Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Star Gayzing - Leo

As a way of a prelude to my next Star Gayzing post which will be on Hercules we’ll look at the first of his famous labours – the defeat of the Nemean Lion.

The constellation we now call Leo was represented as a winged lion by the Babylonians, a creature seen a lot in their architecture. This idea of a super-lion transferred to the Greeks who identified the constellation with a super-lion of their own – the Nemean Lion.

In true ancient Greek style the creature was given a fantastical parentage. Several different sets of monstrous parents are mentioned in myths – his usual parents being the Titan Typhon (who had 100 heads and was as tall as the sky), and Echnida (a serpent-woman), who were also parents of Cerberus, the Gorgon, the Lernean Hydra and the Sphinx).

The lion’s fur was said to be pure gold and his skin was impervious to arrows or swords. This meant you had to be up close and personal if you wanted to deal with it, that’s if you manage to avoid it’s claws which could slice through thick armour like a hot knife through butter.

So how did Hercules get started on his labours? It started when the goddess Hera, angry that Hercules was yet another of her husband Zeus's illegitimate sons, sent Hercules mad. He killed his wife Megara and their children. Hercules travelled to see the Oracle of Delphi to be told what punishment he should receive. The Oracle decreed that Hercules should serve King Eurystheus of Athens and complete any task he set.

Eurystheus was a little scared of Hercules, so he came up with 10 difficult quests – the Labours – for Hercules to perform, hoping he’d not survive even the first one. As I mentioned last time, Eurystheus thought Hercules had help from his boyfriend Iolaus for two of these labours so Eurystheus added two more, giving 12 Labours in all.

The first labour the king sent Hercules on was to defeat the monstrous lion that was terrorizing the city of Nemea. Hercules took some arrows with him, but these would have been useless, of course, if he’d known.

After learning the hard way that arrows are no good Hercules trapped the lion in his cave and used a great club to stun the lion with a big wallop to the head. Then he used his great strength to strangle and kill the beast. With the lion now dead Hercules tried to skin the beast so he could wear its impervious fur as armour, but only the lion’s claws were sharp enough to cut through. Because of this Hercules was usually depicted wearing the Nemean Lion’s skin around him (other myths say it was different lion).

Like the Cancer crab and the Nemean Lion’s own brother the Lernean Hydra encountered by Hercules in his next labour, the super-lion was put among the stars by Hera.

Now that we’ve got Hercules firmly in our mind in this Star Gayzing series we’ll have our proper look at him next week.

[Article revised on 27 February 2017]

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