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Heracles’s Twelfth Labour: Cerberus

Heracles’s Twelfth Labour: Cerberus

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Four Labours of Heracles

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The final labour was intended to be the most dangerous and difficult one. Eurystheus ordered Heracles to go to the Underworld (Hades)  and kidnap its fierce guardian, the vicious beast called Cerberus (or Kerberos), who had three heads of wild dogs, heads of snakes all over his back and a serpent or dragon for a tail.

‘The brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong‘ (Hesiod).

Cerberus’s parents were the monster Echidna (half-woman, half-serpent) and Typhon (a fire-breathing giant covered with dragons and serpents). Even the gods of Olympus were afraid of Typhon.

Heracles was aware that once in the kingdom of Hades, he might not be allowed to leave and rejoin the living. After having been given the task, the hero went to Eleusis and saw Eumolpus, a high priest who began what were known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The mysteries were sacred religious rites which celebrated the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The ancients believed that those who learned the secrets of the mysteries would have happiness in the Underworld. This was a journey from which no mortal had ever returned.

Heracles started his final labour by finding the entrance to the underworld at Taenarum (Cape Taenaron) where, through a deep and rocky cave, made his way down to the Underworld.  Athena and Hermes helped him to traverse the entrance in each direction. He encountered monsters, heroes, and ghosts as he made his way and eventually found Hades and asked Pluto for permission to bring Cerberus to the surface, to which the ruler of Hades agreed, provided Heracles could overpower the beast solely with his own brute strength and without using weapons.

Heracles encountered Cerberus near the gates of Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Underworld, was able to overpower the monster even though the dragon in the tail of the fierce flesh-eating guard dog bit Hercules. The victorious hero slung the beast over his back, dragging it out of the Underworld and bringing it to Eurystheus. Later Heracles brought Cerberus to a secret grove belonging to Demeter from where later Cerberus escaped and returned to the underworld to once again guard the entrance.

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