In 1997, Disney turned its attention to one of the most recognizable heroes in the history of western civilization: Hercules, son of Zeus, famous for his 12 larger-than-life, impossibly difficult labors. Transforming Hercules into a family-friendly Disney protagonist required some significant changes from the original source material. Disney’s Hercules had the shoulders of an ox, a heart of gold, and zero brains. A complete himbo, in other words. I am far from the first person to make this observation, using this precise term. There have been dozens and dozens of tweets about Hercules as a himbo; “I like disney’s hercules bc it’s a love story about a teen himbo and a jaded 35 year old woman,” goes my favorite. But the figure of Hercules is millennia older than the Disney portrayal—and his journey to himbohood has been a strange and winding one.
Herakles, as the Greeks called him (the Romans gave us Hercules) would have been fairly well known across the world of Classical period Greece, the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Of course, the ancient Greeks meant something very different—and very specific—by the term “hero.” Professor Gregory Nagy has been hammering this into the heads of undergraduates (including yours truly) since the late 1970s with his long-running, perennially popular Harvard course, The Ancient Greek Hero. For one thing, Hercules was a figure of hero worship. A Greek hero wasn’t necessarily a hero because he was virtuous or morally perfect. A Greek hero was semi-divine and thus beyond the merely mortal. A Greek hero was excessive, Hercules in particular. He also wasn’t a hero through righteous deeds, but death. That’s because heroes were a specific sort of cult figure in the ancient Greek world.
But beyond his existence as a figure of hero worship, Herakles would have been well-known across the world of ancient Greece as a figure from storytelling. Known for his feats of strength, he was often represented as toting a club and wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion, a vicious and powerful lion which he slew in the first of his famous labors. But that’s not to say that the ancient Greeks thought Herakles was dumb, as Columbia’s Elizabeth Scharffenberger, who specializes in Athenian tragedies, explained to me.
The notion that Herakles might be a himbo was “a little uncharitable!” Scharffenberger said. “At least for the ancient Herakles. The notion that he was not smart is not there.”
Perhaps even more seriously, the ancient Herakles doesn’t particularly fit with another fundamental attribute of the himbo, which is a certain easy-going good nature. Scharffenberger pointed out that both the surviving Athenian tragedies in which Herakles appears are about domestic disasters. In one iteration, he murders his wife and children; in another, he’s an adulterer killed by a magical ointment. Both are a far cry from Disney’s muscle-bound, well-meaning doofus. Greek Herakles is a wild, liminal figure, a bit of a loner despite his guest appearance among Jason and the Argonauts, better suited to slaying lions and centaurs than buffooning charmingly around at home.
But Herakles didn’t stay fixed in the world of Hellenic Greece, either. He jumped cultures and morphed accordingly. Gradually, you can see the foundation for the himbo makeover beginning to take shape. Scharffenberger pointed to the 5th century BCE story of Herakles at the Crossroads, via Xenophon, in which Herakles is forced to choose between stalwart, labor-intensive virtue and the short-term rewards of vice. He picks virtue, which seems like something of a himbo move (himbos being too naive and essentially good-hearted for true vice). By Roman times, Hercules had taken on the stern-jawed, straightforward determination that is so common to the himbo. Scharffenberger said that under the Romans, he’s associated with the labors. “He is hard-working, diligent, and then this gets associated with being straightforward and honest and not tricky, and you can maybe see how this kind of tumbles into good-natured and dumb through many centuries,” she offered.
And long after the fall of Rome and the end of the religions that supported him, Hercules lived on in the western consciousness as a character. He was a well-known allegorical figure in medieval Christianity, for instance. Handel wrote a Hercules opera; Hercules appears on the ceiling at the Palace of Versailles. But the road to the truly modern himbo Hercules leads straight through a chapter of 20th-century history that makes a great deal of sense, once you know it: bodybuilding culture.
From its very earliest days, bodybuilding was closely associated with supposed classical ideals. A 1997 history from the journal Arion traces how strongmen as early as the 19th century framed displays of their bodies in terms of the glories of ancient Greece in general and Hercules specifically, giving the activity an intellectual cover. Then, in 1958, an Italian movie producer really made this connection stick, with the first in a series of dirt-cheap movies known as “peplums,” the sword-and-sandal equivalent of spaghetti westerns. The movie was Hercules, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves. Hercules is nothing short of a high-camp beefcake extravaganza, as Reeves struts around with enormous muscles absolutely gleaming. The climax of the film features Reeves flexing until he bursts out of a set of chains, bringing an entire temple complex (presumably made of foam) down around him.
These movies were, of course, willfully dumb. “That loud, rippling sound heard all over town yesterday was Steve Reeves, the movie strong man, flexing his biceps in ‘Hercules Unchained’ at neighborhood theaters,” goes one cheerful New York Times review from 1960. It’s not that Reeves comes off as wholly empty-headed, necessarily—the review makes reference to Reeves’s “expression of fixed intelligence,” even while noting he wasn’t much of an actor—so much as the movies are themselves the very distillation of a certain himbo ethos. “Taken good-naturedly—and how else?—the picture is harmless, simple-minded fun,” concluded the review. Everybody involved pretty much knew it, too. Reeves was followed by a string of successor Herculeses and Hercules-like heroes, in movies that would prove a staple of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The character was so associated with camp that by 1970, an unknown bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger played the character in Hercules in New York, a low-budget film that—you guessed it—follows the muscle-bound god on an adventure through modern-day New York City (there’s even wrestling). Nor has the cinematic tradition of the muscle-bound live-action Hercules died out, either; in 2014 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared in a version that deliberately referenced the Steve Reeves classic with a climactic chain-bursting scene. But Johnson was building his own personal brand as a savvy man who had transcended pro wrestling and his Hercules was distinctly non-himbo, a paternal leader of offbeat mercenaries. Still, his muscles were the real star.
When Disney came to the story, the stage was set for Hercules as the prototypical “more brawn than brains.” The team at Disney imagined Hercules as a bashful, naive farm boy, a Hellenic combination of Clark Kent and Galahad. When we meet Disney’s teenaged, pre-glowup Herc, he stands with a somewhat bashful inward turn to his feet. Raised by mortal parents due to the machinations of Hades, his introduction into the narrative is wrecking a small village because he is simply too strong while unloading his adoptive father’s ox cart. Later, we watch him yank a small door off its hinges. Whoops! He’s not a wild semi-divine with larger-than-life abilities and appetites so much as a giant, well-meaning golden retriever puppy.
Disney replaced the domestic turmoil of the tragedies with a plot closer to the company’s traditional wheelhouse. Zeus tells Hercules must prove himself a true hero in order to regain his godhood; Hercules sets out to prove himself, only to get tangled up in the machinations of a scheming Hades when he falls head over heels for the cynical Megara, who can’t quite believe his whole “big innocent farm boy routine” is for real. Oh, but it is, which is the central joke of the movie—one long riff on the contrast between Herc’s enormously powerful body and perennially vaguely confused face.
“A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart,” the movie ultimately concludes. Himbofication achieved.