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Decoding the Myth of Hercules

         The Twelve Labors of Hercules (Herakles)

          I - The Nemean Lion


         In order to become a hero—Greek for spiritually realized being—Hercules was assigned twelve impossible tasks.

         The first Labor of Hercules was to defeat the invulnerable Lion of Nemea. Its hide was impervious to all weapons; it turned out it could only be cut by its own claws. The symbolic reference is to spiritual vanity or spiritual ego, which parries all attempts to destroy it and yet contains the seeds of its own undoing.

         All of us are wrapped in a thick skin of words that has been growing thicker since birth. Words are very enchanting, but they only represent reality, they are not real in themselves. By adulthood we have all pretty much substituted word reality for essential reality, which we often refer to as spiritual reality. It is not enough to merely recognize this. Somehow the beast must be killed and the skin cut away. The myth tells us how: we must use the claws themselves, nothing else will do the trick. This means that only through words can we slice through the web of words which binds us.

         Many of us recognize the conundrum we’re in due to being caught in word reality, but few understand the power of words to extricate us. We fail to realize that everything we think and do is based on words. False and misleading words can further entangle us, but wise words can actually set us free. The fact that this occurs in the very first Labor means it is of preeminent importance.

         The appeal of drugs and religious rituals is that for a time one can enjoy nonverbal experience through them. It is very refreshing to be released for a time from the thrall of word-mediated reality. But the Herculean myth reminds us that this doesn’t cut away the skin; it’s only a temporary respite. We always come back into our persona made up of our own thoughts and attitudes. The solution is to find an intelligent orientation made out of the same thing that holds us fast.

         Hercules overcame the Lion with his bare hands. Dr. Mees, in his comments about this myth, sees these as symbolic of the Guru, and he is probably right. But to me it also means that weapons (tools) are superfluous. We have to wrestle directly in hand-to-hand combat with our own spiritual vanity that is based on the beliefs we have made out of words. The weapons symbolize religions or thought systems. These are to be abandoned and the situation addressed directly.

         The Lion is driven into a cave, where Hercules strangles it. This certainly looks like words being stifled in the throat, though I doubt it’s as literal as it looks. Mere suppression won’t work, but a successful attempt may stop the flow of web-weaving words or thoughts. (In fact the futility of suppressing the life force is the issue in the second Labor of Hercules, when he took on the Hydra.) Then Hercules tried to cut off the skin, but nothing would work. Finally he tried the Lion’s claws and the skin came away with ease. As noted above, this means that words are the only way to defeat a defective philosophy. The claws are very sharp and pointed, like the words of the Guru.

         Hercules next made a protective coat of armor and a helmet from the hide. This means he forged an intelligent frame of reference which henceforth would help him in his quest. His armor made him impervious to other weapons (beliefs) and the helmet gave him an invincible outlook.

         Several Indian stories use an elephant’s hide in the same way as the Lion’s hide in this story. It is incredibly tough, but beautiful enough to appeal to one’s vanity. Once wrapped in it, no outside influence can get through.



The following exchange is an appendix you might find interesting:


  Thanks Scott

  Please can you define your understanding of "spiritual ego/vanity" for me in more detail.    Wendy


  Hi Wendy,

  Your question is totally to the point, and impossible to answer simply. I wish we could spend an hour in a garden somewhere talking about it!

  Vanity means emptiness. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" means everything is made up of our ideas about it and in reality has only the qualityless Absolute for its nature. We have substituted our ideas for what is. We live wrapped in those ideas. If we sit and reflect, we know that the first time we experience something it is really profound and powerful. The next time it's still pretty profound, but mixed in are our thoughts about how good it is going to be, based on our memories. These in a way block part of the experience and water it down. Over time the memories become the whole thing, and the experience in itself is barely noticed. We have decided we like that object of experience, and don't much experience it ever again. Still, we are certain we know what we like.

  The ego is the part of us that says "I know what I like." It holds fast to its little likes, and dislikes too for that matter. It knows what it dislikes. It dislikes anything that might dislodge it from being in control.

  Spirit itself is a living, flowing emptiness that is ever changing. The ego is continually challenged by the movement of life, and so builds a defended nest where it coddles its likes and dislikes and protects them from the assaults of the newness of spirit. This ego nest is a lot like the thick skin of the Nemean Lion.

  When we embark on a spiritual search, we do so because we have had some exciting or blissful experience that makes us think there is much more of that to be had if we follow a certain path. If we were truly open, then bliss would be our everyday state, but instead we begin to replace spiritual experience with ideas and memories about it. We replace bliss with notions of bliss. The skin that's woven around spiritual ideals is even thicker than the rest, and more impervious to any weapon, weapon meaning religion or belief system. Our own beliefs trump all others.

  The Indian idea of the need for a Guru is based on this conundrum. We are helpless to extricate ourselves from our self-deception based on our best thinking. We have to have an outside agent who can cause us to surrender our spiritual ego. Hercules, however, was able to kill the beast through intense concentration and determination. Most of us are too lazy to bring that kind of intensity to bear, but I'd like to agree it's possible.

  Still, our ability to delude ourselves that we are making spiritual progress when in fact we are merely stuck is legendary.

  One thing that's very important is to cultivate and maintain a sense of humility. We are not much in charge of anything, even when we believe we are. Reminding ourselves of how much comes to us from the divine side of life, and how little we contribute ourselves, is very helpful. Admiring the zillions of really talented and wonderful people (and minerals and plants and animals) with which we are surrounded, helps keep things in perspective. And continually challenging our own assumptions is extremely important. Friends and family do this, but it can come from a simple openness to what's around us. Above all, extrication from spiritual egoism can be a gentle and sweet process, in contrast to the violent imagery of Hercules. The most important thing is to be alert.

  Your study of That Alone, the Core of Wisdom is a Herculean task which is sure to strip off the skin of the Lion and fashion it into a helmet of wisdom to guide your way on. We are unusually blessed to have that resource at our fingertips.

Scott Teitsworth