K.B. Black

A hundred words

Short bits on mythology, writing or miscellaneous posts to start your day right

Your Lion and Hercules: The First Labor

Reading Time ~ 12 minutes


The Nemean Lion was a feral beast of divine origin, the child born of the monster-god Typhon and the mother of monsters, Echidna. The lion served as a guardian to Selene’s (the moon goddess) palace on the moon. Some time after the fall of the titans, the goddess expelled it to the earth, and more specifically to the area of Nemea (the area in Peloponnese, Greece still holds the same name). However, having been bred to be a wild guardian, and being thrust into a strange earth with no explanation, made the lion into a horror of the wild; the celestial beast would roam the area and attack anything on sight with unhinged ferocity, almost driving everyone out of Nemea.

The Nemean Lion stands for the wild impulses of the soul. It is an archetype, meant to express the feral instincts and the raw animalistic nature of man. This aspect reigns when the individual is first thrust out of the moonscape of childhood and into adolescence with the moon being symbolically linked to the unconscious side of the personality by anthropologists like J. Campbell or psychologists such as C.G. Jung. That no explanation is given as to why the lion is expelled, is a significant lesson; the unconscious mind is an entity that lies beyond the capabilities of conscious control by definition, and as such, it can create and bring forth impulses and urges that do not abide by rational notions.

Euristheus, knowing that all who had gone after the lion had perished, demanded that Hercules’ first labor would be to slay the lion and present its skin to his court. Of course, the young Hercules, having received the Oracle’s command that he would have to complete the twelve labors set by Euristheus, knew that he had no other option but to go through with the task. As expected, he set out from Tirinth to Nemea, which lied about a days walk away.

Hercules, however, knew that to enter combat with the divine beast worn from the foot-trip would only serve to undermine him. Therefore, he sought to get some rest and muster his power, and knocked on the door of a small shack by the side of the road. A shepherd by the name of Molorchus, opened the door and welcomed the young warrior inside.

The Greeks held hospitality (φιλοξενία<φιλώ-to love+ξένος-stranger) as a holy task that was meant to be observed through a rigorous, almost ritualistic process- the host was obliged to present the best food and offer his own bed to the guest. This is because guests were considered to be sent by the gods, or even to be gods themselves, albeit in disguise. When the guest would leave, the host would have to boon the guest with valuable presents and then exchange vows of eternal familial friendship. Failing to abide by this process was considered ύβρις (hubris), a crime in the eyes of the gods, and the transgressors found themselves faced with the fury of Zeus himself (Ξένιος Δίας-Stranger Zeus).

Molorchus offered Hercules a poor supper of onions and milk, and the two discussed. Hercules noticed that a small sheep was standing in the corner of the room.

These are bad times” Molorchus explained, lowering his gaze towards the poor meal he had presented his guest with.

What’s the matter Molorchus?” Hercules asked.

I am the last shepherd of Nemea, as a wild beast called the Nemean Lion has decimated the flocks of everyone else, even killing some of my friends during its hunts. I only have one sheep left and the king Euristheus will not seem to mind for my people’s misfortune.”

The king gave me the task of disposing of the lion, and bring its skin back to Tyrinth.”

Molorchus rejoiced for a moment, but his face was then overcome by doom and gloom.

Many have gone hunting for the lion Hercules, but none have come back. The lion’s hide, they say, is thick as stone or iron, and neither blade nor arrow can penetrate it. Its fangs are sharper than the sharpest knife and can easily tear through flesh or leather; and its pounce? It is more brutal and forceful than that of the fiercest horse.”

Hercules remained silent.

In the morning, when Hercules was getting ready to leave the house, he and Molorchus agreed that after the passage of thirty days, if Hercules had returned, the two of them would offer θύειν (honorary sacrifice to the gods which is eaten afterwards) to Zeus for saving them; if he did not, Molorchus was to offer his last lamb as εναγίζειν (sacrifice to the dead that is then disposed of) to honor Hercules, and then leave the beast’s realm that Nemea had become forever.

At this point, Molorchus did not know that Hercules was the demigod son of Zeus, and not another mortal hunter. Still, the promise to honor the fallen hero, can be driven back to another holy rule of the Greeks. They held that dead were to receive the highest of honors; a ritualistic burial demanding long preparations and valuable jewels if possible, or a simple burial and a coin placed on the body’s eyes (οβολός, a golden coin meant to be given to Charon in exchange for safe passage across the river of souls).

