Set in Ancient Greece, Hercules is by far one of Disney’s most happy-go-lucky films. It’s about Zeus’ mortal son Hercules, who seeks to regain his place among the other gods on Mount Olympus by becoming a true hero. Helping him along the way are his trainer Philoctetes (voiced by Danny De Vito), love interest Megara, and his trusty steed, the winged horse Pegasus. All the while, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, seeks to destroy him as he is the one obstacle in his plan to take over the universe.
If you are even remotely familiar with Greek mythology you are probably pulling a face already, but are equally unsurprised at Disney’s deviations from the original myths – you are more likely asking yourself why on earth they chose these stories in the first place, which are usually crammed with murder, betrayal, tragedy, and the other kind of family friendly entertainment. If you aren’t familiar with the mythology, then brace yourself for Disney’s finest glossing since The Little Mermaid.
Since Disney have picked a handful of figures and events from the original legends and concocted a story around them, it’s not possible for me to do an exact side by side comparison, so instead I’ll be going through the scenes of the film and comparing the characters and situations with the relevant parts of the source material. Pinning down a specific source text is also rather difficult, as due to oral storytelling traditions it’s often a case of “he said/she said”, but the collection by Apollodorus, said to have survived from antiquity, is considered a primary source of the original myths, and any gaps in between I have patched up using the who’s who guide by M. Grant and J. Hazel. So without further ado, let’s look at Disney’s second bash at mythology in this series.
Our storytellers are five sassy Muses, who introduce themselves as goddesses of the arts and the proclaimers of heroes. Rather inexplicably, they choose to narrate the tale of Hercules via gospel songs, and spend the remainder of their time drooling over him or enticing other statues into a sing-a-long.
They are enormously sympathetic to the protagonists, singing sadly when Hercules is stolen from his nest, and joshing Megara when she refuses to admit she is in love. They are also allowed to gatecrash the gods’ party on Mount Olympus, so they accompany us throughout the story.
There are nine Muses in total and they are indeed goddesses of the arts. However, they are also daughters of Zeus, and take their sassiness to a more extreme level. When a poet and lyre player called Thamyris challenges them to a music contest – after which they will have to sleep with him if he wins – they respond by whooping his ass at said contest, blinding him and taking away his ability to play the lyre to teach him a lesson. Others who have tried to outdo them have met similar ends.
They’re not strangers to helping others though. For example, the legend of the sphinx (as in the lion with the woman’s head) sees her asking a seemingly impossible riddle and then mercilessly devouring anyone who gets the answer wrong. This rather extreme alternative to a pub quiz wouldn’t be possible without the Muses having given her the riddle in the first place.
So you could argue that the Muses in the original stories were a tad less friendly towards mortals, and they are no way involved in the story of Heracles either.
Apart from choosing the Latin name for their main character, Disney also decided to revise Heracles’ origins a little bit.
Hercules the Demi-God
Hercules is born to gods Zeus and Hera on Mount Olympus, and a grand party is thrown in celebration. He is their only son and their pride and joy, so when he is stolen by Pain and Panic, Hades’ minions, Zeus terrorises the sky with his lightning and all of the gods go on a frantic search to try to find him.
Pain and Panic use a magic potion to turn Hercules mortal with the aim of killing him afterwards, but they are interrupted and drop the bottle before the baby has finished drinking. Since he doesn’t drink the last drop, Hercules still retains his god-like strength, but can no longer live among the other gods on Mount Olympus.
Pain and Panic’s plan was interrupted by Amphitryon and his wife, who happened to be walking by. For many years they have been praying for a child, so they delightedly accept Hercules as their own, especially as he is handy for disposing of underworld demons in snake form. Consequently, Hercules grows up on Earth as a mortal and is raised by mortal parents.
Heracles is a demi-god for a much simpler reason: he’s the result of Zeus jumping into bed with Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmene.
Alcmene didn’t know this at the time because Zeus was disguised as her husband, who she thought had just returned from war. Consequently, when Amphityron actually returned from battle, he wondered why he had such a cool reception from his wife – as far as she was concerned, he had already come home and given her a victory boning. Her resulting pregnancy produced twins, one of whom was Zeus’ son Heracles (known at this point as Alceides), and the other Amphitryon’s child, Iphicles.
