A little over a week ago, I introduced a new series for the blog: a short series about the labours of Hēraklēs. In that post, I described the life of Hēraklēs up until the point where he set out to complete the tasks. Today, I'm taking you through the first of twelve labours: Hēraklēs' challenge to slay the Nemean lion.
The Leon Nemeios (Λεον Νεμειος), or Nemean lion has been described with a large variety of parents. Selene is mentioned by Aelian and Seneca, amongst others, but one of the drakons is also possible, especially Echidna. Diodorus Siculus, in his Library of History describes the lion so:
"This was a beast of enormous size, which could not be wounded by iron or bronze or stone and required the compulsion of the human hand for his subduing. It passed the larger part of its time between Mycenae and Nemea, in the neighbourhood of a mountain which was called Tretus from a peculiarity which it possessed; for it had a cleft at its base which extended clean through it and in which the beast was accustomed to lurk." [4.11.3]
As the lion was terrorizing the area surrounding the mountain, Eurystheus must have seen in the lion a worthy opponent of Hēraklēs, whose tales of bravery and brute strength has proceeded him. He ordered the hero to return with its skin. In the words of Apollodorus:
"When Hercules heard that, he went to Tiryns and did as he was bid by Eurystheus. First, Eurystheus ordered him to bring the skin of the Nemean lion; now that was an invulnerable beast begotten by Typhon. On his way to attack the lion he came to Cleonae and lodged at the house of a day-laborer, Molorchus; and when his host would have offered a victim in sacrifice, Hercules told him to wait for thirty days, and then, if he had returned safe from the hunt, to sacrifice to Saviour Zeus, but if he were dead, to sacrifice to him as to a hero." [2.5.1.]
And so, Hēraklēs went to the cave of the lion after picking up a bow and quiver of arrows, because he was unaware he would not be able to harm the creature with mortal weapons. What comes after is undoubtedly best said by Theocretus in the third century BC. In his 'Idylls', he has Hēraklēs explain his victory himself:
"Now this did Eurystheus make my very first task; he charged me to slay that direful beast. So I took with me my supple bow and a good quiverful of arrows, and in the other hand a stout cudgel, made, without peeling or pithing, of a shady wild-olive which myself had found under holy Helicon and torn up whole and complete with all her branching roots; and so forth and made for those parts where the lion was. Whither when I was come, I took and tipped my string, and straightway notched a bearer of pain and grief, and fell a-looking this way and that way after the pestilent monster, if so be I might espy him ere he should espy me. ‘Twas midday now, yet could I nowhere mark his track nor hear his roaring; neither was there any man set over a plough-team and the toil of the seed-furrow that I could see and ask of him, seeing pale wan fear kept every man at the farmstead. Howbeit, I never gave over to search the leafy uplands till I should behold him and put my strength speedily to the test.
Now towards evening he came his ways unto his den full fed both of flesh and gore, his tangled mane, his grim visage and all his chest spattered with blood, and his tongue licking his chaps. To waylay him I hid myself quickly in a brake beside the woody path, and when he came near let fly at his left flank. But it availed me not; the barbèd shaft could not pass the flesh, but glanced and fell on the fresh green sward. Astonished, the beast lift suddenly up his gory head, and looked about him and about, opening his mouth and showing his gluttonous teeth; whereupon I sped another shaft from the string (for I took it ill that the fist had left my hand to no purpose), and smote him clean in the middle of the chest where the lungs do lie. But nay; not even so was the hide of him to be pierced by the sore grievous arrow; there it fell vain and frustrate at his feet.