A story which hold this story as a main theme is the theater play of Antigone by Sofocles; the plot is that her brother, Polynikes tried to usurp the throne of Thebes and failed, being killed in the process. In response to that, her uncle Kreon, who was the rightful king, ordered that the Polynikes’ body remain unburied, punished in soul as well as body for treason by the city of Thebes. In reaction to that, and while not condoning the her brother’s actions, Antigone sneaked past the guards and ritually buried him. Kreon finds out, and, orders the woman be buried alive as punishment for her defiance. Antigone, once locked in her underground cell and left to die, hangs herself; Kreon shortly finds out that his choice to dishonor the dead is a crime for which he is guilty in the eyes of the gods, and before long, they exert their cruelest judgment upon him.

Truly, Hercules set out to track the wild beast. The first time he found the lion’s tracks, was five days later. He followed them, until he found the lion feasting upon a deer. He took out his bow, placed an arrow against the string, pulled it back and then released. The arrowhead simply cracked and fell against the floor, the lion not even realizing that it had been hit. He took out another arrow, but this time pulled the string even stronger, and released. The arrow, once again, was simply deflected, ricocheting off the lion’s hide and piercing a pine log to the side. The lion lifted its head up, looked around for a moment, and then got back to its feast. Hercules decided to try one final time. This time he pulled the string as back as he could with his superhuman strength, making the wooden part of the bow to tremble from the tension. He released, certain that not even the thickest hide would be able to shrug this strike off. The arrow hit the lion, but it did not pierce it still, simply shattering in a hundred pieces as if it had been shot against a stone wall. The wood shards landed on a pile of dry leaves, causing them to crack with noise. The lion lifted its head up and let out a thunderous roar. It looked around, sniffed the air, scratched the point where the arrow had hit, and got back to enjoying its dinner.

So, how do you go about tackling your own basest instincts? Distancing yourself from an aspect that is clearly intrinsic to who you are does not work. Like having a toothache does not go away by biting your own tooth, you cannot expect to provide a similarly simple fix to something that is an essential part of the complex system that is your psyche. Hercules knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if he were to achieve atonement, he would have to get up close and personal with the beast.

Hercules, disappointed that his plan had failed, retreated, with the intent of finding a better strategy. Over the next few days he kept track of the lion, but did not make any move to engage it. Eventually though, he concluded that surely, his club would be enough to subdue the beast. He once again followed the lion to a small clearing in the woods, and, the moment that it least expected something to happen, he charged forth and smited it with his massive club. The lion was shaken, of course, but the club did not appear to inflict any significant damage. The beast pounced on him with, throwing him to the ground and ran off into the forest. Hercules stood up as fast as he could, and followed the animal into a cave. Since he knew that jumping in the dark cave would be the same as putting himself in a disadvantageous position, he waited outside the entrance.

The club is the next resort. Hercules does approach his primal instinct and tries to destroy it using a mechanical means, an external tool that served to channel his natural power. The club, meant to signify the mental prowess of Man as well as his conscious processes, scares the beast and drives it to flee. Conscious faculties may be enough to temporarily drive the animalistic urges away, but it cannot serve to the point of eradicating or integrating them. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said “All persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth”, we all have moments when our Reason steps in with force and professes what we know is the righteous word.

An addict knows that his vice is consuming him, their Reason confesses so without fear or passion. The urge may cower for a moment, but do not be fooled. The cave, or the mythical Underworld, is an analogy for the Unconscious. What is considered normal in the Everyday world, becomes numinous and abstract, and its outlines fade away into blurry halos that do not make any rational sense. This is the urge’s nest and breeding ground. It is deep in the depths of the psyche that self-destructive tendencies (that Reason recognizes as wrong) are formulated. The Lion, of course, has been neither destroyed nor tamed, instead retreating into the dark crevasses of your unconscious psyche, waiting for the next moment when you drop your guard.

Several days passed, but the lion did not venture out. Hercules knew that he was missing something. He explored the surroundings of the cave, only to find that there was another opening on the other side of the small hill. Without thinking about it, he hid in the bushes and waited for the lion to enter the cave, so that he could then seal the second opening. Some hours later, the lion returned indeed, and after it had blended with the shadows, Hercules immediately got to building the wal that blocked the second entrance.

