I: Politics: Capture of the Nemean Lion
Myth and Introduction
For the first labor, King Eurystheus commanded Hercules to slay and skin the fearsome Nemean lion, which was devouring both livestock and people from the villages. Hercules went to Nemea and found the lion lounging in front of a cave that had two entrances. The hero lunged with his spear while the smug lion examined his claws and pretended not to notice. The lion had good reason to be unperturbed, for his pelt was impervious to all manner of weapons. The spear simply broke off and fell useless to the ground. Hercules vainly tried clubs, rocks, and arrows; but the lion shrugged, yawned slightly, and calmly sharpened his nails on a rock while waiting for the hero to wear himself out.
When Hercules realized that conventional weapons would not work, he devised a strategy. He banged his sword against the side of the lion’s head so hard that the lion retreated to his cave to quiet the ringing in his ears. The lion headed for the back entrance to the cave, but by this time Hercules had already blocked it off. Hercules, possessing awesome physical strength, then seized the lion and choked him to death with his bare hands. Except for losing a finger in the fierce struggle, the hero escaped from the battle unharmed.
Hercules wanted the remarkable pelt of the lion to use as a cape and shield against his future adversaries, but it seemed that nothing could cut it. Finally he thought to use one of the lion’s own claws to cut off the pelt. It worked perfectly, and from that day on, the hero wore the pelt for protection. For this reason, Hercules is often depicted with the head of the lion forming a cap on his own head, with the pelt protecting his back. Hercules returned to Mycenae and entered the Lion’s gate wearing the skin and head of the Nemean lion. His triumphant return frightened Eurystheus so much that the king immediately ordered his smiths to construct a large bronze urn that could be partially buried in the ground for him to use as a hiding place. From that time on, Hercules would receive Eurystheus’ commands from a herald named Copreus.
While conducting research for this book and the documentary that will accompany it, I traveled across Greece in order to follow the labors of Hercules. The town of Nemea is across the Isthmus of Corinth from Athens and was the setting of the first labor. As I entered Nemea, on a chilly December night, a full moon hung low over the town like a jack- o’-lantern. I found the middle of town and pulled up in front of the Nemea Hotel. After checking in, I dropped my bags in my stuffy room and threw open the shutters on the second story window. Cattycorner from the hotel was a tiny park where a stone effigy of the Nemean lion stood glowing in the light of the rising moon. Across the street, facing the lion, was a small, unpretentious restaurant where I discovered the local Hercules brand wine. On the label of the bottle was a picture of Hercules, surrounded with grapevines, looking rather more Dionysian than Herculean. Nevertheless, Hercules was wearing the impervious pelt of the slain Nemean lion. In one hand he was carrying his club, which was balanced by a glass of wine held jauntily aloft in the other hand.
The idea of a man (or demigod) actually fighting with a lion seemed rather abstract until just a couple of weeks later when I went to Africa. There in the Maasai Mara reserve in southern Kenya, from the safety of the safari van, I was able to observe some lions living in the wild. One female lion lounged with her frolicking cubs on the dirt road in front of the vehicle. A male lion to the side seemed to be enjoying the tickle of the long grass blowing against his face as he watched his family. Later that day, my images of domestic, feline bliss were shattered when other tourists told me they had just watched a lioness stalk and attack a full-grown elephant. While I was absorbing the incredible story, the guide interjected that he had once personally witnessed fifteen Maasai warriors tangling with a female lion. By the time the animal was killed, three men were dead and seven were injured.
Melita Sumare, a young Maasai hero, guarded my tent the first night keeping an eye out for lions and other trouble. On the second night, I was surprised and delighted to learn that some of his fellow warriors were going to perform a dance in Melita’s honor. A couple of weeks before, Melita had killed a lion that had been terrorizing their encampment while in pursuit of their cattle. It was interesting for me to think that this modern-day Hercules had single-handedly taken on the lion by the light of the same full moon that had illuminated for me the sculpture of the mythical Nemean lion.
This shy, thin, junior warrior looked like a guy who would be more likely to get sand kicked in his face than to face a lion but when a human armed with nothing more than a spear goes up against a lion, ingenuity and skill count far more than brute force. The lion attack had occurred in a typical Maasai compound, consisting of a ring of cave-like huts made of mud and dung, protected further by a tangle of thorny acacia branches. After grazing during the day, the cattle had been brought in at night for protection from the lions. While Melita was standing guard, a lion had nosed his way under the acacia fence. Then, at the moment the lion leapt onto one of the cattle, Melita dispatched the lion with a well-placed spear. The commotion roused the villagers from their sleep and they immediately commenced two days of celebrations, which included the ceremonial removal of the lion’s claws.
Melita gave me two of the huge claws, which I compared in my mind to the tiny claws of my cat back home. As I turned over one of the claws in my hand, I thought about how the mythical Nemean lion could only be flayed with his own claws. Political reform is our first Herculean task and it is also the key to solving our other problems in a practical manner. Too often, our bewildered and distracted electorate stares uncomprehendingly at the black hole of the cave and wonders what to do. Meanwhile, in the shadows behind us the beast is sharpening his claws. That sneaky lion is like a politician. Just when you think you know where you stand, the politician slips out the back with his corporate sponsor. Ultimately the solution will be to close the back door by reforming the political process, using the tools of democracy to do it. But first, we have to learn about the nature of politics.
Harold Lassell once said that politics is the struggle over who gets what, when and how. As a consequence of this struggle, no matter how things are divided there will always be some who feel shortchanged. Nevertheless, the goal should be to seek the highest common good by balancing individual human rights and needs with flexible and sustainable policies. The key to resolving this struggle equitably is having a government that is the tool of an informed electorate. If the electorate is uninformed, then the somnolent government will become the tool of self-serving private interests while continuing to under-represent the people. As long as that status quo is maintained, political solutions will remain Herculean.
The participants in our body politic consist of individuals going about their everyday business as well as groups of people organized into corporate and political entities. Government is the system under which all of these private and public entities organize themselves for mutual benefit and protection. Types of government range from anarchy—which is the absence of government—to totalitarianism, whereby the government aims to control as much as possible. The general consensus, coupled with numerous examples from history, indicates that neither of these extremes—even if they were sustainable—would serve the greatest good for the greatest number. Instead, a global consensus has emerged that peace, democracy, constitutional guarantees, regulated financial institutions, and (mostly) free markets are the best way to bring health, wealth, justice, and freedom to the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, an uninformed electorate, unfair voting practices, corruption, secrecy, injustice, nationalism, and excessive militarism are subverting the democratic process in the United States—and in many other countries.
To read more about Politics you’ve got to make the far less-than-Herculean effort of clicking here.
To read about Labor II: Overpopulation, click here.
(Footnotes, bibliography, and index are in the print or eBook editions)
To obtain copies or eBook downloads of Volume I and Volume II
of The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems, click here.