A frequent trope in myths is the hero who is sent on a quest which has previously caused the gruesome deaths of other would-be adventurers. Nothing says, “I hope you fail,” like sending someone off to kill a monster that can’t be killed. Congratulations!
Enter Hercules and the Nemean Lion. Ya’ll know it’s going to end badly for the lion, but play along and be surprised at the end, okay?
The Oracles at Delphi command Hercules to perform Twelve Labors for King Eurystheus*, a man Hercules loathed, as penance for killing his family. We do not discuss that last bit very often. The hero Hercules, became a hero, in part, in his effort to make atonement for murdering his wife and two children. The Oracles told Hercules that at the end of his service to Eurystheus, he will be granted eternal life.
The Nemean Lion was so named because it lived in a cave in the valley of Nemea. The entire region was frightened of this beast who gorged itself on the flesh of man and beast alike, then would retreat to its cave at dusk. If you, like me, grew up watching nature documentaries on PBS, you are thinking that lions are nocturnal and this story is already ridiculous.
According to some sources, the lion would occasionally take the appearance of a maiden in distress and lure men to the cave where it lived. Once the men were deep enough in the cave, the woman would turn into the lion and eat the unsuspecting men.
The lion was the son of Echidna and Typhon, whom we have discussed before.
Hercules spied the lion moving slowly one afternoon after it had eaten. Hercules pulled an arrow from his quiver and let it fly. The arrow, much to his surprise, bounced harmlessly off the lion. Confused and frustrated, Hercules tried again with the same results. The lion saw him and jumped towards the hero. Hercules kept his wits and pulled out a large club. Before the lion’s jaws snapped closed, Hercules whacked the lion soundly over the head and the club broke in two.
Here is where the story has two different endings:
In some versions, Hercules wrestled the lion out in a field in the open where he found victory. In most versions, Hercules allowed the lion to retreat to its cave. Hercules blocked one entrance to the cave, leaving the lion with no alternative escape route. Hercules crept into the cave and squeezed the lion’s neck from behind to avoid its claws, strangling it to death.
After defeating the beast, Hercules realized he needs to skin the lion and remove its head to prove he had completed the task. In a fit of grotesque genius, he used the lion’s own claws to skin the body. The skin became his famous loin cape, part of his “I’m a bad ass hero suit.” Hercules took the head of the lion to Eurystheus, who was appalled even though this had indeed been the task he himself gave Hercules, and forbade the hero to bring his spoils into the city. Hercules then went about his next task, slaying the Lernaean Hydra.
In remembrance, Hera places the Nemean Lion among the stars as the constellation Leo.
*Originally, it was ten labors but Eurystheus was angry that Hercules kept coming back alive.