the nemean lion




In those days, there lived in the forests of Nemea a huge and terrifying lion. It had the strength of ten ordinary lions and its hide was so tough that neither arrow, lance nor the keenest sword could pierce it. It was the offspring of Typhoon, the monster who had wrestled with Zeus himself, and the equally fearsome Echidna, half woman and half snake. Its brothers and sisters were the Lernaean Hydra, Cerberus, Chimaera, the Sphinx and other hideous monsters whom the gods themselves were afraid to face in combat.


When Eurystheus saw this monstrous lion in his dream, he let out such a shriek that the whole palace came running to see what else had befallen their “great” king. But as soon as Eurystheus realized he had only been dreaming, he took courage and a crafty smile stole across his features. Now he knew just where to send Heracles so he might never set eyes on him again.


In a cracked and petulant voice he immediately called, not for Heracles, of course, but for Copreus, his herald. He called and called again, sounding more like an old shrew than a king, and when the herald was finally found and appeared before him he was ordered to go straight to Heracles and convey the command of the “mighty king of Mycenae”: to hunt down and kill the Nemean lion. Copreus, whose name means “dung” in Greek, by the way, could hardly wait to deliver his master’s wishes. It was no small honour to give orders to such a hero.



When Heracles heard this he had no suspicion of the kind of lion he had been pitted against, and imagined he would be able to kill it easily. So, taking up the club he had used against the lion of Cithaeron, he slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder and set off for Nemea.


On his way, he met a poor man named Molorchus who was standing outside his hut preparing to offer a sacrifice to the gods. After greeting him, Heracles asked who the sacrifice was in honour of, and he received this reply:


“In honour of our guardian, Zeus. I wish to thank him for keeping the Nemean lion away from my door.”


“Do not make your sacrifice yet awhile,” Heracles replied, “for I have been ordered by Eurystheus to find the beast and despatch it. I have killed lions before, and I am not afraid. Yet lest anything should happen to me, if I do not return within thirty days then offer your sacrifice in memory of the soul of Heracles, son of Alcmene. But if I return, as I believe I shall, then we shall celebrate together in honour of almighty Zeus.”


“Heracles, son of Alcmene,” the poor man cried, “it is a pity to throw away your life in vain! You cannot know what kind of lion you have been sent to fight. If this creature had been spawned by a lion, it might not be beyond your powers to kill it. But it was not. It comes from a line of monsters – and what monsters! It was fathered by Typhoon and Echidna gave it birth. There is no killing this beast – and even if you had all the gods of Olympus at your side you would not return alive. For years, now, we have gone in fear of it. Our flocks have been decimated, the countryside laid waste, and none of those with courage enough to hunt the monster down has ever lived to tell the tale.”



Now Heracles realized why Eurystheus had sent him to carry out such a task. But his determination was not shaken, and in a resolute voice he said, “I will go to find this lion; for I must either kill it or die in the attempt. Farewell – and if we do not meet again, do as I told you.” And with these words he struck out for the mountains.


Molorchus admired the hero’s stubborn courage, but as he watched him go he wished with all his heart he had been able to make him stay.


As he walked along, Heracles looked around until he spotted a wild olive with a thick and knotted trunk as hard as iron. He tore it from the ground, roots and all, and from it fashioned a new and formidable club which was even more massive than his old one. Tossing that aside, he shouldered his new weapon and continued on his way. Later it occurred to him that he might need to lie in wait for the lion for days and nights on end, and that he would need all the strength he possessed to last out. So he found a quiet spot, lay down and fell into a deep sleep. Ten days and nights they say Heracles slept, and he awoke with all his powers renewed. When he rose, he washed in a spring and set off refreshed and filled with hope in search of the lion. After wandering for many days in a landscape empty of all living creatures, he eventually found the lion’s spoor. The huge padmarks were sunk deep into the ground, showing how big and heavy the monstrous beast must be. Heracles followed its tracks, but old spoor crossed with new and it was often difficult for the hero to decide which set he should follow. He walked for days, climbing mountains, clambering down gorges, losing himself in forests, till in the end, walking round a rock, he suddenly saw the lion before him.



