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The Nemean Lion and Heracles in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 14, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Nemean Lion

The belief that monsters inhabited the ancient world was, and is, an important aspect of Greek mythology. Beasts and monsters would give heroes and gods worthy opponents to fight against, and as a result, some monsters, including the likes of Cerberus and the Chimera, are famous today.

Some monsters though are less well known, despite facing off against Greek heroes, and one such monster is the Nemean Lion.

The Lineage of the Nemean Lion

Today, it is generally thought that the Nemean Lion was the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna, at least this was the parentage written of in the Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus).

Hesiod, in the Theogony, would differ slightly in the naming of the parents of the Namean Lion, though, and the Greek poet, would call the monster, offspring of Orthrus, the two headed dog, and Echidna.

Once born though, the Nemean Lion was probably raised by the goddess Hera; this was in keeping with the monsters future encounter with Heracles, the bane of Hera’s life.

The Lion in Nemea

The Nemean Lion would only gain its title and name when it reached maturity, for at this time it would find a home for itself in the district of Nemea, a small territory of Argolis.

As with many of the monstrous offspring of Echidna, the Nemean Lion would become infamous for terrorising the region in which it found itself. In particular, the Nemean Lion would become known for taking prisoner local maidens, and then the lion would kill the local men who came to rescue their womenfolk.

The local men of Nemea though, had no choice of besting the monster, for the Nemean Lion had fur and skin which were impervious to weapons, whilst its claws were as deadly as the sharpest sword made.

Heracles and the Nemean Lion

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) PD-art-100
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) PD-art-100 | Source

The First Labour of Heracles

After terrorising Nemea for a period of time, the story of the Nemean Lion would cross that of the Greek hero Heracles.

Heracles at the time was in servitude with King Eurystheus; the Greek hero undertaking penance for the murder of his own wife and children. King Eurystheus, with the guidance of Hera, planned for Heracles to undertake Labours designed to kill the son of Zeus.

The First Labour of Heracles, as set by King Eurystheus, was to rid Nemea of its monster; a task which the king believed was unachievable, and one which would cause the death of Heracles.

Heracles Arrives in Nemea

Upon his arrival in Argolis, Heracles was made welcome into the home of a poor man named Molorchus.

Molorchus is endeavouring to rid his home of a mice infestation, just as Heracles is seeking to deal with the lion problem. At the time of Heracles’ arrival, Molorchus is about to make a sacrifice to Zeus, hoping that the god would help him with his problem, Heracles though asks Molorchus to delay the sacrifice.

Heracles asks that the sacrifice be delayed until his encounter with the Nemean Lion. If Heracles is successful then he and Molorchus can undertake the sacrifice together; and if the hero is unsuccessful, and is therefore dead, then Heracles asks Molorchus to undertake the sacrifice in his honour.

Heracles and the Nemean Lion

J. M. Félix Magdalena CC-BY-SA-4.0
J. M. Félix Magdalena CC-BY-SA-4.0 | Source

Heracles and the Nemean Lion

Heracles would depart from the home of Molorchus, and would eventually locate the Nemean Lion near to its den. The Greek hero would take up his bow and arrows, and start shooting barbed arrows at the beast. Heracles though quickly discovers that his own weapons are as ineffectual against the impervious skin of the Nemean Lion, as the weapons of the locals had been.

Nevertheless, Heracles takes up his club, and gets closer to the Nemean Lion, the strength and ferocity of the Greek hero does ensure that the lion is pushed back into its own den, and then, in the confined space, Heracles makes good use of his physical strength.

Heracles wrestles with the Nemean Lion, and with one powerful grip, manages to snap the neck of the monster, killing it, and therefore ridding Nemea of its pest.

The victorious Heracles decides that the fur of the Nemean Lion would make a good robe, and so the Greek hero attempts to skin the lion. Even in death though, the fur of the Nemean Lion is impervious to the sword and knife of Heracles, but then the goddess Athena guides the hero, and Heracles then makes use of the Nemean Lion’s own claws to cut through the fur and skin.

Heracles then, adorned in a new robe, returns to Molorchus’ home, and the pair can make their sacrifice to Zeus.

Heracles then makes his way back to the court of King Eurystheus. The king quite shocked to see Heracles return in the fur of the Nemean Lion, for Eurystheus was sure that the hero would die in the attempt, and so Heracles is quickly dispatched on another Labour, this time he was to kill the Lernaean Hydra.

Heracles and the Nemean Lion

attributed to Jacopo Torni PD-art-100
attributed to Jacopo Torni PD-art-100 | Source

The Constellation Leo

The legend of the Nemean Lion lives on, not least because of its inclusion in stories of Heracles, but also because its image appears in the night sky. The constellation Leo was placed in the heavens, either by Zeus, to celebrate the achievements of his son, or by Hera, to commiserate the death of the monster she had raised.

Today, the story of the Nemean Lion seems implausible, after all there are no wild lions to be found in Greece. This though was not always the case as species of European Lion lived in Greece in antiquity; and so perhaps there once was a man-eating lion terrorising Nemea.

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