The labors of Hercules are a metaphor for our Preliminary Works, those to achieve the Universal Dissolvent. First: break the fixed raw matter, the Nemean Lion.
And allow the Secret Fire to come to light. The Lion is an alchemical symbol of fix-steady-firm-solid. Thus Heracles will encounter two fixed beasts in his tremendous preliminary tasks: a first one, a lion, to be opened and a last one, a dog, to be made. The first one is in analogy with our starting embodiment, raw matter, to be broken to let Spirit and Soul, as well as the Secret Fire within, come out under the guise of an ineffable substance called Mercurius. The last one will represent fixed Mercurius.
So to get you to understand what we are talking about, see an Opus Magnum scheme. Roughly, preliminary works are performed to have raw salts volatilized during repeated operations to achieve Mercurius. The end of preliminary works is the fixation of this highly volatile substance into Mercurius Philosophorum.
The alchemical meaning of all these operations is the extraction of Secret Fire/Mercurius from the raw matter/first embodiment and its fixation in a new alchemical body.
In his “Hercules Piochymicus” 1634, Jean Pierre Fabre arbitrarily moved the Nemean Lion to third position. He gave a damn about the strict position stated by ancient greek mythology. Fabre needed a fixative beast after the mercurial volatility of the first two steps, so why respect the order? It was not Fabre to try to decode the myth, but the myth to adapt to Fabre’s wants.
I mean to respect the traditional position of the Nemean Lion first and will try to deduce alchemical keys and hints on the opening work of Hercules from ancient authors’ fragments. Additionally, I prefer the latin form of Heracle’s name, Hercules, since it is used in the traditional expression “Labors of Hercules”.
We already know the story: goddess Hera hates Heracles and manages to condemn him to twelve tasks that should ” immolate” the hero. But our hero will survive and immolate, in turn, all his “sacrificers” instead.
In this myth, Heracles represents the daring alchemist who braves to destroy all the creatures born by the great goddess of the Sky, Hera. And not because of a destructive fit but to bring to light the Secret Fire. In this myth, Hera exemplifies the great mercurial mother, as, like everything under the Sun, every Mercurius is born by our great mother, Mercurius.
The weapons with which the hero will fulfill his tasks, either bare hands ( like in this first struggle) or fabricated, are all alchemical tools. Alchemy in the flesh, disguised as a mythological hero, will go from lion to a final lion, which is beyond the preliminary works. Hercules will end his hardships with a dog.
Λεον Νεμειος, or Leon Nemeios, the Lion of Nemea, is a gigantic animal son of the Moon, Artemis. Other authors mention Selene instead. But all these goddesses are here in different cases of the same Hera. Who better than the Moon itself can represent our mercurial mother? No matter the mother’s name, she, horrified by the lion’s ugliness, lets her newborn fall to the ground. Where he took refuge in a cave. The poor Nemean Lion is just raw matter/Materia Tertia. Of course, a wonder of the creation, but imperfect, in this sense, ugly. His taking refuge in a cave does point where to look for alchemical raw matters in the deep of the earth. We need raw matter with vast quantities of Secret Fire inside, and, as strange as it may seem, in the deep of the earth the Secret Fire lies and dwells.
Hercules/alchemist is sent to kill the lion to extract what is inside him. Eventually, Hercules manages to strangle and crush him. During the struggle, Heracles loses a finger. Then he skinned the Nemean Lion, using a lion’s claw, to make a lion-skin cape, which will become one of his most distinctive attributes. Hera afterward placed the lion among the stars as the constellation Leo. But let’s see what ancient authors say on this Heracle’s first labor and discover the features of this first part of our preliminary operations:
The Lion origins Aelian, On Animals 12. 7 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.): “They say that the Lion of Nemea fell from the moon (Selene). At any rate, Epimenides also has these words: `For I am sprung from fair-tressed Selene the Moon, who in a fearful shudder shook off the savage lion in Nemea, and brought him forth at the bidding of Queen Hera.'”
Hesiod, Theogony 327 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.): “The Nemean Lion whom Hera, the queenly wife of Zeus, trained up and settled among the hills of Nemea, to be a plague to mankind. There he preyed upon the tribes of the indwelling people and was a king over Tretos, Apesas, and Nemea. Nevertheless, the force of strong Heracles subdued him.”
Bacchylides, Fragment 9: “The luxuriant ground of Nemean Zeus, where white-armed Hera nurtured the sheep-killing deep-voiced lion, first of Heracles’ glorious contests.”
Callimachus, Aetia Fragment 55 (trans. Trypanis) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.): “The quick-tempered consort of Zeus [Hera] unloosed him [the Nemean Lion] to ruin Argos, though her allotted portion, and as a hard labor to the unlawful offspring of Zeus.”
According to what we have read, the Nemean Lion was a real plague. Nobody can feel sorrow for his death. He represents our flesh body or the original mineral saline body. To get rid of.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 11. 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.): “The first Labour which he [Heracles] undertook was the slaying of the Lion in Nemea. This was a beast of enormous size, which could not be wounded by iron, bronze, or stone and required the compulsion of the human hand for his subduing. Heracles came to the region and attacked the lion, and when the beast retreated into the cleft after closing up the other opening, he grappled with it, and, winding his arms about its neck, choked it to death.
Bacchylides, Fragment 13 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) : “See the neck-breaking hand that Perseus’ descendant [Heracles] lays with all manner of skill on the flesh-eating lion [the Nemean Lion]; for the gleaming man-mastering bronze refuses to pierce its unapproachable body: his sword was bent back.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses 9. 197 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :”By these arms [of Heracles] giant Moles Nemea [the Nemean Lion] lay destroyed.”
