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Heracles' 12th Labor - Cerberus
The most dangerous labor of all was the twelfth and final one. Eurystheus
ordered Hercules to go to the Underworld and kidnap the beast called Cerberus
(or Kerberos). Eurystheus must have been sure Hercules would never succeed at
this impossible task!
The ancient Greeks believed that after a person died, his or her
spirit went to the world below and dwelled for eternity in the depths of the earth.
The Underworld was the kingdom of Hades, also called Pluto, and his wife, Persephone.
Depending on how a person lived his or her life, they might or might not experience
never-ending punishment in Hades. All souls, whether good or bad, were destined
for the kingdom of Hades.
Cerberus was a vicious beast that guarded the entrance to Hades and
kept the living from entering the world of the dead. According to Apollodorus,
Cerberus was a strange mixture of creatures: he had three heads of wild dogs,
a dragon or serpent for a tail, and heads of snakes all over his back. Hesiod,
though, says that Cerberus had fifty heads and devoured raw flesh. "...A
monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw
flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong."
(Hesiod, Theogony 310).
Cerberus' parents were the monster Echinda (half-woman, half-serpent)
and Typhon (a fire-breathing giant covered with dragons and serpents). Even the
gods of Olympus were afraid of Typhon.
Among the children attributed to this awful couple were Orthus (or
Othros), the Hydra of Lerna, and the Chimaera. Orthus was a two-headed hound which
guarded the cattle of Geryon. With the Chimaera, Orthus fathered the Nemean Lion
and the Sphinx. The Chimaera was a three-headed fire-breathing monster, part lion,
part snake, and part goat. Hercules seemed to have a lot of experience dealing
with this family: he killed Orthus, when he stole the cattle of Geryon, and strangled
the Nemean Lion. Compared to these unfortunate family members, Cerberus was actually
Before making the trip to the Underworld, Hercules decided that he
should take some extra precautions. This was, after all, a journey from which
no mortal had ever returned. Hercules knew that once in the kingdom of Hades,
he might not be allowed to leave and rejoin the living. The hero went to Eleusis
and saw Eumolpus, a 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. After the hero
met a few conditions of membership, Eumolpus initiated Hercules into the mysteries.
Hercules went to a place called Taenarum in Laconia. Through
a deep, rocky cave, Hercules made his way down to the Underworld. He encountered
monsters, heroes, and ghosts as he made his way through Hades. He even engaged
in a wrestling contest! Then, finally, he found Pluto and asked the god for Cerberus.
The lord of the Underworld replied that Hercules could indeed take Cerberus with
him, but only if he overpowered the beast with nothing more than his own brute
A weaponless Hercules set off to find Cerberus. Near the gates of
Acheron, one of the five rivers of the Underworld, Hercules encountered Cerberus.
Undaunted, the hero threw his strong arms around the beast, perhaps grasping all
three heads at once, and wrestled Cerberus into submission. The dragon in the
tail of the fierce flesh-eating guard dog bit Hercules, but that did not stop
him. Cerberus had to submit to the force of the hero, and Hercules brought Cerberus
to Eurystheus. Unlike other monsters that crossed the path of the legendary hero,
Cerberus was returned safely to Hades, where he resumed guarding the gateway to
the Underworld. Presumably, Hercules inflicted no lasting damage on Cerberus,
except, of course, the wound to his pride!
This text is cited July 2004 from
Perseus Project URL bellow, which contains interesting hyperlinks
A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades.
Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back
the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him,
he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated. However it was not then
lawful for foreigners to be initiated: since he proposed to be initiated as the
adoptive son of Pylius. But not being able to see the mysteries because he had
not been cleansed of the slaughter of the centaurs, he was cleansed by Eumolpus
and then initiated. And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth
of the descent to Hades, he descended through it. But when the souls saw him,
they fled, save Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa. And Hercules drew his sword against
the Gorgon, as if she were alive, but he learned from Hermes that she was an empty
phantom. And being come near to the gates of Hades he found Theseus and Pirithous,
him who wooed Persephone in wedlock and was therefore bound fast. And when they
beheld Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from
the dead by his might. And Theseus, indeed, he took by the hand and raised up,
but when he would have brought up Pirithous, the earth quaked and he let go. And
he rolled away also the stone of Ascalaphus. And wishing to provide the souls
with blood, he slaughtered one of the kine of Hades. But Menoetes, son of Ceuthonymus,
who tended the king, challenged Hercules to wrestle, and, being seized round the
middle, had his ribs broken; howbeit, he was let off at the request of Persephone.
