Disney origins: The not so-family-friendly Greek myth that inspired ‘Hercules’

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Despite having gone unnoticed during its premiere, Disney’s Hercules movie has managed to win the love and respect of audiences. After all, this animated film has a story full of adventures, well-developed characters, catchy songs, and iconic scenes now used in memes.

As we know, many of the Disney movies are adaptations of classic stories and characters. In the case of Hercules, it was based on the legendary demigod from Greek mythology: Heracles. However, the animated version had to change some aspects to make the hero’s story more family-friendly.

Fair warning! I don’t have the skills of the powerful muses to narrate ‘à la gospel.’ 

Heracles or Hercules?

The first difference to notice has to be the main character’s name. In Greek mythology, the name of the son of Zeus is actually Heracles, which means “glory of Hera,” and not because he was her son, but we will address this later. 

Meanwhile, Hercules is the Roman version of the demigod’s name, and with which he is best identified in the modern West. Since the film’s story is developed in Ancient Greece, many have pointed out that the main hero should have kept his Greek title. 

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Hera wasn’t Heracles’ mother

As mentioned earlier, the queen of the Olympians wasn’t the hero’s mother. Quite the opposite! Hercules, or Heracles, was actually born from an affair between Zeus and Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus. 

Naturally, Hera developed a hatred towards him; after all, Hera is known as “Zeus’ jealous wife” who loathed his illegitimate children. No wonder why she developed such resentment if her husband continued to be unfaithful!

Hera’s revenge

Needless to say, the goddess was extremely cruel to Zeus’ son. First, she used her supernatural powers to prevent Heracles from becoming the ruler of Mycenae. How? Zeus had declared that the next son born of the Perseid house should become the king. 

So, Hera managed that another child, the sickly Eurystheus, was born first. Thus, Heracles didn’t gain the title of the ruler.  

Then, after Heracles was born, Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. Fortunately, the infant, who possessed an unusual strength and fearlessness, strangled the snakes before they could attack him.

Hence, his name symbolized that he would become famous through his hardships with the goddess.

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Heracles’ adoptive parents

Disney’s movie shows an old couple that found an abandoned baby Hercules and decided to adopt him. The pair were Amphitryon and Alcmene. Though Amphitryon was indeed the demigod’s adoptive dad, we’re now aware that Alcmene was his biological mom. 

What about Heracles’ bother?

Wait, Hercules had a sibling? Yes. Apparently, this relative was cut in the editing room. After Alcmene got pregnant by Zeus, who disguised as her husband, she became pregnant again by the real Amphitryon. A bit twisted, but quite common in Greek mythology.

After childbirth, two babies were born: Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, and Heracles, son of Zeus. So yeah, the demigod had a maternal half-twin. 

Megara didn’t have a happy ending

In the myth, the sarcastic and tough Meg didn’t live happily ever after meeting her Wonder Boy. After winning a war against the kingdom of Orchomenus in Boeotia. Heracles married Megara, daughter of Creon, king of Thebes.

Later on, the merry couple had three children. At that point, the young demigod was a successful hero with a family of his own— but not for long.  

Hera’s fury was still lurking, and the queen of Olympus would not let the hero be happy. The goddess cast a spell upon Heracles, temporarily driving him insane and causing him to murder his wife and children. 

When he came to his senses, he was overwhelmed with grief at what he had done. 

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Heracles and the Twelve Labors

After this tragedy, Heracles became the servant of his cousin Eurystheus, king of Tiryns and Mycenae. He commanded the demigod to accomplish twelve labors to redeem his crimes. 

While the movie gives us a battle based on one of these tasks, and just some brief scenes that reference the rest of them, the twelve labors of Heracles are the most substantial part of the hero’s myth. They were the following: 

  • Kill the Nemean Lion, a creature with fur incapable of being harmed by any weapon.
  • Slay the Hydra, the nine-headed poisonous monster that, by cutting off one, two will grow in its place.
  • Capture the Ceryneian Hind, an elusive stag sacred to the goddess Artemis.
  • Abduct the wild boar of Mount Erymanthus.
  • Cleaning the immense stables of King Augeas in a single day.
  • Drive away the monstrous man-eating birds of the Stymphalian countryside.
  • Capture the mad bull of Crete.
  • Bring the man-eating mares of King Diomedes.
  • Steal the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons.
  • Seize the cattle of the three-bodied giant Geryon.
  • Bring the Golden Apples of Hesperides.
  • Fetch Cerberus, the guard dog of the underworld.
  • Hades wasn’t the baddie

    Every Disney animated movie must have a wicked villain we shouldn’t root for, yet ends up stealing the show. In Hercules, that role belongs to the moody Hades. However, the god of the Underworld wasn’t the villain in Greek myth. 

    Hades helped Heracles with his twelfth and final labor by allowing Zeus’ son to take Cerberus as long as the hero didn’t hurt the dog and returned it to the Underworld. 

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    Heracles’ death

    Whereas in the animated movie our hero got the chance to spend the rest of his life with Meg, Heracles undertook further adventures after accomplishing the twelve labors.

    He did find a second chance at love with princess Deianira, though not for much longer. One day, as they were heading home, the Centaur Nessus (yes, the one that was harassing Meg) tried to rape Deianira, but was stopped by one of Heracles’s arrows.

    But the evil Centaur wouldn’t die without getting his revenge. Before giving away his last breath, Nessus offered Deianeira his blood, claiming that it would serve as an aphrodisiac in case she needed it in the future.

    And she did, for her husband’s attention was later caught by another princess: Iole. Knowing his family’s history, *cough* Zeus, Deianeira sent Heracles a garment smeared with Nessus’s blood.

    But, plot twist! It turned out that the blood was actually poisonous and deadly enough to kill a demigod. 

    In the end, Heracles perished, and his spirit ascended to Olympus; he became a god and finally made peace with Hera. 

    Images from: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution and Pixabay