Nemean Lion in Greek Mythology: Story & Facts

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

Could you imagine winning a fight with a lion by putting it in a chokehold? That is exactly what the Greek hero Hercules did. In this lesson, we will look at the events that led up to his dramatic showdown with the Nemean Lion.

The Origin of the Nemean Games

Beginning in 573 BCE, an athletic tournament was held in ancient Greece for several centuries. It was called the Nemean Games and included a wide variety of sporting events. The origin of the games is sometimes attributed to the story of Opheltes, an unfortunate baby who was killed by a snake. The Nemean Games were said to have begun as funeral games organized in the baby's honor.

However, the games are also commonly credited to a story of Hercules and his battle with a ferocious lion that stalked Nemea, called the Nemean Lion. Let's look more closely at this story.

Hercules' Twelve Labors

Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, despised Hercules, who was born from one of her husband's numerous infidelities. Hera hated him so much, that she drove him mad, forcing him to kill his wife and kids.

Deeply regretful, Hercules went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask how he could redeem himself. The Oracle instructed Hercules to go and serve Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who had devised a series of tasks that matched Hercules up against the most horrendous monsters of the time. The tasks were known as the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Fortunately for us, we don't have to delve into all twelve labors in this lesson because slaying the Nemean Lion was task one!

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean Lion was a child of Typhon and Echidna, who were considered the parents of all monsters. However, some say he belonged to Zeus and his lover Selene.

Hera trained and cared for the vicious beast. One day, she was angry at Zeus so she sent the lion to guard one of his temples in Nemea. With the lion there, people couldn't worship Zeus at the shrine, just as Hera had wanted.

The lion spent most of his time lurking on the mountain of Tretos. He was vicious and possessed huge, sharp teeth and skin that could not be penetrated by any sharp instrument. He was also cunning. The lion would lure warriors to his den by kidnapping women that he could use as bait. When a brave hunter showed up to rescue the damsels, the Nemean Lion would pounce and devour him.

The Slaying

One day, Hercules studied his opponent while watching him from the bushes. The lion had been feasting all day and bits of blood, meat, and flesh clung to his bushy mane. As he returned to his den, Hercules shot arrow after arrow into the lion's hide, but to no avail. Each arrow bounced off the beast and dropped to his feet. It seems that no one mentioned to Hercules that the lion's coat was impenetrable.

Realizing his weapons would be of no use, Hercules followed the lion to its den where he blocked off one entrance and entered through another. In the darkness, Hercules felt around until he came upon the lion. Realizing his presence, the lion lunged, but Hercules whacked him on top of the head with a club. The lion swayed, clearly rattled. Hercules took advantage of the moment and put the lion in a chokehold. Then, he slowly strangled him to death.

Pottery showing Hercules fighting with the lion.
hercules and lion

Hercules Returns

Hercules used the lion's own claw to do the skinning. He was supposed to bring the pelt back to prove the lion was dead, but knowing the hide could repel weapons of iron, stone, and bronze, Hercules decided it would be his new armor and threw it over his shoulders. He then placed the lion's head on top of his own and headed back.

This visual of Hercules wearing the lion's head and skin is commonly found in ancient artwork. There is a debate, however, on whether this skin is from the Nemean Lion or from a lion Hercules killed when he was younger.

Hercules wearing the head of a lion.
Lions head

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