Killing the Nemean Lion: Heracles’ First Labor

A lion signifies many things across a wide variety of cultures. In Chinese religion, for example, the lion is believed to have powerful mythic protective benefits. In Buddhism, the lion is a symbol of strength and protection; a protector of the Buddha. In fact, the great importance of lions can be traced back to at least 15.000 years BC.

It should come as no surprise that in Greek mythology this is no different. The single most depicted thing in literary and artistic sources of ancient Greece is, in fact, a story that involves a lion. 

The Greek demigod Heracles is our main character here, fighting with a great beast that later became known as the Nemean Lion. A vicious monster living in a  mountain valley of the kingdom of Mycenea, the story explains a fair bit about some of the most foundational values in life, namely virtue and evil.

The Story of the Nemean Lion 

Why the story of the Nemean lion became an important piece of Greek mythology starts with Zeus and Hera, the leaders of the Olympian gods. Both are part of an early Greek myth and well represented in many other pieces in Greek mythology.

Zeus Upset Hera

The Greek gods Zeus and Hera were married, but not very happily. One could say that it is understandable on Hera’s part, since it was Zeus who wasn’t very loyal to his wife. He had the habit of stepping out, sharing the bed with one of his many mistresses. He already had many children outside of his marriage, but eventually he impregnated a woman by the name of Alcmene. 

Alcmene would give birth to Heracles, an ancient Greek hero. Just so you know, the name ‘Heracles’ means ‘glorious gift of Hera’. Quite obnoxious, but this was actually the choice of Alcmene. She chose the name because Zeus tricked her into going to bed with her. How? Well, Zeus used his powers to disguise himself as Alcmene’s husband. Quite creepy. 

Waring Off the Attacks of Hera

The actual wife of Zeus, Hera, eventually discovered her husband’s secret affair, giving her a sense of jealousy, rage, and hate that Zeus never saw before. Since it wasn’t her child, Hera planned on killing Heracles. Its name obviously didn’t contribute to her affinity with the child of Zeus and Alcmene, so she sent two snakes to strangle Zeus’ son in his sleep.

But, Heracles was a demigod. After all, he had the DNA of one of the mightiest gods of ancient Greece. Because of this, Heracles was strong and fearless like no one else. So just like that, young Heracles grabbed each snake by the neck and strangled them with his bare hands before they were able to do anything. 

A Second Attempt

Mission failed, story over. 

Or, that’s what you’d hope if you’re Heracles. But, Hera was known to be perseverent. She had some other tricks up her sleeve. Also, she would strike only after quite a while, namely when Heracles was all grown up. Indeed, he wasn’t really prepared for a new attack by Hera. 

Her next plan was to cast a spell over the mature demigod, intending to drive him temporarily insane. The trick worked, leading to the fact that Heracles murdered his beloved wife and two children. A sinister Greek tragedy.

Twelve Labors of the Greek Hero Heracles

In despair, Heracles searched for Apollo, who was (amongst others) the god of truth and healing. He begged him to punish him for what he did. 

Apollo was aware of the fact that it wasn’t fully Heracles’ fault. Still, he would insist that the sinner had to perform twelve labors to make up for the Greek tragedy. Apollo asked the Mycenaen king Eurystheus to formulate the twelve labors. 

While all of the ‘Twelve Labors’ were important and tell us something about human nature and even constellations in the Milky Way, the first labor is the most well known. And, you will know about it too, since it is the labor involving the Nemean lion . 

The Origins of the Labor

The Nemean lion lived near … Nemea. The city was actually terrorized by the monstrous lion. When Heracles wandered around the area, he would encounter a shepherd by the name of Molorchus who would incline him to complete the task of killing the Nemean lion.

The shepherd lost his son to the lion. He asked Heracles to slay the Nemean lion , saying that if he came back within thirty days he would sacrifice a ram to worship Zeus. But, if he did not return in thirty days, it would be assumed that he died in the battle. The ram would therefore be sacrificed to Heracles, in honor of his bravery.

The story of the shepherd is the most common one. But, another version says that Heracles met a boy who asked him to slay the Nemean lion. If he did it within the time limit, a lion would be sacrificed to Zeus. But, if not, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus. In either story, the Greek demigod was motivated to kill the Nemean lion. 

A lot of sacrifices indeed, but this has a great part to do with the acknowledgement of certain gods and goddesses of ancient greece. Sacrifices were generally made to thank the gods for their services, or just to keep them happy in general. 

The Early Greek Myth of the Nemean Lion 

The Nemean lion passed most of its time between Mycenae and Nemea, in and around a mountain named Tretos. The mountain divided the valley of Nemea from the valley of Cleonae. This made it the perfect setting for the Nemean lion to mature, but also for the making of the myth.

How Strong was the Nemean Lion ?

Some believed the Nemean lion to be the offspring of Typhon: one of the deadliest creatures in Greek mythology. But, being deadly was not enough for the Nemean lion. Also, he had a golden fur that was said to be impenetrable by weapons of mortals. Not only that, his claws were so fierceful that it would easily slice through any mortal armor, like a metal shield. 