At this I waxed exceedingly distempered and made to draw for the third time. But, ere that, the ravening beast rolled around his eyes and beheld me, and lashing all his tail about his hinder parts bethought him quickly of battle. Now was his neck brimming with ire, his tawny tresses an-end for wrath, his chine arched like a bow, as he gathered him up all together unto flank and loin. Then even as, when a wainwright, cunning man, takes the seasoned wild-fig boughs he hath warmed at the fire and bends them into wheels for an axled chariot, the thin-ringed figwood escapes at the bending from his grasp and leaps at one bound afar, even so did that direful lion from a great way off spring upon me, panting to be at my flesh. Then it was that with the one hand I thrust before me the cloak from my shoulders folded about my bunched arrows, and with the other lift my good sound staff above my head and down with it on his crown, and lo! my hard wild-olive was broke clean in twain on the mere shaggy pate of that unvanquishable beast. Yes as for him, or ever he could reach me he was fallen from the midst of his spring, and so stood with trembling feet and wagging head, his two eyes being covered in darkness because the brains were all-to-shaken in the skull of him.
Perceiving now that he was all abroad with the pain and grief of it, ere he might recover his wits I cast my bow and my broidered quiver upon the ground and let drive at the nape of that massy neck. Then from the rear, lest he should tear me with his talons, I gat my arm about his throat, and treading his hind-paws hard into the ground for to keep the legs of them from my sides, held on with might and main till at length I could rear him backward by the foreleg, and vasty Hades received his spirit.
That done, I fell a-pondering how I might flay me off the dead beast’s shag-neckèd skin. ‘What a task!’ thought I; for there was no cutting that, neither with wood nor with stone nor yet with iron. At that moment one of the Immortals did mind me I should cut up the lion’s skin with the lion’s talons. So I to it, and had him flayed in a trice, and cast the skin about me for a defense against the havoc of gashing war. Such, good friend, was the slaying of the Lion of Nemea, that had brought so much and sore trouble both upon man and beast.” [204-280]
There are other versions, mostly those where Hēraklēs does not fight the lion outside, but instead pursues the beast into his den, having blocked the other end of it so the lion cannot escape. In the dark, he hits the lion over the head, and then proceeds to strangle it. Depending on the author, Hēraklēs looses a finger in the struggle. Polemy Hephaestion, for example, speaks of the finger in his New Histories 2:
"...Heracles, after the Nemean lion had bitten off one of his fingers had only nine and that there exists a tomb erected for this detached finger; other authors say that he lost his finger following a blow by a dart of a stingray and one can see at Sparta a stone lion erected on the tomb of the finger and which is the symbol of the power of the hero. It is since then that stone lions have likewise been erected on the tombs of other important people; other authors give different explications of the lion statues."
In my introductory post, I spoke of the first lion who was vanquished by Hēraklēs, the lion at Kithairon, whom Hēraklēs is said to have skinned as well, and whose skin he wore as a cloak. Which famous lion skin cloak Hēraklēs wear in most of the art he is depicted on is unclear, but the properties of the hide of the Nemean lion do make it likely he swapped out the cloaks after cutting the pelt off of the lion with the help of Athena. In some versions of the myth, however, he does no skin the beast, but takes it to Eurysteus in one piece. Apollodorus:
"And when the lion took refuge in a cave with two mouths, Hercules built up the one entrance and came in upon the beast through the other, and putting his arm round its neck held it tight till he had choked it; so laying it on his shoulders he carried it to Cleonae. And finding Molorchus on the last of the thirty days about to sacrifice the victim to him as to a dead man, he sacrificed to Saviour Zeus and brought the lion to Mycenae. Amazed at his manhood, Eurystheus forbade him thenceforth to enter the city, but ordered him to exhibit the fruits of his labours before the gates. They say, too, that in his fear he had a bronze jar made for himself to hide in under the earth,and that he sent his commands for the labours through a herald, Copreus, son of Pelops the Elean. This Copreus had killed Iphitus and fled to Mycenae, where he was purified by Eurystheus and took up his abode." [2.5.1.]
And so, Hēraklēs vanquishes the lion--in one way or another--and completes the first of what he then thinks will be ten labours. Eurystheus warns him, however, that the labours will only become harder as time passes. For his next labour, he will need to keep all of his wits about him, as he is to slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.
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