|Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute||Home|
The story told by the Disney version is confusing at best and does not really make it clear why Hercules must face great difficulties or what he must do to overcome them. Instead, we are introduced to his story by five singing muses who are supposed to serve as a chorus of sorts, to explain what has occurred in the life of Hercules. This is the movies first flaw and source of misinformation. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for presenting only five muses instead of the traditional nine. This unit of study will endeavor to correct some of the inaccuracies generated by Hollywood’s many versions of the story as well as to help students learn some Greek mythology. The Disney animation of the life of Hercules makes a good starting point to correct these errors.
The next inaccuracy in this animated version is the implication that Hercules was the son of Zeus and Hera and that his gravest enemy was Hades, god of the underworld. In fact, Hercules, (or Herakles as he is known in Greek Mythology,) was the son of Zeus and Alcmene [Alk-ME-ne]. Zeus disguised himself to look like Alcmenes husband, Amphitryon [Am-FIT-ri-on] and tricked her into an amorous tryst. She realized that she had been deceived when her husband returned home on the day after this liaison. Alcmene bore a second son at the time of Hercules birth. His name was Iphicles and he was the son of Amphitryon. He accompanied his brother on several of his adventures, but was killed during one of Hercules labors. In an attempt to dispel the wrath of Zeus wife, Alcmene named her first son Herakles (which means glorious gift of Hera in Greek) in her honor. Unfortunately, this only served to further infuriate Hera.
The greatest dangers to Hercules came from Hera’s wrath, not from -Hades as the Disney version implies. She was jealous of her husbands many infidelities with mortals and immortals, alike. She was particularly vengeful toward this handsome son of her husband, perhaps because of his strength, prowess and good looks. She tried throughout his life to do away with him. In his infancy, she sent two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. The baby Hercules was able to take the two snakes and squeeze them to death. In his youth, he learned to sing and play the lyre. When his teacher, Linus, scolded him for playing out of tune, Hercules hit him on the head with the lyre and killed him. His family realized that he was too strong to live at the palace so he was sent to the mountains to serve as a shepherd. While tending his flocks, he killed all of the lions and wolves that menaced the area. As a reward, the King of Thebes gave his daughter Megara in marriage to Hercules. Together, they had several children and settled in for a peaceful life.
This good fortune further infuriated the goddess Hera and she sought vengeance by making him mad. In his insanity, he killed his wife, Megara, as well as their children, swatting them down as though they were wild animals. When he recovered his sanity and realized what he had done, he was filled with remorse. He went to Delphi and asked the oracle there how he could atone for his sins. He was told to serve his cousin Eurystheus [You-RISS-theus], King of Mycenae and perform ten labors for him. Hera was pleased with this penance, for Eurystheus was a weak man who was jealous of Hercules great strength and noble birth. Hera knew that he would choose only the most difficult tasks he could devise.
There is no mention of his marriage and his madness in the Disney version, nor of his remorse and search for redemption. Instead, the focus is on a fabricated tale of Hades desire to overthrow Zeus. The premise is that Hercules can prevent Hades from achieving his quest and so must be eliminated. Alcmene and Amphytrion are portrayed as his foster parents who take in a baby they find abandoned along a road. Disney also gives their animated hero Pegasus as a pal. Nowhere in any version of the myths does Hercules develop a friendship with this winged horse.
Disney also introduces a character named Philoctetes [fill-LOC-tee-teez], as an older and wiser friend and mentor. In the myth of Hercules, there is a Philoctetes, but he is not mentioned in the tales until the end of Hercules life. It was he who built and set afire the funeral pyre on which the hero died. In exchange for this and the promise to keep secret the burial location, Hercules gave to Philoctetes his bow and the arrows which had been dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra.
Hercules did have a companion who accompanied him on some of his adventures. It was most probably his nephew Iolaus, the son of his brother, Iphicles. It was Iolaus who seared the severed limbs of the Hydra so that they would not sprout new heads.
As a way to help the children understand the life and labors of Hercules, we will create a mural depicting the various events of his labors and journey toward immortality. This will help the children to learn the events in depth and will provide a vehicle for sharing our new-found knowledge with others in our school. We will also create replicas of the ancient vases and urns which have survived the ages to tell the stories.
