But what’s the significance of the club and the lion skin? According to virtually all ancient sources, including the Bibliotheca attributed to (Pseudo-)Apollodorus, the first of the Twelve Labours performed by Heracles is the slaying of a fearful lion that was terrorizing the people near Nemea, a town in the Peloponnese. This fearsome creature had, according to Hesiod, been fostered by Hera (Theogony 326-332). To make things more difficult, the poet Bacchylides points out that the creature had a skin that was impervious to weapons (13.46-54).
As weapons would be useless, Heracles instead engaged the lion with his bare hands. In art, the conflict has been frequently depicted: Heracles is shown wrestling the lion. Eventually, he managed to get his arms around the creature’s neck and strangled the life out of it. He then managed to skin the creature and wore it as a costume. According to some, Heracles marked the occasion by founding the Nemean Games, an important Panhellenic festival comparable to the Olympic Games.
But what about the club? According to the poet Theocritus (third century BC), Heracles knew that the lion’s skin was impervious, so that piercing and cutting weapons were essentially useless. Instead, Heracles used an olive-wood club – a blunt weapon – to hit the lion on the head, stunning it so that the hero could more easily strangle it (25.153-281). Theocritus also adds that Heracles managed to skin the lion by using the animal’s own razorsharp claws.
In art, attributes help us to identify certain figures. Heracles is recognizable because he’s often associated with a club and lion skin. Other figures can be identified by their own attributes, for example, Zeus wields thunderbolts and is often accompanied by an eagle; his wife, Hera, is associated with the peacock. When trying to figure out which figures are depicted in ancient art, it pays to keep an eye out for characteristic attributes.
Interestingly, later historical figures would adopt the lion-skin and club in an attempt to consciously emulate Heracles. The prime example is Commodus (r. AD 177-192), the son and successor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who fancied himself a bit of a warrior. One of his most famous portrait busts depict him wearing a lion-skin and carrying a club in his hand, as if he were the incarnation of the hero himself, or at the very least an equivalent figure. (Marcus Aurelius, in keeping with a Roman tradition started by Augustus, was also deified upon death, so Commodus was technically a demigod like Heracles.)
It’s worth pointing out that attributes aren’t just important in understanding ancient art. Every day, we rely on symbols to make sense of our world and to identify people. Clothes often convey important information (i.e. a firefighter, a medic, a police officer, a lawyer in a suit). In popular culture, Indiana Jones is instantly recognizable by his whip, revolver, and fedora. Examples can be multiplied ad infinitum.