Hercules the Legendary Journeys: Let the Games Begin

There is a bandwagon in town, and I must jump on it. Thanks to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who told me about this episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which our hero founds the Olympic Games. Although I've been reviewing the spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess, I've never seen any Hercules, so it was interesting for me to watch this (apparently Hercules makes a stand against the gods. Classical Heracles would probably be fairly baffled by that, but I notice they've kept Hera's legendary hatred of him, so that's cool).

The founding of the Olympic Games was often attributed to Heracles, which works out rather nicely for the show. The inclusion of Atalanta is also a really nice nod to ancient mythology. Atalanta was one of those virgin huntresses who were quite common in Greek myth, and she took part in the famous story of the hunting of the Calydonian Boar (when Meleager's uncles tried to take her prize for drawing first blood, she killed them - don't mess with her). For some reason she seems to be super-strong here - I suppose this was felt necessary to explain how she's able to win so many events.

She was also supposed to be the fastest runner in the world, so her inclusion in an episode about the Olympic Games is perfect. She told her father she would marry a man who could beat her in a foot race, but that anyone who tried and failed would be killed, knowing she would beat them all. (Unfortunately it turns out she was fast but stupid - Hippomenes beats her by throwing goddess-given golden apples at her feet, which distract her). The idea that's she's Spartan is kinda neat too, as not only were Spartans frequent victors in the early years of the Olympic Games, Spartan women were encouraged to exercise (to improve their health and therefore get them to bear stronger, healthier Spartan baby boys) so they were fitter and more likely to be good at sports than Athenian women.

It's great to see Atalanta but I wish she'd been allowed to wear a bit more, especially around the lower half. I know the ancient athletes competed naked, but everyone else here is dressed and I just don't need to see her butt cheeks. (I have no problem with nudity or skimpy clothing in general - I like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood after all - but I prefer it to be more even-handed. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have done equal opportunity exploitation better - for every scene of Buffy in a tiny, tiny top there's a scene of Angel with his shirt off). I would also like to have actually seen her win the foot race - the episode cuts off before they get to it.

According to this episode, Hercules founds the Games because he wants to prevent two particularly volatile groups of people from fighting each other, and get them to let out their aggression through sports instead. This relates more to the modern conception of the Games than the ancient Games. The ancient Olympics were held in honour of Zeus - they were a religious festival, like the festival of Dionysus in Athens where the tragedians competed against each other for a prize for drama. Initially mainly won by Spartans, eventually they were open to all Greeks, so they also became partly a statement of Greek identity. All Greeks were allowed to participate but no non-Greeks - when Alexander I of Macedon (not the famous one) came to the Games, some objected that he wasn't allowed to take part because he was a barbarian and he had to prove he was actually Argive before he was allowed to compete. So, they were a rather exclusive event - open to all the disparate Greek city-states, so technically international, but also a marker of Greek identity as opposed to barbarian.

At Salmoneus' suggestion, the Games are called the Olympic Games, because he says this sounds suitably 'majestic' and 'Olympian' ('unless this brings up your family troubles' he adds to Hercules). They all stare at a mountain as he says it, which is presumably meant to be Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a mistake so common it was made on BBC 3's recent programme Olympics' Most Amazing Moments, Richard Bacon claiming in his narration that the ancient Olympics were held on the slopes of Mount Olympus. The Olympics have nothing to do with Mount Olympus. They were held at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in the Peloponnese, which is hundreds of miles from Mount Olympus. Although the coincidence of the names works out well for the modern Games, it was originally just a geographic description. From the show's point of view, it doesn't really matter, but this is a bit of a common mistake, so although the writers of this episode probably knew the real origin and chose to change it for the show, it's frustrating to see it as the audience may not know any better.

I quite enjoyed this episode. The show is clearly completely daft (as is Xena) but it's quite amusing and it seems to be genuinely interested in using Greek mythology as a springboard for its storytelling. The Olympic Games as depicted here are clearly the modern Olympic Games - open to everyone, supposed to help prevent war, everyone fully dressed at all times. But I think that's a good thing. This is a fun, family show and much of the audience will be children who don't know much about either the Olympics or ancient Greece. I think it's nice to use the pseudo-ancient Greek setting to talk about the modern Olympics and what they stand for. I still wish we'd got to see Atalanta's foot race though.


Hercules (re fighting): So senseless. When will they ever learn? The ancient Heracles would never have said anything like this and was reasonably keen on fighting, but I applaud the sentiment.

Hercules (to himself, re not sleeping with Atalanta): What is wrong with you?

Some unseen random: No woman's got any business in the Olympics.
Hercules: The Olympics are open to anybody. (Again, totally inaccurate - they weren't open to non-Greeks, and one possible explanation for why the athletes competed naked was to make absolutely sure that no women sneaked in. But again, I applaud the sentiment).

Disclaimer: The nuclear blast that destroyed those fiendish Mesomorphs was purely trick photography. The Mesomorphs are alive and well and living in Poughkeepsie.

Xena: Warrior Princess reviews


  1. Wasn't it Meleager's uncles who tried to keep Atalanta from getting the recognition for first blood? The cat in my lap is keeping me from getting to my references, not to mention making me type one-handed.

  2. Dipping your toes into the Hercules well Juliette? Careful, you might fall in after Xena! ;o)

    This is one of the few Hercules episodes I remember seeing! And I remember enjoying it quite a bit. Like you said, definitely a modern Olympian view, but a fun reminder to the modern public that these games are old as the hills! :p

    Re: love your mention of the equal-opportunity exploitation in Buffy! And it's not just Angel, we got some Spike too over the years! :D

  3. Hi Juls,

    A quick comment: In Ovid's Metamorphoses, at least, Atalanta the runner and Atalanta the huntress are different characters, with different fathers. Jenny March talks as if they are originally separate characters whose stories were combined, though I suspect they are more likely the same character whose basic myth (not, of course, that we can really talk about such things) was the running story - subsequently she got added to the Calydonian Boar and Argonaut stories, both of which are 'Justice League of America' myths, i.e. ones in which many different characters get added at various times. Then she was split into two to deal with continuity issues, and then subsequently merges back into one as people continue to be confused.

  4. That explains why theoi.com has two entries on her - though they also have both the Calydonian boar huntress and the runner as one character. I suspect they're the same character, and Ovid is mucking about like he likes to - but I might be wrong.

  5. I didn't catch much of the series... was this before Kevin Sorbo had his medical issues?

  6. I don't know, I didn't watch it (I was a Lois and Clark girl)

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