So I finally got around to rewatching Hercules.
I finally rewatched Disney’s Hercules. I knew that it was an odd movie, but upon reexamination I can say: This is a very weird movie. Lets put aside the terrible animation quality, which was noticeably bad.
I have one big issue with this film. Hades is clearly supposed to be the Christian devil, and that is just not who Hades is in Greek Mythology. More broadly, this film is a Christian story driven by Christian values, not an ancient Greek story. That annoys me.
Note, this is not a comprehensive analysis of things Disney got wrong, but I do want to point out some of the broad themes that Disney totally missed the mark on.
Devil Depictions in Media
When I was in graduate school I studied media representation of the devil with the Chair of my department. Devil depictions are unified by a few factors in the media. This article will not cover all of these factors, instead I will focus on just two aspects of the devil:
- Deals with the devil
- What hell is supposed to be like
One of the most famous tropes regarding the devil is the Faustian contract. A mortal person makes a deal with the devil to get something in the short term that they want and they will eventually pay the price, often their soul.
Although media representations of the devil change with culture, one thing always remains the same. The devil’s dual role as both an unjust sneak and also the arbiter of punishment. In the Twilight Zone Episode Escape Clause, Thomas Gomez plays the devil, trading immortality for the soul of his victim. The devil is sneaky, in that he plays upon his clients fear of death and tricks his victim into desiring immortality without understanding the consequences. He is also the judge, in that immortality was the punishment for his client who is now trapped in jail indefinitely, doomed to boredom for all of eternity.
Another key aspect of Devil depictions is his place of residence: Hell. Hell in Christian mythos is a place where people come to be judged, a dark tortuous existence meant to punish evil people for being evil. Ideally people don’t want to be in Hell, not even the Devil. The Devil resents God in this narrative, he wants to rule the world and heavens, not Hell.
Hades, Greek Mythology, and Disney’s devil
Hades and the Greek underworld are a totally different story from Christian hell. Hades is nothing like the Christian devil, and the Greek underworld is nothing like Christian hell. Zeus is nothing like God, Hercules is nothing like Jesus, and Greek morality is nothing like Christian morality. If only Disney had done a single bit of research, they would have know this.
In Greek mythology the underworld was not an evil place where everyone suffers. It’s not like Christian hell. It’s much more akin to a college dorm, but forever. Folks are just hanging out talking about their lives on earth. Greek mythology focuses heavily on the idea of creating a glorious story on earth to gain immortality through your fame, since in the end everyone is going to the same underworld. Whether you were a good person or a bad person, everyone hangs out in the kind of gray and boring underworld together. Thus, all you have is what you did on earth.
Hades the God of the dead is also not anything like the Christian devil. Hades is generally a pretty chill guy in mythology. Sure, he was a bit stern and offered very little pity, but he was definitely not petty or demanding as he is presented in the Hercules film. Disney took the creative license to totally butcher the character of Hades, functionally turning him into a Christian devil depiction. By extension, they presented Zeus as the “good” God and Hercules played the role of the Son of God, who came to save the people from the Devil as prophecied. This is not a Greek story, it’s a Christian one.
At 37:29 into the film, Meg literally calls Hades the devil. During that same conversation, Hades refers to the deal he made with Meg to take her soul, which is a very devilish thing to do. Meg sold her soul to Hades to save her boyfriend’s life, but that’s not something Hades does really.
Further evidence that the white men who wrote this story think Hades is the devil comes in the form of fire. Hades is always on fire in this movie. Traditionally, the devil and hell have been associated with fire and heat.
Zeus on the other hand is presented as the guardian from evil, the defender of the world from the evil Titans, a man who respects women and loves his son. What? Zeus famously raped Alcmene, Callisto while sleeping, Cassandra, Leda, and in some versions even his own daughter Persephone. The dude was fucking evil, but Disney wants you to think he was a great dude! Hades on the other hand has never raped anyone according to the myth, BUT HE’S THE BAD GUY? Who wrote this script? Harvey Weinstein??
A Christian story masquerading as Greek myth
In Greek mythology, Zeus is not the “good guy” and Hades the “bad guy.” In fact you could argue that Hades was the most chill God of all. I mean, occasionally he let a demigod or two slip through the underworld unchallenged, but other than that Hades never tortures or plots against anyone in Greek mythology.
You know who does plot against people? Zeus!
More generally though, all the Greek gods and goddesses other than Hades are kind of assholes. Anyone who has read the Illiad has already been subjected to the horrible people that the Greek gods really were. Zeus is a fickle, petty, and violent rapist. He is not this well intentioned or well meaning person by today’s standards. This is because ancient Greek morality in their mythology is not the same as Christian morality.
There were two major factors in ancient Greek morality, as represented in the Odyssey and the Illiad. The Illiad focused on what it means to be a hero. A hero in the Illiad is someone who is capable of great accomplishments, gains glory (Kleos), and acts within the bounds of Greek masculinity and honor. Thats right, women can’t be heroes according to the Greeks.
Achilles is a pretty good example of their ideal hero, with the exception of the whole pouting over his sex slave being taken away and then him desecrating Hector’s body thing. Generally the movie Hercules captures a good bit of this sense of Greek heroism, even if it is reduced to a bunch of sports metaphors. But the movie subverts this concept of heroism, by telling Hercules that this type of glory doesn’t constitute a “true hero.”
The second major factor in Greek morality was hospitality. The Odyssey established what it means to be a good host and a good guest in ancient Greek society. The entire culture was seemingly built around not pissing the gods off. If a god showed up to you in disguise, you would want to treat them well, and you never know who will be a god so you have to treat all guests well as a host. As a guest, you don’t want to, for example, kill all of Helios’s cows. He did not like that when Odysseus’s men did that and they justifiably paid dearly for murdering Helios’s adorable pets.
What you won’t find in Greek morality is any reference to self-sacrifice being the foundation of a true hero. Yet, At the end of the movie Hercules becomes a “true hero” by sacrificing himself to save Meg. Despite this not being a part of Greek myth, this movie decided that being a true hero is not gaining glory, or even being a good host or guest, instead true heroism is self-sacrifice which is a Christian notion.
This movie didn’t do a single shred of research on these characters, and instead projected whatever Christian notion they wanted onto the various characters. I think that is bad writing. I am quite accustomed to people butchering these stories, there are dozens of examples of Hollywood ignoring the source material on Greek mythology. But I am going to call it out, every time.
The next time you watch a Hollywood story about Greek mythology, look closely. It’s probably a Christian story in disguise. Remember, Zeus is not the Christian God, he is a rapist tyrant. Hades is not the Christian Devil, he is a chill college stoner. Hercules is not Jesus, he is a petty professional athlete trying to become famous. The Underworld is not Hell, it’s an eternal college dorm.