The goddess Hera, determined to destroy Heracles, had unleashed a monstrous lion she had raised and sent to terrorize the hills of Nemea. The offspring of Echidna and Typhon, and the brother of the dragon Ladon, this lion was officially trained and settled on Earth to be a menace to mankind. It had golden fur that was robust and impenetrable by human weapons, and sharper than mortal swords. This lion could destroy any strong armour making it invulnerable to attack and effectively unstoppable, a formidable opponent for anyone who dared to face it.
Heracles had faced another lion earlier in his life, killing the Lion of Cithaeron and taking its fur as a trophy, but Hera’s lion was a far more vicious monster. Setting up a fight with the Nemean lion by King Eurystheus as the first labour would be the best way to rid himself of Heracles and the threat to his reign he posed.
Herac took on the quest and headed for Nemea. He wandered the countryside until he came to the town of Cleonae. At the local tavern, Heracles met a youth who was excited to learn of his mission. He offered Heracles a tribute, that if Heracles slew the monster lion and returned alive within thirty days, the town would sacrifice a lion to Zeus, but if he did not return within that same amount of days or he got himself eaten by the lion, the boy would sacrifice himself to Zeus, purposely and selfishly placing an extra burden on Heracles, as a show of how desperate the villagers were in getting rid of this lion.
As Heracles trekked along the surrounding hills, he came across a shepherd, Molorchos. Molorchos recounted how he had recently lost his son to the lion. He too offered to sacrifice one of his rams to Zeus if Heracles returned alive with the dead carcass of the lion within thirty days. On the other hand, if he did not return at all, a ram would be sacrificed to the dead Heracles as a mourning offering. A much less selfish gesture, but Heracles shouldered that obligation as well.
While searching for the lion, Heracles prepared some arrows to use against it. On the tenth day, he had his first encounter with the lion, finding it resting on a giant outcrop overlooking the forest, glistening in the sun. He shot it with his arrows and discovered its golden fur was impenetrable, his arrows bouncing harmlessly off the creature’s thigh. After a day of stalking and hunting each other, Heracles discovered the lion’s lair and figured out how to use it as a trap. The cave had two entrances, one of which Heracles blocked. When the lion returned to his cave, Heracles went in after it. In the darkness and tight spaces, Heracles wrestled the beast and, with the help of an Earth-born Serpent, managed to stun the beast with his club, killing the disoriented lion by strangling it with his bare hands. Eager to help, and rub the victory in Hera’s face, Athena advised Heracles to use one of the lion’s own claws to skin the pelt.
On the thirtieth day of the quest, Heracles returned to Tiryns carrying the carcass of the lion on his shoulders. King Eurystheus was astonished and frightened, expecting Heracles to be eaten alive, and fearing the man’s supernatural strength. This fear prompted Eurystheus to forbid Heracles from ever again entering the city. Any future interactions would be held outside the city gates.
Eurystheus didn’t waste time sending Heracles off to complete his next labour, deciding on a task with increasing danger, which was to destroy the Lernaean Hydra. Heracles wasted no time setting off on the quest, wearing the Nemean lion’s pelt as a shield, impervious to the elements and all but the most powerful weapons.