Your conscious faculties, formulated around an idealized (or demonized) notion of yourself, suffer from a multitude of blind spots. When you think of yourself, you always apply filters and judgments: “I am a good person” you say, “I am humble, I am modest”; “I am worthless, I am impotent, a waste”. At the same time, your unconscious faculties know you better than you can imagine. The unconscious lies in the depths of memory, the bottom of the psychic well where every past experience sits. There, logical thinking and rationalizing are redundant; a still picture floats in the deep, until it is disintegrated and absorbed from mysterious currents of your deepest parts.

You may say to yourself that you are trying to quit acting from your basic instinct, but you should know that until your victory is absolute, meaning that you kill the Beast, you can never hope for true liberty. The animal aspect, with its superior instincts, will always be able to navigate its way through pathways that you have not consciously discovered.

Hercules then moved back to the original cave opening, and set a fire right on the gate, to force the lion out of its nest. Soon enough the smoke grew thick and black, and started flooding the cave. The lion jumped out, dazed and confused, and fought Hercules fiercely. The demigod, eventually realized that the lion’s hide so thick that even his massive club would not work, grabbed the lion and chocked it to death.

Hercules finally got into visceral contact with the Lion. Another significant lesson exists here. Hercules does not simply charge the cave. Instead, he uses his Reason to control the environment, so as to trap the Lion and control the battlefield. He knows, that to charge into the darkness will be another failed attempt, probably with fatal consequences. Instead, he employs his Reason and makes it impossible for the Lion to either escape or stay put. Hercules knows that he is smarter than the Lion; he does not engage it in a fair fight, but instead tinkers with the environment in a way that ensures victory.

When the Lion is out of the cave though, and where Hercules wants it, it is time to deliver the final blow. Earlier, he learned the limitations of his own rational faculties-the time for trickery and cunning is over. He attacks the lion with his bare hands, and chokes it to death.

Finally, to complete the labor set by Euristheus, he had to skin the lion. He tried doing it with his hunting knife, but again, the hide was so thick that the knife would not penetrate it. The goddess Athens, a common ally of ancient Greek heroes and deity of wisdom appeared before him and suggested he use one of the lion’s teeth to separate the skin from the flesh. Hercules followed her advice and, soon enough, the lion’s skin was separated from the dead beast.

Athens is the incarnation of wisdom, a splinter of Zeus’ own thought. After Hercules killed the lion, he has one more step to take: transmute the novel knowledge of his own limitations into wisdom. Wisdom advises him that the lion, although bested by him, is more than a common animal. Thus, to complete the task, he has to integrate and use the Lion, rather than simply discard it. The animal becomes more than prey; it is rather the locus of something primal, meant to be absorbed and befriended. The theme of killing as a means of absorbing the power of a natural force is indeed reoccurring across almost all cultures. As J. Campbell wrote, “The demon you can swallow gives you its power”, and Hercules’ action is meant to signify exactly that.

Just like any other aspect of yourself, the goal is not eradication; such a thing would be equivalent to mutilation. You do not want to resist the Animal, but assimilate it. The goal then shifts: it is not to become a better you, but to become the better you; it is not to shred your skin and take on a new form that seems perfect, but rather, to assimilate all the forces that are at play in your psyche and direct them the way your Reason suggests.

Upon return, he stopped again by Molorchus’ shack. As the thirty days had passed, Molorchus was getting ready to sacrifice his last sheep to honour the fallen Hercules. Molorchus rejoiced to see the terrible lion’s skin lying on Hercules’ shoulders, and the two of them offered sacrifice to Zeus instead. Molorchus became the first disciple of the Hercules, honoring him as a hero.

Hercules then returned to Tyrinth, only to find that the gates were sealed shut, at Euristheus command. It appeared that the weak king had seen the Hero coming from afar, and mistaken the hide for the actual lion! The king locked himself inside the palace, even ordering his servants to dig a hole in the basement and place a copper jar inside it, so that the king would be able to hide there if the lion attacked the city. As for the next labor, Euristheus sent it to Hercules with a messenger.

The weak king, who holds this position undeservedly and only due to hereditary rights, is terrified by the Hero who displays first-seen merit. How can a man best the legendary Lion, he wonders in fear. Society’s reaction to composure and character, has always thrown civil society aback. The heroes are always misunderstood, if not feared by the masses, as he persists in honor and merit in so definite a manner, that the many do find suspicious. Still, Hercules does not take affront to that. He has a path set before him, and his loyalty lies only with that. He does not flinch when he finds the gate to the city closed, he does not mind to be an outcast. The hero, you, must roll the dice, even in the face of “mockery, derision and isolation”.