Nonnus, Dionysiaca, He [Heracles] thew his arm from one side and circled Lion’s neck entangled in mighty grip, and so without weapon brought death, in that spot where the breath passes through the gullet of the life sufficing throat.”
Statius, Thebaid 6. 270 ff: “The Tirynthian [Heracles] crushes the gasping Lion against the strong pressure of his breast and breaks it upon his bones.”
Theocritus, Idylls 25. 132 ff (trans. Rist) (Greek bucolic C3rd B.C.) :”[Phyleus addresses Heracles :] Tell how this beast of bane you slew with your bare hands and how it came to the well-watered country of Nemea. So great a monster I warrant you would not find a great monster in all Apis, even if you wish, for none it supports of such size, but only bears and boars’… This was the first labor Eurystheus laid upon me to fulfill… He bade me kill the fearsome beast, and I set out taking my supple bow and hollow quiver filled with arrows: in the other hand, my stout staff … And there, my friend, you have that tale of the fate that befell the lion of Nemea, that was once the cause of many a sorrow to flocks and men.” (2)
In Alchemy, cutting and piercing weapons, like swords, axes, spears, and arrows, are symbols of our Dissolvent. Of course, this is the beginning of the preliminary works, those to get the Dissolvent, which we don’t have yet. Magnetizations under Sun and Moon, putrefactions, distillations, sublimations, liquefactions, crushing, hot and frozen, solid and liquid. Our Solve et Coagula is the “bare” tool to open the raw matter in this incipit of preliminary labor. Open is a synonym for extracting the Secret Fire/Mercurius.
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 5 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190):”The Dragon which guarded the golden apples was the brother of the Nemean lion.”
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 2 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) (trans. Pearse) (Greek mythographer C1st to C2nd A.D.): “Alexandros of Mindos says that a serpent born of Ge (Earth) fought with Heracles against the Nemean lion; fed by Heracles, it accompanied him to Thebes and stayed in a tent.”
As we will see in the eleventh labor, another raw matter is to be destroyed and opened, but this time not with bare hands.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 11. 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.): The skin of the lion he put about himself, and since he could cover his whole body with it because of its great size, he had in it a protection against the perils that were to follow.”
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 30 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.): “The Nemean Lion, an invulnerable monster, which Luna [Selene] had nourished (suckled) in a two-mouthed cave, he [Heracles] slew and took the pelt for defensive covering.”
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 6. 208 ff (trans. Way) (Greek epic C4th A.D.): “Nemea’s mighty lion there was seen [depicted on the shield of Eurypylos son of Heracles] tangled in the strong arms of Heracles, his grim jaws dashed about with bloody foam: he seemed in verity gasping out his life.”
Pindar, Isthmian Ode 6. 46 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.): “May his body’s frame be no less hardy than this wild creature’s skin that rides upon my [Heracles’] shoulder now–the beast I slew long since, first of my labors, in Nemea.”
The skin is a symbol of “Mumia” (1), the spiritual envelope, the spirit, which will extract the soul. The spirit is our Dissolvent/Mercurius. The little part of the lion Hercules used to perform this operation is just a claw. A tiny part of a giant beast. During our preliminary operations, only a tiny part of the original raw gigantic mass to get rid of will survive the destruction and becomes our Dissolvent Mercurius. A spiking and a cutting tool like a claw represent our Universal Dissolvent. Grapes and swords in the picture well symbolize this cutting-dissolving part.
Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 24:”[Constellation] Leo. He is said to have been put among the stars because he is considered the king of beasts. Some writers add that Hercules’ first Labour was with him and that he killed him unarmed. Pisandrus and many other writers have written about this.”
Seneca, Oedipus 38 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.):”[A land plagued with drought :] Titan [Helios the sun] augments the scorching dog-star’s [Seirios’] fires, close-pressing upon the Nemean Lion’s [i.e., Leo, the zodiac of mid-summer] back. Water has fled the streams and from the herbage verdure.”
Many Magnetization operations and cooking operations are performed under the mid-Summer Sun and Moon.
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 2 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190): “He [Hephaestion] says that . . . Heracles, after the Nemean lion had bitten off one of his fingers had only nine and that there exists a tomb erected for this detached finger; other authors say that he lost his finger following a blow by a dart of a stingray and one can see at Sparta a stone lion erected on the tomb of the finger, the symbol of the power of the hero. Since then, stone lions have likewise been erected on the tombs of other important people; other authors give different explications of the lion statues.”
Sometimes we have heard of the soul/sulfur dimension in terms of ” as big as a finger”. if Mercurius is just a tiny part of the raw matter, the Sulphur is just a tiny part of the extracted Mercurius. Mercurius is to be divided into various parts.
Heracles as a Boy
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 25. 7:”[Dedicated at Olympia :] Are two nude statues of Heracles as a boy. One represents him shooting the lion at Nemea.”
With the preliminary works, the new alchemical child is being born.
The picture on the top page well represents the scene. We can see a vineyard, a symbol of the Universal Dissolvent we can extract from the Lion. Concerning the hanging sword unused by Heracles, as we have said above, the Nemean lion is not opened through the Dissolvent/Secret Fire, which the sword is another symbol of. The cloak mantle, very likely just hung by Heracles, symbolizes embodiment.
The second Labor of Hercules: The Lernaean Hydra.
- See also Michelangelo & the Mumia Skin in Last Judgement ;
- You can find it at theoi. com the entire fragment. From the same site have been taken all the fragments in the articles.