Hercules, being arrived at Mycenæ, submitted himself to Eurystheus, who, to tell the truth, was a little alarmed at the sight of his cousin, and suspicious of what such sudden submission might mean. And he was all the more bewildered when he saw the humility with which his kinsman approached him. Hercules could not do anything by halves; and in Eurystheus he saw, not a mere insignificant, timid, mean-minded man, but only the master whom the gods had appointed to him.
"And now," asked Hercules, in his impatience to prove his obedience, what do you order me to do?"
One would think that Eurystheus would have acted generously. So far from that, however, he thought to himself, "I had better send him on the most dangerous adventure I can think of. If he succeeds, it will be the more glory for me to have such a man under my power; and besides, it will prove whether this submission is real or sham. And if he perishes—well, I shall be safe from danger at his hands." So he said:—
"You have proved yourself a good lion-hunter. Bring me the carcass of the Nemæan lion."
Now the lion of the forest of Nemæa was far more terrible than the lion of Mount Cithæron. However, Hercules set out at once for the forest, glad that his first service was one of honor.
Eurystheus was quite relieved when he was gone; and, sending for skilled workmen, bade them make for him a large brazen pot, big enough to hold him comfortably, and with an opening just large enough for him to get in and out by. For he thought to himself, "If Hercules ever gets angry or rebellious, I can creep into my brazen pot, and be safe there."
Hercules was not long in finding the lion—the largest, strongest, and fiercest ever seen in the world. He let fly an arrow, but it scarcely pricked the beast's tough hide; then another, and another; but the lion minded them no more than if they had been shot by a child from a toy bow. At last one, however, pricked him sharply enough to enrage him, and he came on with a rush and a roar. All Hercules had time to do was to pull up a young oak-tree by the roots, for a weapon to meet the charge. The next moment the lion sprang. But Hercules stood his ground, and so belabored the lion with his club that he fairly beat it back into its den, into which he followed it. Then was there a fearful wrestle between Hercules and the lion. But Hercules prevailed, by getting his arms round the lion and crushing its breath out of its body.
Throwing the corpse over his shoulders, and holding it by bringing the fore-legs round his neck, he returned to Mycenæ. Thus equipped, he himself looked like some monstrous lion; and so terrified was Eurystheus at the news that he crept into his brass pot, and in this manner received Hercules, to whom he talked through a speaking-tube in the side.
"Go and kill the Hydra!" he called out.
So Hercules set out on his second labor: and Eurystheus crept out of his pot again.