It’s hard to say who was less impressed by this development – Amphitryon, or Zeus’ wife, Hera.
Although Zeus is married to Hera like in the Disney version, he is famous for trying it on with anything female, albeit god, human or otherwise, and ends up fathering many hundreds of illegitimate children. In all fairness, if you were married to your sister, you would probably want to sow your seeds a bit more widely too. Yes, you read that right – Zeus and Hera are siblings as well as spouses in the original.
Far from being the loving wife and mother in the film, Hera rains down fire and brimstone on many of Zeus’ mistresses and their respective offpsring – Heracles in particular – and once she has heard about his latest dalliance with Alcmene, she sends two snakes to attack the infants. Iphicles flees, or at least ambles away at toddler-speed, but Heracles manages to kill them.
So in both stories, already Hercules has cemented a reputation that will follow him for the rest of his life – god-like strength, and a proficiency at dealing with bed snakes. Disney just decided to clean up the incest and infidelity aspect, and made Hercules a god turned mortal rather than the result of a god jumping one.
The reason Disney’s Hercules gets into this mess is due to Hades, so how did they handle this character?
Hades and His Diabolical Plan
More “fast-talking businessman” than “unholy guardian of the undead”, Hades spends his time mooching around in the Underworld and keeping an eye on the newcomers. He is invited to Hercules’ party, but as he explains to Zeus, his job is a full-time gig and so he can’t lounge around on Mount Olympus like the other gods. After reminding Zeus that he is the reason why he is saddled with such a burden, he retreats back to the Underworld to meet the Fates, who he is hoping to wheedle for information about a planned hostile takeover bid.
The Fates, three old ladies who share a slimy eyeball, know everything about the past, present and future, and keep Hades’ homeland nice and full by cutting the life threads of mortals with a pair of gardening shears.
After some transparent but expert flattery by the Lord of the Underworld, they reveal a prophecy to him – the planets will align in eighteen years’ time, at which point Hades must mobilise his minions and take over Mount Olympus if he wants to rule the cosmos. However, they warn that he will fail in this endeavour if Hercules is able to fight. After a minor hissy fit, Hades hatches his plan to turn Hercules mortal and have him killed, but we already know how that turned out thanks to his incompetent sidekicks. Nevertheless, thwarting Hercules remains his aim throughout the film, but since to him it’s only business, he doesn’t stoop to any underhand tactics (yet).
It seems that Disney didn’t depart all that much from the original figure, also known as Pluto, as he is neither tyrannical nor terrifying – the Greeks considered him as a god who was simply doing a necessary job and performing it without discrimination. He is another sibling of Zeus, and the task of maintaining the Underworld wasn’t forced upon him – he, Zeus and Poseidon all drew lots as to who would govern which kingdom.
Not only does he lack any diabolical plans, but he is purportedly bored by the living and therefore doesn’t have much to do with them, the only exception being his kidnap and rape of Persephone. Rape appears to be a regular inconvenience if you’re a woman in ancient Greece, but apparently it’s not as bad as eating fruit while in the Underworld, at least in Persephone’s case. She is therefore doomed to stay with Hades for half the year as punishment, but unsurprisingly Disney dropped this side story altogether.
As for the Fates, there are three of them, and they do indeed spin out the lives of men as threads and snip them in two when it’s all over. However, the bit about sharing an eye seems to be an homage or confusion with the sisters of the Gorgons, who share an eye and a tooth and had the misfortune of being born permanently old. Despite being a bit younger, the Fates are a tad more doddery than in the film, for instance, Apollo manages to get them drunk so they extend the life of his friend. They also wear white instead of black.
Hades and the Fates are therefore fairly close to the original, except Hades is more of an obvious antagonist and wants to give himself a promotion. In the myth, Heracles only has the pleasure of meeting him later on when is trying to complete one of his tasks, which leads us to the question of what the title character is looking for in life.
Going the Distance
We next encounter Hercules as a scrawny but gentle teenager, doing such teenagery-things as accidentally destroying a whole marketplace with a frisbee, and dreaming of a place where everyone will be falling over themselves to meet him. After trashing the market, he and his father bear the brunt of the locals’ fury, which leads Hercules to ponder whether he is normal and if this is where he belongs. Amphitryon and his wife reveal that he was adopted, and that his true lineage may be related to the gods.
