Many animals and monsters in Greek mythology were named for the places they supposedly lived near. The Crommyonian Sow, Lernean Hydra, and Ceryneian Hind were all named for cities and regions in ancient Greece.
While many of those places were not as prominent as great cities like Athens or Tiryns, the stories of their beasts showed their importance in the Greek world. Often, these stories explained specific customs or rituals of the region.
One such place was Nemea, a relatively minor city on the border of Argive lands and Corinthia. Heracles traveled there for his first labor to kill the infamous Nemean Lion and take its hide.
The legend of Heracles and the lion was only one of many set in Nemea, though. In both lore and history, Nemea and its largest festivals were a prominent place in the Greek world.
Nemea is most famous in Greek mythology as the hunting grounds of the Nemean Lion. Killing the beast was the first of the legendary labors of Heracles.
While many people know the story of Heracles and the Nemean Lion, most are less familiar with the kingdom in which it was set.
The kingdom of Nemea was, in the time of the myths, ruled by King Lycurgus and his wife, Eurydice. Other stories said instead that Lycurgus was a priest of Zeus there. While the story of the Nemean Lion is the most famous set in their kingdom, Lycurgus and his family played a role in another famous story as well.
In the story of the Seven Against Thebes, the Argives stopped in Nemea on their march to Thebes. Nemea was within the territory of Argos, so they were welcomed with hospitality.
In a play by Euripedes, that is only known today in fragments, the first person the Seven met in Nemea was Hypsipyle. She had once been the queen of Lemnos and the lover of Jason, but had been taken as a slave by the Nemeans.
Hypsipyle was acting as a nurse to the Lycurgus’s son, an infant named Opheltes. According to some versions of the story, an oracle had once warned Lycurgus never to let his son touch the ground until he was old enough to walk on it.
Hypsipyle neglected this prophecy, however, and in a moment of forgetfulness put the young baby down in a bed of parsley to fetch water for the seven visiting soldiers. Opheltes was bitten by a snake and quickly died.
The family was devastated and blamed the child’s nurse for his death. In some versions of the story Lycugus charged to kill her, while in others it was the baby’s mother who had to be restrained.
They were told, however, that the death had been foretold by the gods so it was inevitable. Because of this, they were reassured, their son had been granted immortality.
The Seven who were marching against Thebes were touched by the young boy’s death and his family’s pain. They held the Nemean Games in his honor, establishing a Greek tradition.
The Nemean Games were one of the four Panhellenic Games that were held in a two-year cycle. Although not as famous as the Olympic Games, they were similarly an event in which the various Greek city-states sent their greatest athletes to compete in honor of the gods.
Like many other sites in Greek mythology, Nemea was a real place. Although the modern area is home to a relatively small village, for a time in the 6th century BC Nemea was a prominent Argive kingdom.
The Nemean Games were not established until this time, but became part of the cycle of Panhellenic competitions. They were celebrated in honor of Zeus and connected to both the Seven Against Thebes legend and the myth of Heracles.
The games that were held at Nemea actually moved several times throughout history, but within the last few decades archaeologists have uncovered proof of their importance at the site of Nemea itself. The stadium that hosted many of the events was uncovered through extensive excavations at the site.
According to Pausanias, the Nemean Games were unique in that they were the only Panhellenic Games that were held during the winter months. Eventually, they were held every two years, alternating between winter and summer competitions in the same way that the modern Olympic Games do.
The games were important enough in the area that by the time of the Battle of Marathon the Argives dated years according to the Nemead. They persisted into the Roman period, although their last celebration is unknown.
By the 2nd century AD, the whole of Nemea was on the decline. The great temple of Zeus, which was supposedly built around the tomb of Opheltes, was said by Pausanias to be falling into disrepair when he visited it.
Long before Nemea itself declined, however, it was also the sight of the last great victory of a declining army.
Nearby was the site of the Battle of the Nemea River, also sometimes known as the Battle of Corinth, in 394 BC. It was one of a handful of battles in a brief war between Sparta and an alliance of armies from Athens, Argolis, Corinth, and Boeotia.
The Spartans won a decisive victory, taking only 1,100 casualties against the 2,800 inflicted on their opponents. Unfortunately for them, however, it would be the last great decisive victory of the great Spartan hoplites.
Sparta had dominated southern Greece for several years, but their inability to push through Corinth and into Central Greece halted the campaign. Although Sparta would continue their attempts, they enjoyed less success and gradually began to lose influence after the Battle of the Nemea River.
The town of Nemea was located near the borders of Argolis and Corinthia. It is best known as the territory of the Nemean Lion, the subject of the first labor of Heracles.
Other myths, however, were set in the city. One of the most famous was used to explain how it became the host of one of the Panhellenic Games.
According to legend, when the Seven Against Thebes marched to battle, they stopped in Nemea to ask for water. A slave woman went to fetch it for them, leaving the king’s young son in a bed of parsley as she did.
The baby was bitten by a snake and died as a result. While the king blamed the nurse, he was calmed by the idea of the prophetic death resulting in his child’s immortality.
The story claimed that the Seven Against Thebes held funerary games in the young child’s honor. From this event grew the Nemean Games, one of the landmark events of the Olympiad cycle.
Nemea also played host to many historical events, including an important battle between the forces of Sparta and the states that allied to oppose its hegemony. By the 2nd century AD, however, both the town and its grand athletic competition were in decline, soon to be remembered for little more than the legendary lion that died there.