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What was the First Labour of Heracles (Hercules)? Slaying the Nemean Lion

Updated: Mar 6

Being a hero sure ‘ain’t easy. By way of an example, just take the first Labour of Heracles. You’d think, for his first Labour, Heracles would get a nice warm-up quest. Nothing too stressful. Like a tutorial in a video game, somebody would be telling him what to do and how to do it. Maybe wrestle a slightly miffed guinea pig? Or shave the back hair off an anxious Orangutan? Perhaps even poke a peeved pineapple with a spoon?

But no, no such luck for Heracles. King Eurystheus – the baddie of the Twelve Labours of Heracles – set Heracles on the seemingly impossible task of slaying the unslayable Nemean Lion.

The Nemean Lion leaping in to battle.
The Nemean Lion leaps! A still from the movie 'Hercules'.

Let’s check out the Neman Lion’s stats:

Name: Nemean Lion

Description: It's a massive - and I mean MASSIVE - great big Lion.

Danger Rating: 8/10

Location: The hills of Nemea

Size: A really big Lion. So, big.

Strength: 7/10

Toughness: 10/10

Special Abilities: The Nemean Lion had skin so thick, so hard, that it could not be cut or pierced by any weapon. This made the Nemean Lion ‘invulnerable’.

As you can see, the Nemean Lion was quite the opponent. Also, to make things extra tricky, King Eurystheus wanted Heracles to bring him back the Lion’s hide. How could Heracles skin a creature, to remove its furry coat, if he couldn’t even cut it with a blade?

Heracles set off to Cleonae, where he met a chap called Molorchus, they then had a very boring conversation about sacrificing things to the gods. This is a pretty dull bit of the story, so we’ll skip all that and get to the good stuff.

Disney's Hercules versus the Nemean Lion.
Heracles versus the Nemean Lion - Disney style!

Heracles, after many days and nights of searching, tracked the Lion to its cave, hidden deep in the hills of Nemea. The Lion spotted the lumbering Heracles and roared a mighty roar; spit and the gunk that turns up in the corner of your mouth after a long sleep dripped from its maw.

With surprising speed for such a giant of a man, Heracles shot a slew of arrows from his bow at the terrifying creature before him. Yet, just as the stories of the Lion foretold, each arrow bounced harmlessly off the beast’s tremendous hide. Heracles wasn’t put off though, and, with a mighty battle cry, he held aloft his mighty club and charged towards the Lion. The Nemean Lion, not known for its patience, raked its razor-sharp claws across the parched ground and pelted toward the approaching hero.

Heracles aims an arrow at the Nemean Lion.
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson versus the Nemean Lion. From the 2014 movie 'Hercules'.

The Nemean Lion was fast, but Heracles was faster. As the big cat leaped toward Heracles, paws outstretched, its teeth gleaming, the hero swung his club with tremendous power, bringing it crashing down upon the beast’s massive bonce with a deeply satisfying thud. The Nemean Lion lay stunned at his feet, so Heracles took the opportunity to unleash some of his patented pro-wrestling moves. He launched himself upon the Lion, wrapping his muscled arms around its enormous neck, and began to squeeze with all his strength. Try as it might, the Nemean Lion could not escape Heracles’ vicious headlock. With a final sad little sigh, the Nemean Lion breathed no more.

Heracles and the Nemean Lion wrestle to the death.
Heracles wrestles the Nemean Lion. Fantastic artwork by Miguel Coimbra.

Now, all Heracles had to do was skin the Lion, easy… right? Wrong! Heracles tried slicing the Lion’s body with a sharp rock, a sword, a spear, and even Hermes’ razor-sharp wit, but nothing could cut into the beast’s thick golden hide. Heracles was about to give up, when Athena, the goddess of wisdom, appeared to give him a tip. The solution she offered Heracles was clever and yet oh-so-simple. ‘Heracles, use the Nemean Lion’s own claws to cut off and remove its pelt’ she said. Heracles muttered his thanks and did so. Using its own deadly claws against it, the Nemean Lion’s pelt slid off easier than the skin of an easy-peel clementine from Marks and Spencer.

Heracles wearing the manltle of the Nemean Lion.
Heracles has a lovely new hat. Still taken from the 2014 film, Hercules.

Having completed his quest, Heracles donned the Nemean Lions’ head and hide as a fabulous hat and coat combo (it was a garment that he would wear for the rest of his life) and set off to see King Eurystheus. The problem was, when Heracles arrived at the King’s palace, Eurystheus was so freighted by the fearsome hero and his impossible victory that he refused to come out of his throne room.

In fact, so terrified was the King, that he even refused Heracles entrance to his city. From now on, Heracles must present his trophies outside the city walls, to a herald, who would then let his king know what had happened. Still, despite his rude behaviour, King Eurystheus could not quibble with the first Labour being a complete success. He ticked the slaying the Nemean Lion off his to-do list and commanded Heracles to commence his second Labour, to vanquish the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.

As Heracles strolled off, King Eurystheus commanded his slaves to find an enormous bronze jar and to bury it in the ground. This was like Eurystheus’s safe room. If ever Heracles were to turn on him, to try to kill him, Eurystheus would hide in the jar and wait for Heracles to get bored and go away. Cunning, huh? Why was Eurystheus so worried about Heracles turning on him? Because Eurystheus was intent on ensuring that Heracles failed in his Labours. If ever the demi-god were to find this out, then Eurystheus would definitely want somewhere to hide!

Check back next week for the second part of our ‘The Labours of Heracles’ series, Heracles versus the Hydra!


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