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The Twelve Labors of Hercules I - The Nemean Lion

         The Twelve Labors of Hercules (Heracles)


The First Labor – To Kill The Nemean Lion (revised version, spring 2016)


         In his first labor, Heracles was sent to Nemea in Greece’s Peloponnese region to subdue a dreadful man-eating Lion. It was no ordinary lion. Its skin, in some accounts made of gold, was so tough that nothing—not arrows, knives or spears—could pierce it. After finding his weapons useless, Heracles drove it into a cave and grabbed it with his bare hands. He squeezed it so tightly it couldn’t breathe, and soon it dropped down dead.

         Heracles needed to take the lion’s pelt back to the king to prove he had killed it, but he was baffled how to do it, since his knife couldn’t cut it. Then a clever idea occurred to him. He took up a great paw and pressed the lion’s own fearsome claws against the stomach. It sliced into the skin with ease, and he soon had the whole skin off. Knowing how tough it was, he decided it would make a fantastic coat of armor and a helmet.

         Heracles is easy to spot in Greek paintings and statues, because he is almost always wearing the lion skin or else carrying it over his arm. Otherwise he’s dressed in only the open air.

         Strangling the lion seems like a simple enough task, but there is an important spiritual lesson woven into it. Let’s see what we can find here.


         In addition to its lethal ferocity, the distinguishing mark of the Nemean Lion is that its hide was impervious to all weapons; it turned out the thick skin could only be cut by its own claws. The symbolic reference is to vanity or the spiritual ego. Our misguided beliefs coupled with natural self-interest create layers of defensive barriers in the conscious mind, which adroitly parry all attempts to penetrate it. The myth hints that, while impervious to outside attacks, our egoistic cocoon contains the seeds of its own unraveling.

         In many cultures, lions symbolize pride. A family of lions is even called a pride. Pride or vanity, along with its aspects of conceit, arrogance, pretension and the like, is the first stumbling block to a spiritual life. It closes us down where we should be open, and causes us to be satisfied with inferior accomplishments by exaggerating their value.

         The lion is also the king of beasts. Kings are also very proud. Pride can be pure, but the lion is the king of beasts, and thus master of all the superficial qualities. Whether leonine or kingly, our pride tends to make us impervious to advice. Even the best ideas don’t get through to us. The only way to rid ourselves of that kind of pride is to be proud enough to admit we have it, because we want to be even better than we are now. This means there is a valuable pride that helps us improve and an inferior kind that makes us selfish and miserable, that keeps us stuck. Heracles cutting the thick skin with its own claw is like using intelligent pride to overcome ordinary pride. The honorable form of pride prompts us to become the best we can. We have to always remember to be honest about our shortcomings, or selfish pride will sneak back in to make us foolish. Heracles carrying the lion skin reminds us to remain humble and admit our faults at all times.

         Vanity means emptiness. The Biblical “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” implies that everything is made up of our ideas about it, while in reality having only the qualityless Absolute for its nature. All of us have substituted our ideas for the reality around us, and we live wrapped in those ideas. This is after all how we function as thinking beings, and it has positive as well as negative effects in everyday life. But in spiritual striving it is fatal, because we become impervious to transformative instruction. We cling to our beliefs in preference to learning from others, especially those we have been trained to disdain, but also those we profess to admire.

         Overcoming prejudices is a primary task of spiritual aspirants, and the spiritual ego cleverly reinforces them, even while claiming to do away with them. In some ways this makes vanity the most insidious stumbling block of all, by diverting our determination for excellence into dead ends and providing premature satisfaction. Why follow through when we’re already terrific?

         The first time we experience something it is really profound and powerful. Direct. The next time it’s still pretty profound, but mixed in are our expectations about how good or bad the next experience is going to be, based on our memories. We have already prepared a label to describe it, and the label includes a rating of its value to us. These thoughts overlay the direct experience like a blanket. As the event is repeated the memories become virtually the entire experience, and the stimulus itself is barely noticed at all. We have decided we like the idea of that particular experience, and in consequence we don’t much register it ever again. Still, we are certain we know what we like, so there is no need for us to change. The conception has replaced the actuality.

         This affects much more than spiritual endeavors, of course. A significant aspect of the aging process is the substitution of mediated or verbal experience for direct interaction. As we move more and more into repetitive experience the joy of being alive drains away. We become either content with mental dullness or desperate to reignite the joy through new experiences that often wander into bizarre realms. Spiritual acuity does not rely on either extreme, but remains alive to direct experience.

         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 especially 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.

         No matter how thickly we are swaddled in fixed beliefs, deep down a part of us longs for the joys of direct experience. When we embark on a spiritual path, we do so because we have had some exciting or blissful experience that reminds us there is much more joy to be had in life if we only knew how to access it. We intuitively understand that if we were truly open, then bliss would be our everyday state, but instead we have supplanted living experience with ideas and memories. We have replaced 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” in this case meaning a conflicting 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. Some kind of outside agent is required to cause us to surrender our spiritual ego, since it is the very “us” we most identify with. Psychedelic agents can do it for a short period, demonstrating the technique of letting go, and the value of such aid was central to many ancient cultures, including those of Greece and India.

