The Nemean lion that Heracles has to defeat in his first labour symbolizes victory over the ego, from habitual selfishness to physical ego.
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Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion – Louvre Museum
The Nemean Lion was ravaging the region of Argos, devouring its herds and people.
The lion reigned supreme over the Nemean Treton and the Apesantus. He had been raised by Hera.
Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the hide of the animal.
Pindar adds that he was invulnerable to iron, and Bacchylides that he could only be attacked with bare hands.
These are, apparently, the only elements of the original myth. The following details were added later, especially towards the beginning of our era.
Some argue that the lion was born on the moon; Selene threw it on Earth at Hera’s request.
Heracles, when visiting the site, was hosted by a poor peasant named Molorchos, whose son had been killed by the lion. The peasant wished to honour his guest by offering the only ram he had, but Heracles dissuaded him and asked him to wait thirty days and await his return. If he did not come back, then he could sacrifice the ram in his memory.
Heracles went his way and tracked the lion for twenty-eight days. He first tried to kill him with arrows and a sword (and sometimes his club) but in vain, because his skin was impenetrable. As the lion lived in a cave with two exits, the hero closed one of them, seized him and strangled him with his bare hands. Then he donned his skin.
He then returned to the farmer who was about to sacrifice the ram as thirty days had already elapsed. The ram was then offered to Zeus “savior”.
Before leaving, Heracles, crowned with wild parsley, reorganized the games of Nemea which had been founded by Adrastos during the war of the Seven against Thebes.
Then he brought the remains of the lion to Eurystheus. Terrified, the latter demanded of Heracles that his trophies would now be deposited at the gates of Mycenae. And it was therefore Copreus, a son of Pelops, who transmitted the orders to the hero.
If this work was placed at the beginning, it is because it is the keystone of the Labours, at least of the first six if we consider only what was accessible to ordinary seekers.
The symbolism of the lion, the king of beasts, evokes here the highlight of the ego personality in man – the “little me” that brings everything back to himself – born from ignorance and a sense of being separated (Apesante means “separated”), i.e. what we call the mental-vital “ego”.
Symbol of power, it is the will to empower the ego in its own right and not from the Divine law.
This lion, according to Hesiod, is the son of Orthrus and Echidna (or of the Chimera) and according to Apollodorus, that of Typhon. We studied these monsters in the previous chapter, but we will provide their meanings briefly here.
See Family tree 1
Orthrus is the falsehood (the lie or perversion) that creeps into our lives during the eruption of the mind through a combination of “ignorance” (Typhon “what dissimulates, what blinds”) and the “interruption of evolution in union” (Echidna, the viper which marks the beginning of the separation process).
(The spelling of Orthus “what is right” and therefore meaning exactly the opposite of Orthrus which include the Rho of inversion, comes from the erroneous corrections of manuscripts, according to the note II.106.4 from the Library of Apollodorus, according to J.C. Carriere and B. Massonie.)
In any case, the lion is the result of evolution in ignorance (son or grand-son of Typhon). Hesiod adds a “perversion” (Orthros) to his ancestors, combined with a separation from the Real, all resulting in an identification of the being to the actions of its instruments (the mental, the vital and the body), generating a centralizing movement from the ego.
According to Hesiod, Echidna is the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, and therefore contemporary with the emergence of the animal ego. This ego takes its roots in sensations that are themselves misleading. According to Apollodorus, Echidna is the daughter of Tartarus “the Nescience”: stopping the evolution in the union would be for this author a consequence of what is the exact opposite of the principle of existence-consciousness represented by Gaia.
This lion has the Sphinge for sister, the most elaborate and pernicious form of the ego, the “spiritual ego”. Oedipus must overcome her in order to rule over Thebes.
For the fundamental lie or perversion – Orthrus – to be eradicated in the tenth labour (that of the Herds of Geryon), his two children – the Nemean Lion and the Sphinge – must first be overcome: the seeker will have first to eliminate the ego in its most devious expression (the idea of a separate soul represented by Phix – the Sphinge) as well as in its vital roots.
The ego is not in itself an error or a “fall” of which man would carry all the responsibility, since the lion was raised by Hera. According to the authors who make him a son of Selene projected on the Earth at Hera’s request, he would be a formation of the true self projected in the limited human mental consciousness (Hera) for evolution. It must be seen as the process used by nature to develop a sense of limited individual and separate existence, a process that allows the animal to get out of the “group spirit” of the flock and its collective functioning, before allowing the man-animal to continue its individuation.
The ascendants of the lion of Cithaeron that Heracles fought before beginning the labour are not mentioned in the mythology. That is why we have not associated the latter lion to the ego but only to some of its manifestations in the intellect and the vital mental, related to arrogance and surface sufficiency.
However, the Nemean Lion represents the ego down to its roots and includes elements of resistance to yoga that are more archaic and difficult to combat because they are rooted in the core of the ego that had to be built as a separate part. This is illustrated by the devastation around Nemea, that is to say, in “the evolution of receptivity and consecration”.
