The Twelve Labors of Hercules: The Nemean Lion

Hercules, son of godly Zeus and born of the mortal woman Alcmene, incited Hera’s wrath from his very birth—for Zeus was Hera’s husband, and she his wife. She sent all manner of curse upon Hercules, sending venomous serpents to his cradle early in his infancy but Hercules was no mere mortal, he was a demi-god who from his earliest days was imbued with incredible strength and courage. He was later found laughing, holding up the defeated snakes in each hand—they were no match for the child Hercules, mighty even from birth. As Hercules grew in years and in bravery a great misfortune would come upon him by his own hand. In a fit of madness, he struck down his wife and children—killing those he loved most, blinded by the magic of Hera, who had finally found a way to break the hero—or so it seemed.

Awakening from this spell of madness, Hercules saw his beloved wife Megara and their children lying in the stillness of death, and looking upon his own hands covered in crimson, was besought with such grief that he cried out to the very Gods on Mount Olympus. Falling to his knees and seeking repentance for this heinous crime against those he cherished most, he called out to the god Apollo, that golden god of prophecy and healing. Apollo, seeing the tricks of Hera at work that were yet unknown to Hercules, felt a great sorrow in his heart for the misery of this son of Zeus and manifested himself in a vision.

Apollo told this hero about the vengeance of Hera, but Hercules was in disbelief; lamenting that regardless of this goddess it was by his hands that this atrocity was committed and therefore his fault alone. Apollo, astonished at the reluctance of Hercules to seek fault in another which would be rightfully so, saw that this Hercules was unlike any other mortal he had spoken to, and saw that he was indeed a son of Zeus himself. In his wisdom Apollo perceived that the still young Hercules was meant for great adventures, and a life of heroism—so he offered him a prophecy with which he could repent of his errors. Hercules was to seek out the King of Tiryns and throne holder of Mycenae, Eurystheus, and become his servant to do whatever was demanded of him. With resolution, Hercules wholeheartedly agreed to undergo these trials, so that his heart could be unburdened of its deep sorrow.

Upon arriving in the kingdom of Eurystheus, he sought out this man who he would pledge his loyalty to. When Eurystheus heard of the arrival of this man Hercules, who by then was known throughout Greece for his heroic deeds in casting off the chains of the kingdom of Thebes, was both fascinated and filled with fear as to the intentions of this hero. Eurystheus consulted with his oracles, seeking to know if this mighty Hercules came to depose him of his throne, and uncertain of how he should greet this man who had come unannounced to his kingdom. Hera, seeing opportunity to continue her vengeance, intervened in the oracles prophecy and spoke through them directly to King Eurystheus. Eurystheus was told that this Hercules was a dangerous man, and that the king should send him on twelve impossible tasks that would certainly lead to his death. Eurystheus, fearful of losing his kingdom and intrigued by the possibility of testing this supposed hero, obliged the oracles words, and ordered Hercules to his court.

That day Hercules appeared in the King’s court, he was a large and muscular man with the stature of a mountain. Carrying a large wooden club that was fabled to have the weight of two grown men, and draped in animal skins, Hercules came into the presence of Eurystheus. Hercules kneeled, and looking up at the king, offered himself as a servant to do whatever task the King wished. Eurystheus spoke to Hercules of what he must do, his first task was to slay and skin the monstrous Nemean Lion—a creature that had eaten countless heroes and was believed to have a hide so thick it was impervious to clubs, sword, spears, arrows or any manner of human weapons.

This terrible lion roamed the hills of Nemea and preyed on the tribes of the countryside with ferocious violence. This lion was a tyrant, a scourge upon humanity which gave no rest or respite to any town or person near its grasp and was thought to dwell in a mountainous cave when resting from its terrible acts. Hercules was to seek out this beast and bring back its fabled hide to the King Eurystheus. Without a moment of consideration, Hercules nodded his head and set off for his first labor, to overcome the beast of the hills—the Nemean Lion.

Hercules wandered through the hills of Nemea and noticed a strange thing—there seemed to be no one about the area, not even the occasional traveler or merchant. It was a beautiful land, with a rolling green hillside and mountain peaks wherever the eye settled. After a day of traveling about, Hercules came upon a small town and decided to take a respite there to inquire about where this terrible beast could be found. There he found a poor man by the name of Molorchus, who welcomed him into his humble abode and offered him food and drink. In their conversations it became clear what a terror this lion was, and how it had driven the townspeople into hiding, fearful of even stepping foot outside the town and at times even their own homes for fear of that horrible beast. In fact, many in the town had given up hope and were now pursuing sacrifices to the gods as the only way to overcome this daily threat. Countless had come through this town, Molorchus said, with hopes of killing the Nemean lion yet none returned—not even their bodies remained to be buried in the proper ritual.

With this Hercules felt a fire kindle in his heart, as he saw the reason Apollo had guided him into this labor—he was not there for the king, or even solely for his own penance—he was there to rescue the people of Nemea from a terrible beast which made them live in daily horror. Hercules looked sincerely at Molorchus, assuring him that the defeat of the Nemean lion was certain, if he only knew where that beast dwelled. Molorchus, both amazed and in disbelief of the willingness of this stranger to go to certain death, excitedly told Hercules the directions to the nearby cave where the lion slept. With that Hercules took off in the cover of the night, draped in animal skins, carrying his large club and a bow he had fashioned from juniper wood.

