Hercules – What is the Measure of a True Hero?

‘Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece, there was a golden age of powerful gods and extraordinary heroes. And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes was the mighty Hercules. But what is the measure of a true hero? Ah, that is what our story is…’

Fables are fashionable, no doubt about it. On film, the world in the 21st century is saved by super-heroes a few times a day because they have either futuristic technology or astonishing powers.

For me, however, Disney’s ‘Hercules’ is the best movie in this genre ever made : it is their only film based on Greek mythology – these timeless tales about a world of complex interrelations between gods and humans explored the mysteries of life on earth, conveying important lessons to struggling mortals.

The conduct of the royal society on Mount Olympus in those days seems to have been as fallible as today’s jet set and in the absence of TV, the stories about their lives and adventures, weaknesses and misdemeanors in ancient Greece apparently were the talk of the town.

As an animated movie first released in 1997, the ancient characters in Walt Disney’s ‘Hercules’ speak a very modern language – Charlton Heston (Narrator), Rip Torn (Zeus, leader of the gods), James Woods (Hades, ruler of the underworld) and Danny DeVito (Phil the Satyr) amongst others have given their voices to a fast-paced, wildly funny and very entertaining film for kids and adults alike.

What is often overlooked though is that the story of Hercules is also a brilliant parable about the human cycle of life on earth – for me, that is he most interesting aspect of the movie. It all starts at the party on Mount Olympus, where right of admission is reserved for Gods, to celebrate the birth of Hercules, son of Zeus and Hera. The host welcomes a new guest:

“Hades, you finally made it. How are things in the underworld?” “Well, they’re just fine. You know, a little dark, a little gloomy. And, as always, hey, full of dead people. What are you gonna do?”

The evil Hades plans to overthrow Zeus as chief of the gods in what he calls a ‘hostile takeover bid’, however, and shortly after the party sends his helpers Pain and Panic to abduct Hercules down to Earth because the Fates predict that he might thwart the coup in 18 years time.

Although pain and fear are still the most effective allies of dark forces today, good help was difficult to find even in those days, and Pain and Panic don’t quite manage to infuse the magic potion into Hercules that would make him forget his divine origin.

As a result, Hercules retains super-human strength for his spell on earth – but that doesn’t make him very popular: as an impetuous teenager, he breaks whatever he touches and he isn’t allowed anywhere near the local pottery store. ‘Jerkules’ is his nickname at that time and he yearns to be normal, like everyone else.

He just wants to fit in somehow and know where he belongs, setting the scene for the archetypal hero’s quest – this is beautifully highlighted in his captivating song ‘Go the Distance’ : ‘I will find my way, I can go the distance; I’ll be there some day if I can be strong; I know every mile will be worth my while.’

So when he leaves the home of his foster parents to find his place in the world, his first stop is at the temple of Zeus, a quiet place for reflection, to ask for guidance. There he learns that he has a famous father – and Zeus tells him that he has to prove himself a true hero on earth to restore his status as a god.

How do you become a true hero?

You learn from an expert.

On Zeus’ advice, and with the help of Pegasus the flying horse, Hercules seeks out Philictetus, the trainer of heroes. Phil is disillusioned because previous clients like Perseus and Achilles couldn’t go the full distance, but he takes Hercules on and shows him all the tricks of the hero-trade. Both make mistakes and get hurt a few times in the process, of course – you teach what you need to learn, and the lines between teacher and student get blurred after a while.

Along the way Hercules also has to rescue Megara, a damsel in distress, and they fall in love – he doesn’t know that she has sold her soul to Hades, however, and is committed to help him rearrange the cosmos to take over Mount Olympus. Despite their efforts to get Hercules out of the way before he spoils the loot, he becomes a famous superstar ‘From Zero to Hero’ in the big city with his own merchandised brand on consumer goods, all the royalties that go with it, and the high life that everyone envies.

But being rich and famous, strong and powerful is not being a true hero, Zeus tells him at another visit to the temple – before Hercules can rejoin the gods he must still do something that he has to discover for himself, something that he can only find by looking inside.

Hades in the meantime is furious and very frustrated with his lack of progress until he finds the only weakness Hercules has – his love for Meg. Hercules eventually agrees to give up his enormous strength for 24 hours to win back Meg’s freedom from the clutches of Hades – who immediately launches his attack on the world by unleashing the Titans.

But Meg, Pegasus and Phil are not giving up on Hercules’ shattered dreams and help him in his darkest hour. Together with the gods on Mount Olympus, they defeat Hades and his Titans and liberate planet Earth from the underworld’s tyranny and oppression – but not without casualties: Meg is dying!

In a desperate attempt to change the course of events, Hercules rushes to see Hades and strikes a deal with him: ‘Take me in Meg’s place’. He dives after Meg into the River of Death, selflessly offering his life in return for hers, but the Fates cannot cut his thread so that they both emerge alive – the underworld has no power over gods!

Meg and the mighty Hercules are whisked off to Mount Olympus – now he can return home to be reunited with his family. The overjoyed Zeus explains : ‘A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength – but by the strength of his heart!’

This is the moment Hercules has always dreamed of, but he realizes that a life without love, even an immortal life, would be empty – and chooses to stay on earth with Meg and his friends: ‘I finally know where I belong.’

I just love it!

What if we all remembered that we are powerful beyond measure and have a connection to our divine origin with unlimited support?

What if we knew that we are always exactly where we belong, wherever we are and whatever we do?