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The Heritage of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East

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Heracles and the Nemean Lion (1)

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04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

02 Religious and ideological symbols and iconographic motifs

04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

No period specified
Old Testament
Sumerian poetry

One of Heracles’ tasks was the killing of the Nemean Lion. Although lions featured in Greece as well, there may still be a link with the Near East, as they featured in art and literature much more often there than they did in Greece. The defeat of a lion was a traditional heroic accomplishment of Near Eastern kings and heroes. Ningirsu killed ‘the Lion, the terror of the gods’ (Gudea Cylinder A 26.7). Enkidu and Gilgameš killed lions routinely. Samson in Judges 14:5-6 tore a lion asunder in his bare hands. Heracles too, according to the prevailing version, used only his bare hands in killing the Nemean Lion. He subsequently wore its skin, as many poets and artists testify. In this he may have a precedent in Gilgameš, who is described in the epic as roaming the world after Enkidu’s death clad in the skin of lion instead of his civilized clothes.

Sources (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Gudea Cylinder A 26.7
Judges 14:5-6


West 1997, 461-462West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon. West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997.

Amar Annus

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Illustrations (click an image to view the full-size version in a new window)

Fig. 1: Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion. White-ground lekythos, ca. 500-475 BCE from Diosphos Painter. Musée du Louvre, L 31 (MNB 909).
Fig. 2: Detail of a carved stone monumental wall relief from King Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh, depicting the king dispatching a lion.