Hercules and the Nemean Games: a modern exploration of Mythical worlds

At Beyond Athens we are always faithful to our mission, which is taking the visitors of Athens to places of exceptional charm at a blink of an eye from the Greek capital, yet for some reasons still largely unexplored. This is also the case of the region of Nemea in the Peloponnese, which you can visit (and autumn might as well be the best time of the year!)with our Hercules Routes day tour. The tour focus is threefold: nature, wine, but primarily history and Myth! And precisely the historical and mythological aspects are the subject of this post.

The Nemean Games

Nemea, a religious sanctuary in the northern Peloponnese of Greece, was where pan-Hellenic athletic games were held every two years from the 6th to the 3rd century BCE, after which, the Games were definitively moved to Argos.

The events of the Nemean Games, held over several days and usually shortly after the summer solstice, were similar to those at the other sacred sites with the most important event being the stadion or foot-race over one length of the stadium track. Other events were foot-races over various stadium lengths. Besides, there were competitions in boxing, wrestling, combined  boxing and wrestling and the pentathlon – stadion race, wrestling, javelin, discus and long jump. Horse races were also held on the hippodrome track. Two further competitions were for heralds and trumpeters. The winner of the former won the right to announce the sporting events and victors, and the latter won the privilege of announcing the herald. In the Hellenistic period competitions in singing, flute and lyre playing were added to the programme.

As with the spectators, athletes came from all over Greece and even beyond to compete and were separated into three age groups: young boys, teenagers and adult men. Athletes and competitions were supervised by a specially trained group who acted as both referees and as judges. Athletes competed naked, and winners were awarded a crown of wild celery.

Following the movement of the Games to Argos, the site was largely abandoned and used merely for agricultural purposes. It was not until the 4th century CE that an early Christian settlement was established with the construction of a Basilica and baptistery – the foundations of which are still visible today. This settlement was itself abandoned in the mid 6th century CE when the valley’s river dried up.

Architectural Remains

The ancient site has always been known; indeed three of the columns of the Temple of Zeus have never fallen down since they were originally erected. In 1884 CE French archaeologists made surface excavations followed by more comprehensive work on the site, carried out in the 1920s under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, once again in 1964 CE and then more systematically from 1973 CE by the University of California at Berkeley, which continues to the present day to excavate and manage the site and museum.

Architectural remains at the site are dominated by the impressive Temple of Zeus constructed in the 4th century BC. This was built on the site of an earlier temple from the 6th century BC which was destroyed by fire and from which blocks were used to construct the foundations of its replacement. The new temple was built of local limestone covered in fine marble-dust stucco with the inner sima in marble. The entrance to the temple was via a large ramp rather than steps and housed within was a large cult statue of Zeus, which has not survived. There was no exterior sculpture or decoration. Running along the side of the temple was an unusually long (41 m) altar of which only the foundations survive. The altar was used for sacrifice and the pouring of libations during religious ceremonies.

There are a series of buildings probably constructed as part of the same building programme in the 4th century BCE, almost certainly established by the Macedonians. These include a Bath house and the large Xenon building. The Bath house has a large central pool flanked by two tub rooms. This building was a forerunner of the later Greek palaistra-gymnasion complexes present at other sites such as Olympia and Delphi. The Xenon was a large rectangular building, most probably used as accommodation for athletes and trainers.

Linked by a road to the sacred complex, the stadium of Nemea which is visible today, dates from 330-320 BCE and was built between two natural ridges providing an elevated vantage point for spectators and allowing a capacity as high as 30,000 people.

Important archaeological finds at the site include a rare double-tray sacrificial table and a range of bronze sporting equipment including javelin tips, strigils and a discus. Other finds include votive statues, jumping stones and an impressive array of coins and pottery which attest to the wide geographical appeal of the Nemean Games.  Since 1996 CE and held every four years, there have been a revival of the ancient Nemean Games with footraces held in the ancient stadium.

Hercules & Nemea

The mythical origin of the Games is sometimes attributed to the son of the almighty Zeus and beautiful mortal Alcmene, the so-called strongest man who ever lived, Hercules. After his first labour in which he had to kill the Nemean lion living in the caves of Mount Tritos above the site, Hercules established athletic games in honour of his father, Zeus.

Given the popularity of the myth from earliest times, it is something of a surprise to learn that it was only in the Roman period that a connection was constructed between the slaying of the lion and the foundation of the Nemean Games. In other words, in the Greek period a clear distinction was maintained between the Lion on the one hand and the Games on the other.

