Most art that shows the heroes of Greek mythology looks fairly similar. While the monsters they fight are different, the heroes themselves all have similar weapons, armor, and features.
Heracles, better known in the modern world by his Roman name, Hercules, stands out among the other heroes. He is almost always shown with more primitive weapons and, iconically, wearing a lion’s skin over his shoulders and head in place of traditional armor.
Killing the Nemean lion was the first of the hero’s famous twelve labors and it gave him his famous hide for protection. After killing the beast with his bare hands, he was almost always shown wearing its skin with its head pulled up over his own like a hood.
The skin of the Nemean lion sets Hercules apart in Greek and Roman art, but it might also provide some clues as to his historic, or prehistoric, origins.
The first labor of Hercules was to slay the Nemean lion. The monstrous animal had hunted in the area of Nemea, a site in northern Greece, for many years.
When Hercules arrived in the region, the people were living in fear of the lion. A young boy told the hero that if the lion was not killed, he was prepared to offer himself to Zeus as a sacrifice to end its bloody hunts.
Hercules tracked the beast to a mountain valley and pelted it with arrows. He did not know, however, that the lion’s hide was impervious to iron.
The arrows bounced off and the lion took no damage from the assault. It retreated into its lair.
Hercules blocked off one of the cave’s two entrances to keep the lion from escaping and followed it into the other. There, he attacked the lion again.
He used his heavy club to strike the lion over the head, but again the animal took no damage. Its hide was so thick that it deflected the blow of the club.
With no other way to fight the animal, Hercules threw his weapons to the side. He wrapped his arms around the lion’s neck and wrestled it to the ground.
Hercules killed the lion not by wounding it with his weapons, but by strangling it with his bare hands.
After it was dead, Hercules realized that the lion’s pelt was a precious material. If it could protect the Nemean lion from virtually any weapon, it could offer the same protection after the lion had died.
Hercules tried to skin the lion, but of course his knives were useless against the thick hide.
Luckily for him, the goddess of wisdom was his patroness. Athena told him that weapons could not harm the lion’s hide, but that the lion itself was strong enough to damage the thick skin.
Hercules used the lion’s own claws to pierce the skin and take the pelt from the animal. He threw it over his shoulders, creating an unfashionable but protective cloak.
The pelt of the Nemean lion became one of the hero’s most defining attributes in Greek art. While other characters wore gleaming armor and elaborate helmets, Hercules was protected by a rugged hide with the lion’s head pulled up around his own.
Most scholars believe that the legends of Hercules predated Greek culture.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian tale that was written nearly a thousand years before Homer’s time. The title character is attested in other ancient Mesopotamian works even earlier.
After many adventures, Gilgamesh travels to find the last survivor of the Great Flood and learn the secrets of immortality. The first enemy he fights along the way is a powerful lion.
This is only one of the episodes in the story of Gilgamesh that parallels the Greek and Roman stories of Hercules. Most historians theorize that the tales shared the same ancient origins and, like many myths of the ancient world, were adapted to fit the cultures in which they were told.
Some even believe that the origins of these stories may date back to prehistory. The story of Hercules and the lion could have its roots in the adventures of a hunter from the early Bronze Age or Paleolithic.
Many creatures fought by Hercules, including the Nemean lion, are exaggerated versions of real-world creatures. This has led to the interpretation that the stories that inspired them may have been rooted in fact.
The prehistoric man who inspired both Hercules and Gilgamesh may have been a skilled hunter and fighter. Over generations, his stories were expanded until they took on the attributes of legends rather than historical fact.
Wrestling a lion, for example, would have been an incredible feat in any era. Over centuries of retellings, however, the lion was made even more impressive by giving it impenetrable skin.
These ancient roots may have also been a reason for the visual contrast between Hercules and other Greek heroes.
Most heroes were shown in Greek art wearing armor and carrying weapons that were common at the time the art was created. Even in stories that took place in the distant past, the figures were dressed and armed in the style of contemporary Greek soldiers.
Hercules, however, carried a crude club and wore a primitive-looking skin for protection. Even though his arrows played a major role in his myths, he was usually shown with more rugged gear.
The story of the Nemean lion tells how this unusual cloak came to be, but some historians believe that it could have been inspired by older archetypes. Hercules may have worn a primitive skin because that was the way in which his ancient inspiration had been dressed.
Wearing such a skin may have also had religious significance when the story was first told.
Many ancient cultures believed that a person could take on the attributes of an animal they killed. This was common in Native American cultures and the Norse had the berserker warriors who used the power of totem animals.
Ancient people often wore the skins of these animals in shamanic rituals. They not only took on the power of an animal, but the skin gave the appearance that they literally transformed into the animal.
An ancient hunter who inspired the legend of Hercules and the Nemean lion may have worn the lion’s skin for this purpose. Having its head pulled over his own furthered the illusion that he was transformed into the lion.
In the legend of Hercules, the Nemean lion’s skin grants the hero the same near-invulnerability as the lion had possessed in life. The ancient shamanic practices were reflected in the continued use of the lion’s pelt in Greek art.
Hercules’s lion skin and rugged appearance were so central to his character that even during the Roman Empire, when youth and a clean-shaven face were the norm, he was shorn with a heavy beard, primitive club, and the lion’s jaws around his head.
The first labor of Hercules, known in Greek as Heracles, was to kill the Nemean lion. Because the animal’s hide was impervious to weapons, he had to wrestle it and strangle it with his bare hands.
The hide continued to resist damage after the animal was dead. Guided by Athena, Hercules used the lion’s claws to tear through it and fashion a crude cloak of protection.
The skin of the Nemean lion was one of the most common attributes of Hercules in Greek and Roman art. Combined with his full beard and rugged club, it gave him a more primitive appearance than other legendary heroes and more him immediately identifiable.
Some historians believe that this primitive appearance may be tied to actual primitive origins.
The stories of Hercules largely predate Greek culture. Similarities to other ancient tales, like the older Epic of Gilgamesh, indicate that the roots of these legends may even date to the Stone Age.
Episodes such as the fight with the Nemean lion were likely based on the exploits of real hunters from a prehistoric culture. Over time, the heroes and the beasts they fought became stronger and more legendary.
The enduring image of the lion’s hide may hearken back to these ancient origins. In prehistory, wearing the hide of a strong animal would have been thought to grant the same power to the hunter.
The Nemean lion’s skin gave Hercules protection in Greek and Roman mythology. It may have served the same purpose in the legends that inspired the Greeks for thousands of years.