American children are avid watchers of television and movies. They get a great deal of information and misinformation from these sources. It is incumbent upon parents and educators to see that the information received is factual and truthful and that the messages conveyed are accurate. Walt Disney has long had influence over our children, retelling tales from history, folklore and mythology. Recently, that studio has released a number of old stories, recounted in the most expedient way. This often means that there is a great deal of poetic, or cinematic license at work.. Unfortunately, this is the case with one of Disney’s most recent productions, Hercules. It is fraught with such inaccuracies and embellishments so as to be barely recognizable as the same story. Almost from the beginning of the film there is a confrontation with some foe or other with barely any introduction to the character or lineage of this hero. Without prior knowledge of the myth of Hercules, the story never makes any real sense. It is simply another cartoon filled with gratuitous violence without any sense of who the villains are or what has brought on such monumental challenges.
Other portrayals of this hero can be found in the popular live action television series starring Kevin Sarbo where he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time battling angry Amazons. As if this were not bad enough, there is also an animated tale which teams Kevin Sarbo’s Hercules with Zena, the Warrior Princess., an entirely fictional character. Together they face all sorts of dangers and battle assorted foes, but they have nothing to do with the hero of myth, his labors to achieve immortality, or his regal heritage.
The story told by the Disney version is confusing at best and does not really make it clear why Hercules must face great difficulties or what he must do to overcome them. Instead, we are introduced to his story by five singing muses who are supposed to serve as a chorus of sorts, to explain what has occurred in the life of Hercules. This is the movies first flaw and source of misinformation. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for presenting only five muses instead of the traditional nine. This unit of study will endeavor to correct some of the inaccuracies generated by Hollywood’s many versions of the story as well as to help students learn some Greek mythology. The Disney animation of the life of Hercules makes a good starting point to correct these errors.
The next inaccuracy in this animated version is the implication that Hercules was the son of Zeus and Hera and that his gravest enemy was Hades, god of the underworld. In fact, Hercules, (or Herakles as he is known in Greek Mythology,) was the son of Zeus and Alcmene [Alk-ME-ne]. Zeus disguised himself to look like Alcmenes husband, Amphitryon [Am-FIT-ri-on] and tricked her into an amorous tryst. She realized that she had been deceived when her husband returned home on the day after this liaison. Alcmene bore a second son at the time of Hercules birth. His name was Iphicles and he was the son of Amphitryon. He accompanied his brother on several of his adventures, but was killed during one of Hercules labors. In an attempt to dispel the wrath of Zeus wife, Alcmene named her first son Herakles (which means glorious gift of Hera in Greek) in her honor. Unfortunately, this only served to further infuriate Hera.
The greatest dangers to Hercules came from Hera’s wrath, not from -Hades as the Disney version implies. She was jealous of her husbands many infidelities with mortals and immortals, alike. She was particularly vengeful toward this handsome son of her husband, perhaps because of his strength, prowess and good looks. She tried throughout his life to do away with him. In his infancy, she sent two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. The baby Hercules was able to take the two snakes and squeeze them to death. In his youth, he learned to sing and play the lyre. When his teacher, Linus, scolded him for playing out of tune, Hercules hit him on the head with the lyre and killed him. His family realized that he was too strong to live at the palace so he was sent to the mountains to serve as a shepherd. While tending his flocks, he killed all of the lions and wolves that menaced the area. As a reward, the King of Thebes gave his daughter Megara in marriage to Hercules. Together, they had several children and settled in for a peaceful life.
This good fortune further infuriated the goddess Hera and she sought vengeance by making him mad. In his insanity, he killed his wife, Megara, as well as their children, swatting them down as though they were wild animals. When he recovered his sanity and realized what he had done, he was filled with remorse. He went to Delphi and asked the oracle there how he could atone for his sins. He was told to serve his cousin Eurystheus [You-RISS-theus], King of Mycenae and perform ten labors for him. Hera was pleased with this penance, for Eurystheus was a weak man who was jealous of Hercules great strength and noble birth. Hera knew that he would choose only the most difficult tasks he could devise.
There is no mention of his marriage and his madness in the Disney version, nor of his remorse and search for redemption. Instead, the focus is on a fabricated tale of Hades desire to overthrow Zeus. The premise is that Hercules can prevent Hades from achieving his quest and so must be eliminated. Alcmene and Amphytrion are portrayed as his foster parents who take in a baby they find abandoned along a road. Disney also gives their animated hero Pegasus as a pal. Nowhere in any version of the myths does Hercules develop a friendship with this winged horse.
Disney also introduces a character named Philoctetes [fill-LOC-tee-teez], as an older and wiser friend and mentor. In the myth of Hercules, there is a Philoctetes, but he is not mentioned in the tales until the end of Hercules life. It was he who built and set afire the funeral pyre on which the hero died. In exchange for this and the promise to keep secret the burial location, Hercules gave to Philoctetes his bow and the arrows which had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra.
Hercules did have a companion who accompanied him on some of his adventures. It was most probably his nephew Iolaus, the son of his brother, Iphicles. It was Iolaus who seared the severed limbs of the Hydra so that they would not sprout new heads.
As a way to help the children understand the life and labors of Hercules, we will create a mural depicting the various events of his labors and journey toward immortality. This will help the children to learn the events in depth and will provide a vehicle for sharing our new-found knowledge with others in our school. We will also create replicas of the ancient vases and urns which have survived the ages to tell the stories.
There are many versions of the story of Hercules from Apollodorus to DAulaires Book of Greek Myths. Some of those versions are very difficult to comprehend because of the intricate interrelationships and prior knowledge needed. There is even an extensive internet site which shows examples of ancient pottery and maps and retells the stories. As a part of this unit, I will retell the stories of his life and the labors in such a way so as to make them full enough for students to understand their richness, yet simple enough so as to not be confusing. This understanding will also allow them to create their interpretive artwork which they will share with others in the school.
In addition to the watching the video, listening to the stories and creating the mural and reproduction pottery, students will learn to pronounce and spell the names of the main characters in this study. We may include some background information on what preceded the era of Hercules, including a discussion of the nine muses, for it is from the muses that these stories were conveyed to the world.
It will not be necessary to tell all of the stories of Hercules life, but it is important to tell of his birth and early life. It is also important to tell the stories of his twelve labors and finally of his attainment of immortality. The myth of his birth and early life has already been told in this paper. We will spend the majority of time reading and understanding the labors as the knowledge gained from these stories will be used to create our mural and pottery. We will also trace Hercules journeys on either a student-created or classroom map.