         Heracles, however, was able to kill the beast on his own, 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. You have to really want it. For most of us, our ability to delude ourselves that we are making spiritual progress when in fact we are merely stuck in a familiar web of deceit 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. Taking the time to admire and appreciate the many 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 sometimes help with this, but it can also emerge 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.

         For all his vaunted bravado, Heracles was in fact humble in some respects, and he honored the gods. His straying from perfection in very human ways is meant to include us in the game. We don’t have to be perfect to grow and evolve, only determined to learn. We will always make mistakes, but these teach us lessons that correctness never could.


         There is a very important corollary to note: the role of words in the spiritual quest. 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 (in words, at least) 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.

         When we listen to a teacher or read up on techniques for stilling the mind, we are being instructed by words, words which present new ideas and aim to shake us out of our conditioned state. Without the stimulating challenge of wise words, we are likely to stay stuck in our comfort zone.

         The appeal of drugs and religious rituals is that for a time one can enjoy nonverbal, direct 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 merely renders it temporarily invisible. We always come back into our persona made up of our own thoughts and attitudes. The solution is to find an intelligent orientation to let go of verbal interpretation, which process is often encouraged by the same thing that holds us fast.

         Psychedelics tend to stifle the narrative impulse, leaving the traveler speechless…. Unmitigated reality stands revealed. Many Greeks were introduced to the mysteries revealed by psychedelics in rites held at the sanctuary of Eleusis. The eleventh Labor addresses this aspect of the spiritual search.

         Hercules overcame the Lion with his bare hands. Dr. Mees sees these as symbolic of the Guru, and he has a point. 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 it may not be as literal as it looks. Mere suppression of the urge to talk 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 takes on the Hydra.)

         The Bhagavad Gita suggests that only when we directly experience the underlying reality does the narrative compulsion fall away.

         After killing the lion Hercules tried to cut off its 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 tells us he forged an intelligent frame of reference that henceforth would help him in his quest. His armor made him impervious to other weapons (inadequate belief systems) and the helmet gave him an invincible outlook.

         Hercules wears the coat of skin only in battle. Usually he carries it casually draped over his arm or shoulder, demonstrating that he has conquered his prideful spiritual ego. This implies that he has not just assumed another, tougher persona, but intelligently employs his ego only in conflict situations. It is brought with him only as an adjunct. The ego is a useful tool, but a terrible master.

         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.

         Spiritual teaching stories aim to reflect our inner reality so we can better understand ourselves. Our task here—our Labor—is to translate the symbols of the myth into contemplative action, so that we may find ways to break free of our prejudiced and claustrophobic attitudes and restore openness to our mind.



Vainglory – “excessive or ostentatious pride especially in one’s achievements” Merriam-Wenster

The childish ego seeks vainglorious enhancement: fame, fortune, bodily enjoyments and so on. Some people, either by achieving or being thwarted in striving for ordinary vainglory, substitute a spiritual longing: a state that is vastly superior to mere temporal success. In a way the spiritual ego is even more grandiose than the transactional ego, so convinced of its rightness that it cannot entertain doubts. Many spiritual sects play on this by painting doubt as a diabolical obstruction that must be overcome through faith. It makes for utterly dedicated followers if you can prune away all doubt. Yet in a sense, spiritual goals can be even less “real” than worldly success—aiming at nonexistent abstractions. Such abstractions can be beautiful, as in compassion, nurturing, solidarity and the like. But there is a huge gray area where you may be asked to trade in your sovereignty for a slavish devotion to someone or something.

         In healthy spirituality a person is not asked to surrender their intelligence.

         Hercules has reached a critical stage by the time of his first Labor. Once the urge for vainglory is dismissed as an impediment, the deeper, more primitive urges may find room to spring to the surface. If these are treated as the “will of God” or otherwise beneficial, they can run away with us, expanding the ego beyond all semblance of sanity. It secretly promotes its selfish desires as divine, and releases all restraint.

         All desires surface as crafted by the conceptualization of the bearer, and these concepts arise in the form of verbal structures. Below the verbal level, the ego has no control whatsoever. It has to content itself with manipulating appearances on those higher levels, because it has no access to the rest of the mind.

         For anyone to reclaim contact with their whole being, they must transcend their dependence on the verbal level of interaction, allowing the depths to guide them. Such sorties are jealously prevented by the ego, in fear it will lose control. The greater the success, the more the rage mounted by the ego to scare the truth seeker away from that direction. These ego defenses can be as ferocious as a man-eating lion, and when we are denied entry into our whole being, it is as if we are dear. We have been denied access to our spirit, our whole being, consigned to live as mere shadows of our full potential. This is the slavering beastie that Hercules has been sent out to defeat first. Without killing the vicious blockade, we cannot get where we need to go.

         This is a particularly terrifying and challenging part of spiritual development, and most seekers turn back here, instead working to content themselves with an inferior set of goals.


         The Nemean Lion resembles the “monsters from the id” depicted in the movie Forbidden Planet—lethal impulses made manifest to carry out the nefarious unconscious cravings of those clever enough to unleash them.

Scott Teitsworth