The first difficulty encountered comes from the identification of the inner being with the ego. We identify ourselves through our senses, emotions and thoughts to the actions of the mind, of life and of the body, and we are always projected towards the outside: this is the movement of externalisation of the ego from which we must free ourselves by winning the first victory over the lion. For this purpose, the seeker must make a reversal of consciousness in order to contact his inner truth.
The later added story of Molorchos the farmer can shed more light on this first labour.
First, it emphasizes the essential quality that the seeker must develop, namely humility.
Furthermore, it underlines a premature and misguided impulse (even if it shows good will and is ready to offer all it has to the quest), the proposition of sacrificing the unique ram rejected by the hero: in fact, the seeker must work awhile, a long symbolic duration before he can claim any success, (to realise the right gift).
Finally, it shows through the patience required of the peasant that the fight against the ego will be long. That confirms the meaning of the name Molorchos “moves agitatedly”. Within the seeker, agitation cannot produce any fruits, which is why Molorchos is “poor”.
The seeker, however, must take this into account about his nature, the impatience to sacrifice, which can find its right performance at the death of the ego (at the return of the hero). If there is failure (if Heracles dies) the seeker must still honor the attempt made and continue the yoga without grieving.
In the most ancient representations, Heracles seems to attack the lion with his sword. But later texts mention that his skin may be pierced nor by iron, nor by arrows. The skin has already been mentioned as a symbol of sensitivity, which is closely linked to consciousness. The ego is equipped with a shell made of insensitivity over which the usual severing weapons of the will and the tension toward the goal would be ineffective. It is rather through a close conscious union with the ego that we can get rid of it, by “embracing the shadows” as the expression goes. The hero is forced to enter the cave head on after closing one of the two entrances: the seeker “grabs” the ego after ensuring that it has no way to escape, as it always finds intricate means to get away.
From the 7th century BC, Heracles is represented wearing the lion’s skin.
According to the traditional spiritual teachings, this outfit could mean that the seekers must “keep the coat of the country” in order to pass as unnoticed as possible regardless of their level of realisation. It could also indicate that the hero embraced his shadow and the corresponding energy can now be used fairly. In analogy with the rites that collect the scalp of the opponent. Theocritus in the 3rd century BC tried to make the story coherent by adding that the hero cut up the animal skin with his own claws because it was invulnerable to arrows and swords.
Before returning the remains to Eurystheus, Heracles reorganized the games of Nemea. These games were founded by Adrastos in honor of the death of the child Opheltes when the Seven leaders left for the war against Thebes. But the seeker was not sufficiently prepared then for the soothsayer had announced that this war would be a failure. It had to be won only much later by descendants of the Seven, the Epigoni. The death of Opheltes (then renamed Archemoros) marked the interruption of a premature “willingness to serve”: the seeker must wait longer and purify himself enough to make sure that his willingness to serve is not actually serving his ego. The games founded in honor of the child, however, show that this is not a serious error in yoga, but an almost obligatory passage. It is common for many beginner seekers to start the way by wanting to work for mankind. But it is only when the psychic manifests itself that the “service” can actually be turned to the Divine. Heracles can then “reorganize” the games and adorn himself with the crown of “mourning” of the ego, made of wild parsley.
The hero brought the remains of the monster to Eurystheus “a great strength” who was seized with terror and therefore banned him from entering Mycenae with his trophies: the “fear” of Eurystheus evokes perhaps the fear of the seeker to drop his ego, because man loves his chains.
It would now be Copreus “the hillbilly”, a son of Pelops “vision of the shadows”, who would transmit the orders to Heracles: at some point on the way, the work to be performed by the seeker is no longer directly indicated by an inner feeling (Eurystheus) but by the obstacles he encounters in life, the “shadow” or “mud”.
The equipment of Heracles
The origin of the weapons of the hero and the materials of which they are composed are very variable according to sources. It is generally accepted that Heracles carved his famous club from a wild olive tree during this first work, here symbol of the struggle for the purification of his nature.
For the weapons of the truth seeker (his assistants on the way) are those he creates himself according to his nature, his gifts and his ability to follow his own method of yoga.
The club was already a “prehistoric” tool in the time of the Greeks. Its use by Heracles therefore probably means that the work on oneself does not require sophisticated tools. The material of the work is our fears, our downturns, our lies, our insincerities and all the things that are engraved into our emotional and tangible memories and must be confronted.
Some authors also mention a sword offered by Hermes, the most common weapon of fighters granted here by the highest mind – the overmind – and probable sign of an ability to “settle”. He also received Apollo’s bow and arrows, symbols of a unified and enlightened will extended towards the goal, which is revealed by the psychic (Apollo). Hesiod, who described the shield of the hero at length, also mentions greaves (leg protections) made of orichalcum gifted by Hephaestus and a gold breastplate offered by Athena: it is the force that create new forms that protects the vital and physical strength (the legs) and may be the path, and it is the force that ensures inner evolution – the inner teacher – that offers essential protection.