“Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

A quick list of Disney misses on the Herakles legend (DeDisnification, Part 3A)

Much is made of Disney’s Hercules being different from all their other animated films, with the exception of Fantasia, because it deals with myth rather than works based on folktales or fiction. But as we saw with Mulan, history and legend often blend, and indeed, many stories ultimately come from what we call myth.

The word myth as it is now used contains the unfortunate implication of something untrue, but the original Greek word (μῦθος) simply means “story”. And indeed, Hercules’ opening number, The Gospel Truth, makes fun of how “impossible” the “truths” depicted in Greek myth are. But it’s important to remember that the “myths” of ancient Greece represent the religion of much of ancient Europe, west Asia, and north Africa as Hellenism became a widespread cultural force. Indeed, this culture underpins all of Western civilization to a great extent, such that logos like that of FTD and emergency services bear images or devices of these gods, so much so the Disney film even mimics the FTD logo when Hermes delivers flowers at Hercules’ birth.

As such, I feel that these tales deserve much greater respect than they are given in general and definitely more than Disney accords them.

From a mythological standpoint, there are a number of elements that are erroneous, which I’ll simply enumerate rather than discussing at length. I’ve presented them roughly in the order they appear in the film. I could have broken them down further to expand the list, but that was not my goal:

  • After their defeat, the Titanes (Τῑτᾶνες, Titans) were imprisoned in the great pit of Tartaros (Τάρταρος) beneath the earth, not beneath the ocean. Tartaros is a sort of anti-sky.
  • The Titanes represented various forces, such as Kronos (Κρόνος); destructive time. Disney essentially invented a whole new set of Titans based on the four classical elements.
  • Kyklopes (Κύκλωψ, Cyclopes) and Titanes are distinct and different creatures—the Kyklopes sided with Zeus against the Titanes. However, the Kyklopes are brothers to the Titanes, along with the Hekatonkheires (Ἑκατόγχειρες).
  • There were nine Mousai (Μοῦσαι, Muses), who’ve been reduced to five.
  • Narkissos (Νάρκισσος, Narcissus) was not a god, and does not belong in Olympos (Ὄλυμπος, Olympus).
  • Although Greek names are used for all the other characters the Roman form of the main character’s name is used rather than Herakles. The Roman version comes from the Etruscan 𐌄𐌋𐌂𐌓𐌄𐌇 (hercle), which derives from the Greek Ἡρακλῆς, but changes because of the Etruscan language’s emphasis on the first syllable.
  • Herakles was actually called Alkeides (Αλκειδης) until immediately before beginning the 12 labors.
  • One of the defining elements of Herakles’ life was Hera’s (Ἥρα) continuous attempts to destroy him, as the product of one of Zeus’ (Ζεύς) many infidelities so portraying him as her son and she as his loving mother is pretty far off base.
  • Pegasos (Πήγασος, Pegasus) sprang from the neck of the Gorgon (Γοργών), Medousa (Μέδουσα, Medusa) when she was beheaded, not clouds. His name, ultimately from the Greek πηγάζο (pegazo), “sprung forth”, reflects this origin.
  • The winged horse later became Zeus’ lightning bearer, so depending on the timeline, he should already have been in Olympos: when Bellerophon (Βελλεροφῶν) tried to ride Pegasos to Olympos, Zeus caused him to be bucked off, but his steed continued on without him.
  • Zeus, Haides (ᾍδης), and their other brother, Poseidon (Ποσειδῶν), drew lots to determine who ruled what realm.
  • Zeus is the youngest of the three.
  • Zeus freed Haides (and Poseidon) from Kronos’ belly—he had eaten them.
  • They fought together against the Titanes.
  • Haides generally seems pretty happy with his realm in myth and never tries to overthrow Zeus.
  • Haides has several attendants in myth, but Panic and Pain are not among them.
  • Pain and Panic are possible translations of the names of the sons of Ares, Phobos and Deimos (Ἄρης, Φόβος, and Δεῖμος).
  • The Moirae (Μοῖραι, Fates) are different from the Graeae (Γραιαι, sea hags with a single eye between them).
  • The Fates were born of Zeus, and so would serve him, never Haides. Indeed, of all the gods, Zeus is said to know what is fated, though even he is not above fate.
  • Herakles was always a demigod, his divinity was never taken away from him, and in fact, Hera breast fed him once, increasing his supernatural power. When he suckled too hard, Hera pushed him away, and the spray formed the Milky Way. The word galaxy reflects this myth, originating from the Ancient Greek name for ours, Γαλαξίας, with the root γᾰλᾰ meaning “milk” This also makes the phrase “Milky Way Galaxy” a bit pleonastic.
  • The snakes Herakles strangled were sent by Hera to kill him.
