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The Original Hercules Myth Is Far More Gruesome Than The Movies Show You

Updated July 17, 2019 71.2k views13 items

From the animated Disney film to the so-bad-it's-kinda-fun TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, the mythological strongman Hercules has long provided source material for some epic-adventure entertainment. But these stories often gloss over the more gruesome parts of the hero's exploits. The real story is much gorier. When you get the Hercules facts directly from the myths where they originated, the Disney film is revisionist at best and a downright knockoff at worst, The Legendary Journeys is family-friendly froth, and the 2014 film Hercules is little more than a good reason to watch Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for 98 minutes.

Hercules, as he is presented in myth, is an extremely complex character, and his tale is so complicated and involved that it often borders on the convoluted. Hollywood, of course, has a vested interest in making intricate stories as easily digestible as possible. They had their work cut out for them in attempting to trim, edit, and revise Hercules's escapades into something watchable and not so totally gruesome that it turned off everyone. But it's a disservice to the myth not to at least point out a few of the disparities between the show business Hercules and the mythological Hercules.

  • Photo: Giovanni Ambrogio Figino / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hera Really, Really Hated Him

    If your only exposure to the story of Hercules - or Heracles in the original Greek stories - was the Disney version, you'd think Zeus's wife Hera was a doting wife and mother. According to the myth, however, she despised Hercules - likely because of Zeus's infidelity - and made his life a living hell.

    From even before he was born, Hera was trying to slay Hercules. She summoned two witches to prevent his birth, directed serpents to snuff him out in his cradle, and inadvertently created the Milky Way when he bit her nipple during breastfeeding and she pushed him away, sending her milk spraying across the night sky.

    Hercules became a strapping young man and noble hero-in-the-making, and Hera was crazy with jealousy and rage over his successes. 

  • Photo: Albrecht Dürer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Accidentally Slew His Wife And Children

    With Hera's rage reaching Earth-shattering proportions, she plagued Hercules with an uncontrollable madness. During his mania, he lost his grip on reality and slew his wife, Megara, and their three sons. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, intervened and knocked Hercules out with a rock.

    When Hercules woke up and his sanity returned, he was remorseful and felt awful about his family's fate.

  • Photo: B. Picart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    To Atone For His Sins, He Completed The Twelve Labors

    Hercules was so grief-stricken over slaying his family that he intended to end his life. Instead, he was encouraged by his cousin Theseus to atone for his sins. Hercules consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told him to complete the Twelve Labors.

    The Labors were seemingly impossible tasks, and most of them required a deep level of daring to even attempt. Hercules wanted to make amends in a big way, and this seemed to him the most logical means to that end.

  • Photo: Antonio del Pollaiolo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One Of The Labors Involved The Vicious Slaying Of A Lion

    The first Labor was to slay the Nemean Lion. The Nemean Lion, however, was no ordinary big cat; he was basically a massive monster. He couldn't be taken out by mortal weapons, and his claws were sharper than swords.

    After arrows proved futile against the Nemean Lion's strength, Hercules ended its life with his bare hands. He then skinned the beast and wore its hide as a cloak.