Those who know me, know that I love telling stories. So today, on our virtual journey, I’m going to take you to Thebes, birthplace of Heracles (better known as Hercules). Taking my cue from one of the exhibits in the city’s Archaeological Museum, I’ll tell you, in my own words, how Hercules completed the first of his 12 labors, defeating the Nemean lion.
So make yourself comfortable, perhaps with some coffee or tea; stories need their own time and they shouldn’t be rushed.
A long time ago, in the north of the Peloponnese, king Eurystheus ruled in the prosperous kingdom of Mycenae. Except for the usual skirmishes with the neighbors, his rule was uneventful, until a huge lion appeared in the land. This was no ordinary lion; much larger than any other human eyes had seen, it had huge claws, murderous fangs and a ferocious appetite for man or beast. It settled in Nemea, a valley of rich pastures whose herders and shepherds soon felt its wrath. No matter how many fires they lit around their villages and on the high mountain pastures, the lion paid no heed to them. Instead, it came out of the dark like an evil spirit and ravaged both livestock and humans.
King Eurystheus sent hunters, armed with spears, javelins and arrows and expected them to return with the lion’s head in a few days. The king waited in vain. After a while, messengers came to say that the entire hunting party had perished at the Tretos mountain pass.
The king issued the order that everyone was to stay indoors, behind locked doors. Sentries were posted on the walls and every fort; a war party was sent to patrol the mountains and passes. The king hoped that the warriors would prevent the lion from attacking herds or humans and might even be able to corner it somewhere.
The warriors were the best in the kingdom, brave young men, hand-picked by the king’s own generals. As if led by a god, they managed to pick up the lion’s trail and follow it up to its lair, a cave on the side of the mountain. Its sight cheered the party; they would trap the lion in the cave and when hunger forced it out they would hit it with their long spears, protected behind their strong shields, tower- or eight-shaped, covered with thick oxhide.
But it seems the god that led them was not on their side; the party learned too late that the cave had a second opening, through which the lion came and attacked them from behind. After the first shock, the warriors stood side by side, forming a barrier with their shields and hit the lion with all their might. To their surprise and terror, their finely crafted bronze spears and arrows struck the lion but slipped uselessly to the ground; not one of them managed to pierce the lion’s skin. After all their weapons were broken, some warriors grabbed rocks and started throwing them at the lion’s head, hoping to break it. All their efforts were in vain – the lion shattered their shields and ripped the warriors apart. Of the 50 that had left Mycenae, only one made it back, and just managed to say what had happened, before Death came for him too.
Desperate for a solution, the king called the priests and oracles; he sacrificed to the gods seeking to learn why this curse had befell his kingdom and what he had to do to save it.
When the oracles spoke, the king was astounded. The lion, they said, was not any ordinary animal. It was a child of the mythical beasts Echidna and Orthrus. The lion had been raised by none other than goddess Hera herself and no human weapon could pierce its skin. The oracles could not say why it had chosen to ravage his kingdom.
That very night, Eurystheus had a god-sent dream. A striking woman entered his palace as he was about to make a libation; she was tall and looked high-born, while her large eyes shone with a terrible light. Eurystheus rushed to offer her wine, as is the custom for guests, but she declined, telling him: “I will not accept any of your offerings, oh king, and my messenger will stay in your land, until Hercules, son of Zeus, is dead. He will come presently to offer you his services.” She then vanished from his sight.
Eurystheus woke up distressed. Not only was the lion ravaging his kingdom, livestock and people, but Hera had assigned him to kill one of the children of Zeus; the foremost of all the gods. And Hercules was no ordinary human either; the reputation of his deeds had spread all over Greece, including Mycenae. Was this great hero, who was also his cousin, really coming to serve under him? Or was he coming to lay a claim to his throne?
Two days later, a stranger arrived. The guards at the city gates did not dare to ask him who he was and why he came. There was something about him that told them that the gods were with him. His weapons looked as if Hephaestus himself had crafted them; the bow and arrows slung on his back looked worthy of Apollo himself, while his horses looked as if they had been trained by Poseidon. Despite his youth, his eyes showed a man of determination and power. They also told of pain; the guards thought wise to give no trouble to such a man.
The stranger was led to the palace. After he washed and changed, he was taken to the Megaron, before the king. Eurystheus offered him wine and the best cut of meat and only after eating did he ask him who he was and wither he was travelling.
“My name is Hercules, oh king, and I am son of Amphitryon, lord of Tiryns, who was forced to flee due to an accidental homicide. I was told by the oracle of Delphi that in order to redeem my line from old and new blood, I need to serve under your orders for 12 years. I come as a supplicant, offering you my services.”
The silence in the room was palpable. The only sound was that of the wood, crackling in the hearth at the centre of the room. Eurystheus answered gravely:
“Hercules, son of Amphitryon, gods willing I accept your supplication. However, I need to tell you that I will not be an easy master. My kingdom is already under grave threat, by an enormous lion sent here by the gods, which no mortal has been able to kill yet. This is the first mission you will carry out for me.”
