Post #20: The Raw and the Cooked in Disney’s ‘Hercules’
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Tuesday April 14 2015
“This stuff doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere!”
As I was preparing for my upcoming talk at the University of Kentucky, “Hercules for Americans: the Disneyfication of a Greek Myth”, I took particular notice of how the hero’s labors are portrayed in Disney’s 1997 film Hercules. Although Hercules’ twelve labors are the most well-known part of his story to modern audiences, they are a minor part of the film, which depicts them in a series of quick shots in a few brief minutes during the musical number “Zero to Hero.” The brevity of their appearance also underscores how differently the film conceptualizes their relationship to Herc. In this post I’ll focus on a particular labor, the Erymanthian Boar, which illustrates well how the film sets up its version of Herc as a civilized and civilizing hero, while the ancient versions often depict the hero as just as savage as the monsters he hunts.
The film doesn’t depict all of the labors; the audience sees only the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, the Erymanthian Boar, and the Stymphalian Bird(s). In the ancient versions these creatures represent the chaos of the wilderness that was constantly threatening civilization, and so Hercules’ victory over them symbolizes the triumph of human culture. The first-century AD mythographer Apollodorus is explicit about this when he describes how the Hydra “used to go forth into the plain and ravage both the cattle and the country” (2.5.2; trans. Frazer). The chorus of Theban elders in Euripides’ fifth-century play Heracles portray the Cerynitian Hind as “the scourge of farmers” (line 377; trans. Halleran). The Disney version similarly portrays the people of Thebes as imperiled by the monsters Hercules encounters.
According to Apollodorus, Herc was forced to complete the labors for Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, in penance for killing his family. Disney removes any suggestion of this event, and instead has the hero complete the labors because he wants to get to Olympus. After Herc kills the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, Eurystheus makes the next two tasks harder by requiring Herc to bring him the Cerynitian Hind and the Erymanthian Boar alive. In one of my favorite ancient Greek vase-paintings (figure 1), Herc looms over the bronze storage jar that Eurystheus had specially built so he could hide from the hero (Apollodorus 2.71). Herc looks at Eurystheus, who holds up his hands in terror, with the Erymanthian boar slung over his left shoulder. The vase-painter has added his own layer of meaning the myth by having the gaze of Herc and the boar run parallel to each other; both glare at the king. This has the effect of making Hercules, in his lion skin cowl with his face peering out of the creature’s jaws, appear as monstrous as the monster he’s carrying. This scene and the ancient Hercules’ character recall Nietzsche’s adage “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” It takes monsters to fight monsters.
In the Disney version of the Erymanthian boar labor, Herc kills the creature with his bow. The next shot is of a kylix with a black-figure scene of Herc holding a platter with the cooked boar sporting an apple in it’s mouth and Phil on the other side, holding a fork and wearing a napkin around his neck (figure 2). In the ancient versions the caveman Hercules brings a raw boar to Eurystheus and then sets it free again, whereas Disney’s Hercules is a thoroughly-civilized hero whose leather cuirass and sword (header image) replace the rough lion skin and club. This modern version cooks the Erymanthian Boar, making it available for human consumption and literal integration. I’ve always thought of the ancient Hercules as the caveman hero, and Classicist Walter Burkert confirms this when he associates the hero with cave paintings in the Upper Paleolithic Period (Greek Religion, 1985: 209). He claims that in his labors “the capture of edible animals points to the time of the hunter culture”, but the fact that he doesn’t kill all of his prey suggests a simultaneously anxiety about the merging of man and beast that must occur if the hunt is to be successful. Burkert connects Hercules to shamanic magical practices, and in one such ritual the shaman becomes the animal. The ancient Hercules represents a post-hunter-gatherer society’s anxieties about the boundaries of such behavior. Disney takes this anxiety one step further by completely erasing and then writing over the signs of the caveman by showing their Hercules rejecting the lion skin, which is made to look like the villain Scar from their previous hit film The Lion King (1994) (figure 3).
This same theme ironically appears in Apollodorus’ version of the Erymanthian Boar episode when Hercules visits the centaurs on his way to the hunt. The mythographer tells us that he stays with Pholus, who gives the hero “roast meat…while he himself ate his meat raw” (2.5.4), which points to the civilized nature of the demi-god and the bestial nature of the centaurs. Disney has reversed this trope, making the ancient vision of Hercules the beast and their modern version the civilized.
Header image credit: screen capture (Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Feature Animation).