  • Alkmene (Ἀλκμήνη), rather than being a hapless foster mother was Herakles’ real mother. She exposed him (i.e., left him to die in the wilderness) to avert Hera’s wrath whence Athena (Ἀθηνᾶ, or some sources say Hermes, Ἑρμῆς) rescued him and took him to the Hera to nurse, as I’ve already mentioned.
  • Amphitryon (Ἀμφιτρύων) and Alkmene were not farmers, but the king and queen of Messene (Μεσσήνη).
  • Herakles did have a troubled childhood—he used a lyre to slay Linos (Λῖνος, Linus), his music tutor, and was sent to the mountains to tend cattle and avoid further such incidents.
  • Herakles did have some very distinctive accoutrements, but an amulet was never one of them. His knobby olive-wood club and lion skin cloak are best known, and do eventually make an appearance in the film.
  • He did visit an oracle, but it was not at the temple of Zeus, it was the famed oracle of Delphoi (Δελφοί, Delphi), where the temple is consecrated to Apollon (Ἀπόλλων, Apollo). He was also advised to complete the 12 labors, and change his name to appease Hera (it means “glory of Hera”).
  • Zeus actually appearing in his temple would never happen in myth; typically an oracle would communicate in such a case and typically in riddles.
  • Herakles was not taught by Philoktetes (Φιλοκτήτη), but Amphitryon (his foster father) taught him to drive a chariot, Autolykos (Αὐτόλυκος, Autolykus) to wrestle, Eurytos (Εὔρυτος, Eurytus) the bow, Kastor (Κάστωρ, Castor) armored combat, and Linos (until the incident) singing and playing the lyre.
  • Philoktetes was the human disciple, friend, and armor-bearer of Herakles—Herakles taught him to use the bow, as well as bequeathing him his archery equipment.
  • Kheiron (Χείρων, Chiron) the Kentauros (Κένταυρος, Centaur)—not Philoktetes and not a Satyros (Σάτυρος, Satyr)—was the teacher of Akhilleus (Ἀχιλλεύς, Achilles), and also a friend of Herakles.
  • Herakles was one of the Argonautes (Ἀργοναύτης, Argonauts)—sort of: he joined them but left the quest in the middle.
  • Herakles predates both the Trojan War and Akhilleus.
  • Perseus (Περσεύς) was also Zeus’ son—it was far from uncommon.
  • Nessos (Νέσσος) the Kentauros tried to rape Herakles’ much later wife, Deianeira (Δῃάνειρα), and had nothing to do with Megara (Μέγαρα). After Nessos carried Deianeira across the river Euenos (Εὔηνος), Herakles slew him using arrows dipped in venom made form the Lernaean Hydra’s (Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) blood. The incident also precipitated Herakles’ own death.
  • Apart from tribute-collecting Orkhomenioi (Ὀρχομένιοι, Orchomenians), Thebai (Θῆβαι, Thebes) didn’t have a lot of problems at this time. All the trouble around Thebes might be a reference to such goings on in Oidipous’ (Οἰδίπους, Oedipus) time (which should be in the past of the Herakles timeline).
  • Herakles met and wed Megara after going to war on behalf of the Thebans against the Orkhomenioi. She was the eldest daughter of Kreon (Κρέων, Creon), king of Thebes. Also, Amphitryon died during the war.
  • The Hydra lived near Argos (Ἄργος), far from Thebes.
  • More specifically, in a swamp, not a gorge.
  • It was a creature of Hera, like so many of Herakles’ foes.
    When any of its heads were cut off two would replace it, not three.
  • It was slain by burning off its eight mortal heads, then burying its immortal ninth head under a massive rock.
  • Its slaying was the second of Herakles’ 12 labors.
  • In the myth, the Hydra has a crab buddy (Καρκίνος, Cancer).
  • Herakles did fight in the Gigantomakhia (Γίγας + μαχία “War of the Gigantes”), which was inspired by anger over the Titanes’ treatment, but did not involve them directly.
  • Megara was either killed by Herakles, along with all their children, during a bout of madness caused by Hera, or was remarried to Iolaus (Ἰόλαος).
  • Herakles visited the underworld twice in myth, to bring Kerberos (Κέρβερος, Cerberus) to the upper world, which was the last of his 12 labors, and then again to take him back.
  • Haides actually agreed to let Herakles take Kerberos if he would just stop killing everyone in the underworld.
  • He found the hound near the Akheron (Ἀχέρων, Acheron) according to most accounts, though to be fair, a few do mention the Styx (Στύξ).
  • He delivered Theseus (Θησεύς) from the underworld, and no one else.
  • Herakles became immortal upon his death.

This list is quite large, and there are more such issues, but I didn’t want to make it any bigger after a certain point. It has been said that of all the many retellings of the story of Herakles, Disney’s is the farthest off the mark, mythologically, and this list is more than enough to bear that out.

Next time, I’ll discuss the film more on the basis of its storytelling.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

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