Hercules showed no reaction. After thinking for a few moments he said: “My lord, with your permission, I will start right away. Just tell me where the beast is and I swear in the name of Zeus that I will either carry it dead to your door or die trying.”
He then got up, bid farewell to the king and left.
The king’s plan
That night, Eurystheus stayed a long time awake, thinking. All in all, he thought he had taken the best course of action. If Hercules killed the lion, he would rid his kingdom of the beast without incurring Hera’s wrath, which would no doubt fall on Hercules. If he died trying, Hera would be pleased and would order the lion elsewhere. Not only that, but he would be rid of his cousin, who might be family, but he was dangerous. A son of Zeus, a great warrior, with royal blood in his veins; he was a considerable threat to the throne and Eurystheus would be a fool not to take him seriously.
Hercules followed the road which took him to Nemea via the mountain passes. Asking around he found people who pointed to the spot where the lion had its lair. His first task was to prevent it from venturing down the valley. He used large boulders to close one of the cave’s exits and then he built high dry stone walls in every pass that led from the mountain to the valley.
Beyond that, there wasn’t much he could do. The lion was indeed invulnerable to all the weapons he tried on it; even his arrows could not pierce its skin, despite being a present from Apollo himself.
Hercules met a villager called Molorhos, who had lost his son to the lion and had sworn to do anything in his power to kill the beast. He offered to help Hercules and put him up in his humble home, at one end of the valley.
Upset at his repeated failures to beat the lion, Hercules decided to make a thick club, hoping he could break the lion’s bones with it. As he was patiently shaping a thick branch, he heard approaching footsteps and sprang up, sword in hand, before the stranger came near.
It was a man a little shorter than himself, with hair and beard that was beginning to turn grey. His clothes and footwear were those of a traveler; he had a silver-studded dagger in his belt and carried two javelins in his hand.
When Hercules asked him who he was, he said his name was Autolycus and that he was travelling from Corinth to Arcadia. When he learned that the man he met in the wilderness was none other than Hercules, he expressed his joy; it is good to have such a brave and able companion, especially with dangers like the lion nearby. They shared some food and wine with Molorchos, and Hercules told him of his disappointment, because after so many days he still hadn’t found a way to kill the lion.
Autolycus looked at the mountain pensively for a while. Then he said: “Even if no human weapon can pierce the lion’s hide, you are still the strongest man in Greece. Your own body is a weapon. Rumors say that you are Zeus’s own son; if so, then it is not your destiny to die here. Your divine father will surely help you. If you wish, I could teach you ways to fight without weapons that my own divine father, Hermes, showed me. With them, you’ll have a better chance against the lion.”
Hercules laughed for the first time. “My dear Autolycus, you’re either very brave or you haven’t heard what happens to humans who try to teach me.”
Autolycus gave a crooked smile. “I may not be a Centaur, Hercules, but I won’t try to teach you music either. I will show you how to hit your opponents so fast, they’ll think they were struck by lightning. I’ll show you how to avoid their strikes and how to turn their own strength against them. With this knowledge, you will be able to beat enemies much stronger than yourself. And I have a feeling you will face several in your life.” Seeing that Hercules was still skeptical, he got up saying: “If you don’t believe me, come fight me and, if you manage to hit me, I swear on the stars in heaven, I’ll be your bait for the lion.”
Hercules didn’t laugh this time. Instead, he got up, grabbed a fistful of dirt and rubbed his hands. Then he stood in front of Autolycus. He tried a punch -not his strongest one- but suddenly his opponent’s hands blocked it and Hercules realized, for the first time, that his opponent was stronger than he looked.
Very quickly, before he had time to react, Hercules took a punch in the stomach and another in his jaw. He lunged against Autolycus, but the older man moved quickly to the side, grabbed Hercules’ right hand and pulled him, while tripping him with one of his legs. Hercules found himself face down in the dirt.
Autolycus gave him his hand and helped him get up. “Fancy another round, son of Zeus, or are you convinced now that I can teach you something new?”
Hercules looked at Autolycus and then at the mountain. He thought he heard the lion roaring in the distance. Finally he said: “I accept your offer Autolycus. But please remember that I warned you: I am a difficult student and dangerous to boot.”
For twenty days, Autolycus taught Hercules all he knew about fighting without weapons. They went through different kinds of kicks and punches, strikes and grips that could immobilize even the strongest creature. Every time Hercules thought he was ready, Autolycus would manage to either hit or evade him. The student had started developing a deep, albeit reluctant, respect for his teacher, coupled with a strange anger, for the man who beat him where he thought himself unbeatable. Yet every time he heard the lion’s roar, he restrained his anger and concentrated on his mission.
One morning, Hercules woke to find Autolycus up and waiting for him outside the humble house of Molorchos. He had already stripped and covered himself in oil, on top of which he had sprinkled ashes from the hearth. Looking at his student he said: “Son of Alcmene, it is time for you to show me whether you learned anything all these days, or you were just wasting my time. Come on – what are you waiting for?”
