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Hercules Labour I: The Nemean Lion

Hercules Labour I: The Nemean Lion

Hercules’ first labour pits him against the ferocious Nemean Lion. This is a battle of inner strength as we see the Nemean lion is in fact an aspect of Hercules’ inner psyche. He cannot merely use brute strength to defeat the beast but must overcome it using the strength of his mind.

Nemean Lion
Hercules fights the Nemean Lion from a Roman mosaic found in Iliria, Spain.

After Heracles heard this, he went to Tiryns and did Eurystheus’ bidding. First, he commanded him to bring back the skin of the Nemean Lion. This animal, Typhon’s offspring, was invulnerable. When he was going after the lion, he came to Cleonai and was put up as a guest by Molorchos, a poor man. When Molorchos wanted to sacrifice a victim, Heracles told him to hold off for thirty days; if he returned from his hunt safe and sound, he told Molorchos to make a sacrifice for a god to Zeus Soter {“Saviour”}; if he died, he told Molorchos to make a sacrifice to himself fit for a hero. When he got to Nemea and tracked down the lion, he first shot it with his bow. When he found that it was invulnerable, he brandished his club and pursued it. When it fled into a cave with two entrances, Heracles blocked up one entrance and went after the beast through the other. Getting it in a headlock, he held on, squeezing until he choked it. He put it across his shoulders and brought it back to Cleonai. He found Molorchos on the last of the thirty days about to offer the victim to Heracles in the belief that he was dead. Instead, Heracles sacrificed it to Zeus Soter and then took the lion to Mycenae. Terrified by Heracles’ demonstration of manly courage, Eurystheus forbade Heracles from entering the city in the future and ordered him to display his labours before the gates of the city. They say that out of fear Eurystheus also had a bronze storage jar installed under the ground for him to hide in, and he sent a herald, Copreus, the son of Pelops the Eleian, to command Heracles to do his labours. This Copreus had killed Iphitos, gone into exile in Mycenae, and settled there after receiving purification from Eurystheus.

Interpreting The Nemean Lion

The episode with the Nemean lion is a chthonic event, occurring underground, so we would be safe to interpret this as a journey into the heroes unconscious. There is a resounding parallel between this and the Cithaironian Lion, and in some mythic cycles, Heracles actually wears the Nemean Lion’s fur as armor. With this we can say that Heracles is again meeting the unconscious source of his power and confronting the base urges that control him.

Hercules: Greek Mythology Explained
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Our hero displays intelligence in trapping the lion first showing the audience that he is not simply a strong man, but one that can use his mind too. His failure to slay the beast outright using strength teaches the audience that sheer brawn alone is not enough to overcome your adversaries, but the power of the mind must be applied.

Heracles use of the bow first is also important. As with Apollo and Artemis, the bow can be seen as an instrument of distance, keeping yourself away from your quarry. In this way one could interpret a kind of emotional distance being kept during the early stage of the episode. This of course failed and it is because the Nemean Lion is an aspect of Heracles psyche to which he must literally wrestle with to overcome, showing the audience that the unconscious mind is a personal sphere that cannot be dealt with from afar.

The success of a man who can take control of his unconscious mind is shown to us by the fear it causes for Eurystheus who now keeps Heracles away from himself. It shows the strength that is gained through such an adventure, that though gained internally, shows externally once attained.

This mythic episode is also a ritualistic explanation for why the people at Cleonai sacrifice a lion each year, and why they have such a strong worship and devotion to Heracles.

Next week we will look at Labour II: The Lernaian Hydra

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About Robert Jones

Robert Jones is a student of history, classics and languages and has been studying his whole life! Along with that he has a degree in earth sciences and shares his life with his beautiful fiance, step-daughter, the tiny minature pinscher Chico and the not as tiny english staffy Bear.

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