How Disney Sculpted the Miraculous Childhood Role Model, Hercules, from the Ruthless Greek Character, Heracles

After analyzing Disney’s ability to transform Greek myths (that, agreeably, would not be deemed as child appropriate) to an entertaining G rated children’s movie, I will now look at the main and, in my opinion, the most important character in the Disney cartoon, Hercules.

Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus

Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus

In Greek mythology, Hercules (or Heracles in the myths) is known primarily for his extraordinary strength, courage, and masculinity. In the myths he is commonly wearing a lion skin. It is known that Heracles was the son of Zeus and Hera, and this is a reasonable belief because Heracles directly translates to the ‘Glory of Hera’. But, as probably anticipated due to the sexual absurdities in Greek Mythology, Heracles was actually the outcome of Zeus’ infidelity. Zeus disguised himself as Amphitryon, the husband of a mortal woman, Alcheme. Heracles was an illegitimate son of Zeus and also half mortal. As you can probably assume, because Heracles was a symbol of Hera’s husband’s infidelity, she learned to hate him. Due to this hate, she sent two serpents to kill him. Because of Heracles magnificent strength, he strangled the serpents and used their dead bodies as toys.

The infant Heracles and a snake sent by Hera

The infant Heracles and a snake sent by Hera

Heracles was sent to tend to livestock in his childhood, after he had killed his music teacher, on a mountain. Here he was visited by nymphs – Pleasure and Virtue. These two nymphs offered him a choice between two lives: a life of comfort and general easiness or a life of glory and brutality. Evidently, he chose the path of glory and brutality.

Heracles married a woman named Megara; she was his first wife, whom he had several children with. The hate Hera possessed over Hercules continued on even this far in his life. She caused Heracles to lose his mind and kill his wife and children. Heracles knew he had committed brutal crimes and he wished to purify himself of them, so he went to an oracle (who was influenced by Hera). The oracle told Heracles that he must serve King Eurystheus for 12 years and complete 12 labors.

There are several events that occur in Disney’s Hercules that can be compared and contrasted with the mythology surrounding Heracles. I will be focusing most of my attention on:

  • Heracles’/Hercules’ characteristics and traits
  • Heracles’/Hercules’ parents and the idea of infidelity
  • The attempt to murder Heracles/Heracles via serpents
  • Heracles’/Hercules’ upbringing: working with livestock
  • Heracles’/Hercules’ romance with Megara

Characteristics and Traits:

In Greek myths Hercules was famously known for his strength, bravery, and masculinity – much like in the Disney cartoon. But, unlike the cartoon, he was also widely known for his arrogance, lack of self-discipline, murderous sprees, and was the object of infidelity. The cartoon is absent from all of these traits, with the exception of minor arrogance once Hercules fame has built up, but he quickly realizes that his actions are inappropriate and he makes up for it. In the movie he possesses traits that leave children starry-eyed; loyal, kind, romantic, humorous, brave, strong, heroic, and humble. The song “Zero to Hero” that is present in the film idolizes Hercules and creates an even larger celebrity status for him by children. The song also highlights some major character traits of Hercules.

Parents and the Idea of Infidelity & the Attack of the Serpents:

In the cartoon, Hercules was the legitimate son of Zeus and Hera (who both loved him very much). Instead of Hera despising him, this characteristic was placed on Hades. Hercules was born a God, unlike the myth. It was after his birth when he was turned mortal by the efforts of Hades and his minions. After he had been turned completely mortal, or so the minions had thought, they attempted to kill him by morphing themselves into serpents; which baby Hercules then strangled (but did not kill) and used them as toys – like the Greek myth says that Hera did. Also, after turning Hercules into a mortal he was adopted by Alcheme and Amphitryon – the name of the woman who Zeus committed infidelity with in the myths while being disguised as her husband Amphitryon. Take a look at turning the “little sun spot” into a mortal and his ability to defeat serpents even after he was stripped of his title as a God – also, notice the names of those who found baby Hercules.

Working with Livestock (in a Farm Setting) Throughout Childhood:

In the Disney film Hercules was brought up in a farm setting. Not because he murdered anyone (like the myths suggest), but because this was the life his adoptive parents chose. Disney refrained from the small detail that Hercules was sentenced to work with livestock due to his murderous crime and instead replaced this detail with Hercules’ innocence as a baby.

Hercules’ Romance with Megara:

In the Disney film, Hercules is shy with Megara at first. He is clearly attracted to her and attempts to rescue her from a river guardian who has her in his firm grasp. Hercules defeats the River Guardian and (very quickly) falls head over heels for Megara like the oh-so typical Disney love story. But, in contrast to the myth, their relationship at the end of the movie does not resemble anything that would lead to the murder of Megara and their several children. Again, in contrast to the characteristics that the myths give Heracles, he would never give up the title of God for love or a woman. His goal in life was to be glorious and no love story would ruin that. The Disney Hercules gave this God title up for the love of his life, Megara. Hera is also delighted with her son and his relationship with Megara. Disney leaves the murderous abilities of Hercules out of the film, for the very obvious restrictions that a G-rating places on a children’s cartoon. See just how true Hercules’ love for Megara is and also notice the additional praised characteristics the hunky hero possesses.

Disney has incorporated some of the aspects from the Greek mythology surrounding Heracles into the 1997 cartoon Hercules. The representation is not consistently accurate for obvious reasons – it is simply not appropriate for children. Producers and directors have found aspects of these myths to be entertaining if manipulated in some way, like Hercules run in with the two serpents. This was originally a brutal attack on an innocent baby’s life by his Fathers wife warped into a humorous and enjoyable scene for children – kind of sick, right? There are many other relatable events that happen in Greek mythology surrounding Heracles that can be compared to Disney’s Hercules, like the 12 labors, that will be soon discussed and analyzed.

The first of the twelve labours Hercules had to complete: Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin

The first of the twelve labours Hercules had to complete: Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin

Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus image found here

The Infant Hercules and a snake sent by Hera image found here 

Twelve Labors Image found here

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