A Discussion of Greco-Roman Myths in Popular Culture (Or, Why Everyone Needs to See 1983’s Hercules)

The late 70’s and early 80’s were good times for fantasy/sci-fi movies. With the success of movies like Star Wars and Conan, film studios were clamoring for a new fantasy story to franchise. And in this fervor, writer/director Luigi Cozzi created 1983’s Hercules, an action-adventure flick with an, um, interesting take on Greco-Roman mythology. Today, we will examine the movie’s take on Greco-Roman gods and cosmology, Other Greco-Roman characters, and Hercules himself. Let’s begin, shall we?

This is going to be AWESOME

1) Cosmology And The Gods

The movie starts out at the beginning. Like, the very beginning. The universe starts with a bang, and various cosmic energies are a drift. These energies coalesce to create Pandora’s Jar, a giant jar that just floats around in space.

Pandora's Jar. You can tell it's cosmic because of the pointless glowy lights

Pandora’s Jar then explodes because… because. The explosion releases good and evil into the universe, and the shards of the jar create the gods, the planets, and, of course, humanity.

From a mythology perceptive, this has a number of things wrong with it. First, Pandora’s Jar doesn’t factor into the Greco-Roman creation myth until pretty late, and it certainly doesn’t create the gods. The universe is basically completely finished when Pandora opens the jar.And that’s another thing. In the movie, Pandora isn’t even in the story! If Pandora doesn’t factor into any part of the existence of the jar, what’s the point of calling it Pandora’s Jar?

Now some of you might be wondering “Didn’t Pandora open a box, not a jar?” Well, actually, it was a jar. Turns out evil was contained by a jar in the original myth, but was subsequently mistranslated as a box by historians. Leave it to a b-movie to get trivial stuff like that correct, and then completely miss everything else about the story.

As I was saying, the Jar’s random explosion creates the gods. In mythology, the god’s live on Mt.Olympus, but in this movie they live on the moon. In the movie, there are three main gods: Zeus, Hera, and Athena. Zeus and Athena represent good in this movie, while Hera represents evil. This directly conflicts with the more human-like portrayal of gods in the myths, where Hera isn’t always bad and Zeus cheats on his wife. Like, a lot.

Pictured- The movie's depiction of Zeus. Hard to believe this guy got all the ladies back in Ancient Greece.

In the movie, the main villain is Minos. Minos in the myths is the terrifying offspring of Zeus and Europa. Every year, he forces seven men and seven women to enter the labyrinth, where they will be eaten by the Minotaur. In the movie, Minos is just some old guy who wants to become immortal.

Gaze upon the tired, aging face of evil, and despair!

Not exactly the person I’d put up against Hercules, but I guess that why I’m not as successful as the guy who made Devil Fish.

2) Other Mythological Characters

Besides the gods, the movie features many other characters from Greco-Roman mythology. One such character is Daedalus. In mythology, Daedalus was an expert craftsman who, among other things, created the labyrinth that was mentioned before, as well as functional wings made of wax. In the movie, Daedalus is a woman that dresses like a Power Rangers villain.

Go go, Power Rang- whoops, wrong story.

Also, much like a Power Rangers villain, Daedalus creates three robot monsters to combat Hercules. She creates a robotic centaur, a fire breathing dragon, and… a robot cricket?

Pictured- Hercules developing early fly-swatting techniques

Granted, a giant robot version of basically any creature is bound to be scary to whoever has to fight it, but come on, couldn’t Daedalus have tried a little harder? Maybe a robot snake, or a robot bear? Hell, I would’ve been okay with a robot house cat. Anything’s better than a cricket.

The movie also features the witch Circe. In the myths Circe is pretty evil and has a habit of turning people into animals. In the movie, Circe is good and is, no joke, Hercules’ most helpful ally. They even ride on a chariot through space together!

Yes, those are Barbie and Ken dolls riding a tinfoil chariot pulled by a rock through space. You know, as ridiculous as this is, it still isn't the silliest part of this movie

Don’t you think this is a little bit backwards? I mean, in mythology, Circe is evil while Daedalus is good (or, at least, not all that bad). So logically, you would make Circe the one who makes monsters and have Daedalus help Hercules out. But instead, they make Circe good and Daedalus evil. Why did they make such pointless changes? That’s like taking terrifying King Minos and turning him into a pathetic old ma- oh wait.

Finally, there’s Cassiopeia. In mythology, Cassiopeia is a beautiful but arrogant princess whose vanity brought the wrath of Poseidon.  In the movie, she’s just a demure princess that gets captured by Minos so he can sacrifice her. Kind of a shame that they took an interesting and tragic figure and turned her into mere eye candy.

It IS pretty good eye candy, though.

