Welcome to this, the first installment of Know Your Myth, an ongoing series that seeks to right the wrongs created when Hollywood, the misguided, and the otherwise off-base misinterpret the mythologies, folk tales, and classical stories that make up much of human history and set their abominations loose upon the unsuspecting public.
Our first installment concerns Hercules, one of, if not the most, famous of the classical heroes.
The Herculean Myth has been retold and adapted numerous times across both film and television. The two most recent motion picture retellings premiered within months of one another, and were promptly swept under the rug where lackluster blockbusters fade into gentle obscurity, while one of the most famous adaptations—the animated Disney feature— inspired pure outrage in Hercules’ native Greece.
Despite the seemingly limitless adaptions, they all generally fixate on one part of the story and leave a bunch of other pieces on the editing room floor.
Here’s every Hercules movie in a nutshell:
Meet Hercules. Hercules is strong. Hercules goes on adventures. Hercules is good at adventures, because he’s strong. Hercules loves a woman. She somehow ends up in trouble. Hercules uses his strength to save her. Hercules and his love live happily ever after.
It’s every compact adventure story ever peddled, just wearing the names and costumes of the greatest Greek myth. The closest we’ve come in the last two decades to a slightly complex retelling is Disney’s Hercules, and even that drew ire — to put it way too lightly — from Greece. The Guardian’s Helena Smith was one of the first on the cultural crime scene. At the time of the film’s Greek premier, she prophesied:
“For academics, Disney has done more than provoke insult. It has committed the sin of being anti-educational. They fear a whole generation of children could be brainwashed by the movie.”
Smith had a point. Not only does Disney’s Hercules give undue credit to the title character, such as slaying the Minotaur and killing the Medusa, it changes Hercules’ parenthood and familial lineage, which are integral to the core of his entire mythological legacy because it is in his being half mortal that makes Hercules the protector of man and his apotheosis all the more incredible.
This is problematic because films are devilishly tricky to forget, meaning they have the power to teach and reaffirm ideas quickly, whether what they’re teaching is beneficial or harmful is never given a second thought.
Though the Disney film was released nearly two decades ago, and the indignation it inspired has mostly subsided, the situation is worth examining today.
To summarize a sub-par retelling, the key existential question asked by the film concerns the difference between fame and heroism, between doing something for personal glory and appreciation, or because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a question that begs meditation, but not one that Hercules ought to be answering.
For being such a pivotal character, it seems Hercules is also one of the least understood. Here’s a crash-course on the strongest man in mythology.
In ancient Greece, where the myth originates and where each of these adaptations takes place, his name is ‘Heracles’. Yet, every adaptation of alleged merit elects to keep the Roman moniker, Hercules.
We’re off to a great start.
Anyway, Hercules was the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. Not an uncommon attribute — a lot of Greek myths begin with Zeus’s extra-marital romps — but Hercules was especially despised by Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of Olympus. In fact, the first of Hercules’ feats of strength took place in his infancy, when he strangled two serpents sent by Hera to kill him in his cradle.
Most of Hercules’ life was spent in servitude of his half-brother Eurystheus, lasting up until adulthood when Hercules distinguished himself as a warrior. He then married the King of Thebes’ daughter, Megara, with whom he had some demi-godlings and settled down. That is, until Hera inflicted a bout of madness upon Hercules, which caused him to kill Megara and their children.
In order to pay for his crime, Eurystheus issued twelve labors to Hercules.
This is the part of Hercules’ life that most people are already familiar with. A few of his labors include slaying the Nemean Lion, destroying the Lernaean Hydra, acquiring the girdle of Hippolyta — Queen of the Amazons — cleaning the Augean stables, and various others.
Most contemporary versions of Hercules’ story revolve around the twelve labors, but the demi-god’s epic doesn’t end here. Hercules later joined the Argonauts to search for the Golden Fleece, sacked Troy long before Agamemnon and Menelaus had the idea, and even pops up in the Underworld while Odysseus is busy on his odyssey.
Additionally, both before and after his marriage to Megara, Hercules had lovers, both male and female, who joined him during his journeys and battles. It’s here that we see Hercules as a loyal representative of masculinity because he’s not only the biggest, strongest, and fastest man — and a famed purloiner of Amazonian underclothing — he also appreciates the beauty of the masculine physique in a romantic way.
Perhaps the most interesting, and most neglected aspect of the Herculean myth is that he’s the only demi-god to ever achieve full godhood. His responsibilities include guarding the entrance to Olympus, as well as serving as the divine protector of humankind. It’s his ascension that makes his parentage so important, in that no other half-mortal ever did so much good and accomplished so much that benefitted both mortals and immortals to earn a permanent place in the home of the Gods.
Pretty sweet gig for a guy who was tricked into killing his whole family and caused a plethora of ruckus.
Aside from being a defining pillar of the Hero’s Paradigm, Hercules represents one of the earliest redemption tales. (That’s right, the Christians don’t have a monopoly on sin and penance. The Greeks had their fair share.)
Hercules represents the idea that humankind can, through serving others selflessly, become greater than the sum of our own strength, that we have a responsibility to help those in need, and that even those among us who have committed unspeakable acts of evil are not beyond (wait for it, here it comes) salvation. That’s why he’s the inspiration behind Superman, Captain America, even Shazam (formerly known as DC’s Captain Marvel), our most popular contemporary mythologies.
He was, in a way, the master of this series’ tagline. Though he did indeed wreck himself (a lot of Hercules’ problems were of his own design), he was the original master of checking himself. Hercules did his best to take responsibility for his actions, even those he committed while under the influence of the Queen of Olympus.
For Hercules, it isn’t about how strong or how famous you are, but in owning up to your mistakes, and doing all you can to make things right again.
If you want to really see the last son of Zeus in action, skip the movies, dig out your library card, and go look up “Heracles.” You’ll be glad you did.