Hercules: Don't "Myth" This Teaching Opportunity!
Capitalize on your students' interest in Disney's new animated feature, Hercules, with a few related activities, and some Web sites worth exploring. (Upper elementary grades and above.)
After saving the troubled town of Thebes from a barrage of monsters and plagues, Hercules is hailed as a hero by the throngs who line up for autographs in Walt Disney Pictures' new animated comedy-adventure, "Hercules." Herc's arch-rival, a hothead names Hades, is not quite as pleased with the lad's success and seethes in the background.
Photo Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The Greeks had a word for him Heracles, to be exact. Although Disney's animated account of the mythological superhero takes the liberty of calling him by his more common Roman name of Hercules, the film's story team was inspired by the always fascinating and often outrageous tales of the legendary Greek hero.
With its loose and comedic approach to the subject matter, Disney's "Hercules" is not exactly an accurate account of Greek mythology. And yet, the written accounts of Hercules became an important springboard for the film. Ovid was the first to write about this great hero in the year 1000 BC and, several hundred years later, the 5th century poet Euripides added to his legacy with perhaps the most famous version of the story. Even among experts, there are many varying versions of the classic mythological tales. Hercules, being one of the most popular heroes of the day, was also one of the most chronicled and each region had its own version of his adventures.
By all accounts, Hercules was Ancient Greece's consummate hero---part superman, part everyman. To commemorate his superhuman acts of heroism, he became an icon and his likeness appeared on a staggering number of Grecian vases, plates, and other artifacts. He was courageous, indomitable, and alone in his fight against the tyrannies of the world.
Click here to read a summary of the Hercules story.
Vocabulary. This activity shouldn't be a Herculean task. Invite students to define the word Herculean as used in the previous statement. Then ask each student to write several more sentences using the word. Finally, students share their sentences with the class and choose the five sentences that make best (most Herculean?) use of the word.
Sequencing. Invite students to put the following statements in order so they tell the story of Hercules (as it is told below or in other sources). The numbers in italic type after each statement indicate the correct sequence.
Hercules is sent to live with his cousin, King Eurystheus. (5) Now a hero, Hercules marries Deianara. (7) Hercules strangles the serpents that Hera has sent to kill him. (2) As a child, Hercules is trained in fencing, wrestling, and music. (3) Hercules is faced with "twelve labors." (6) Hercules is born. (1) Hercules marries Princess Megara. (4)
Compare and contrast. Invite students who've seen the movie to read a version of the Hercules myth. Students might read the Hercules story in an encyclopedia, in a library book, on a Web site (see some options below), or you might copy the story summary at the end of this document. Students will notice many differences between Disney's telling of the story and other versions. Challenge students to tell five differences they found between the animated feature film and the story. Students might also contrast the personality of Hercules as seen in the movie (sensitive, awkward, vulnerable) with the characteristics of the hero of the Greek myth.
Writing: What Is a Hero? What does it take to be a hero? Invite students to write a short essay describing the heroic characteristics of Hercules. Students should close their essay by nominating a modern-day hero, someone who exhibits many of those same characteristics.
Science. Hercules is the name given to one of the constellations in the sky. Invite students to diagram that constellation. Some students will be motivated to learn about other constellations, their shapes, and their history.
In classic mythology, Hercules is indeed the son of Zeus, the mighty ruler of the gods, but his mother is a mortal named Alcmene. Practical and egotistical Zeus took it upon himself to sire this demi-god in response to a prophesy that the only way to save the world from the Titans---50 gigantic beasts with the legs of serpents---was with the help of the greatest and strongest of mortal men. When the goddess Hera discovers what Zeus has done, she sends two serpents to kill the child---but young Hercules strangles the creatures with his bare hands.
Aware now of her son's destiny, Alcmene has Hercules trained in all the arts required of a warrior hero: charioteering, fencing, wrestling, and music. Too strong for his own good, Hercules is sent into the mountains as a shepherd, where at age 18 he kills a great lion. He uses the skin as a cloak with the head forming a kind of hood. (This famous costume is depicted in much artwork of the time.)
Hercules' first marriage to Princess Megara produces three sons but comes to a tragic end when a vengeful Hera causes Hercules to go mad. Hera adds misery to his grief by conspiring to have him become the slave of his cowardly cousin King Eurystheus for a period of one year, during which time he is subject to every demand and labor the evil little relative can dream up. With Hera working behind the scenes to suggest increasingly impossible and perilous tasks, the "Twelve Labors of Hercules" begin to take shape and lead to the hero's further glory. The labors include fighting the Nemean Lion, killing the nine-headed Hydra (which grew two heads to replace each severed one), capturing the murderous boar of Mt. Erymanthus, cleaning the stables of King Augeus, driving away the Stymphalian birds, catching the fire-breathing bull of Crete, bringing back the golden girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, picking three golden apples guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and bringing back Hades' three-headed guard dog, Cerberus.
His labors completed, Hercules returns to civilization to resume his life and chooses a Caledonian princess named Deianira to be his second wife. On the way home from the marriage, Hercules kills the Centaur Nessus for making ungentlemanly passes at his bride but not before the crafty creature convinces Deianara to take a few drops of his blood to prevent Hercules from desiring other women.
Adventure and trouble continue to find Hercules. Another incident has him indebted to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who forces him to dress as a serving woman for three years and to spin and sew with his big hands.
When Hercules' wife becomes jealous of another woman, she decides to use Nessus' "love charm," not knowing that it will seal his fate. Finding himself in unbearable pain, Hercules begs to be placed on a funeral pyre. Accompanied by a loud thunderclap, he is borne up to Mount Olympus where he is at last reunited with his godly kin, thus making good on that prophesied battle with the Titans. Begging Hercules' forgiveness for all her treachery, Hera gives him her own daughter Hebe (goddess of eternal youth) as his bride.
Hercules may not have been a real person but "The Pillars of Hercules," two giant crags which separate Europe from Africa and which were said to have been placed there by him on the way to a labor, are still in place today.
Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World®