 3) Hercules Himself

Alrighty, here we are, the main event. Hercules. In the movie, Hercules is portrayed by the Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno. I’ll give the movie this: Lou Ferrigno as a muscle-bound demi-god is just good casting.

HERCULES SMASH!

So let’s begin with Hercules’ birth. In the movie, Hercules is the child of the king and queen of Thebes. He is given god-like power by Zeus so that he may become the champion of good. In mythology, the circumstances surrounding Hercules’ birth are a little less noble. Turns out he is the illegitimate son of Zeus (dude slept around, remember?) and Alcmena. In the movie, the king and queen of Thebes are killed in a coup led by King Minos, and Hercules is sent down a river by a royal maid before Minos can kill him. Hercules is then picked up by a good-natured farmer couple a la Superman. None of this happened in the Greco-Roman mythology, though this sort of thing did happen to baby Moses.

Though the legend of baby Moses never had him kill paper mache snakes with his bare hands. Eh, close enough.

So Hercules is taken in by his adoptive family and grows into a strong young man. However, tragedy strikes when Hercules’ adoptive father is attacked by a bear! Hercules comes to rescue, but this is no ordinary bear. You see, this bear has the magical ability to turn into what is clearly a man in a bear costume! But even with this amazing magical ability, Hercules kills the bear. But he is too late. The bear had killed his father before he could save the day. In his anger, Hercules takes the bear’s body and throws it into space.

There are no words to describe this

The bear’s body floats off into space, becoming the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Needless to say, this isn’t how those constellations were formed in Greco-Roman mythology, but it is so awesome that I wish it was.

Tragedy strikes again when Hercules’ adoptive mother is killed by Daedalus’ cricket robot. After destroying the robot, Hercules leaves to go to the city of Tyre so he can join in a tournament held by the king and earn his fortune. In the myths, Hercules’ family was not killed by a robotic cricket monster (obviously). In fact, Hercules himself kills his family after being driven insane by Hera, who is upset about her husband Zeus’ infidelity. As penance, Hercules must perform 12 tasks. Having Hercules kill his own family would be a little dark for an action-adventure movie, though, so we got the cricket instead.

Anyway, in the movie, Hercules goes to Tyre and performs well in the tournament. The king is impressed, but he requires more proof that Hercules is worthy. He orders Hercules to clean the Augean stables, which were apparently the dirtiest stables ever, within the time period of one day. By changing the course of a river, Hercules is able to clean the stables before daybreak. Hilariously, this is the only thing Hercules does in the movie that actually happens in Greco-Roman Mythology.

Hercules: Mythology's greatest stable-boy

Of course this movie would remember Hercules’ lamest task.

Finally, I think we should discuss Hercules’ relationship with Minos. As I said, King Minos is the main villain in the movie, and is the reason Hercules’ original parents are dead. However, in mythology, Hercules and Minos hold no real animosity against each other. In fact, when Hercules went to capture the Cretan bull (a task infinitely cooler than cleaning some stables), Minos actually offers aid to Hercules. So basically the central conflict in the movie is directly contradicted by the myths. Nice research, movie.

 In Conclusion

So how is the movie from a mythological accuracy perspective? Well, pretty terrible. It’s pretty clear that the creators were more concerned with aping ideas from other fantasy movies coming out at the time. This is why they had the weird Pandora’s Jar thing at the beginning, and why they had the gods on the moon. These changes were made to cash in on the sci-fi interest created by Star Wars. As a result, we have a movie that is heavy on fantasy cliches and light on mythological accuracy.

But I think the real question is whether or not the movie is, itself, worth watching. Well, I can’t say that the movie is good per se, but I can say that the movie is awesome. The plot is ridiculous, managing to be both utterly simple and  incredibly confusing, and there is no real character arc for anyone. But still, bear in space. 

There are still no words

So I say give it a shot. It’s on instant queue for Netflix right now, so if you have a subscription, you can see it there. It’s going to be an interesting watch, I promise.

One thought on “A Discussion of Greco-Roman Myths in Popular Culture (Or, Why Everyone Needs to See 1983’s Hercules)

  1. It is certainly interesting to see how many glaring mythological inaccuracies and blatant errors are able to fit into only one movie! It seems as though the makers of the film had an ever so basic understanding of Greek mythology, yet gets such unknown aspects of it correct, such as Pandora’s box actually being a jar and Hercules’ menial task of being stable boy for a day. It’s as if they looked at details without paying any attention to the big picture.
    But I have to wonder how this movie was received by audiences at the time. It sounds like it couldn’t have been very well received by movie critics or Greek scholars for that matter, but it does seem like the sort of movie that could attain a large cult following. Perhaps at the end of the day, the movie itself was just a re-imagining of the story of Hercules within a hilarious 80s futuristic setting, and that’s exactly what some people wanted to see.

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