The Greek myth of Hercules is not a children’s story. It’s a tale of murder, jealousy, violence and madness. In other words: hardly the kind of adventure a company like Disney would adapt into a kids’ movie.
And yet, through the magic of Disneyfication, the company found a way to do so. For with its animated classic Hercules, Disney successfully turned the brutal Greek myth of Hercules into a family friendly cartoon story.
How did the studio pull this off? Not without making some changes, they didn’t.
For starters, anyone with a basic understanding of Greek mythology knows that Zeus wasn’t exactly known for the faithfulness that defined his character in the Disney movie. And nor was the “historical” Hercules the product of the loving marriage as depicted in the film.
But just because Disney decided to mix up some things, doesn’t mean Hercules paid no attention to Greek mythology altogether.
In fact, the film’s creators made sure to work all sorts of different elements from the Greek myths into the story. The way they used them just differs from the ancient stories that wound up in the history books.
In doing so, Disney worked in a way remarkably similar to the ancient storytellers of old. Because in antiquity, writers and orators were already known to make numerous changes to the hottest mythological stories in town.
Therefore, the movie of Hercules is hardly a desecration of the ancient myth. Rather, Disney’s creators were surprisingly respectful to the Greek storytelling tradition they were drawing from.
Pegasus the Flying Horse
At first glance, Disney’s Hercules does stray quite a lot from the “original” myth.
For one, the adultery of Zeus was completely ignored — turning Hera into the loving mother of the baby Hercules instead. The same can be said about the many scenes of brutal violence that peppered the historical tale. Instead, Hercules the mad killer was turned into a brave hero with a smooth singing voice.
But at the same time, there are also a lot of altered story elements that, while not retrieved from the Greek myth of Hercules, do find their origin in other Greek myths.
An obvious first example is the presence of the mythical flying horse Pegasus. Created by Zeus from clouds in the Disney movie, the Greek version of the creature actually plays no role at all in Hercules’ adventures. This Greek version, which sprang in existence from the blood of a beheaded Medusa, did play a role in the story of another Greek hero: Bellerophon.
A scene from the movie Hercules (1997): Zeus creates Pegasus.
Another example is the childhood of the young hero. In the movie, Hercules is left on a mountainside to be found by two farmers, who then raise him. Whoever thinks this tale sounds recognizable would be correct, since it’s similar to what happened to another famous character of Greek mythology: Oedipus. Oedipus’ mother ordered a servant to leave her baby on a mountainside, but the child was instead given to a shepherd.
This trend of creatively using elements from Greek mythology continues throughout the movie.
The Fates, who cut the tread of the lives of mortals and foresee the future, are depicted as sharing the same eye. While there’s a trio in Greek mythology that does share one eye, they are not the Fates. It was the Graeae, also known as the Grey Sisters, who shared one eye (and also one tooth). The use of this attribute by the Fates was probably done for comedic effect.
Great Artists Steal
Similarly, other story elements were borrowed from mythology, presumably to make the story more exciting or appropriate.
For example: Hercules fights a cyclops and uses a flaming torch to blind it. This action-packed scene seems to borrow from Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero Odysseus blinds the cyclops Polyphemus.
In the same fashion, Hercules travelling to the underworld to retrieve his loved one seems inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus travels to the underworld to convince Hades to let the deceased Eurydice return with him.
A scene from the movie Hercules (1997): Hercules confronting Hades in the underworld.
Make Your Own Hercules
By splicing together these different story beats from the canon of Greek mythology, Disney’s approach to storytelling is remarkably similar to the working methods of the ancient Greeks. After all, Greek storytellers took creative liberties all the time.
Therefore, Disney’s creators worked a lot like the ancient Greeks in the creation of “their” Hercules. Poetically speaking, Disney’s story can be described as yet another Hercules myth in a long line of ever evolving stories — a tradition that has now come to include animated kids’ movies as easily as violent tragedies from the Classical age.
As such, Hercules has always been, and continues to be, a hero that’s keeping up with the times.
Historian, writer, lover of cats