Hercules sets off for the temple of Zeus, where his real father explains that someone stole him as a baby and turned him mortal. All is not lost, however, because if Hercules can prove himself a true hero, his godhood will be restored and he can return to Mount Olympus. Zeus tells him he must now seek out Philoctetes, the trainer of heroes such as Perseus, Theseus and Jason of the Argonauts, and with the new found assistance of the flying Pegasus, a long lost birthday gift made from clouds, Hercules takes off into the sunrise to begin his quest.
After a bit of cajoling (and a few accidental beatings), Hercules manages to convince the cynical and formerly retired satyr Philoctetes to train him to become a warrior on his lost island. After a standard musical montage, Hercules is both a confident and buff eighteen year-old, ready to face anything life throws at him.
As well as being one of the warriors who sailed with Jason, Heracles has no trouble using his strength or fitting in, and doesn’t seem to have a particular goal in life to start off with.
At the age of seventeen, he single-handedly kills a lion terrorising the lands near to Thebes, and ends up buddies with King Thespius who rules over part of the nearby kingdom. So much of a buddy in fact, that he gets Heracles to sleep with all fifty of his daughters, but the boy is so drunk or stupid that he thinks he is hammering the same girl night after night. Not a bad way to lose one’s virginity, apart from the “fathering fifty sons by the time you’re twenty” bit.
He hones his battle and chariot skills with his adopted father and other helpful peeps, but takes exception to playing the lyre and decides to bash his teacher’s brains in. He somehow manages to avoid punishment by claiming it was in self defence, and later goes on to redeem the people of Thebes who are subject to paying a protection tax. In gratitude, the head of Thebes, Creon, gives him his daughter Megara in marriage, but I’ll come to her later. When Creon is usurped, Heracles kills the usurper, but Hera is jealous of his victories and drives him temporarily mad, whereby he kills two of his children (not included among the first fifty he fathered). It’s when he’s trying to seek atonement for this that he is told by the Delphi Oracle that he can achieve forgiveness and also ascend to Mount Olympus as an immortal, but to do so he must complete ten tasks for a chap named Eurystheus. And so his quest begins. Phew!
As for Pegasus, the winged horse was born from the blood of Medusa when Perseus chopped off her head, as she was apparently up the duff by Poseidon at the time. It’s also a hero called Bellerophon, another of Poseidon’s sons, who manages to tame and ride the horse.
Finally, if the above wasn’t far enough away from the film, we have Philoctetes, who I’m convinced was only chosen because Disney found a list of characters with easily shortened names and then stuck a pin in the middle of it.
Although he does encounter Heracles, he is a human rather than a satyr, and he meets him when the demi-god is dying in agony on top of his own funeral pyre. Philoctetes is the only one with the balls to light it, and in gratitude Heracles gives him his bow and arrows, which never miss their target. Philoctetes later uses them in the sacking of Troy, but is left behind on an island for a while due to a really smelly wound on his foot.
So in short, Pegasus was born out of gorgon’s blood rather than clouds, Philoctetes has nothing to do with satyrs or training, and Heracles doesn’t set out to become immortal – it’s just an added bonus to redeeming himself for being a horrendous jerk.
All this aside, they both have adventures and encounter other similar characters on their way, so with their life goals established let’s see what else lies in store for them.
Nessus and Megara
On their way to a heroic test-drive in Thebes, Hercules, Phil and Pegasus come across Megara, a beautiful woman who is not only contractually obliged to stand with her hips at a 45 degree angle, but is being harassed by a giant centaur named Nessus.
Hercules bravely squares off against the centaur, but this is to Megara’s complete indifference and mild irritation. When Nessus is lying in a dizzy heap, Hercules sheepishly approaches the damsel, lured closer by his first sight of a woman in several years, but equally clueless as to what to do with one.
Megara seems very eager for a ponying, but this goes completely over Hercules’ head, so she saunters away and the heroes leave. We then discover that Megara is working for Hades, and was irritated by Hercules’ intervention as she was trying to convince Nessus to join the Underworld takeover team. Hades scolds her for messing up her task, but luckily this is overshadowed by the fact that Hercules is still alive, so he takes his rage out on Pain and Panic instead.
