Nemean lion

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Heracles slaying the Nemean lion. Detail of a Roman mosaic from Llíria (Spain).

The Nemean lion (/nɪˈmən/; Greek: Νεμέος λέων[1] Neméos léōn; Latin: Leo Nemeaeus) was a vicious monster in Greek mythology that lived at Nemea. It was eventually killed by Heracles. It could not be killed with mortals' weapons because its golden fur was impervious to attack. Its claws were sharper than mortals' swords and could cut through any armor.

Today, lions are not part of the Greek fauna. The Asiatic lion subspecies formerly ranged in southeastern Europe. According to Herodotus, lion populations were extant in Ancient Greece. George Schaller asserts that they may have been present in the area until circa. 100 BC.[2]


The origins of the Nemean lion differ on the sources. Hesiod[3] makes him the offspring of Orthus and a "she", usually believed to be Chimera, though others interpret it as Echidna.[4][5][6] He was raised by Hera and sent to terrorize the hills of Nemea.[3] According to Apollodorus[7], he was the offspring of Typhon.

In another tradition, told by Aelian[8] (citing Epimenides) and Hyginus,[9] the lion was the child of the moon-goddess Selene, who threw him from the moon at Hera's request.[10]

First labour of Heracles[edit]

Hercules' fight with the Nemean lion, Pieter Paul Rubens.

The first of Heracles' twelve labours, set by King Eurystheus (his cousin), was to slay the Nemean lion.

Heracles wandered the area until he came to the town of Cleonae. There he met a boy who said that if Heracles slew the Nemean lion and returned alive within 30 days, the town would sacrifice a lion to Zeus; but if he did not return within 30 days or he died, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus.[7] Another version claims that he met Molorchos, a shepherd who had lost his son to the lion, saying that if he came back within 30 days, a ram would be sacrificed to Zeus. If he did not return within 30 days, it would be sacrificed to the dead Heracles as a mourning offering.

While searching for the lion, Heracles fetched some arrows to use against it, not knowing that its golden fur was impenetrable; when he found the lion and shot at it with his bow, he discovered the fur's protective property when the arrow bounced harmlessly off the creature's thigh. After some time, Heracles made the lion return to his cave. The cave had two entrances, one of which Heracles blocked; he then entered the other. In those dark and close quarters, Heracles stunned the beast with his club. During the fight, the lion bit off one of his fingers. He eventually killed the lion by strangling it with his bare hands.

After slaying the lion, he tried to skin it with a knife from his belt, but failed. He then tried sharpening the knife with a stone and even tried with the stone itself. Finally, Athena, noticing the hero's plight, told Heracles to use one of the lion's own claws to skin the pelt.

When he returned on the thirtieth day, carrying the carcass of the lion on his shoulders, King Eurystheus was amazed and terrified. Eurystheus forbade him ever again to enter the city; in the future, he was to display the fruits of his labours outside the city gates. Eurystheus warned him that the tasks set for him would become increasingly difficult. He then sent Heracles off to complete his next quest, which was to destroy the Lernaean hydra.

Heracles wore the Nemean lion's coat after killing it, as it was impervious to the elements and all but the most powerful weapons. Others say that Heracles' armour was, in fact, the hide of the Lion of Cithaeron.

According to Alexander of Myndus, Heracles was helped in this labour by an Earth-born serpent, which followed him to Thebes and settled down in Aulis. It was later identified as the water snake which devoured the sparrows and was turned into stone in the prophecy about the Trojan War.[11]

In art[edit]

Classical Literature Sources[edit]

Chronological listing of classical literature sources for the Nemean Lion:

  • Hesiod, Theogony 327 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)
  • Pindar, Isthmian Ode 6. 46 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
  • Bacchylides, Fragment 13 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
  • Bacchylides, Fragment 9
  • Aeschylus, Leon (lost play fragment) (Aeschylus II trans. Weir Smyth Vol. p. 420) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
  • Sophocles, Trachinae 1064-1113 (trans. Oates and O'Neil) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
  • Euripides, The Madness of Hercules 359 ff (trans. Way) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
  • Euripides, Hercules 556 ff (trans. Oates and O'Neil) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.)
  • Callimachus, Aetia Fragment 55 (trans. Trypanis) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.)
  • Callimachus, Fragment 108 (from Scholiast on Pindar's Nemean Ode 10. 1)
  • Lycophron, Alexandra 1345 ff, (Callimachus and Lycophron Aratus  with the scholiast, trans. Mair 1921 p. 606) (Greek poet C3rd BC)
  • Theocritus, Idylls 25. 132 ff (trans. Rist) (Greek bucolic C3rd B.C.)
  • Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 11. 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses 9. 197 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)
  • Ovid, Heroides 9. 61 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)
  • Ovid, Heroides 9. 87 ff
  • Seneca, Hercules Furens 44 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.)
  • Seneca, Hercules Furens 83 ff
  • Seneca, Hercules Furens 224 ff
  • Seneca, Hercules Furens 942 ff
  • Seneca, Oedipus 38 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.)
  • Seneca, Agamemnon 829 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st AD)
  • Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 17-30 (trans. Miller).  (Roman tragedy C1st AD)
  • Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 1237 ff
  • Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 1813 ff
  • Statius, Thebaid 4. 824 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.)
  • Statius, Thebaid 6. 270 ff
  • Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 2 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) (trans. Pearse) (Greek mythographer C1st to C2nd A.D.)
  • Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 5
  • Plutarch, Moralia, On the Fortune of Alexander,  341. 11 ff (trans. Babbitt) (Greek philosopher C1st AD to C2nd AD)
  • Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 74 - 76 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 15. 2 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.)
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 11. 5
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 25. 7
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 26. 7
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece 6. 5. 6
  • Aelian, On Animals 12. 7 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.)
  • Aelian, Historical Miscellany 4. 5 (trans. Wilson) (Greek rhetorician C2nd to 3rd A.D.)
  • Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 30 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.)
  • Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 24
  • Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 6. 208 ff (trans. Way) (Greek epic C4th A.D.)
  • Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25. 176 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.)
  • Suidas s.v. Nemea (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.)
  • Tzetzes, Chiliades or Book of Histories 2. 232 ff (trans.Untila et. al.) (Byzantine historian C12 AD)
  • Tzetzes, Chiliades or Book of Histories 2. 492 ff
  • Tzetzes, Chiliades or Book of Histories 7. 51 ff
  • Tzetzes, Chiliades or Book of Histories 7. 57 ff


  1. ^ Wagner, Richard Anton (ed.), Mythographi Graeci, Vol. I: "Index nominum et rerum memorabilium".
  2. ^ Schaller, George B. (1972). The Serengeti lion: A study of predator–prey relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226736393.
  3. ^ a b Hesiod. Theogony.
  4. ^ Hard, Robin (2004). The Routledge handbook of Greek mythology. Routledge. p. 63. ISBN 0-203-44633-X.
  5. ^ Gantz, Timothy (1993). Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 383. ISBN 0-8018-4410-X.
  6. ^ Hesiod (1914). The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Harvard University Press.
  7. ^ a b Apollodorus. Library. 2.5.1
  8. ^ Aelian. On Animals. 12.7
  9. ^ Hyginus. Fabulae. 30
  10. ^ Hard, Robin (2004). The Routledge handbook of Greek mythology. Routledge. p. 256. ISBN 0-203-44633-X.
  11. ^ Daniel Ogden, Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 July 2017. Retrieved 30 July 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)


See also[edit]

External links[edit]