The golden fur, in combination with its other assets, resulted in the fact that a demigod had to be called in to get rid of the lion. But, what other ‘immortal’ ways could Heracles use to kill this terrible lion? 

Shooting an Arrow 

Well actually, he didn’t use one of his extraordinary tactics at first. It seems like he was still in the process of realizing that he was a demigod, meaning that he had somewhat different powers than the average human being. Or, maybe nobody told him about the impenetrability of the lion’s skin. 

According to the Greek poet Theocritus, his first weapon of choice against the Nemean lion  was a bow and arrow. Naive as Heracles was, he decorated his arrows with twisted strings so it was potentially more deadly. 

After waiting for about half a day, he spotted the Nemean lion. He shot the lion in his left hip, but was surprised to see the arrow fall back on the grass; unable to penetrate its body. A second arrow followed, but it wouldn’t do much damage either.

The arrows didn’t work, unfortunately. But, as we saw earlier, Heracles had tremendous power that could do more damage than the average human being. This power, quite obviously, couldn’t be transferred through the arrow. 

But, again, Heracles prepared his bow to shoot a third arrow. However, this time the Nemean lion spotted him before he could do so.  

Hitting the Nemean Lion  with a Club

When the Nemean lion  came running towards him, he had to make use of the tools that were directly connected to its body.

Out of pure self defense, he had to make use of his club to wear off the lion. Because of the reasons just explained, the Nemean lion would be shaken up by the blow. He would retreat into the caves of mountain Tretos, searching for rest and heling. 

Closing the Cave Mouth 

So, the Nemean lion retreated to his double mouthed cave. That didn’t make the task any easier for Heracles. That’s because the lion could basically escape through the other of the two entrances if our Greek hero approached him.  

To defeat the lion, Heracles had to close one of the entrances of the cave whilst attacking the lion through the other one. He managed to close one of the entrances with several ‘regular polygons’ that happened to be just outside the cave. These are basically perfectly symmetrical stones, like the shapes of triangles or squares.

Pretty convenient to find perfectly symmetrical stones in a situation like this. But, symmetry enjoys a high adherence in Greek thought. Philosophers like Plato had a lot to say on it, speculating that these shapes are the fundamental components of the physical universe. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they play a part in this story.

How was the Nemean Lion Killed?

Eventually, Heracles was able to close one entrance with the stones he found. One step closer to completing his first task.

Then, he ran to the other entrance, approaching the lion. Remember, the lion was still shaken up from the hit with the club. Therefore, he wouldn’t move a whole lot when Heracles approached him.

Because of the drowsiness of the lion, Heracles was able to put an arm around his neck. Using his extraordinary power, the hero was able to choke the Nemean lion with his bare hands. Heracles wore the Nemean lion’s pelt over his shoulders and carried it back to either the shepherd Molorchus or the boy that had given him the task, stopping them from making the wrong sacrifices and hence making the gods angry.

Completing the Labor

To  fully complete the labor, Heracles had to present the Nemean lion’s pelt to king Eurystheus. There he came, trying to enter the city of Mycenae with the lion’s pelt over his shoulder. But Eurystheus became afraid of Heracles. He didn’t think anyone would be capable of killing a vicious beast with the strength of the Nemean lion.

The cowardly king therefore forbade Heracles from entering his city ever again. But, in order to complete all the twelve labors, Heracles had to return at least 11 times more to the city to get the blessing of Eurystheus for the completion of the tasks. 

Eurystheus ordered Heracles to present his proof of completion outside the city walls. He even made a great bronze jar and set it in the earth, so he could hide there once Heracles would near the city. The jar later became a recurring depiction in ancient art, appearing in artworks relating to stories of Heracles and Hades

What Does the Story of the Nemean Lion Mean?

As indicated earlier, the twelve labors of Heracles have great significance and tell us a lot about a wide variety of things in Greek culture. 

The triumph over the Nemean lion signifies a story of great bravery. Furthermore, it represents the triumph of virtue over evil and discord. An elementary distinction, so it seems, but stories like these have played a great role in manifesting such distinctions. 

Attributing characteristics to certain characters in mythological stories help to indicate the importance of the values involved. Virtue over evil, or vengeance and justice, tell us a great bit about how to live and how to design our societies.

By killing and skinning the Nemean lion, Heracles brought virtue and peace to the states. The heroic effort became something of lasting impact to the story of Heracles, since he would wear the lion’s pelt from that point onwards. 

Constellation Leo and Art

The killing of the Nemean lion, thus, plays a significant part in the story of the Greek demigod. This also means that it plays a significant part in any mythology of ancient Greece. 

The dead lion is even of such great significance that it is believed to be represented in the stars through the constellation Leo. The constellation was granted by Hera’s husband Zeus himself, to be an everlasting memorial of his son’s first great task. 

Also, Heracles’ slaying of the Nemean lion is the depiction that is most common of all mythological scenes in ancient arts. The earliest depictions can be traced back to the last quarter of the seventh century BC. 

The story of the Nemean lion is, indeed, a fascinating story about one of the most important figures in the mythology of the Greek people. Due to its lasting impact on arts, astrology, philosophy, and culture, the story of the Nemean lion is one the main stories to refer to when we talk about Heracles and his heroic efforts. 

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