It was huge beyond belief, with a great shaggy mane and wild eyes which seemed to dart fire. Heracles crept unseen behind a bush, unslung his bow and took aim at the lion’s forehead. The arrow hit the beast between the eyes, but it merely shook its head and scratched the place with its paw as if it had been bitten by an insect. Heracles shot a second arrow, twice as hard, and hit the lion in the throat. But again, it was as if the arrow had struck a stone; it rebounded and the lion slouched off in a bored manner and disappeared behind a rock. Heracles ran after it, but when he reached the spot the lion was nowhere to be seen. Heracles searched the area in bewilderment till he spotted the entrance to a cave. From the pawmarks at its mouth he realized this must be its lair. Concealing himself behind a large boulder, he sat down to wait, but night fell and the beast had still not reappeared. “He is sure to come out in the morning,” the hero told himself, and when dawn rose he was waiting impatiently, poised to strike it down with his club. But the sun rose higher in the sky and the lion showed no sign of coming out of the cave. Then suddenly there came a terrible roar, louder than Zeus’ thunderclaps, echoing and re-echoing among the mountains and the gorges. Heracles turned in its direction and finally made out the lion, a tiny dot on the mountain opposite.


“How did the lion leave its lair without my seeing it?” the hero wondered. “It may have been a dark night, but I would still have seen it, or heard it, at least. Perhaps I dropped off to sleep without knowing. Now I must wait here till the beast returns. If I go in search of it, the way is long and difficult, and it will be gone before I reach the spot.”


Heracles kept watch for three days and three nights, but still the lion did not come back to its lair.



The hero was losing hope, and had half made up his mind to go out searching among the hillsides and ravines once more, when he heard a noise behind him. Turning his head, he saw the lion coming out of its cave.


“There is something strange here,” thought Heracles. “Here was I waiting for the beast to go back into its den, and now I see it coming out!” It was then he realized there must be a second entrance to the cave.


While the hero was coming to this conclusion the lion arched its back and, like a springy rod bent back and suddenly released, it sprang through the air and in a few great bounds had disappeared from sight.


Heracles had lost the lion again, but he was not dismayed. He went straight off in search of the second entrance to the cave, and when he found it he quickly blocked the hole with boulders so huge they were impossible to move. Having done this, he returned to the first entrance to await the beast once more.


Suddenly, as dusk was falling, a terrible roar was heard, followed by a second and a third. The roaring came from far away and showed that the lion had gone to the other mouth of the cave, found it blocked, and was now giving vent to its fury. When it finally reached the first entrance, night had fallen. Heracles realized it would not be wise to face the monster in the dark, so he let it enter its lair unchallenged and waited in hiding for dawn to break.


When the sun came up, he approached the entrance to see if it would be possible to fight the lion in its den. But the roof of the cave was too low for him to bring his club down on the beast with any force. Nevertheless, Heracles decided to make his way a little further in, hoping he might at least hear something. And he did – from far away came the faint sound of hideous roaring and confused grindings and thuds which showed that the lion was trying to unblock the other entrance.


Hearing this, Heracles left the cave and ran round to its second mouth. A moment later, one of the huge boulders he had heaved there toppled from its place, but the hero was ready and waiting. Tossing a mass of dry branches into the opening he immediately set fire to them, and the wind was blowing in just the right direction for all the smoke to go billowing into the cave. Running straight back to the first entrance, Heracles hid behind a rock, confident that the beast would appear now. Sure enough, it was not long before the lion came out. It was obviously in distress, and its eyes were red and streaming from the smoke, but it was still a formidable adversary. Peering suspiciously around, it sensed the presence of foe. Opening its mouth wide it let out a savage roar, displaying all its fearsome teeth. Its tail lashed its body in fury and its paw struck the earth with such force that the ground trembled with the weight and strength of the blow. But however frightening the monster might have seemed, Heracles was not daunted. Lifting his club high above his head, he suddenly stepped out from behind the rock and, before the beast had time to make the slightest move, he brought a shattering blow straight down upon its skull. But not a bone in the beast’s head was broken, while the iron-hard olive club was split from top to bottom, so mighty were the two opposing forces it had come between! Heracles had not struck in vain, however, for the hitherto invincible lion of Nemea was now so dizzy it could hardly stand on its feet. Tossing away his club, the hero hurled himself on the beast’s neck, holding its head in such a vicelike grip that it could neither bite nor tear him with its claws. Now the Nemean lion’s fate was sealed. It tried to shake Heracles off but to no avail. His great muscles squeezed the monster’s neck in an ever tightening grip till finally it choked, and its black soul went to the dark depths of Hades.