The Lord of the Underworld then enlists Megara’s help throughout the rest of the film, getting her to lead Hercules into traps, and then asking her to flirt with him in order to find out his weaknesses. However, Megara only goes along with this because Hades owns her soul, which she sold to him in exchange for the life of her cheating ex-boyfriend. She begins to fall in love with Hercules and his naive and gentle ways, and so decides to renege on this deal, even if it means she will remain Hades’ prisoner forever.
Megara has as much background in the original as Nessus has in the Disney film, as in not much at all, in fact I couldn’t even find any images of her. As I mentioned earlier, she is the daughter of the king of Thebes, and is given to Heracles in marriage as a reward for saving the city. She and Heracles have two sons, but these are the children that Heracles murders during his Hera-induced madness. In the Apollodorus version Megara survives, and Heracles later marries her off to his nephew, Iolaus, because he feels he is no longer worthy of her after butchering their offspring. This is the last we hear from this character in the mythology.
Nessus, on the other hand, is one of the few centaurs that survived a drunken brawl with Heracles, and later returns to try it on with his second wife, Deianeira. Nessus says he will ferry the pair across a river, but then tries to rape her, and is then subject to a fatal disciplinary smackdown by the demi-god. As he lies dying, Nessus tells Deianeira that if she saves the blood – and jizzum – that he spilled on the ground, it can be made into a powerful love potion that she should use if Heracles ever goes off her. Nice.
Being a bit dense, Deianeira does just that, and further down the line when Heracles has kidnapped a beautiful girl called Iole, she sends him a tunic dipped in the so-called “love potion” for fear of him being unfaithful to her. As the tunic becomes warm, the poison (and jizzum) works its way into Heracles’ body, and he is unable to tear off the clothing without also tearing off his own skin. He therefore dies in agony on top of his funeral pyre, where he encounters Philoctetes. Deianeira finds out what happened and then hangs herself.
So Heracles dies from the blood and other emissions of Nessus, and is a bit of ladies’ man in general. Megara is barely a footnote, and Heracles’ second wife Deianeira is the one he actually saves from a centaur. A slight departure then from him rescuing his true love who also works for the Lord of the Underworld, and I think it’s a given that this romance is going end far more amicably. However, in both cases, the fight with Nessus is the start of something bigger – it’s Disney Hercules’ first real fight, and the fight that eventually leads to the downfall of the original Heracles.
After the warmup with Nessus, Hercules and his entourage continue on to Thebes looking for a fight. Soon after they arrive, Megara appears again, fretting over two little boys who are trapped in a rock slide. Hercules hurries into action, grudgingly followed by the townspeople, who seem far less enthused about his apparent abilities, and he lifts a giant boulder out of the way so the boys scamper to safety. Out of sight, the boys resume their forms as Pain and Panic, and Hades and Megara also have front row seats for the upcoming battle – the giant boulder was in fact blocking the entrance to the hydra’s lair.
Despite being swallowed alive at first, Hercules manages to chop off the hydra’s head, and the next one, and the next one, and after a short while, he begins to notice a pattern.
The hydra manages to pin him against a cliff, but just as it’s ready to administer a death blow, Hercules slams the rocks and causes another rock slide, burying them both. Fortunately, he is protected by the hydra’s fist in rigor mortis, so he survives and is suddenly the darling of Thebes. The Muses treat us to another fast-paced gospel montage, where we see Hercules grow in fame and battle monsters left and right, earn a fortune in fees and merchandising and acquire his own huge villa with sea view.
Phil becomes his PA as well as his trainer, and books him into such appointments as helping a chap called Augeus with his stables; fetching a girdle from some Amazons, and posing in a lion skin for a painter (hi, Scar!). In case you hadn’t guessed, these are fleeting references to the tasks of Heracles in the original story.
Victorious, Hercules visits the temple of Zeus to regale his father with his tales of battle, thinking he has at last become a true hero. Unfortunately not – being famous, and beating every single opponent he comes up against is still not enough apparently, and Hercules is left feeling more than a little despondent at this news.
Not quite as despondent as Hades though, who can’t believe Hercules has flattened all of his monster minions without breaking a sweat. He then realises Megara makes a far better weapon, and promises to give her soul back if she can woo Hercules enough to reveal his weaknesses. This doesn’t go to plan either, as the two end up falling in love.