A Journey into Mythology

Let’s take things from the start. The gods were not the only protagonists in the Greek myths: there were also certain exceptional mortals, gifted with beauty and intelligence, with courage and magnanimity – in other words, the heroes. Those were the ones who rid the world of monsters, wiped out bloodthirsty robbers, and redressed injustices of every kind. The greatest and most famous Greek hero of all is Hercules. Unlike many heroes who are associated with only one city, Hercules was a pan-Hellenic hero, claimed by all of Greece.

It all started before Hercules was born. The bastard was the result of one of Zeus’ many affairs, this time with a mortal woman named Alcmene. The God of the sky disguised himself as this poor woman’s husband to make love to her and consequently impregnate her.
This explains why Hercules and goddess Hera had a problematic relationship. Zeus’ adultery was the sole reason for Hera’s eternal wrath against the unfortunate Hercules. In fact, the queen of the Gods tremendously hated the half-man known for his strength and hero status, and really went out her way to make his life as difficult as possible. Snubbing Hercules publicly would just not do… Hera wanted to make him suffer.

She cast an evil spell on him. Hercules rose from his bed and -as though in a dream- he lashed out with his sword, slaying imaginary enemies. Only when he woke, did he see that he had killed his own children. Heartbroken, he went to seek the advice of the oracle in Delphi. The priestess told him that he could only make amends by serving his old enemy, King Eurystheus of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos. He was further told that he would carry out unbelievable labours, that he would win immortality, and that he would go to Olympus, together with the other immortals.

#1 labour

Initially, Hercules was required to complete ten labors, not twelve. King Eurystheus decided Hercules’ first task would be to bring him the skin of an invulnerable lion which terrorized the hills around Nemea. Setting out on such a seemingly impossible labor, Hercules came to a town called Cleonae, where he stayed at the house of a poor workman-for-hire, Molorchus. When his host offered to sacrifice an animal to pray for a safe lion hunt, Hercules asked him to wait 30 days. If the hero returned with the lion’s skin, they would sacrifice to Zeus, king of the gods. If Hercules died trying to kill the lion, Molorchus agreed to sacrifice instead to Hercules, as a hero.

When Hercules got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered his arrows were useless against the beast. Hercules picked up his club and went after the lion. Following it to a cave which had two entrances, Hercules blocked one of the doorways, then approached the fierce lion through the other. Grasping the lion in his mighty arms, and ignoring its powerful claws, he held it tightly until he’d choked it to death.

Hercules returned to Cleonae, carrying the dead lion, and found Molorchus on the 30th day after he’d left for the hunt. Instead of sacrificing to Hercules as a dead man, Molorchus and Hercules were able to sacrifice together, to Zeus.

When Hercules made it back to Mycenae, Eurystheus was amazed that the hero had managed such an impossible task. The king became afraid of Hercules, and forbade him from entering through the gates of the city. Furthermore, Eurystheus had a large bronze jar made and buried partway in the earth, where he could hide from Hercules if need be. After that, Eurystheus sent his commands to Hercules through a herald, refusing to see the powerful hero face to face.

Many times we can identify Hercules in ancient Greek vase paintings or sculptures simply because he is depicted wearing a lion skin. Ancient writers disagreed as to whether the skin Hercules wore was that of the Nemean lion, or one from a different lion, which Hercules was said to have killed when he was 18 years old. The playwright Euripides wrote that Hercules’ lion skin came from the grove of Zeus, the sanctuary at Nemea.

#6 labour

After Hercules returned from his success in the Augean stables, the 4th of his labours, Eurystheus came up with an even more difficult task. For the sixth Labor, Hercules was to drive away an enormous flock of birds which gathered at a lake near the town of Stymphalos.

Arriving at the lake, which was deep in the woods, Hercules had no idea how to drive the huge gathering of birds away. The goddess Athena came to his aid, providing a pair of bronze krotala, noisemaking clappers similar to castanets. These were no ordinary noisemakers. They had been made by an immortal craftsman, Hephaistos, the god of the forge. Climbing a nearby mountain, Hercules clashed the krotala loudly, scaring the birds out of the trees, then shot them with bow and arrow, or possibly with a slingshot, as they took flight.

Some versions of the legend say that these Stymphalian birds were vicious man-eaters. The 2nd century A.D. travel writer, Pausanias, trying to discover what kind of birds they might have been, wrote that during his time a type of bird from the Arabian desert was called “Stymphalian,” describing them as equal to lions or leopards in their fierceness. He speculated that the birds Hercules encountered in the legend were similar to these Arabian birds.

Pausanias also saw and described the religious sanctuary built by the Greeks of Stymphalos and dedicated to the goddess Artemis. He reported that the temple had carvings of the Stymphalian birds up near its roof. Standing behind the temple, he saw marble statues of maidens with the legs of birds.

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