Heracles rose to his feet bathed in sweat, exhausted but happy. He had killed the lion of Nemea; the first labour was accomplished. All that now remained was to take the body back to Mycenae and fling it in the courtyard of Eurystheus’ palace. He tried to carry it on his shoulders but the burden was a heavy one and the road to Mycenae long and hard. Heracles had no alternative but to skin the beast and take the pelt to Eurystheus. Yet how could he strip the skin from the body when not even the keenest sword would pierce it? The answer came to him when he saw the lion’s claws. Pulling one of them from its paw he skinned the lion with ease, threw its pelt over him like a robe and set off for Mycenae.


Meanwhile, further along the way, a man carrying a load of wood was walking slowly, bent down by his burden and his sorrow. At the end of the path he was on there stood a little hut. On reaching it, he threw the wood to the ground and sighed deeply. It was Molorchus, and he had brought the wood because next morning he would have to make a funeral sacrifice for Heracles, who had not returned although a month had passed.


Night was falling, so Molorchus went into the hut and lit a fire, not so much to see by as to heat his soup. Just as he was taking the pot from the hearth, the doorway was darkened by the towering mass of a man wrapped in the skin of some wild beast. He looked so savage in his strange garb that Molorchus shook with fear, but the friendly tone in which he bade him a good evening soon calmed the poor man sufficiently to invite the stranger to sit down and share his dinner with him.


As soon as he was seated, the newcomer asked Molorchus:



“Have you heard the news? The Nemean lion is dead and gone. Now its soul is rotting in Hades and we can graze our flocks in peace once more.”


But instead of looking pleased, Molorchus gave a deep sigh.


“Aren’t you glad to hear the news?” the stranger asked in surprise.


“No, I’m not,” came the answer. “I don’t know whether what you say is true or not, but one thing I am sure of: Heracles is dead. That’s why I’ve got that pile of wood outside – to light his funeral sacrifice in the morning.”


“In the morning we shall sacrifice together to our guardian, Zeus. Bring a burning stick, my friend, and take a closer look at me.”


At that moment it began to dawn on Molorchus who the stranger was. Snatching up a flaming branch from the fire, he let the light play on the other man’s face. It was indeed Heracles who sat before him, and what is more, the hero was clad in the pelt of the Nemean lion. Speechless with joy, the poor man flung himself into his arms and kissed him, tears streaming down his cheeks. Then he took the whole bowl of soup and placed it before Heracles.


“I’m not hungry,” Molorchus told him. “I’ve eaten already.”


But Heracles was not deceived by this.


“Bring me another bowl, will you,” he asked; and when the simplehearted fellow had brought one the hero poured out half the soup for him. Long after they had finished eating, a fire still lit the inside of the poor hut as Molorchus sat with bated breath listening to Heracles recount his incredible feat.



In the morning they both rose early and offered sacrifice together to almighty Zeus; then Heracles bid farewell to Molorchus and set off once again for Mycenae.


Covered from head to foot in the Nemean lion’s skin, the hero made his appearance at the gates of the palace. When Eurystheus set eyes on him, his blood froze in his veins. His fear on first seeing Heracles was nothing compared to this. He fled panic-stricken to his room to escape from the sight of this “wild man”, but there another horrid shock awaited him. For he had hardly managed to get his breath back when the door opened and two soldiers came in bearing the pelt of the Nemean lion, stretched out wide for Eurystheus to see.


“Heracles told us to give you this, great king,” they announced. But before they could finish speaking, their brave king had fallen to the ground in a dead faint! When he came round, he was in such a lamentable state that he was only fit to be put to bed again. When he eventually fell asleep, Hera appeared to him in a second dream and told him what task he must set Alcmene’s son to ensure that this time he did not return.


As soon as Eurystheus awoke, he called his herald Copreus and commanded him to go straight to Heracles with orders to kill the Lernaean Hydra.


And as Copreus was leaving, he shouted after him:


“While you’re about it, take this damned lion skin and give it back to its accursed hunter!” And let that be the last I see of both of them, he told himself. He may have killed the lion of Nemea, but he’ll never come back alive from the place I’m sending him now!




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Excerpted from Heracles by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



Heracles cover

3. Heracles


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