The battle with the Hydra of Lerna is actually the second task given to Heracles by Eurystheus, and the monster was sent by Hera, not Hades. It’s also apparently accompanied by a crab, which after being killed becomes the constellation Cancer.
To slay the many-headed beast (estimates range from nine to fifty different heads, with the one in the middle being immortal), Heracles enlists the help of his nephew Iolaus again, who sets fire to the nearby forest and uses flaming brands to cauterise each of the headless stumps as Heracles hacks away at them. He then buries the immortal head under a huge rock, so a slight reversal of the Disney film.
The various other monsters and tasks glimpsed in the Disney montage and after refer to most of the other jobs Heracles has to do; he has to muck out the vast stables of Augeus in one day, acquire a girdle from the Amazons to appease Eurystheus’ daughter (this goes swimmingly until Hera stirs it up, again), and his posing in a lion fur refers to his first task, where he has to kill the Nemean lion, and ever after wears its skin on his back.
The only time Zeus is involved is when he is saving his son at the last minute, usually by chucking down a bolt of lightning to separate him from his opponent (Apollo), or by whisking him away to avoid further harm (when sacking the island of Cos during the Troy voyage). Zeus also loses patience with Hera’s constant victimising of Heracles and suspends her from Olympus for a while with anvils hanging from her feet.
When Heracles has completed the ten tasks he was originally required to do, disaster strikes, or rather, unfortunate pedantry. Since he had help fighting the hydra, and bargained with Augeus for cattle when cleaning out his stables, Eurystheus doesn’t count them as real tasks as they were done with assistance or in exchange for something. This is why there are twelve tasks of Heracles – he is asked to do two more tasks in order to achieve his goal.
It’s therefore Hera rather than Hades that’s the bane of Heracles’ life, but he does have a similar frustration to Disney’s Hercules when he finds out that two of his hard-won battles don’t actually count for anything, and he must do more to achieve his ultimate goal. Hera is also punished for messing him about, whereas Hades is free to come up with a new plan to thwart his enemy, but you could argue his anger at his ineffectual monsters, and the fact that Pain and Panic start buying Hercules merchandise, is punishment enough. We are almost at the point where Hercules achieves what he sets out to do, so how does he get on?
A Battle for Heaven and Earth
Since Megara is in love and won’t go along with Hades’ plan anymore, Hades does what he probably should have done earlier – he holds her hostage, and tells Hercules he will only let her go if he relinquishes his powers for the next twenty-four hours. Hercules agrees, as long as Megara is safe from harm, and his power is then zapped out of him. For perhaps the first time ever, the villain in a Disney film honours his side of the bargain, and he tells Megara she now has her soul back. However, he can’t resist revealing to Hercules that Megara was his minion all along, and flies off to acquire his throne on Olympus, leaving the formerly star-crossed lovers in a crying heap of guilt and shock.
Hades frees the Titans, huge elemental monsters trapped eons ago by Zeus, and tells them to march on Olympus. As Hercules is unable to fight, Hades is able to capture and imprison Zeus and the other gods, and as an extra precaution sends a giant cyclops to finish off his mortal nemesis. After a prep talk from Phil, Hercules is able to outwit the monster despite his lack of godlike strength, but in the scuffle, a pillar is dislodged and falls on him. At least, it would have, if Megara hadn’t shoved him out the way and become crushed under it instead.
Fortunately, this breaks Hades’ deal, and Hercules gets his strength back. Leaving the newly redeemed (and dying) Megara in Phil’s capable hands, Hercules flies back to Olympus and does battle, freeing his father and banishing those pesky Titans. Hades admits defeat and flies off, but not without his consolation prize – Megara finally succumbs to her wounds.
Heracles and the gods have a far larger problem than the Titans in the original myth. Zeus imprisoned the Titans in a place called Tartarus, a dark and endless pit at the bottom of the Underworld, and this understandably upset their parents, Ouranus (Uranus), the first ruler of the universe, and his wife, Ge (Gaia), so in retaliation, Ge unleashes the Giants on the heavens.
