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  • Elliott Holley

Did the terrifying Nemean lion really exist?

Three thousand years ago, a ferocious lion of great strength and size terrorised the farmers of the Peloponnese. According to legend, the fear it inspired was so great that only the Greek hero Heracles could finally overcome the lion's savagery. But could this mythical story be based on real events?

With a thick hide that was seemingly impervious to all man-made weapons, and teeth and claws that could penetrate even the best defence, it seemed all hope was lost for the villagers of Nemea. Many brave champions attempted to face the lion in combat, but their bones ended up littering the entrance to its lair.

The ancient Greek tale says that the lion was sent by the jealous goddess Hera to punish the people of Nemea, where there was a sanctuary to her husband Zeus. She may have been motivated by the desire for revenge against her husband's infidelity, but the story may have a deeper symbolic significance in real human history, as we'll see.

The battle between Heracles and the Nemean lion was a popular subject in ancient Greek art. Attic black-figure Greek amphora, c.500 BC.

Hearing about the lion's rampage, the hero Heracles decided to try his luck. Heracles heard about the lion from local shepherds, who told him that if he could kill the lion within 30 days and return alive, the town would offer sacrifice to Zeus. But if he did not, the town would instead offer sacrifice in his honour.

The battle

When Heracles arrived in Nemea, he at first attempted to use arrows against the lion. But he soon found these were useless against the animal's tough hide. Instead, he picked up his club and pursued the lion. At the lion's cave, there were two entrances. He first blocked one entrance, and then approached carefully through the other.

In the darkness, he was able to stun the lion with his club, although he lost a finger in the process. He then grasped the lion tightly in his arms, holding it close until it choked to death. Afterwards, he brought the lion's pelt back to Nemea, and rededicated the Nemean Games, which had previously been celebrated in honour of Opheltes, to Zeus.

Legend says when the lion was killed, Hera created the constellation Leo, allowing the Nemean lion's spirit to ascend to the stars.

Significance and controversy

For the Greeks, the symbolism of this fight was unmissable: the triumph of mankind over the savagery of nature. The triumph of civilisation over barbarism was another popular theme in Greek art. But there's an even more interesting interpretation, and it concerns the role of women in society.

In Greek mythology, Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene. It is said that her face and dark eyes were as charming as Aphrodite's. But Alcmene was not Zeus' wife; rather, Hera was. Hera had raised the Nemean lion herself, possibly in part to get revenge on her husband. Heracles' battle with the Nemean lion was more than just man against beast, therefore; it was also the son of Zeus, championing his divine father against the vengeance of Hera.

But there is also a more sinister interpretation. Some modern historians have noted that the story may reflect the move away from belief in female goddesses (prominent in the Bronze Age and the Archaic period), towards the eventual dominance of patriarchy. Zeus was after all 'king of the gods', and it is the goddess and her representative, that end up losing out in the story.

If this were an isolated argument, I'd say we were in danger of projecting modern values back onto the ancient past. But there may be something to it. The West side of the Parthenon in Athens was decorated in the 5th century BC with images of Greek warriors defeating and killing the Amazons, a mythical tribe of female-only warriors that were loosely based on the Scythians, nomadic people who lived to the north of the Black Sea. Such images were popular in Greek art, including on vases.

5th century BC depiction of the battle of Greeks versus Amazons, from the Eretria painter.

While Scythian society was relatively egalitarian, ancient Greek society was highly oppressive towards women. They were not allowed to own a business, and upper class women rarely ventured outside the home. They were not citizens, and did not have the right to vote. They were regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers.

Scythian society was shocking to the ancient Greeks, as the freedom accorded to the women in their society was seen as scandalous. Therefore by depicting the Amazons being killed by Greek men, the Greek artists were effectively depicting the triumph of patriarchy, over women. Or at least that's the interpretation that some modern viewers take, notably popularised in the BBC documentary series "The Ascent of Woman", presented by Doctor Amanda Foreman.

Regardless of whether this is right or not, we can, (if we choose), therefore see the story of the Nemean lion as a product of the society that produced it. Perhaps if a woman had written the story, the lion might have eaten Heracles, and the villagers might have pledged allegiance to her instead of Zeus!

Speculation aside, the story does hint at something else as well: the history of early human expansion into the natural world.

The real history behind the legend?

Perhaps surprisingly for modern readers, lions did in fact exist in Greece, and other parts of Europe, until Classical times.

The Asiatic lion had a much larger range than it does today, including southeastern Europe. There is also evidence of a subspecies, Panthera Leo Europaea, which lived in Greece and other parts of Europe.

Lions became extinct in the Peloponnese around 1,000 BC, but they survived in parts of Greece until at least the second century AD and possibly as late as the fourth century AD.

The Nemean Games were also a real historical event, which is recorded going back at least as far as 573 BC.

Most modern historians suggest that Heracles is probably based either on folk memories of the Neolithic period, or possible a real person or persons, whose stories were embellished over the centuries, until they were eventually written down in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.

The story of the Nemean lion is part of the Twelve Labours of Heracles. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Heracles supposedly lived 900 years before his own time, which would put his life sometime around 1,300 BC.

In any case, there is little doubt that real lions did exist in the vicinity of Nemea centuries ago. It is entirely plausible that local farmers were attacked by a lion at some point in pre-history. The story of the Nemean lion, when stripped of its mythical elements, may be simply a folk record of the conflict between humans, and lions, as early Neolithic farmers cleared more and more of the natural habitat to make way for their farms and their livestock.

If so, it is a poignant story, and one that connects with the issue of wildlife conservation, a topic that is of pressing interest to many people today in our ever-expanding, industrialised world.

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