There are in fact at least two Greek myths associated with the site of Ancient Nemea. One, the most popular one, has to do with the famous hero Hercules (or Herakles if we stick to the Greek spelling). The other has to do with the baby Opheltes and the beginning of cult activity at the site. Scroll on down for more of their stories!
Herakles & the Nemean Lion
The following text has been adapted from that found on perseus.tufts.edu.
Initially, Herakles was required to complete ten labors, not twelve. King Eurystheus nevertheless decided that Herakles’ first task should be to bring him the skin of a lion that was terrorizing the hills around Nemea at the time. This lion’s hide could not be penetrated by any weapon forged by man.
Setting out on a seemingly impossible labor, Herakles came to a town called Kleonai 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, Herakles 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 Herakles died trying to kill the lion, Molorchus agreed to sacrifice instead to Herakles as a hero.
When Herakles got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered his arrows were useless against the beast. Herakles picked up his club and went after the lion. Following it to a cave which had two entrances, Herakles 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.
Herakles returned to Kleonai carrying the dead lion and found Molorchus on the 30th day after he’d left for the hunt. Instead of sacrificing to Herakles as a dead man, Molorchus and Herakles were able to sacrifice together, to Zeus.
When Herakles made it back to Mycenae, Eurystheus was amazed that the hero had managed such an impossible task. The king became afraid of Herakles 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 Herakles if need be. After that, Eurystheus sent his commands to Herakles through a herald, refusing to see the powerful hero face to face.
From that point on, Herakles wore the lion’s skin as his own armor. You can usually spot the hero Herakles in Greek art (especially vase-painting) by the lion skin he wears and/or the big club he carries with him.
The image on the left is a Neck Amphora with black-figure decoration depicting Herakles and the Nemean Lion (1960.312) from the Harvard Art Museum collection.
The following text has been adapted from that found on nemeangames.org.
The myth associated with the foundation of the Nemean Games is the story of the death of the baby Opheltes, son of Lykourgos and Eurydike. When their son was born, Lykourgos consulted the oracle at Delphi in order to find out how to ensure the health and happiness of his child. The Pythia proclaimed that the boy must not touch the ground until he had learned to walk.
Upon his return to Nemea, Lykourgos assigned a slave woman, Hypsipyle, to care for his son. Sometime thereafter, the Seven Against Thebes passed through Nemea from Argos on their ill-fated mission. When they asked Hypsipyle for something to drink, she placed Opheltes on a bed of wild celery (on the ground!) where he was killed by a serpent, thus fulfilling the prophecy. The Seven renamed the baby Archemoros (Beginner-of-doom), and held the first Nemean Games as funerary games in his memory.
Evidence that the real participants in the Nemean Games and general life at the sanctuary was found at the site of Nemea in the form of a Shrine of Opheltes (where a bronze figurine of the baby was discovered) and a Sacred Grove of cypress trees. The story was also embedded in the customs of the games: the judges wore black robes as a sign of mourning and the crown of victory was made of wild celery. The myth also gives a justification for the control of site and games to reside with Argos, the home of the Seven.
Image on the right provided by The Official Blog of Dartmouth College’s Foreign Study Program in Greece.