The Transformation of Hercules from Ancient Greek Hero to Disney Cartoon

NEW YORK – Herakles, or Hercules, as the Romans called him, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, the most famous hero of Greek mythology was featured in Jezebel for his transformation into a “brawny, brainless himbo [the male version of a bimbo]” as depicted in the 1997 Disney cartoon.

“Transforming Hercules into a family-friendly Disney protagonist required some significant changes from the original source material,” Jezebel reported, adding that “Disney’s Hercules had the shoulders of an ox, a heart of gold, and zero brains.”

Social media comments about the film also point out the Disney Hercules’ lack of wit, “I like Disney’s Hercules bc it’s a love story about a teen himbo and a jaded 35 year old woman,” Jezebel reported.

Well-known for his 12 labors, Herakles in ancient Greece was revered “as a figure of hero worship,” Jezebel reported.

Columbia’s Elizabeth Scharffenberger, who specializes in Athenian tragedies, told Jezebel that “the notion that Herakles might be a himbo was ‘a little uncharitable… at least for the ancient Herakles. The notion that he was not smart is not there.”

“Scharffenberger pointed out that both the surviving Athenian tragedies in which Herakles appears are about domestic disasters,” Jezebel reported, adding that “in one iteration, he murders his wife and children; in another, he’s an adulterer killed by a magical ointment” and “both are a far cry from Disney’s muscle-bound, well-meaning doofus.”

“Greek Herakles is a wild, liminal figure, a bit of a loner despite his guest appearance among Jason and the Argonauts, better suited to slaying lions and centaurs than buffooning charmingly around at home,” Jezebel reported, noting that “Herakles didn’t stay fixed in the world of Hellenic Greece, either… he jumped cultures and morphed accordingly.”

“Scharffenberger pointed to the 5th century BCE story of Herakles at the Crossroads, via Xenophon, in which Herakles is forced to choose between stalwart, labor-intensive virtue and the short-term rewards of vice,” Jezebel reported, adding that “he picks virtue, which seems like something of a himbo move (himbos being too naive and essentially good-hearted for true vice).”

“By Roman times, Hercules had taken on the stern-jawed, straightforward determination that is so common to the himbo,” Jezebel reported.

Scharffenberger told Jezebel that the Romans associated Hercules with the labors. “He is hard-working, diligent, and then this gets associated with being straightforward and honest and not tricky, and you can maybe see how this kind of tumbles into good-natured and dumb through many centuries,” she said, Jezebel reported.

“Long after the fall of Rome and the end of the religions that supported him, Hercules lived on in the western consciousness as a character,” and “was a well-known allegorical figure in medieval Christianity, for instance,” Jezebel reported, noting that “Handel wrote a Hercules opera; Hercules appears on the ceiling at the Palace of Versailles… but the road to the truly modern himbo Hercules leads straight through a chapter of 20th-century history that makes a great deal of sense, once you know it: bodybuilding culture.”

“From its very earliest days, bodybuilding was closely associated with supposed classical ideals,” Jezebel reported, citing “a 1997 history from the journal Arion traces how strongmen as early as the 19th century framed displays of their bodies in terms of the glories of ancient Greece in general and Hercules specifically, giving the activity an intellectual cover.”

“Then, in 1958, an Italian movie producer really made this connection stick, with the first in a series of dirt-cheap movies known as ‘peplums,’ the sword-and-sandal equivalent of spaghetti westerns,” Jezebel reported, adding that “the movie was Hercules, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves.”

“Hercules is nothing short of a high-camp beefcake extravaganza, as Reeves struts around with enormous muscles absolutely gleaming. The climax of the film features Reeves flexing until he bursts out of a set of chains, bringing an entire temple complex (presumably made of foam) down around him,” Jezebel reported, noting that “these movies were, of course, willfully dumb.”

Reeves played Hercules in only two films, but “the character was so associated with camp that by 1970, an unknown bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger played the character in Hercules in New York, a low-budget film that— you guessed it— follows the muscle-bound god on an adventure through modern-day New York City (there’s even wrestling), Jezebel reported, adding that another live-action Hercules film appeared in 2014 with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson “that deliberately referenced the Steve Reeves classic with a climactic chain-bursting scene.”

Johnson, however, “was building his own personal brand as a savvy man who had transcended pro wrestling and his Hercules was distinctly non-himbo, a paternal leader of offbeat mercenaries,” Jezebel reported, noting that “still, his muscles were the real star.”

“When Disney came to the story, the stage was set for Hercules as the prototypical ‘more brawn than brains,’” Jezebel reported, adding that “the team at Disney imagined Hercules as a bashful, naive farm boy, a Hellenic combination of Clark Kent and Galahad.”

“Disney replaced the domestic turmoil of the tragedies with a plot closer to the company’s traditional wheelhouse,” Jezebel reported, adding that “Zeus tells Hercules must prove himself a true hero in order to regain his godhood; Hercules sets out to prove himself, only to get tangled up in the machinations of a scheming Hades when he falls head over heels for the cynical Megara, who can’t quite believe his whole ‘big innocent farm boy routine’ is for real.”

The “central joke of the movie” is “one long riff on the contrast between Herc’s enormously powerful body and perennially vaguely confused face,” Jezebel reported.

“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart,” the Disney film concludes, Jezebel reported, adding “himbofication achieved.”


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