There are many versions of the story of Hercules from Apollodorus to DAulaires Book of Greek Myths. Some of those versions are very difficult to comprehend because of the intricate interrelationships and prior knowledge needed. There is even an extensive internet site which shows examples of ancient pottery and maps and retells the stories. As a part of this unit, I will retell the stories of his life and the labors in such a way so as to make them full enough for students to understand their richness, yet simple enough so as to not be confusing. This understanding will also allow them to create their interpretive artwork which they will share with others in the school.
In addition to the watching the video, listening to the stories and creating the mural and reproduction pottery, students will learn to pronounce and spell the names of the main characters in this study. We may include some background information on what preceded the era of Hercules, including a discussion of the nine muses, for it is from the muses that these stories were conveyed to the world.
It will not be necessary to tell all of the stories of Hercules life, but it is important to tell of his birth and early life. It is also important to tell the stories of his twelve labors and finally of his attainment of immortality. The myth of his birth and early life has already been told in this paper. We will spend the majority of time reading and understanding the labors as the knowledge gained from these stories will be used to create our mural and pottery. We will also trace Hercules journeys on either a student-created or classroom map.
Hercules was accompanied to this labor by his nephew Iolaus, the son of Iphicles. He was a charioteer and often accompanied his uncle on his journeys. Iolaus also helped by lighting on fire the arrows which went into the Hydras den. As the Hydra came out. Hercules surprised it and lopped off one of its heads. To his surprise, two more grew in its place. He lopped off several others only to find the same result. Hercules then asked Iolaus to sear or burn the place where the cut-off head had been to prevent two more from growing in that spot. The trick was successful until only the center head remained. By some accounts, Hercules used a golden sword to cut off that immortal head. When he removed the final one, he buried it under a heavy rock while Iolaus seared the neck. Hercules then dipped his arrows into the Hydras gall which rendered them deadly poisonous. When he returned to Tiryns, Eurystheus told Hercules that this labor did not count as one of the ten he was obliged to fulfill because he had the help of Iolaus in accomplishing it. He still had nine labors to complete.
At some point during the discussion of this particular story, it would be important for the children to find out what a hydra is and where it is found in the world today. This incorporates some science facts and inquiry (are hydras poisonous?) into a humanities based unit. Similarly, the other labors which involve animals can be expanded to include some research into the creatures which Hercules encounters. There are no lions in present day Greece, yet our hero battled many of them in this ancient tale. Is it possible that there were once lions in Greece and, if so, was it the climate or civilization which drove them out?
It would be appropriate at this point to have the students explore whether any animals today are known as hinds. They can look at he different kinds of deer and where they are found in various parts of the world. Similarly, students can do some in depth studies of the various kinds of animals which our hero encounters in his various labors. This will bring an element of science and geography into this project.
On his way to capture the boar, Hercules met a centaur named Pholus. A centaur was a creature which had the body of a man from the waist and the body of a horse from the waist down. Pholus invited Hercules to dine with him and roasted meat for him in his cave. During the meal, he also opened a jar of wine which had been left for just such an occasion. The smell of the wine attracted all sorts of wild animals which proceeded to attack Hercules. He was forced to defend himself against these assaults and in the course of his retaliation several of the creatures were killed. In the course of his defense, a kindly old centaur was wounded by one of Hercules poisonous arrows. Pholus was astonished that such a minor wound could cause death and while examining the arrow, he dropped it and scratched his foot. The poison (from the hydras gall) was so venomous that he died within minutes. The certain death frightened away the other animals.
Hercules was now free to find and capture the boar which was ferocious and quite elusive. Hercules drove it from his hiding place and chased it into a snow drift where the boar sank from his own weight. Our hero captured the boar, bound it in chains and carried it back to Tiryns and Eurystheus. When the king saw the fearsome beast, he hid in a large bronze pot. Hercules took the boar and released it into the sea where it swam to the west toward Italy.
Augeas sent his son Phyleus to witness the work as he had witnessed their agreement. Hercules set about his enormous mission by punching a hole in the wall at one end of the stable and then another in the wall at the other end. He then dug two trenches which diverted the course of two different rivers. These diversions brought their waters rushing through the stables, cleaning out the years of muck and mire. He completed the task by repairing the holes in the stables and returning the rivers to their original course.
