This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
Among the many heroes of ancient Greece, none loom as large as the mighty Hercules as the Romans called him; Herakles in Greek. I have written a lot about Hercules, but even without reference to any of the other articles on this website I think you’re at least somewhat familiar with him.
Among the many heroic deeds that he accomplished over the course of his long career, the best known are no doubt his Twelve Labours. He had to perform these Labours as punishment for having murdered his own family in a blind rage caused by his arch-nemesis, the goddess Hera. Hera was jealous of Hercules because he had been fathered by her husband Zeus in an affair with a mortal woman, Alcmene.
The Nemean Lion
One of the Labours involved killing a monstrous lion that roamed the countryside near Nemea. This lion had a skin that was impervious, so stabbing it would be useless. Hercules instead fashioned a club from an olive tree; some sources claim it was also clad in bronze. He used this club to hit the lion on the head, thereby stunning it. This gave him the opportunity to wrap his massive arms around the creature’s throat and strangle it to death.
The Labour involving the Nemean Lion thus provided Hercules with his two most characteristic attributes: the olive-wood club that is his signature weapon and the impervious lion-skin. According to Theocritus (Idylls 25.272-279), Hercules used the lion’s own claws, which were so sharp that they could cut through almost anything.
Most sources suggest that Hercules performed this Labour without any significant trouble. But a late source adds an interesting wrinkle. According to the book Strange History by Ptolemaeus Chennus (also known as Ptolemy Hephaestion, i.e. “Ptolemy son of Hephaestion”), a native of Alexandria who lived during the reigns of the Roman emperors Trajan (r. AD 98-117) and Hadrian (r. 117-138), Hercules did not emerge from the ordeal unscathed.
Ptolemaeus’ work itself is lost, but a summary is preserved in Photius’ Bibliotheca (Codex 190, 147a39-147b6). Photius does not like Ptolemaeus’ work, believing it to be unreliable, but he records some of the contents anyway. According to Ptolemaeus, Photius notes, the Nemean Lion had managed to bite off one of Hercules’ fingers during the struggle.
After the animal had been killed, Hercules took care to collect the severed finger. He buried it in a small tomb of its own. Rather ostentatiously, he is said to have marked the tomb with a stone statue of a lion. According to Ptolemaeus, this was the first time that a grave had been marked in this way. Since then, according to the Alexandrian scholar, other tombs had also been marked with stone lions.