Heracles and the Lion
A long time ago in Ancient Greece there lived a young demi-God called Heracles. He was handsome, quick and very, very, very strong.
“I am stronger than any man, beast or God,” he boasted. “I can carry ten elephants on my shoulders and not even break a sweat.”
To prove it, Heracles hunted down ten elephants and carried them around Greece on his shoulders. Everyone was very impressed… except the Goddess Hera.
“He’s nothing more than a show-off,” she said. “He will never be a hero.”
Heracles wanted to be a hero more than anything in the world. Luckily, the Goddess Athena, had a soft spot for him. “We should give him a chance,” she said. “Let him prove how heroic he can be.”
Hera smiled. “Excellent idea,” she was positive Heracles would never succeed. “King Eurystheus can set him some tasks.”
Heracles hated King Eurystheus. He was weak and snivelling and a terrible, terrible King.
“Anyone but him!” Heracles protested.
But Athena smiled wisely. “This will teach you to be humble.”
Heracles grumbled. In his opinion being humble was a waste of time. But he went to the palace to see what King Eurystheus would have him do.
“The mighty Heracles, come to serve me!” King Eurystheus teased. “Aren’t you going to bow?”
Heracles stood up tall, looking down at the King sitting on his golden throne. “No,” he replied.
King Eurystheus was a little bit scared of Heracles, so he didn’t argue. “Your task,” he said, getting on with the business in hand. “Is to hunt down a savage lion that is terrorising Nemea.”
Heracles had heard of the Nemean Lion. It was three times the size of a normal lion, it had claws as sharp as razors and teeth that could crush a man’s skull. “No problem,” he said and sauntered out, leaving King Eurystheus, who had hoped to scare Heracles with the task, speechless.
Making his way to the hills near Nemea, Heracles heard the lion’s roar and grinned. “This is going to be fun.” Heracles loved hunting. He was very good at it. He pulled out his bow and arrow and approached, softly. The lion was feasting on the carcass of a bull. Heracles cocked his arrow, aimed for the lion’s heart and released. The arrow shot through the air as fast as lightning. It struck the lion right in the heart. But instead of piercing the lion’s skin, it bounced right off.
“Zeus’ thunderbolt!” Heracles exclaimed. He shot another arrow, and another and another. Every arrow bounced off the lion like rain off a window. The lion didn’t even notice, he just carried on eating his dinner. Heracles checked his arrows.
“Ow!” They were sharp enough. So, what was the problem? Heracles pulled out his club. He tip-toed up behind the lion and whacked it on the head. The club bounced backwards, sending Heracles flying across the clearing. “Arghh!” What was happening?
The lion raised his head form the bull carcass, he sniffed the air, then he turned and and saw Heracles. This is it, thought Heracles now we’ll fight. But instead of attacking him, the lion simply went back to finishing his meal.
Heracles was a little put out. “Oi! Kitty-cat!” he called. “Come and fight me!” He whacked it again with his club, but again he was propelled in the opposite direction, like a bouncing ball, and the lion didn’t even flinch.
Heracles picked himself up. This isn’t right. He should be marching back to the palace, his head held high, crowds lining the streets to throw him flowers and applaud his heroic awesomeness. Instead he was covered in dust, with a bruised bottom and a foe that didn’t even notice he was there.
“Right!” said Heracles. “No more Mr Nice Hero.” He threw the club to one side and launched himself at the lion. Landing on the lion’s back, Heracles flipped it over and grabbed it around the neck. The lion let out a roar and flailed its paws, trying to get out of the Heracles’ grasp. Ducking and diving away from the lion’s thrashes, Heracles kept his stranglehold and the two of them rolled down the hill towards the town of Nemea.
The lion roared. Heracles roared back, twice as loudly and for twice as long. Finally, the lion went quiet, realising he was beaten.
“That’s better,” Heracles said and began to tighten his grip around the lion’s neck.
“Heracles, stop,” the Goddess Athena appeared before him. “A hero doesn’t kill without reason. Look into the lion’s eyes, see the soul beneath the beast.”
The lion doesn’t have a soul, thought Heracles. It’s just a dumb animal. But he did as Athena told him. He looked into the lion’s big, wide, brown eyes. What Heracles saw surprised him.
“He looks… like me.”
The lion was powerful and strong, just like Heracles. He was proud and angry, just like Heracles. He deserved to live, just like Heracles.
Heracles released his grip. “What should I do with him?”
Athena smiled. “We’ll give him to my sister, Artemis. She’ll look after him.”
Artemis was the Goddess of wild animals, if anyone could protect the lion, she could. Although he had not completed the task in the way Eurystheus expected, he had done the right thing and rid the land of the lion. Heracles felt good about himself when he returned to the palace. King Eurystheus greeted him with a triumphant smirk.
“Was the lion too much for you? Perhaps you should stick to kittens and mice.”
Heracles held his head high. “I could have killed the lion, but it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Eurystheus laughed and looked at his courtiers. “Did you hear that? Heracles is going soft. He let the little lion live.”
Heracles felt anger bubbling inside him, his fingers twitched. He wanted to jump on the King and throttle him. But being a hero wasn’t always about what you did do, sometimes it was about what you didn’t do. It took every ounce of restraint Heracles had to bow to the King. “Apologies for failing you,” he said and left.
The King’s mouth fell open. He could think of no smart response.
The Goddess Athena was waiting for Heracles outside the palace. In her hands she something.
“You did well, Heracles,” she said. “Here is a gift, from the lion whose life you spared.”
It was a coat made from the lion’s fur.
“It will protect you from any weapon.”
Heracles put the coat on. It was a good coat. The kind of coat a hero would wear.
“Are you going to make me a hero?” he asked the Goddess.
“Not yet,” Athena smiled. “But if you keep on the way you are going, then one day.”
Heracles was a little disappointed he wasn’t going to be a hero straight away. But he knew he had done the right thing and he supposed the coat was a good enough reward - for now.