Augeas reneged on his promise to give one tenth of his cattle to Hercules, even though the job was accomplished on a single day. A judge was called in to settle the dispute. Phyleus testified to the agreement and the judge granted Hercules his due reward. Upon his return to Tiryns, he learned that Eurystheus would not accept this labor because he was paid for it. Instead of six more labors, Hercules was still faced with seven more.
During his return to Mycenae, Hercules made numerous stops along the way, including one at Troy. He faced many challenges along this journey, but finally managed to arrive back at his home. He gave the belt to Eurystheus who gave it to his daughter Admete. The king wasted no time in devising still another labor for our hero.
Hercules set about on his venture by heading first to the coast of Africa where he thought he might find the apples. Then he headed in a northerly direction where he encountered enemies who tried to stop him. He headed toward Asia when he came to the Caucasus Mountains. There he encountered Prometheus who had been bound in chains to a rock by Zeus for the crime of stealing fire from the heavens. In addition to being bound, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who pecked at him and ate his liver. The liver grew back every night so that the eagle could come again and continue his torture.
Hercules had been told that Prometheus would be able to tell him how to find the Garden of the Hesperides. Hercules agreed to release Prometheus in exchange for this information. Prometheus cautioned him not to pick the apples by himself but to ask Atlas to do the deed for him and gave instructions on how to reach the elusive gardens which were located in the northern reaches of the world.
When the request was posed to Atlas, the titan was only too happy to get the apples in exchange for being relieved of the burden of holding up the earth and sky. Hercules agreed to the deal. Atlas asked him first to kill Ladon, the monster guarding the apples. Then he took the weight of the earth and sky upon his shoulders while Atlas went to secure the favored fruit. When the deed was done, Atlas returned and told Hercules that he would deliver the apples to Eurystheus himself. He didn’t want to resume his former position and was pleased to be free.
Hercules knew that every man must bear his own burden and Eurystheus would never accept the apples from anyone else. He tricked Atlas into taking back the earth while he ostensibly found a more comfortable position. The titan put the apples down on the ground and took back his formidable load. Hercules picked up the apples and hastened to return to Tiryns. He presented the apples to his king who returned them immediately as it was unlawful to possess any of Hera’s property. Hercules presented the apples to Athena who returned them to their garden and their guardians.
While the monster Cerberus was fierce indeed, it was really no match for Hercules. He covered himself with his lion-skin cape and grabbed Cerberus around the necks of its three heads. The heads were covered with snakes which tried unsuccessfully to loosen the grip. The monster struck at the hero with its dragon tail and injured him, but not enough to set it free. Hercules finally subdued the beast and dragged it up from the Realm of Hades and finally back to Tiryns and Eurystheus.
True to his nature, the cowardly Eurystheus hid from the ferocious Cerberus and made Hercules take him away. The hero was more than happy to comply with this request and returned the beast to the gates of Hades. Thus having completed his ten acceptable labors, Hercules was released from his obligation to the king and at long last allowed to pursue his own happiness. He still had many adventures ahead of him in his quest for immortality and many obstacles to overcome, but he had served his penance and was free from his bondage. Eventually he did achieve an eternal life and took his place on Mount Olympus with the other gods of Ancient Greece.
In the most simple form, the story of Hercules life can be interpreted as the story of every-man. Our hero was the son of the most significant figures in Greek mythology, yet he was made to struggle through incredible difficulties in order to fulfill the purpose of his life. He can be compared to any of the children who participate in this study by showing that it does not matter who or what your parents are or where you are from, you can and must make something of your life. As the son of an immortal, it was Hercules desire to attain that same immortality, but since he is also the son of a mortal, he had to face mortal challenges. Perhaps to neutralize the advantage of being the son of Zeus, the obstacles he faced were exacerbated by Hera’s jealousy and need for vengeance.