The Giants are even bigger than the Titans, and are massive creatures with long thick hair, serpent tails and dragon’s feet. They apparently sprang from the blood of Ouranus’ genitals when they touched the ground, after being sliced off by his son Cronos, so this will give you an idea of how incensed they must have been. Only a mortal being is able to slay them, and so it was due to this prophecy that Zeus got jiggy with Alcmene in preparation for the onslaught.
Heracles, together with Apollo, dispatches the worst of the Giants using his arrows dipped in the blood of the hydra and saves the day.
Both the mythology and the Disney version have Hercules involved in a prophecy where he saves the heavens, but the way the prophecy is handled is somewhat different. In the mythology, Zeus sets everything in motion, but in the Disney film, it’s Hades who has the most influence on the outcome.
Becoming a True Hero
Hercules somehow manages to storm down to the Underworld riding atop Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, and he demands that Hades release Megara’s soul from the River Styx. When this fails, he agrees to trade places with her if he manages to get her out of the river.
After returning Megara’s soul to her body, Hercules goes with her to Olympus and is given a hero’s welcome by the other gods. He finally meets his mother face to face, and is ready to enter his true homeland for the first and last time. However, when he realises that Megara can’t come with him, he decides to remain mortal and spend the rest of his life with her. Fortunately,
removing godhood seems easier than restoring it, and so Hercules, Megara, Phil and Pegasus all fly back to Thebes as Zeus creates a constellation in his honour. The Muses strike up another song and dance party, and our hero suddenly changes into a Grecian urn. The End.
Heracles did indeed venture into the Underworld, and this was part of his twelfth task under Eurystheus – he had to fetch Cerberus and bring him back to the world of the living. Hades is rather accommodating despite this sudden intrusion by a mortal, and says he is welcome to borrow Cerberus for a bit, as long as he doesn’t use any weapons of any kind. Heracles gets a stranglehold on the dog and maintains it until he has broken its will, but then later returns him to the Underworld as he promised.
Unfortunately, even after completing the twelve tasks Heracles still isn’t ready to become immortal and ascend to Olympus. The reason being that Hera strikes him with madness once again so he kills yet another innocent bystander – this time, the brother of a woman he is hoping to marry. To atone for this, he has to become a slave for three years.
Heracles only manages to redeem himself and ascend to Olympus after this point, but this requires someone setting fire to his funeral pyre when he is dying. None of his followers or avid fans are able to do it, so it’s only thanks to Philoctetes that he finally achieves his aim. Once he is on Olympus, he and Hera are reconciled, and he ends up marrying one of her daughters, Hebe. In this version also, Zeus makes Heracles into a constellation.
Both Hercules and Heracles end up saving the day, ascending to Mount Olympus and marrying at the end of the story, but of course their quest to get there, and the people involved, is altogether different. So after this marathon journey, what are the main differences between the versions?
Aside from having god-like strength, Hercules and Heracles couldn’t be more different. Neither of them are the sharpest tool in the box, but one is kind, modest, and fairly bemused by the prospect of women coming after him. The other is a rampant man-whore who flies off the handle at the drop of a hat, although he does try to redeem himself most of the time. The possibility of him becoming a god is a bonus after his life of fighting and debauchery, whereas the Disney version sees this as a privilege and also the ultimate dream – which he then gives up for his true love.
The Disney version is pretty much a superman story – a person is born with extraordinary talents that isolate him, and he spends his life trying to fit in, only to find that he has done so incidentally. Disney also wanted to have some fun with Greek mythology and introduce children to some European legends, which is no bad thing, but of course the type of family-friendly action present in the original doesn’t quite match the family-friendly action they were going for, hence the rather extreme editing.
The original Heracles racks up a few too many innocent kills and even dabbles in rape a couple of times, but unlike many other heroes in Greek mythology, he recognises he’s being a jerk and goes to the ends of the earth and back (literally) in order to achieve forgiveness for these actions. He is arguably a character of his time, so although we see the Disney Hercules as squeaky clean, by comparison the original Heracles was probably viewed likewise.
1) Hercules, 1997. Film. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology. Oxford World Classics, England, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-953632-0
3) Grant, M. and Hazel, J. Who’s Who in Classical Mythology. Teach Yourself Books, U.S.A., 1979. ISBN: 0-340-23846-1