Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Labors of Hercules I
Bill Long 8/13/08
Labor One: The Nemean Lion
Greek myths fascinate because they allure and instruct on a number of levels. There is, on the one hand, the sheer entertainment derived from learning about a heroic deed or a terrifying monster. But the more significant or "adult" way of reading the myths has to do with the spiritual or "life-course" lessons they embody. These lessons are sometimes hard to elicit because the literary traditions which present the myths are often partial and inconsistent. Thus, for example, the notion of 12 labors of Hercules (Herakles in Greek) seemingly is a construct that appeared, perhaps for the first time, in the 2nd cent. CE mythographer Apollodorus (Library and Epitome 2.5.1-2.5.12). The general approach of scholars these days is to see the "cycle" of labors as a "cleaned up" version of stories that circulated possibly independently as tall or entertaining tales but were later brought into the poetic/epic tradition because of the lessons that the stories could teach.
With these two insights informing my approach (stories not circulating as a cycle, but seeking out "life-lessons" from the stories), I seek to examine some of Hercules' labors, following the 12-labor framework of Apollodorus. Some of the themes emerging out of the labors themselves and the first labor: slaying the Nemean lion, are these:
1. We, like Hercules, undertake rigorous labors, beginning in our youth, because we often need to atone for some deed we have done or pay back somebody for our greed, lust, or violence. The labors are given to us by another and are undertaken not for adventure but to try to redeem ourselves. In Hercules' case, he took on the labors because his greatest asset, his strength, had been turned against others (he killed his wife and children in a fit of divinely-induced madness). That would be the first question to probe: what tasks are we undertaking in our lives to try to atone for something? Do we owe money? Are we trying to get back into someone's good graces? What is the nature of our shame that we are trying to eradicate? Shame and the need to pay back others takes us on some amazing journeys and the most rigorous labors.
2. Once he begins the first labor, he travels for many days before he finds his nemesis: The Nemean Lion. The lion had devastated the countryside and was a threat to all. Several things about Hercules' equipment and progress are important to note. First, he took with him something that had availed him on a prior (successful) expedition against a lion: his club. But he will find that it doesn't "work" here. Thus, as we face foes, foes that look the same as previous foes, we realize that the former tools may not profit us at all. He also took along some arrows, which would no doubt be helpful. But he found that the lion's skin was impervious to the arrows. By the way, the derivation of the word impervious is interesting. It consists of three Latin words: "in" (not), "per" (through), and "via" (a way or road)." Something impervious is, literally, something through which there is no way.
3. Thus, Hercules discovers that he will have to improvise and develop other methods to slay this beast. And, it isn't just any old lion; the lion, as one story has it, was fathered by the dragon Typhon. But even as he is trying to decide on which new weapon to use, he is confused by the lion's behavior. Hercules thinks he has trapped him in his cave, but the cave ends up being a "two-entrance" cave, thus allowing the lion to escape with impunity. Finally, the encounter between the two happens when Hercules blocks one of the exits. Flexibility in fighting one's foe is necessary. The first thing to do is to make sure you get it in your sight. Don't be discouraged when he doesn't "show." Figure out why you can't find him. Then, when you have found him, decide on your new method of attack.
4. In order to kill the foe, sometimes you have to do it with your bare hands. Hercules saw that his arrows here useless and that his club split down the middle when he attacked the lion with it. All that was left were his hands. But then, if he attacked with hands, he would face the lion's deadly claws. Thus, while you apply your strength to a task, you have to avoid the counter-strength of the opponent. Everything would have been so much easier had the arrows worked or the club been useful! But this isn't the case, and the wise and spiritually alert person must learn to improvise in order to reach the goal.
5. After killing the foe, Hercules brings back the token of his victory--the lion's impenetrable skin. In other words, he needs "proof" of his victory. At first, he tried to lug back the dead lion, but it was too heavy for him. So, he removed the pelt. But, how do you do that? Again, he improvised, and used the claws of the lion to rip off its own skin.
6. Don't expect others to be elated with your great show of strength. Indeed, Eurystheus, the king who assigned Hercules his labors, shrunk from Hercules when he returned. Realize that your skills and strength actually scare other people at times. Just because it is a blessing for you and it liberates the people who had been in thrall to the lion doesn't mean it will be greeted with joy by the 'guy in charge.' Indeed, Eurystheus saw Hercules' power as a threat to him. The story says a couple of things at this point. On the one hand, the king would no longer speak directly with Hercules; the latter had to communicate through a herald. Second, the king had a big jar or pot made in which he could hide in case Hercules wanted to take out after him. Thus, don't expect the people in power to be delighted with your exploits.
7. Hercules ended up wearing the pelt of the lion around his shoulders because Eurystheus, to whom Hercules presented it, didn't want the pelt lying around. So, he returned it to Hercules. Thus, take the visible token of your first victory, if it is available to you, and wear it proudly. Depictions of Hercules have him wearing the pelt, with the lion's jaws open over his hair.
As you can see, this story is not simply "kids stuff." Lots of lessons for us adults. If we ignore or deny the lessons of myth, we just might not quite ever work through our trials...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long