The Twelve Labors of Herakles – Part I: The Nemean Lion [Sunday Serial]

[This is our second in a series of creative writing shorts called Sunday Serials. Today’s installment is the first of twelve about the Twelve Labors of Herakles, an ancient Greek legend. If you have an idea for a Sunday Serial, drop a line to let us know at Enjoy!]

Oil painting sketch with traces of red chalk on a cradled panel. The artist is Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish master. The painting is of Herakles engaged in battle with the vicious Nemean lion.
PETER PAUL RUBENS, Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion, an oil sketch possibly related to work commissioned in 1639, from Flanders, ca. 1639. Oil on cradled panel, with traces of red chalk, 9 1/16” x 15 7/16”. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge. Digital image courtesy Harvard Art Museums, 2017.

The story that I wish to tell is an ancient one. It was my favorite when I was a child. It is an epic series of tales of derring-do: the Twelve Labors of Herakles. Today’s story is the first of the Twelve: that of Herakles and the Lion of Nemea.

The Lion of Nemea. The Romans called him Leo Nemaeus, and to the Greeks he was known as Λέων τῆς Νεμέας (Léōn tēs Neméas).  Nemea is an ancient place on the northeastern corner of the Peloponnese, in Hellas (the Greek name for Greece).  It was formerly part of the territory of Cleonae in Argolis, but in our time it is part of Corinthia.  It was here that the Nemean Games were once held in the third year of the Panhellenic Olympiad, from around 573 until about 235 B.C.  It was here also that great Herakles conducted the first of his twelve labors on his path to redemption: he confronted the ferocious Nemean Lion.  It was said that the Lion had claws and teeth that could pierce any armor and that mortal weapons were of no avail against his golden coat.  He was set loose on Nemea by Hera, wife of Zeus, King of the Olympians.  The Lion himself was said to be the offspring of the father and mother of all monsters, Typhon and Echidna.  The beast took hostage women from town in order to lure would-be heroes to his lair, which lay in a mountainous cave overlooking the city.  Soon upon entering the cave, these intrepid young men would find a wounded young maiden, but she would invariably be a mirage: a trap!  In an unworldly twist, the young girl would shape-shift into a lion that would, before the lad had chance to fly, devour him expeditiously, and cast his blood-drip’d bones into the fires of Hades.

Herakles came to the region of Cleonae town, in the vicinity of Nemea, and there he wandered until he came upon the house of a workman-for-hire named Moλoρχoς (Molorchos).  Molorchos had lost his own son to the Lion, and he offered shelter to Herakles.  He also offered to sacrifice a lamb to obtain a blessing for a safe lion hunt, but Herakles asked him to wait 30 days.  If Herakles returned with the Lion’s skin, they would together offer the sacrifice to Zeus.  If Herakles died trying to kill the Lion, Molorchos agreed to sacrifice instead to Herakles as a hero.

Herakles then continued onward to Nemea.  On the journey, he came across some arrows and a bow, which he thought might become useful.  When he reached Nemea, he climbed the steep, rocky mountains until he reached the cave where dwelled the vicious Lion.  Herakles perched himself upon a rock perch across from the Lion’s lair and he waited.

The sun set and the western sky turned orange and then red as day died and night began.  The long shadows of the cliff face stretched and turned until all was dark—dark, save the burning red fire of the Lion’s eyes.  Herakles silently rose, knocked an arrow in his bow, aimed between those two ghastly eyes, and let fly a shot that singed the very air.  Alas!  The arrows fell, chipped to the ground, upon impacting the Lion’s golden coat.  The beast’s pelt had within it a charm that rendered mortal weapons useless.  He was now aware of Herakles’ presence, and, knowing this, he drew himself into the cave to wait out the night and coming day and to ponder his retort.

Herakles did not waste this opportunity.  For, in this time, he noticed that the cave had not one, but two entrances.  He set upon blocking one up, so as to corner the Lion when he roused.  He finished blocking the entrance, and then Herakles waited.

Apollo’s chariot drew the dawning sun, bringing fiery light from the east.  In this long day, Herakles waited.  The sun’s heat beat down upon him, and his sweat dripped upon the brown stone, but still he waited for the Lion to stir.  The day began to grow old as Apollo neared the west.  Again, the shadows stretched, turning, and the world grew dark.  Once more, the Lion’s eyes glowed in the darkness.

Ancient Greek oinochoe (vase) painted in the black figure white-ground technique. This is a detail image showing Herakles and the Nemean lion engaged in battle.
PAINTER OF LONDON B 620, Herakles and the Nemean Lion, detail of attic white-ground black figure oinochoe, from Vulci, ca. 520-500 B.C. Terra cotta. British Museum, London. Digital image courtesy Jastrow, 2006.

Herakles paused, the Lion roared, and Herakles let fly an arrow straight into the Lion’s mouth – his un-armored mouth!  The Lion recoiled, and Herakles grabbed him, wrapping his arms about the Lion’s throat.  The Lion thrashed, muscles clenched, the earth quaked and all the rocks and dust of Hellas moved as those two wrestled!  Great roars and cries pierced the air and such energy as has never been felt pulsed the air.  Thrashing, pulsing!  At length, the furor slowed until all became still.  The dust cleared, and Herakles stood up, holding the Lion’s limp carcass by the throat.  He had throttled the beast!  The Lion’s reign of terror was at its end.

Noting the remarkable armoring qualities of the Lion’s coat, Herakles set about trying to skin it.  He tried using his knife, but that failed.  He sharpened his knife on a stone, and then used the stone itself, all to no avail.  The goddess Athena, noticing Herakles’ trouble, suggested he use one of the beast’s own claws to clean the pelt.  He did just that, and upon cleaning the skin, he threw it about his shoulders and from then onward he wore it.  The Nemean Lion’s impenetrable skin protected Herakles throughout the rest of his labors.  He made it back to Cleonae on the 30th day, just in time to sacrifice together with Molorchos to the honor of Zeus.

Herakles had many adventures after slaying the Nemean Lion.  The beast’s skin protected him throughout all of them.  When the Lion was slain, his spirit left this world and traveled to the sky realm, where he found a home among the eternal stars.  Each year, the Lion’s spirit returns as the constellation of Leo, the Lion, and we are reminded of the first of Herakles’ twelve labors.

[Don’t forget to join us next week, when we hail the heady happenings of Herakles and the horrible hydra!]

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