Hercules needed no other prompt. He quickly got himself ready then lunged at Autolycus without restraining his strength or speed.
Molorchos watched, but the two opponents moved so fast that he hardly understood what was happening. Autolycus was no match for Hercules in height or strength, yet he countered his attacks so artfully that they fought for a long time without either of them being able to defeat the other.
Finally, Autolycus raised his hand and said: “Gods be my witnesses, Hercules, I have nothing more to teach you.”
That night the three of them shared a cup of wine around the fire, while the lion’s roars echoed in the silent night.
Hercules looked at Autolycus. “I think it’s time for me to face the lion. Will you come with me tomorrow?” Autolycus shook his head. “No Hercules. This road is for you alone to take. I may be a good fighter, better than many others in the Greek kingdoms, but this lion cannot be killed by any mortal other than the son of Zeus. Remember what I taught you, especially the neck grips and you will defeat it.”
The next day, when Hercules woke up, Autolycus was already gone. Molorchos hadn’t seen him leave either. It was like he had vanished in thin air.
Hercules took his weapons, said farewell to Molorchos and started towards the mountain. On the way, he thought he saw Autolycus waiting for him in the shade of an olive tree, but when he got nearer he saw that it was just a wooden statue of Athena. He asked the goddess for help and went on.
Facing the lion
Hercules saw that his defenses all around the mountain still stood; unable to roam in the valley, the lion had killed neither humans nor livestock, but had hunted wild game on the mountain, judging from the bones scattered around his lair. After making sure the second entrance to the cave was still blocked, Hercules stood in front of the cave’s other opening, making sure the wind carried his scent to the interior.
He didn’t have to wait long. The lion emerged from the cave and stretched; its size was staggering, much larger than any lion he had seen, back when he hunted in his homeland. Its claws were sharp and shone like new bronze; its eyes blazed like fire. Hercules did not freeze or hesitate; he prepared himself for battle blocking any other thought except keeping the lion’s claws and fangs as far away from him as possible.
As the lion lunged at him, Hercules rolled on his back and kicked the lion’s underside with both feet, sending it to crash on a rock behind him. The lion stood up and attacked again. Now it was more than hungry; it was furious at the puny creature before it which caused it pain. Hercules grabbed its front legs and with immense strength and speed lifted the lion up in the air, then swung it hard against the stony ground. The child of Echidna had never faced such prey before. Before it could gather its wits, it was pelted with a hail of fast, strong punches. The beast roared with pain and fury, jumping at Hercules for the third time. It would be its last.
Paying little heed to the claws that ripped his skin, Hercules grabbed the lion’s head and neck with both arms. The lion tried to bite, but he held firm. Then, with a strong and quick motion he twisted the lion’s head to the right. The lion shuddered in Hercules’ arms then fell lifeless to the ground.
Return to Mycenae
Back in his palace, Eurystheus was pacing up and down in desperation. He had been informed that Hercules had been staying in Nemea all this time, doing nothing. There might have been no further attacks from the beast, but who knows what Hercules was up to. He might be preparing an army to storm Mycenae and crown himself king. Or he might have left, leaving him, Eurystheus, to face Hera’s wrath.
The uproar that suddenly began downtown seemed to confirm his worst fears. Eurystheus stood frozen as the noise made its way towards the castle gates then through them. The king, his noble attendants and the guards ran out of the palace with swords and spears in hand. What they saw, made them stand and gape.
Right in front of the palace stood Hercules, his massive body dwarfed by the body of a huge lion he carried on his shoulders. Against the will of Hera, he had managed to kill the man-eating beast that had ravaged the kingdom; the people cheered him as a hero, a savior and a son of Zeus. He only had to say the word and they would all give him the throne gladly.
Eurystheus had to establish his authority. “What is the meaning of all this?” he said, in his sternest voice.
“Oh king, I swore I would either kill the lion or die trying. Here, I bring you its carcass as proof that I fulfilled my promise, as per your orders.”
“You took your time, Hercules. I thought you might have gotten cold feet and ran away. I see now that the gods have given you courage. Yes, you killed the lion. However, I have been told by my oracles that its death offends Hera and would be unwise for the city and Our house for you to remain here. I command you to go to the castle of Tiryns and await my orders there. As for the lion, take it with you. I cannot dedicate it to the gods and I certainly will not keep this pestilence in my own palace.”
Hercules clenched his jaws. His hands gripped the lion’s legs so tightly, that those who stood near him heard its thick bones crack. Yet he said nothing. He remembered what the oracle had commanded. He remembered his children’s blood. He remembered their cries.
So he bowed his head, turned and made his way to Tiryns.
The long and hard path that lay before him had only just begun.
The Nemean Lion was the first of the labors that king Eurystheus of Mycenae would order Hercules to complete. However, it would not be the hardest. Urged by Hera, the king would send his cousin to vanquish monsters like the Hydra or would assign him humiliating tasks, like cleaning the Augean stables. He sent him on missions that would bring him to the ends of the world, including a descent into the Underworld itself.
 Centrall hall of a Mycenean palace.