The Nemean Lion: The First Labor of Heracles
The Greek hero Heracles is remembered, among other achievements, for completing twelve nearly impossible labors in his quest for atonement. Having committed a great sin, the heroic tasks were given to prove the son of Zeus to be both willing and worthy of absolution.
They were also designed to kill him. Zeus’s wife Hera, notoriously jealous of her husband’s many affairs and the sons born to them, was behind both the crimes of Heracles and the plan for his labors.
For his first labor, she sent him to kill the vicious Nemean Lion. Enormous and voracious, with a hide that could not be harmed by most weapons, the lion was the first in a serious of deadly foes Hera would set upon her stepson.
The first labor of Heracles, however, did far more than test his might. It also gave him his greatest defence against Hera’s many monsters.
Keep reading to get all the details on the first labor of Heracles, and how it inadvertently helped him for many years to come.
There were many explanations given for the origins of the Nemean Lion, but most tied him back to the line of great monsters faced by the gods.
One of the earliest accounts was an early epic poem by Hesiod. He called the Nemean Lion the offspring of the three-headed dog Orthrus and an unnamed female monster, referred to only as “her.”
That monster is usually interpreted to be the Chimera, who also had some features of a lion. The Chimera also shared the Nemean Lion’s impenetrable hide.
In truth, however, Hesiod never elaborated on which monster he believed Orthrus had mated with to create the Nemean Lion. The identification of the Chimera is largely conjecture based on shared traits.
Others took the lion’s genealogy back a bit further. It was named as one of the many monstrous children of the fire-breathing giant Typhon and Echidna.
The two were considered to be the parents or ancestors of virtually every great monster faced by Greek heroes of note, including both Orthrus and the Chimera. As time went on, the list of their children grew longer and longer until almost every monstrous creature had been added to it.
The most common legends, therefore, placed the Nemean Lion firmly in the monstrous lineage of Typhon, the greatest foe of the Greek gods. The only difference was in whether it was removed from that terrible giant by a single generation or two.
One later story, however, gave the Nemean Lion a significantly more divine origin.
A source from the 2nd century AD claimed that the lion was the child of the moon goddess Selene. She had thrown the best from the moon at Hera’s command.
No father was given, nor was there reason to associate the Titaness of the moon with such a beast. The story seemed to have been a later one that was not widely believed, perhaps from a desire to put less emphasis on extraordinary monsters.
While the Nemean Lion was usually given a monstrous origin story, it also had a very important connection to the goddess Hera.
The wife of Zeus was known for her enmity toward her husband’s numerous lovers and the children they produced. Especially in the case of Heracles, many of the obstacles the sons of Zeus faced in their lives were a direct result of Hera’s hatred toward them.
As either a monster or the child of Selene, the myths typically said that Hera had sent the lion to Nemea herself. As was often the case, the monsters encountered by Heracles were there at his stepmother’s command.
In fact, the lion was considered one of the sacred animals of Hera. Although they are now extinct in Eastern Europe, Asiatic lions were once known to exist in Greece and were even then seen as symbols of royalty and prestige.
The first labor of Heracles, therefore, was not to kill a random monster. It was to face a monstrously strong version of one of Hera’s sacred animals, which had been placed by the goddess herself to challenge her stepson.
Killing the Namean Lion was just the first of many quests Heracles would have to undertake, all of which were orchestrated by Hera.
The goddess’s hatred of her stepson went back to before his birth. She had not only tried to keep Alcmene from delivering her son, but had gone so far as to send serpents into his crib when he was only an infant.
Despite her efforts, Heracles grew into a strong young man. He married the Theban princess Megara and had begun to undertake some of the great efforts that would make him famous.
Hera, however, was not happy to see Zeus’s son living a happy and prosperous life.
It fell to the lot of Herakles to go mad because of the jealousy of Hera. In his madness he threw into a fire his and Megara’s children, as well as two belonging to Iphikles.
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 72 (trans. Aldrich)
When he was eventually cured of his madness, Heracles was horrified by the crime he had committed. He consulted an oracle to learn how he could make amends for his terrible crime.
The oracle instructed him to enter into servitude under his cousin, Eurystheus, for a period of ten years. He was to perform any task set for him, no matter how extreme or dangerous.
What Heracles did not know, however, was that both the oracle and Eurystheus were in the service of Hera. The tasks he would be given in his cousin’s service would be designed to be deadly.
Together, the king and the goddess devised ten nearly impossible tasks for Heracles. Slaying the Nemean Lion was only the first of these.
With each successive task, they came up with even greater challenges. For ten years they were thwarted by the hero’s successes.
When all ten were complete, Eurystheus even invalidated two of them and gave Heracles two more jobs. These were even more deadly than the first.
The Nemean Lion was meant to be the first opportunity for Hera to see her stepson’s end. Instead, it would be his first victory against her schemes.
In all, Heracles was assigned twelve deadly labors. Each tested his skills as a fighter, hunter, and thinker.
