The Myth of Hercules Compared to Disney’s Hercules

by Dave

If all you know about Hercules is that he went from a zero to a hero in Disney’s version, keep reading! This article examines some of the differences between the movie and the Greek myth it was based upon. Unsurprisingly, the original story is longer and more complex than the kids’ version. Also, differences between ancient Greek and modern values cause some tweaks in the movie.

Originally, the Greek myth was about Heracles, known today through Roman interference, as Hercules. The original significance of the story of Hercules is that even though the unfortunate events that happened to Hercules may have been caused by the gods, usually Hera, he acted with grace and performed his attrition adequately. Instead of killing himself in his grief, Pythia told him to atone for his sins with 12 labors.

Interestingly, because Hercules was a demi-god, he did not have to go through with his 12 labors. He certainly could have questioned the Delphic Oracle’s decision. Also he could have questioned his blame in the events when Hera caused them, but he did not; he willingly went through the labors, and later willingly became a slave of Omphale to atone for his crimes. The modern meaning of the story has a slightly different significance, partly because of the changes to Hercules’ motivations. In the movie he is striving to return to his immortal family rather than atone for crimes. This means his actions mean different things. It is no longer a story about retribution and absolution, but about family and the power of love.

In the movie, Hercules is working hard to try and change his lot in life. He is trying to become immortal and live with his family. This is a modern value, that hard work leads to a rising position. However in the myth, not even all of Hercules’ hard work could raise him up to the place of a god, as it would go against the order of the universe. This is an example of the difference in values creating a difference in the story of Hercules’ life.

Deeper into the Details of Hercules’ Life

In the movie, Hercules defeats Hades for Megara’s life. This makes it the story of love over death, a powerful modern theme, but not a typical ancient Greek theme. The themes of the original Hercules story, including murder and guilt, to name a few, are much darker. They do not lend to a happy ending. For example, a modern person would be delighted to be the “victim” of divine intervention. However myth-Hercules would attest that some (most) gods do not always have your best intentions at heart. Throughout the myth, while Hera attacks Hercules, Athena subtly helps; however, they do not balance each other out. Hercules’ life is spent in grief and being a pawn of the gods.

The Disney movie Hercules changed many things from the original myth, including the reasons behind Hercules’ adventures. In the original myth, Hercules committing penance for killing his wife in a madness brought to him by Hera. Even though by modern standards he would not have been guilty of the murder of his family. It is these kinds of miscommunications between time periods that are the reason behind the changes in the storyline of Hercules’ life.

Large Parts of the Story Discarded

In the movie the murder of his family would not be appropriate for kids. Instead Hercules defeats monsters as a way to gain “street cred” and to reconnect with his father Zeus. He has the aim of one day becoming a “real hero”. This means he could return to Olympus to live with the other gods. This matches with the ancient Greek idea of kudos giving a hero collective “immortality”. Even though in this case it would be literal immortality. as the modern-version of Hercules is actually a god whose powers have been drained.

Also, in the original myth, Alcmene conceives Hercules when Zeus deceives her by disguising himself as her husband. This makes Hercules a demi-god. Whereas in the movie, Hercules is Zeus and Hera’s son and Hades has stolen his immortality. Therefore, in the movie, Hercules has a stable family to go back to; family being a common American value. When he falls to earth, then, a peasant family adopts him, another difference with the original. In the original, Amphitryon, his supposed-father, raises Hercules wealthy.

Hercules’ Villain – Who is he?

In the movie, Hades’ main plot is to release the Titans. So Hercules must help the Olympians defeat the Titans. The writers depict the titans as being of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. While those are the traditional Greek elements, the Titans were not of the four elements. Hercules did not destroy them either. In the myth, Hercules participated in the Gigantomachy, the fight against the chthonic Giants. He helped the Olympians triumph over them. This was the highest a mortal hero could ever hope to get: to actually offer aid to the powerful gods themselves. However this is an example of a common theme in both versions of Hercules’ life. That is while his physical strength does give him victory on the battlefield, it does not give him peace or long-lasting happiness.

Hercules’ Love Interest – Who is She?

There are differences in his relationship with Megara also. In the original myth, Megara was Hercules’ first wife, given to him as a gift of gratitude by King Creon of Thebes. However, in the movie, Megara is a not-your-typical “damsel in distress” whom Hercules falls in love with and eventually saves from the underworld because she sold her soul to Hades. In the original mythology, Hades does not buy souls; this is a mix with Christian mythology, specifically demons who do make deals to buy or sell souls.

The rights of women have drastically changed since ancient times, and so it was inevitable some of the women in the story would have to be altered to fit modern values. For example, in the movie, Megara is not given as a gift, nor does Hercules have more than one wife. Also, in the movie, Hercules doesn’t have children, because the age where people have children has increased since antiquity and also movie-Hercules is more relatable to children as a younger person.

Looking at the Myth of Hercules as a Whole

Also, the original myth is a longer, more complex story, and intertwines with many other myths. For example, Theseus is a contemporary of Hercules, as well as the Argonauts, and Hercules even visits Troy, although he lives before the Trojan war. However, the movie is a short 1 and a half hours. So while there are many cameos, like Pegasus, Thebes, the other Olympian gods, and a satyr, the writers do no flesh out their characters and significance completely.

The writers do this to quickly create a general feeling of “Greek-ness”, including culture, mythology, and how ordinary people lived. However, the writers present some things in such a way that made it more relatable to modern viewers. The capitalism involved in Hercules’ mass-produced merchandise), the narration by the Muses), and Hercules’ celebrity fan club) are some examples.

Different Philosophies Lead to Different Endings

The difference in the ending of Hercules’ story reveals differences in the morals of the time periods involved. For example, in the movie, Hercules chooses to live a mortal life with his family and when he dies Zeus makes him into a constellation. This is another example of the modern “power of love” theme. While in the original Hercules dies due to the jealousy of his second wife and the trickery of the centaur Nessus, and morosely builds his own pyre. This was a sad end to the Greek audience of the time not just because he died, but because he did not die on the battlefield, as a proper hero should.

A similarity would be his early life. In both the movie and the original, Hercules strangles snakes that have been let into his crib by his adversary, though they differ as to whom that adversary is, Hera in the original, and Hades in the movie. Also, Hera in the myth and Hades in the movie have similar reasons for hating Hercules; they are both jealous of Zeus.

In the movie, Hades is rebelling against the established order and wants Zeus to fall because he doesn’t like being god of the underworld while Zeus rules the sky. In the original, Hades is part of the order of the universe. However Hera, in a common theme for ancient Greek stories, blames Hercules for being born by a mortal woman whom Zeus deceived. Both of these gods hate Hercules not because of anything he did. This makes Hercules more sympathetic because Hera targets him for something he cannot control.

Hercules’ Portrayal

In both the movie and the original, Hercules doesn’t know his own strength; however the mediums depict this differently, in the myth he accidentally kills his music teacher, while in the movie this wouldn’t lend any sympathy to his plight and so he only accidentally destroys a marketplace.

Hercules’ labors in the original myth came to be a staple of Greek-ness. A city wouldn’t really be “Greek” unless they had Hercules come and perform a labor at their city. This would inflate the labors of Hercules in the myth from 12 to however many cities there were. Similar to this portrayal, in the movie, there is a montage of Hercules defeating a lot of monsters throughout many different Greek cities. In both stories, Hercules was a hero to his contemporaries. The similarities of Hercule’s life remain because they are actually similarities in the typical “hero” character of the ancient Greeks and modern media. While there are many obvious differences in the details and tone of the stories, both versions of the myth of Hercules deliver on the hero archetype of the times in which they were made.