The Christianization of pagan stories is nothing new. To convince the locals to convert to Christianity, missionaries would often turn local myths and gods into saints instead so the locals could convert but still keep their folk traditions. For instance, some argue that St. Brigid of Ireland was in fact a Christianization of the Celtic goddess of the same name, and rituals surrounding the goddess Eostre were incorporated into the Christian celebration of Easter. This is a form of syncretism (thoroughly explained by Lady Geek Girl here) that was used consciously and deliberately to erase pagan beliefs and traditions and replace them with Christian ones instead. The case of the Disney movie Hercules, though, is a little different. Its Christianization was likely not deliberate, but it ends up reinforcing the hegemony of Christian narratives in our culture anyway.
Disney’s Hercules vastly revised the ancient Greek myth of Heracles to make it more “child-friendly” and more palatable to Western audiences. The resulting story, though, positions Hercules as a Christ figure—probably accidentally. This seems to imply that only stories with Christian morals and understandings of the world are acceptable as kids’ stories, and also shows how Christian influence seeps into everything in our pop culture narratives, whether we intend it to or not.
Find out more after the break! Spoilers for all of Hercules ahead.
In my discussion, I will refer to the ancient Greek hero by his Greek name Heracles, and the protagonist of the Disney movie by the Romanized form Hercules. Heracles was one of the greatest of ancient Greek heroes, and his adventures were many and varied. He is best known for his Twelve Labors, though these don’t appear in the movie except as some of the monsters Hercules faces. It’s interesting how many aspects of the myth ended up in the movie, but mostly warped in such a way that they would not offend Western sensibilities.
One huge difference is in the manner of Heracles’ birth, and the divine enemy who subsequently opposed him. In the original myth, Heracles was conceived when Zeus slept with the mortal woman Alcmene. Because this was yet another act of infidelity against Zeus’ wife Hera, she swore eternal revenge against the child of that union. In Hercules, on the other hand, Zeus is never shown to be unfaithful to Hera, I suppose because sexual profligacy would be “offensive” and a little hard to explain to most children. Instead Hercules is Zeus and Hera’s son (as a “proper” family), and the villain who hates Hercules is Hades, god of the Underworld. Hades was never depicted as a villain in ancient Greek myth, except perhaps when he kidnapped Persephone. The fact that the Disney movie chooses to depict him as such seems to reflect a fear of death in our culture and an association of an “underworld” of the dead with hell (and in turn, an association of the head of such a place with the devil). Here we see Christian views seeping into the movie. In Christian belief, Death is the enemy Christ conquers, so it is easy for people in our culture to believe that a figure associated with death is evil—far easier to believe that than to villainize a mother figure. The greatest mother figure in Christianity is, of course, the Virgin Mary, who, like Hera, is a mother of God, but unlike her, is considered a paragon of virtue by many Christians. Having a Mother-of-God figure who reminds us of Mary but then goes on to be a vengeful villain would cause too much cognitive dissonance in our culture, so the creators of the movie changed that part around to better fit Christian sensibilities. Again, I don’t think this was intentional. The filmmakers simply chose common tropes that would be easy for viewers to understand and believe. The fact that they happen to be Christian tropes says a lot about Christianity’s influence in our culture.
Interestingly, in the original myth, Heracles was not born with super-strength as Hercules was. Instead, his mother Alcmene, fearing Hera’s wrath, left the infant Heracles out to die, but the goddess Athena, protector of heroes, took him to Hera, who didn’t know who he was and let him feed at her breast. That’s what gave him superhuman strength (imagine including that in a kids’ movie!). The corresponding scene in the movie involves Hades having baby Hercules drink a potion that removes his immortality, and would have robbed him of his super-strength too, if he had drunk the last drop. Both stories also involve two snakes sent to kill the baby. In the myth, Hera sent them. In the movie, Hades does, and they’re actually his minions Pain and Panic. Snakes associated with a devil figure? Totally fits right in with Christian culture!
Disney also hugely sanitized the story of Megara. In the myth, Heracles marries Megara and has several children with her, but at some point Hera drives him mad and he kills those children. In some versions of the myth, he kills Megara as well. He went on to complete his Twelve Labors as redemption for these murders (he also went on to have three more wives and several more lovers—female and male!). This is clearly not a child-friendly story in our society. So Disney replaced it with a monogamous relationship with a single woman, with no children involved, and especially no killing of children. Their version of Hercules never did anything so reprehensible that he had to redeem himself in this way, presumably because that would make it hard for audiences to view him as a hero. Even though redemption is an important Christian theme, redemption narratives are sorely lacking in popular media. There’s a chance that this is because Jesus is believed to be perfect and sinless, so he never had to redeem himself. Heroes in our culture may be inspired by this; there’s usually no doubt that they’re the Good Guys.
Whereas the Heracles of myth was always a little morally ambiguous (he could be terrible when exacting revenge on his enemies), Disney’s Hercules is more like sinless Jesus in that he was always clearly a champion for good. In fact, at the end of the movie, he performs what’s considered to be the ultimate act of goodness in our culture: giving up his life in order to save one he loves. Meg arguably “deserved” her death because she sold her soul to Hades before meeting Hercules and spends much of the movie working for him. Hercules, in contrast, never did anything bad enough to “deserve” to die in her place. Despite this, after Meg dies, Hercules literally goes down to the Underworld and gets Hades to let him retrieve her soul. Hades thought he’d die among all the dead souls, but this act of selfless heroism is what proves Hercules is a “True Hero”, so he becomes immortal at that moment and is able to retrieve Meg’s soul and return it to her body. Here is where Hercules becomes a Christ figure. The parallels are so obvious that I don’t understand how I missed them as a kid. A son of a god goes to the world of the dead (which is still actually called “Hades” in Orthodox Christianity), overcomes its ruler, saves the soul of one he loves who needs this saving because of her own actions, and emerges from the Underworld alive in a sort of resurrection. In Christian belief, this is exactly what Jesus did when he died. He died even though he didn’t deserve to, went to hell, easily overpowered the devil, freed the righteous dead who were trapped there because of their own sins, and then emerged from hell in his resurrection. Loving self-sacrifice, salvation of souls, resurrection from the dead, and immortality—it’s all there, in both stories. It’s very interesting that the filmmakers thought “True Heroism” involved exactly the sorts of things Christ did. This is the sort of heroism that (apparently) is most comprehensible and acceptable in our culture. So whether the filmmakers intended to turn Hercules into a Christ figure or not, that’s what ended up happening.
I’m not trying to say that Hercules would have been better if it had adhered more closely to the myth, or that it’s a problem that it included so much Christian influence. This isn’t a severe case of cultural appropriation because, as explained near the end of this post on Feminist Disney, ancient Greece is a well-known and well-celebrated culture in our society, rather than a marginalized one. We learn about it in school and credit it with establishing our philosophy, form of government, mathematics, etc. We know enough about ancient Greece to know that Hercules is largely depicting a parody, and that even when it’s serious, it’s inaccurate to the original myths. The Disney adaptation of Hercules is just an example of how pervasive Christian tropes are in our culture, and how even when we try to bring in stories from other cultures, we find their morals and situations incomprehensible, so we tend to change them to fit in better with the Christian mythos. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity to try to gain some sympathy with a moral and theological system that’s completely different from our own, but mostly, it’s just a demonstration of how Christianity ends up everywhere, whether we mean it to or not.