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Myths in Words and Pictures: Achelous and Hercules
Lesson Ideas
Lesson Ideas - Achelous and Hercules Myth - Achelous and Hercules Interactives

These digital resources contain artworks depicting Greek myths and mythological figures paired with the myths themselves, for making connections between creative writing and graphic representation. Also included are non-fiction readings that provide scientific or historical background.  The myths can be used to introduce and illustrate key elements in literature such as symbolism, character, and point of view.

Explore symbolism with these resources on Achelous and Hercules.

Symbolism in the Story and the Mural
In 1946, a Kansas City, Missouri, department store commissioned Benton to paint a mural to hang above the elevators. He chose a mythological scene, but he brought the myth home. In a pamphlet printed by the store, he wrote: "The story is applicable to our own land. It fits our Missouri River, which yet needs the attention of a Hercules."

The mural is now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. According to the museum's label: "Benton saw the legend as a parable of his beloved Midwest. The Army Corps of Engineers had begun efforts to control the Missouri River, and Benton imagined a future when the waterway was tamed, and the earth [in the river bottoms] swelled with robust harvests."

To help introduce symbolism, you can use the handouts "What Is a Symbol?" and "Meanings and Second Meanings."

Questions to consider

  • In the story, does the shape-changing Achelous stand for something?
  • If so, does Hercules stand for anything?
  • The defeat of Achelous by Hercules benefits the people. Does the story use a symbol of this benefit?
  • Does the artist use any symbols that are not in the story?

Benton repeats the myth's symbol of the Cornucopia, but also scatters across the mural more specifically midwestern symbols of abundance and prosperity. He also uses an additional classical symbol: Nike, the goddess of victory, holds the winner's crown over the head of Hercules. In this synchronistic scene, Hercules is engaged in the battle and has already won the battle and tamed the river.

Lesson and Activity Ideas

Art activity: Read the myth of Achelous and Hercules and ask students to draw or paint a scene from the story. Tell them that when they are finished they will see a painting in which an artist transferred the setting from ancient Greece to a new time and place. Encourage them to adapt the story as they wish.

Writing activity: Display the Benton mural without saying anything about the story, or perhaps saying only that it is based on a Hercules story. You might tell the students that Benton used an artist's technique called synchronism: showing in one scene events that happened at different times. Ask them to write their own stories, based on what they think is happening in the picture. Then read the myth.

STEM connection: Have students read "Taming Missouri River" and answer these questions: What is the challenge being described? Who are the people involved? Then take another look at the Benton mural. How does reading the article change what you see? As a follow up, students may investigate the Missouri River projects. Did they succeed? What was their effect?
Required Materials

"What Is a Symbol?" handout

"Meanings and Second Meanings" handout

"Taming the Missouri River" handout
Achelous and Hercules, 1947, Thomas Hart Benton

Achelous and Hercules

Achelous and Hercules, 1947, Thomas Hart Benton, 62 7/8 x 264 1/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Allied Stores Corporation, and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program

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