He was talking about coins, Greek coins–ancient ones in fact. As always, however, he was using them as a way to get us to think about something else, something much more important: a pending, unavoidable (without severe personal penalty) fight.
Greek art, he said in his passage near the end of the marvelous Queen of the Air, possesses many merits but, of these, one is greater than the others; it is a quality that does not always attend other art, however accomplished. It manifests even in their coins. Greek art, he says,
always says something worth saying. Not merely worth saying for that time only, but for all time.
What do you think this helmet of lion’s hide is always given to Hercules for? You can’t suppose it means only that he once killed a lion, and always carried its skin afterwards to show that he had, as [some of us who live in India] send home stuffed rugs with claws at the corners and a lump in the middle, which one tumbles over every time one stires the fire?
What was this Namean Lion, whose spoils were evermore to cover Hercules from the cold? Not merely a large specimen of Felis Leo ranging the field of Namea–be sure of that. This Namean cub was one of a bad litter. Born of Typhon and Echidna–of the whirlwind and the snake–Cerberus his brother, the Hydra of Lerna his sister–it must have been difficult to get his hide off him. He had to be found in darkness too, and dealt with without weapons, by grip of the throat; arrows and club of no avail against him! What does it all mean?
It means that the Namean Lion is the first great adversary of life, whatever that may be, to Hercules, or to any of us, then or now. The first monster we have to strangle, or be destroyed by, fighting in the dark, and with none to help us, only Athena standing by, to encourage us with her smile. Every man’s Namean Lion lies in wait for him somewhere.
The slothful man says, there is a lion in the path. He says well. The unslothful man says the same and knows it too. But they difffer in their further reading of the text. The slothful man says, I shall be slain–and the unslothful, it shall be. It is the first ugly and strong enemy that rises against us, all future victory depending on victory over that. Kill it, and through all the rest of life, what was once dreadful is your armor, and you are clothed with that conquest for every other, and helmed with its crest of fortitude forevermore.
Here’s a depiction of this great struggle from the internet, one which, for me, captures the magnitude of the challenge we face when our own iteration of this terrifying fellow emerges from the shadows (note how Hercules’ bow falls away, useless, for this can only be a face-to-face, hand-to-claw encounter). The link following the picture gives a useful summary of the myth, adding not a few other pictures, all classical, including, at the end, a second of the victor wearing his earned helmet.
It is worth mentioning that Ruskin did not share our modern view of myths–that they are old-fashioned fanciful stories about things that really never happened. To the contrary, he said that great myths always told great truths, put before us in allegory the essential issues which confront us all over the course of our lives. Not to be missed either is his contention that it is the myth’s allegorical nature which allows it to remain relevant centuries after its birth. What is Disney’s astonishingly successful “The Lion King” other than a contemporary reworking of Hercules’ realization that, if he is to gain his full status as a human being, he must do battle with the Namean Lion?
As ever, Ruskin speaks true. It has been my experience that this feared fellow, even after defeat, has shown himself as the progenitor of a wide pride, his surviving issue appearing, sometimes as cubs, sometimes as youths not all that much weaker than their sire. At which moments, the earned helmut, as Ruskin tells us it will, serves as a vital reminder of what still needs doing.
Until next time.