____ Comparisons might be made with the kinds of struggles and dangers that the children face in their own lives. There are the drugs and gangs and the allure of the money they involve. These challenges seem to grow increasingly difficult as the children grow older, especially in the inner-city,. Even as Hercules faced ever greater labors which took him farther and farther from the safety of his home, so must our students deal with unsavory influences and conflicts as they grow older, and away from the comforts of childhood.
|Amazons - a tribe of fierce women warriors who worshipped Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt. She was the twin sister of Apollo||and decided to never marry.|
|Cerberus, the three-headed hound which guarded the gates to the underworld|
Orthrus [OR-thrus], brother of Cerberus
A Mural of the Travels of Hercules
The students will create a wall-sized map of Europe and Asia Minor. In the appropriate locations, they will add depictions of the twelve labors of Hercules. This mural will be shared with other students in the school either in small group discussions or as a whole school presentation. In addition, each student will create his own scrapbook with drawings and descriptions of each of the events in the life of Hercules. ____
Pottery from Ancient Greece
Students will study examples of ancient Greek pottery in museums, in books and on the internet to see how these stories have been kept alive throughout the ages. They will bring in discarded bottles, plates and containers which will be used as the base for creating the depictions of the stories of Hercules. When possible, we will make the dishes, urns and pitchers from clay with the assistance of the art teacher. They will use them as examples of the art of storytelling as it has existed through the ages.
Reviewing Disneys Hercules
The class will view the animated Disney version of the story once again. We will follow this viewing with a critical discussion of the merits of the film. We will look at both the positive and negative aspects of the cartoon. As part of this discussion, we will look at the criteria which make good movies and stories and try to get the children to apply them to their daily television viewing habits.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. in two volumes. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1955. A major reference work as it examines Greek mythology as it has been interpreted by the various scholars and poets throughout the ages.
Zimmerman, J. E. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Bantam Books, 1964. A handy reference giving a brief explanation of the characters and events in Greek and Roman mythology.
|Aliki.||The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. A pretty introduction to the major deities from Greek mythology. Hercules is not mentioned, but this can be used to clarify some of the other characters.|
D’ Auliere, Ingri and Edgar Parin. DAulaires Book of Greek Myths. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1962. A comprehensive collection of the stories from Greek mythology8 with enough detail to tell the stories, but also simplified for a younger audience. Good illustrations which have a classical tone.
Evslin, Bernard. Hercules. New York; William Morrow & Co., 1984. This 144 page book is devoted to the trials and tribulations of Hercules life. It is suitable for most upper elementary readers. It is written in a easy style and while there is some poetic license taken with the story, it provides another source for independent study.
Fisher, Leonard Everett. The Olympians: Great Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece. New York: Holiday House, 1984. A simple text offering very basic information about the Olympians. A good title to have for student browsing purposes.
Gods, Men & Monsters from the Greek Myths. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Another resource for children to explore about the myths. Contains a brief retelling of the story of Hercules as well as some very nice illustrations and a map of Hercules world.
Green, Roger Lancelyn. Heroes of Greece and Troy. New York: Henry Z Walck, Inc., 1961. This book give a fairly comprehensive account of all the heroes from Greek mythology. It is helpful in simplifying the stories so that they are suitable for elementary students.
Lum, Peter. The Stars in our Heaven: myths and fables. New York: Pantheon, 1948. Contains a brief discussion of the myth of Hercules as well as the identification of the obscure constellation of the same name. This source suggests that the legend comes from the Sumerian and Babylonian hero known as Gilgamesh.
@Ref:The Usborne Book of Greek and Norse Legends. London, Eng.: Usborne Publishing, 1987. A compact and handy overview of the major stories and characters from Greek mythology. It includes a who’s who section which describes them and another which gives their Roman counterparts. Also includes a similar overview of Norse mythology.
Crane, Gregory R. (ed.) The Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu, April, 1998. The Perseus Project is a digital library of resources about the ancient world. It includes texts, translations and examples of period pottery. It is a collaborative body of work by scholars at a number of academic institutions. It is maintained by Tufts University, Medford, MA. The material is also available in a CD-ROM version published by Yale University Press.
Of particular interest to this study is the following location on the website: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Hercules/
It tells the stories of Hercules and includes maps and examples of ancient pottery from museums all over the world which depict various aspects of the myth. There are a variety of other web sites which show some examples of pottery depicting images from Greek mythology, but the above site is the only one so far identified as showing images directly related to Hercules.
The Yale University Art Gallery owns a collection of ancient Greek pottery. A visit there would give the children an idea of what it actually looked like.
Contents of 1998 Volume II | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute