Hercules in Popular Culture

Hercules For my research paper I chose to explore and analyze instances of the great Greek/Roman hero, Heracles (Hercules), appearing in popular culture and the effect his myths had on early civilizations. Considered by most to be the greatest of the Greek folk heroes, Hercules was the embodiment of masculinity and physical power. The word “herculean” literally translates into “having enormous strength, courage, or size” (dictionary. com. ) Since their inception, the myths and legends of Hercules have been immensely popular and have had vast influences on people and cultures throughout the world.
Over the next few pages I will attempt to compare and contrast several examples of Hercules’ representation in pop culture with the underlying myths that are being depicted. I will also piece in the undeniable influence these myths have had on people throughout history. First, however, I would like to start by giving a little bit of background information on the hero known as Hercules. Hercules was born as the son of Zeus and a beautiful mortal woman named Alcmene, in the Greek city of Thebes. Due to his father’s divinity, Hercules was given the gift of extraordinary physical strength and courage.
From the beginning, the events of his life were shaped by the wrath of the goddess Hera, who scorned the boy that was a reminder of her husband’s infidelity. As he matured he faced countless tasks and hardships, but through his victories he forever glorified himself in ancient literature. The stories of Hercules had quite a large impact on the early Greeks. Some, such as the ancient Spartans, believed they were descendants of the great hero and strived to be like him on the battlefield and in the gymnasium.

Elsewhere, in Thebes, the Cult of Heracles was a religious group that was created which worshiped him as the divine protector of man. The cult constructed many shrines throughout the ancient world and even held festivals in his honor every year (theoi. com). Later on, the Roman Empire completely idolized the champion they referred to as Hercules and showcased his popularity by crafting countless statues, temples and gardens in his name. In Pompeii, there are many such gardens that were built for him including the House of the Garden of Hercules (Jashemski).
A mountain passage that led from Italy to Spain was even known to the Romans as “The Road of Hercules” (DeWitt). Beautiful architecture dedicated to Hercules can still be found throughout the world today, such as the Hercules Garden at the Blair Castle in Perthshire (Dingwall). As you can see, he is more than just a myth to these people; he is an influential cultural icon who they looked up to. As great a hero as he was, Hercules was not without flaw. He was also know to have an intense desire for women and wine and was prone to extreme fits of rage (Phillips).
One myth which paints Hercules in a bad light comes from his childhood. As a boy, he murders his musical tutor Linus with his own lyre for reprimanding him. In adulthood, he kills his wife Megara and their children while he was temporarily driven mad by Hera (ancientgreece. com). Though not perfect, I believe that it is this complexity of character that has fascinated audiences and allowed the Herculean myths to withstand the test of time so well. Another factor that I believe has played into the popularity of his myths is the contemporary obsession with “larger than life” heroes and the heroic ideal.
Andrew Anderson, a Harvard professor of the Classics, explains that Hercules was the first representation of the “perfect hero” and may have been used as the model for later greats such as Achilles and Alexander the Great, who were both thought to have idolized Hercules. Myths of Hercules have captivated audiences and established themselves in popular culture since the days of ancient Greece. Flash forward to the present, and the Hercules name is trendier than ever. His stories are regularly depicted through the use of books, TV shows, comics, movies, plays, action figures and even video games.
Though he hasn’t always been portrayed correctly in the lime light, these modern day representations are imperative to keeping his legend alive. In the last 50 years alone, he has been the inspiration for various works of art. In 1963, Hercules was shortly represented in the movie Jason and the Argonauts. He joined Jason and the crew of the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece but left the mission early for personal reasons, which is consistent with the actual myth of Jason and the Argonauts.
In 1970 the movie Hercules in New York cast the perfect leading role in Arnold Schwarzenegger, who looked like a modern day version of our hero, but had little to do with actual mythology. The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hercules seemed especially valid because both have had such an impact on the ideals of physical fitness and the art of body building. It is said that famous body builder Eugene Sandow (1890’s), who is treated as a father of the early muscle building movement in America, was inspired to lift weights as a child after seeing a classic statue of Hercules (Wyke).
Another facet of popular culture that showcases Hercules is the Marvel Comic Books. The Marvel version of Hercules was created in 1965 by Stan Lee as a super strong rival to Thor, who came from Norse mythology (comicvine. com). In the comic books he is commonly shown in his Lion skin cloak and holding his iconic wooden club. His typical super strength and courage are defining qualities in the comic book representation, as is his role as a womanizer. The Marvel comics also correctly portray his bouts with Atlas and the monster Typhon.
One fairly recent portrayal of Hercules can be seen in the 1997 Disney movie, Hercules. The details of the movie don’t follow the mythology of Hercules perfectly, but it hits enough of the main points to make for a passable story. For instance, from the beginning the film implies that Hera is the actual mother of Hercules, which we already know is untrue. In the movie, Hera is kind and compassionate towards Hercules, which contrasts sharply with the cold remorse she holds for him in most historic literature.
Another discrepancy is the role of Megara in the movie, who was previously mentioned as Hercules’ first wife. In the movie, she is under the power of Hades and is trying to help make Hercules become a mortal. If they do not succeed, it is prophesized that Hercules will rise up and stop Hades and the Titans from taking over Mt. Olympus. Though the movie wasn’t always accurate, it did a great job of blending in other famous myths into the story. However, the film does correctly portray many aspects of the actual myths.
The 12 Labors of Hercules, which may be the most popular literature based on our hero, is accurately portrayed in the movie in the correct order. Some other examples include the reasoning behind Hercules’ semi-divinity, his godlike strength and courage, and his journey to the Underworld and conflict with Hades. The movie also properly states that Hercules will be the only mortal ever to join the gods on Mount Olympus upon his death, though in classic literature he dies on his own funeral pyre after being poisoned instead of drowning in the river Styx.
The movie became a hit with children and is definitely responsible for increased interest in Greek and Roman myth with American youth. The success of the movie led to the creation of an animated cartoon series and even a videogame for the Playstation and PC. In the last decade, he has been represented in the popular video game franchise Kingdom Hearts, in which he is presented as he looks from the Disney movie. Even more recently he appears briefly in the book The Sea of Monsters, which is book number two in the ever popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series.
It’s interesting that these myths have had such a strong following for such a long period of time. From ancient Greece to present day, the legends of Hercules have fascinated countless generations of people and have withstood the “test of time” extremely well. Hercules is more than just a set of stories and myths; he is a world renowned pop-culture icon who will inspire more books, television and movies in the years to come. Sources Heracles and His Successors: A Study of a Heroic Ideal and the Recurrence of a Heroic Type Andrew Runni Anderson
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 39, (1928), pp. 7-58 Published by: Department of the Classics, Harvard University Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/310599 http://open. edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/greek-heroes-popular-culture-through-time? track=e02cce8d6b Rome and the “Road of Hercules” Norman J. DeWitt Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association Vol. 72, (1941), pp. 59-69 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/283041 The Hercules Garden at Blair Castle, Perthshire
Christopher Dingwall Garden History Vol. 20, No. 2 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 153-172 Published by: The Garden History Society Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/1587041 “The Garden of Hercules at Pompeii” (II. viii. 6): The Discovery of a Commercial Flower Garden Wilhelmina F. Jashemski American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct. , 1979), pp. 403-411 Published by: Archaeological Institute of America Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/504139 Heracles F. Carter Philips The Classical World Vol. 71, No. 7 (Apr. – May, 1978), pp. 431-440
Published by: Classical Association of the Atlantic StatesStable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/4348926 Herculean Muscle! : The Classicizing Rhetoric of Bodybuilding Author(s): Maria Wyke Source: Arion, Third Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1997), pp. 51-79 Published by: Trustees of Boston University Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/20163635 http://dictionary. reference. com/browse/herculean http://www. theoi. com/greek-mythology/heracles. html http://www. theoi. com/Cult/HeraklesCult. html http://www. ancientgreece. com/s/GreekMyths/Heracles/ http://www. comicvine. com/hercules/29-2503/

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