As he approached the Nemean lion’s den, the night got older and sunrise was soon to come, he heard a strange sound—it was the lion. This creature was sleeping in a field near the opening of a cave which was shrouded in darkness. Hercules, able to hear the lion’s loud breathing, realized that this lion must be larger than any he had ever heard of. He laid down in the grass, waiting for dawn to make his attack as he could not see his ghastly foe. Then the fateful moment came, the sky began to brighten, and Hercules knew then was his chance. The dark contours of the Nemean Lion slowly brightened, showing a titan of a lion deep in sleep. Hercules crept closer to the foul beast and standing up drew his bow and taking an arrow from the quiver, pulled back on the drawstring to full tension—aiming directly at the lion’s gargantuan head.

With a thunderous whoosh the arrow was released and struck the Nemean Lion directly in the head, breaking on impact and falling into fragments that scattered on the ground. The lion was startled awake and rose to its feet suddenly looking for what nuisance had awoken it from its slumber. Seeing Hercules standing in the distance, the Lion leapt up and in a roar that scattered the birds from trees began running at incredible speed towards Hercules. Hercules felt a sudden paralysis in his legs and felt the folly of his actions as he looked into the ferocious eyes of this demonic beast that was charging at him with reckless abandon. Grabbing his wooden club from off the ground near him in one smooth motion, he struck the lion as it leapt for his throat, knocking this great beast backwards and deflecting his lethal lunge as the club shattered like fragile glass on the lion’s body.

The lion, surprised by the might of this warrior, roared with ferocity, and turned back running towards the dark cave—disappearing into the shadows. It was indeed true what the legends had said that this lion was impossible to slay through ordinary weapons, but quick-thinking Hercules came to a plan. If he could not slay the beast with weapons, he would do so without weapons, using bare hands alone. As he approached the entrance to the cave he noticed that there was a second opening to this dark place, and realized that he must barricade it with stone so that the lion would have no opportunity to escape and regain its strength for further attacks. After moving countless boulders to block the second mouth of the cave, Hercules crept inwards—knowing well that the lion awaited in ambush, deep in this shadowy cavern.

Hercules thought of the poor man he had spoken to in town, and the horrors that had brought him to this penance—and with will greater than the fear of death, charged through the front of the abyssal cave. The lion, expecting a stealthier approach, was startled for but a second before the mighty Hercules grabbed this beast by the neck and wrestled it to the ground. The Nemean Lion, biting and clawing to free itself of this inescapable grasp of Hercules, for the first time felt itself as the prey. Although the lion was many times the size of this already gargantuan man, its neck was so tightly wrapped by the broad arms of Hercules that it could not loosen himself from their hold. As the lion frantically and explosively moved around trying to wrest itself loose, it drained its energy and soon became too tired to resist the persistent Hercules.

Hercules, feeling the struggle against him relax and with his final might, grabbed the front legs of the beast with his left hand and the hind legs with his right hand and pulled them apart with such terrible force that the beast’s spine was completely broken. The Nemean Lion gave out a high-pitched whine as it fell to the ground, lifeless. In his exhaustion, Hercules fell onto the giant lion as he recovered his breath. With a sigh of deep relief, Hercules grinned at the seemingly impossible task he had just conquered, satisfied that the people of Nemea were now safe from this terrible beast. Now the final task was at hand, bringing the magical hide of this lion to King Eurystheus.

He took out his trusted skinning dagger and set to work, trying to separate this lion’s hide from the body it shrouded. For hours he toiled, yet regardless of how much force he used, or how he utilized this dagger he simply could not cut through this beasts skin. It was thoroughly impenetrable, and he could neither tear nor skin it off despite his incredible strength. Tired from the struggle and failed attempts at skinning this beast, he leaned against the lion and closed his eyes, drifting away into a light sleep. A familiar voice began to speak to him through the opening of the cave… standing there bright and radiant was Apollo himself. With a laugh Apollo reminded Hercules that the hide was impenetrable by human weapons and left him with a riddle—telling Hercules that what a man fears most is often the way to victory. As Hercules awoke, the insight dawned on him as to how he would acquire this hide. He would wrestle a tooth from the mouth of this lion and use the very weapon of the beast to skin it.

Hercules walked out from the cave with the hide of the Nemean Lion covering his body, an impenetrable armor that would serve him in the many adventures ahead, and a reminder that clever thinking is just as important to the hero as is brute force and courage. He hoisted the lion onto himself and journeyed the long way back to the kingdom of Eurystheus, entering the King’s court unannounced. As King Eurystheus saw the gigantic lion thrice the size of a man draped over the shoulder of Hercules, he was filled with horror. This sight was unfathomable, not only had Hercules returned alive with hardly a scar to tell the tale, but this gigantic lion was carried for countless miles on the back of this lone man. In a fright Eurystheus fled from his own palace, shouting that Hercules should never again bring his trophies directly to him. Hercules quietly laughed to himself as the frantic king ran out with his personal bodyguards trailing behind him confused. Reflecting on this strange journey he went back to the hills of Nemea to present the terrible trophy to the town dwellers. They were both relieved and astonished at the great Hercules, and silently nodded to the hero with the Nemean Hide on his back as he walked off to greater trials and adventures.