In 1997, the animated film Hercules was released by Disney, which detailed the life of the famous hero of ancient Greece. Recently there has been news that Disney is going to make a live-action version of this film in their current pattern of updating their classics with flashy CGI and actual, live people. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame directors the Russo brothers are involved, and the film will reportedly not be a near literal scene for scene remake that some of the other Disney updates have been.
I have recently been listening to the fantastic Stephen Fry books, Mythos and Heroes, which detail ancient Greek myths in all their gory detail. One of the sections in Heroes details the life of Hercules and the story I was presented with was a fascinating tale of blood, vengeance, and extramarital relations. Nothing like the Disney rose-tinted animated classic. I thought now would be a good time to retell the story of Hercules the way the ancient Greeks tell it.
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Without giving too much of the story away for the new live-action remake, I thought it would be a good idea to quickly run over the Disney story.
Hercules is born from Zeus and Hera, the husband and wife power couple that ruled the gods. Zeus makes the winged horse Pegasus as a present to him and there was a baby shower for the new arrival. Hades, the angry god of the underworld, was told by the three fates that the only one that could stop his plan to release the god’s worst enemies, the Titans, was Hercules. So, Hades sent his two minions to take Hercules from Olympus, turn him mortal and kill him. They mostly failed as, although no longer immortal, he survived and held on to his awesome strength. He was then adopted by a friendly old couple and later he meets Zeus in a temple. He is told he can become immortal again if he becomes a great hero, so he goes to find Philoctetes (or Phil), who is a hero trainer and a Satyr. He trains, does heroic stuff and I think I will stop there to avoid giving away too much of the plot.
Warning: What follows is the ancient Greek story of Hercules and, like all Greek tales it seems, has adult themes.
One of the key characters in the film that does not have a prominent role is Hades. “What?” I hear you cry “Isn’t he the main villain?”. No, the main villain, which will make more sense as the story unfolds, is Hera…
Hera had had a dream. She saw the enormously powerful Giants (which came into being when Zeus’s father, Chronos, cut off his own father’s genitals. Where the blood and seed met the ground, Giants emerged) attacking Olympus and the only one who could defeat them was a mortal warrior from the line of Perseus. Zeus heard about this prophecy and took matters into his own hands, knocking up Alcmene, who was of the line of Perseus, after disguising himself as her husband, Amphitryon. Alcmene then became pregnant with twins, one from Zeus and one from her husband. There was another candidate, he could have chosen Nicippe, but we’ll get to her in a bit.
Hera was a vengeful, jealous wife and was sick and tired of her husband’s promiscuity. She was cunning though, so convinced Zeus to state that the next child of the line of Perseus would become a king. Zeus, however, was unaware that Nicippe was with child as well as Alcmene. Hera sent the goddess of childbirth to stop Alcmene from giving birth and Nicippe gave birth first to a boy named Eurystheus. Alcmene would have had stillborn children had her maids tricked the goddess into letting her give birth. The twins were named Alcides and Iphicles, and they hadn’t the foggiest idea who was Zeus’s.
Hera was furious. She sent two snakes to kill the twins but Alcides strangled both, one in each fist. It was easy then to see who had the divine father. In order to try and appease the goddess Hera, Alcmene and Amphitryon renamed Alcides Heracles or “Hera’s glory” (the Roman name for Heracles is the more famous “Hercules” and I will continue to call him this since it’s this name that is the title of the Disney film).
Hercules grew to be an extremely strong, athletic man but not necessarily the brightest, it is said. He was also known to have a fierce temper and could hold a grudge for as long as he lived. He married a daughter of a king, the daughter being called Megara (or Meg in the animated film). They had two children together and were happy for a time.
Hera was still pissed though, so she made Hercules see his wife and children as a fearsome dragon and two demons, respectively. In this madness, he slew them, committing the worst crime, the murder of family. He went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked how he could make up for his crimes. The Oracle was under the influence of Hera and proclaimed that for 10 years, Hercules must serve the child Hera forced to be born first, the now king, Eurystheus.
The 12 Labours of Hercules
King Eurystheus declared that Hercules must undertake 12 tasks to secure his freedom. Here’s a brief overview of those labours;
- Slay the Nemean lion – He wrestled it to the ground with his sheer strength. He then flayed the skin and wore the impenetrable hide around himself.
- Kill the Lernaean Hydra – Whilst being attacked by a giant crab, he and his nephew severed and cauterised each individual head. He then dipped his arrows in its blood, which had a deadly poison.
- Bring the Ceryneian Hind (deer) – Sacred to the goddess Artemis (who was also an illegitimate child of Zeus) She was convinced to let Hercules borrow the hind to piss off Hera.
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar – On the way to capturing the beast, he visited the centaurs for advice on the boar. After a fight over wine, Hercules slaughtered many of the centaurs and gained their animosity. He then caught the boar after much perseverance.
- Clean the Augean cattle stables in a single day – 30 years’ worth of 3000 cattle’s dung was washed away when Hercules diverted two rivers to rinse out the stables in one go.
- Scare away the Stymphalian birds – He scared them away with a rattle given to him by the goddess, Athena, and shot many of them dead with his poisoned arrows.
- Bring the Cretan Bull – The Bull was terrorising parts of Crete. He carried it home on his shoulders.
