that you’re doing so much in the film/anthro area – probably creates some great class discussions!

      • Peter Wogan 11/16/2012 at 11:47 am #

        Thanks, Jay. Drummond also has some interesting things to say about tools and archaeology (e.g. chapters on semiospace and Bond, James Bond), so I bet you’d enjoy those as well. So many films, yet so few other anthros working on them, strangely enough…

  2. Andrea Naranjo Leclercq 12/15/2015 at 9:48 am #

    Reblogged this on Luna Antagónica – Lune Antagonique.

  3. Mallory 10/18/2020 at 2:19 pm #

    Hi Jay, I came across this blog post while doing some research for a class. I have to write a paper on Star Wars- A new Hope and how this film can be viewed in relation to anthropology. However, I am having some trouble figuring out which topics of anthropology this film touches on exactly. If you know which topics specifically and could get back to me I would really appreciate it, Thank you!

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