Heracles’ first Labour: the Lion of Nemea

Drawn for the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation specification.

Heracles' first labour. Based on the Olympian metope: Athene is on the left, with Hermes on the right, and a pretty annoyed-looking Heracles in the middle, looking quite young, with one leg propped up on the dead Lion of Nemea at his feet. His speech bubble says 'this is my life now'. GMC

Heracles’ first labour, a ‘mission impossible’ set by King Eurystheus of Mycenae, was to pursue and kill the Lion of Nemea, a beast that was probably tearing up livestock and locals. However, after attacking it with his regular weapons – bow and arrow, spear, sword – he discovered that the lion’s skin was impregnable to weapons. So, he used his brute strength and strangled it, a technique that would become regular in his later labours. See the comic.

Needing to bring home a trophy, he pondered how to remove the pelt (skin) of the lion. Athene, goddess of wisdom and thus the external representation of that talent in mortals, apparently gave him the idea to use the lion’s own claws to skin it. Heracles then went on to wear the skin of the Nemean Lion as a cloak, which gives us his most recognisable feature in art, aside from his club (although it’s possible that his pre-labours lion-kill provided this trophy).

The comic is based on the metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, in order to help students remember both the metope and the story.

Sketch of the metope (author unknown) as it possibly looked when on the temple (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015) – you can see where the figures of Athene and (probably) Hermes stood to flank Heracles.
Remaining carved stone metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015)

Athene is on the left, representing Heracles’ wisdom in being able to kill an ‘unkillable’ beast and in using its own claws to skin it. However, the right-hand figure is unclear and is often thought to be Hermes, messenger of the gods, possibly on behalf of Hera, possibly as he is also represented on another metope later on.

It is a bit confusing as Hermes doesn’t appear in the story. In any case, having two (divine) figures on either side of a young Heracles, who looks pretty downtrodden as he realises this is what he’s going to have to keep doing to negate the miasma he has earned from killing his wife and children (in a fit of madness caused by Hera who hates him – yes, it’s not fair,) seems suitable as an introduction to the labours in which he will ultimately be successful, as well as effectively filling the space.

NOTE: the club also doesn’t have a place in the story, yet it appears in the metope, probably to identify Heracles, as he’s not wearing the lion skin.

heracles by greekmythcomix

Continue learning about the life of Heracles:

Videos on YouTube

Comix on GMC

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