Most were designed to be deadly. A few were merely assigned to humiliate the once-proud hero or fulfil the whims of the goddess or the king who served her.
The full list of his labors following the slaying of the Nemean Lion was:
- To slay the Lernean Hydra, a multi-headed beast with the ability to regenerate its severed heads.
- To capture the Cerynian Hind, which was so swift it could outrun an arrow and was sacred to Artemis.
- To capture the Erymanthian Boar, which had destroyed much of the countryside it lived in.
- To clean the stables of King Augeas, who owned a thousand immortal cattle but had not cleaned their stables in three decades.
- To drive off the Stymphalian birds, man-eating creatures that were sacred to Ares.
- To capture the Cretan Bull, the father of the Minotaur, who had continued to plague the countryside of that island.
- To steal the mares of Diomedes, crazed animals that ate human flesh to give them strength.
- To bring back the belt of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, which had been a gift from her father, Ares.
- To steal the cattle of the giant Geryon, which were also guarded by the three-headed Orthrus.
- To steal a golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides. The apples, which gave immortality, belonged to Hera and were guarded by both nymphs and a dragon who served her.
- To kidnap Cerberus, the guard dog of Hades, and bring him from the underworld.
This series of quests would eventually earn Heracles the atonement he sought and prove his worth. First, though, he would have to get past the Nemean Lion.
When Heracles came to Nemean, the population was desperate to see the lion killed. It had terrorized the surrounding area, eating livestock and men by the score.
One writer claimed that the people were so desperate for relief that they almost considered making a horrible sacrifice. Heracles met a young boy who said that, if the hero failed in his mission, the people of the city were prepared to offer him as a human sacrifice to Zeus.
Heracles did not know where the lion made its den, so he entered the wilderness outside of the city and laid in wait. He could find no tracks or scat that indicated if the lion was close.
Eventually, however, the lion came into sight. Its face was covered in blood from its most recent kill.
Heracles waited until the Nemean Lion was almost upon him before making his first shot. The arrow, however, bounced off the lion’s side.
Quickly, he knocked another arrow. This one struck the creature’s chest, a shot to the heart, but again failed to penetrate its hide.
As he lined up his third shot, the lion spotted him. It gave a terrible roar and lunged toward the place where Heracles had been hiding.
The hero quickly threw his bow to the side and came down with his heavy oak club. He heard a huge cracking noise as the oak wood split in two, and the lion seemed stunned but there was no wound from a blow that should have been strong enough to crush its skull.
The son of Zeus realized that none of his weapons would work against the horrible monster. He lunged at it instead, grabbing it by the throat.
With all his formidable strength, Heracles wrestled with the monstrous beast. He kept behind it to avoid being struck by its huge claws or bitten by its snapping jaws.
The next task Heracles attempted was to skin the beast.
The hide would serve as a trophy to prove the completion of the task to his cousin. The hero had another use in mind, however.
Realizing that the creature’s skin was impervious to harm, the hero thought it would make an excellent garment. He had seen in this first trial that his tasks would be deadly, and the strong hide of the Nemean Lion would make excellent armor against whatever foe he faced next.
When Heracles attempted to skin the lion, though, the hide again proved to be a challenge. As with his arrows, his knife would not penetrate it.
Heracles was, however, favored by gods other than Hera. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and patroness of heroes, came to his aid.
She gave him the idea that the only thing that could possibly penetrate the skin of the Nemean Lion was the lion itself. He pulled out one of the dead beast’s claws and used it to cut through the tough hide.
Heracles wore the skin of the Nemean Lion through the rest of his labors as armor. It became his greatest attribute, and artists typically depicted the great hero with the lion’s skin hanging off his shoulders and its great head over his own like a hood.
The coat of the Nemean Lion proved to be quite useful. Only the most powerful weapons could even scratch it and it was impervious to the elements.
Hera had tried to destroy Heracles with her first monster, but she had inadvertently given him one of his greatest defenses against whatever else faced him.
The Nemean Lion was usually described as being part of the great lineage of monsters in Greek mythology, either the child or grandchild of the dreadful giant Typhon and his mate, Echidna.
The lion was also a beast of Hera. She chose it, the monstrous form of one of her sacred animals, as the first foe Heracles would face in his famous twelve labors.
As part of his quest to atone for the sin of killing his wife and children under the influence of Hera, the great hero set off to kill the monstrous lion that had terrorized area around the city of Nemea.
Shooting it with arrows and attacking with his club, the hero realized that the monster’s coat was impervious to his weapons. The only way to kill it was to physically overpower it and strangle it to death.
He did so and, with Athena’s aid, claimed the hide as a trophy. The coat of the Nemean Lion became the hero’s favored armor and one of his chief identifying attributes.
The quest to slay the Nemean Lion was only the first of the twelve labors Hera would devise for her stepson, but it gave him one of his most important tools for overcoming the rest.