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes – The horses were vicious meat-eaters. He fed the King Diomedes to his own mares and dragged them home.
- Get the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons – Initially they were greeted warmly, but the Amazons then attacked them on the orders of Hera. Hercules and his men fought and escaped with the girdle.
- Obtain the cattle from the three-bodied giant Geryon – He killed Geryon and his companions before herding the enormous herd across the sea and through Europe until they were home.
- Steal the golden apples of the Hesperides – No mortal could pick these apples, so Hercules freed the chained Prometheus (the creator of man) in order to gain advice. Prometheus told Hercules that his brother Atlas (who held up the sky as a punishment from Zeus) could pick them. Hercules held up the sky whilst Atlas picked the apples. He was almost tricked by Atlas into staying there but Hercules saw through this trickery and regular labour was resumed by Atlas.
- Bring back Cerberus, the dog of the underworld – Hades’s three-headed dog guarded the gates of the underworld. Hercules (along with Persephone, queen of the underworld, who very much liked Hercules) convinced Hades to lend him Cerberus if he could tame him without weapons. Hades saw pissing off the ever-popular Hera as an added bonus.
Hercules free…and then not free…then free again
Now free from Eurystheus, Hercules sought to get on with his life. His first port of call was to get himself a wife. He entered an archery contest, with the prize being the hand of King Eurytus’s daughter, the beautiful Princess Iole. However, after winning the contest, he was refused her hand on account of his previous killing of his wife Magara. Hercules was mad with rage, so slaughtered King Eurytus and his sons bar one, Iphitus, who he had befriended. However, again put under an illusion from Hera, he killed Iphitus and threw him over the city walls.
Once again mad with grief, he sought to atone for his sins by entering three years of slavery to the Queen Omphale of Lydia. He was forced to wear women’s clothes when serving her but despite this, they became lovers, so she set him free.
Free again, Hercules decided to spend his time productively by settling some scores. During his travels he had amassed numerous grudges so went about with a vast army sacking the cities of the people who had wronged him, killed many royal sons and established new rule over many of the kingdoms, unifying and moulding Greece as he went. These grudges were numerous, but one particularly noteworthy event was the death of his twin brother, Iphicles, during one of the battles. Apart from that, all was going swimmingly until giants started to attack Olympus, and his father called Hercules to war.
The Gigantomachy or “The War with the Giants”
Hercules rushed to Olympus and arrived just in time to shoot a poison arrow at a giant who was attempting to rape his arch-nemesis, Hera. Without thinking of the years of torment and pain she had caused him, Hercules protected Hera from the many giants that one by one tried to force themselves on her. The gods rallied and managed to get the better of their enemy. Zeus threw thunderbolts at the giants, stunning them. Hercules and the gods then dragged them in their incapacitated states and trapped them under mountains. They raged and cried under these mountains at their entrapment, creating the first volcanos. Olympus was saved and an unlikely fondness for Hercules came over Hera. She would no longer torment him, and she became a loving, caring stepmother to him.
Now free from Hera’s enmity, again Hercules sought to settle down with another wife. He decided to pursue the Princess, Deianira. Travelling to her home, he arrived just in time to rescue her from the wandering hands of the river god Achelous. Grateful of her hero, they wed and bore children.
One day, as they were about to cross a raging river, they came across a centaur wearing a fetching shirt named Nessus. Nessus offered to help Deianira across the river and Hercules agreed to this. Nessus, however, remembered the slaughter of his people back in Hercules’s fourth challenge and sought revenge. Being like all creatures and people of ancient Greece, he was incredibly horny and made to steal Deianira away, groping her as he ran. Hercules shot the centaur with his poisoned arrow and he fell. As he lay dying, he hatched a plan.
Nessus feigned apology to Deianira, who was sad that the poor creature was killed on her account, and gave her the shirt off of his back, which was soaked in his now poisoned blood. He told her that if she gave it to her husband when she felt his love for her waning, he would again become enamoured with her. She stowed away the shirt before Hercules made it to the scene and saved it for a rainy day.
The day arrived when Hercules had gone on campaign and Deianira heard rumour that Hercules was bringing home a pretty female slave he had captured. Worried that he would leave her for this new woman, she convinced Hercules to wear the shirt she had been given. The blood and poison soaked in the shirt burned him terribly and his skin peeled and his flesh rotted away. In his agony, he tore up the trees of his garden and created for himself a funeral pyre. Laying on it, he begged whoever would listen to set alight to the pyre to end his pain. The only person who would put a torch to wood was his friend Philoctetes (the very much human hero that the satyr Phil was named after in the animated movie). For this he was rewarded Hercules’s bow and arrows.
Finally, truly free of the pain and his troubled, wearisome life, he was delivered to Olympus and made a god by his father, Zeus and his now loving stepmother, Hera. He was placed in the sky and became the constellation, Hercules. Now, somewhere, someone will look to the stars and say, “there’s Phil’s boy”.
A bit racier than the Disney film, isn’t it? I have loved listening to the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading Mythos and Heroes; what I have presented here is a much-simplified version. I thoroughly recommend the books if the story has interested you and you wish to know more.
I doubt Disney will include this story in their upcoming live-action film, but I think this world could be a truly beautiful thing given Disney’s current film making style. One thing is for sure, without the ancient myths and legends of these different cultures, all the fantasy that Disney and many others have used could never have been.
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