When Hercules asked Pluto for Cerberus, Pluto ordered him to take the animal provided
he mastered him without the use of the weapons which he carried. Hercules found
him at the gates of Acheron, and, cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion's
skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in
its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he
carried it off and ascended through Troezen. But Demeter turned Ascalaphus into
a short-eared owl, and Hercules, after showing Cerberus to Eurystheus, carried
him back to Hades.
Ancient writers differ as to the number of Cerberus's heads. Hesiod
assigned him fifty; Pindar raised the number to a hundred, a liberal estimate
which was accepted by Tzetzes in one place and by Horace in another. Others reduced
the number to three. Apollodorus apparently seeks to reconcile these contradictions,
and he is followed as usual by Tzetzes, who, however, at the same time speaks
of Cerberus as fifty-headed. The whole of the present passage of Apollodorus,
from the description of Cerberus down to Herakles's slaughter of one of the kine
of Hades, is quoted, with a few small variations, by a Scholiast on Hom. Il. viii.368.
As to the initiation of Herakles at Eleusis, according to Diodorus,
the rites were performed on this occasion by Musaeus, son of Orpheus. Elsewherethe
same writer says that Demeter instituted the lesser Eleusinian mysteries in honour
of Herakles for the purpose of purifying him after his slaughter of the centaurs.
The statement that Pylius acted as adoptive father to Herakles at his initiation
is repeated by Plutarch, who mentions that before Castor and Pollux were initiated
at Athens they were in like manner adopted by Aphidnus. Herodotus says that any
Greek who pleased might be initiated at Eleusis. The initiation of Herakles is
represented in ancient reliefs.
Sophocles seems to have written a Satyric drama on the descent of
Herakles into the infernal regions at Taenarum. According to another account,
Herakles descended, not at Taenarum but at the Acherusian Chersonese, near Heraclea
Pontica on the Black Sea. The marks of the descent were there pointed out to a
So Bacchilides represents Herakles in Hades drawing his bow against
the ghost of Meleager in shining armour, who reminds the hero that there is nothing
to fear from the souls of the dead; so, too, Vergilius describes Aeneas in Hades
drawing his sword on the Gorgons and Harpies, till the Sibyl tells him that they
are mere flitting empty shades. Apollodorus more correctly speaks of the ghost
of only one Gorgon (Medusa ), because of the three Gorgons she alone was mortal.
On Theseus and Pirithous in hell, the general opinion seems to have
been that Herakles rescued Theseus, but that he could not save Pirithous. Others,
however, alleged that he brought up both from the dead; others again affirmed
that he brought up neither. A dull rationalistic version of the romantic story
converted Hades into a king of the Molossians or Thesprotians, named Aidoneus,
who had a wife Persephone, a daughter Cora, and a dog Cerberus, which he set to
worry his daughter's suitors, promising to give her in marriage to him who could
master the ferocious animal. Discovering that Theseus and Pirithous were come
not to woo but to steal his daughter, he arrested them. The dog made short work
of Pirithous, but Theseus was kept in durance till the king consented to release
him at the intercession of Herakles.
This extract is from: Apollodorus, Library and Epitome (ed. Sir James George Frazer, 1921). Cited Apr 2003 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains comments & interesting hyperlinks.
- Perseus: Apollodorus, Library and Epitome (ed. Sir James George Frazer, 1921)
Heracles. 12. Cerberus. To fetch this monster from the lower world is
the crown of the twelve labours of Heracles, and is therefore usually reckoned
as the twelfth or last in the series. It is the only one that is expressly mentioned
in the Homeric poems. (Od. xi. 623, &c.) Later writers have added to the simple
story several particulars, such, e. g. that Heracles, previous to setting out
on his expedition, was initiated by Eumolpus in the Eleusinian mysteries, in order
to purify him from the murder of the Centaurs. Accompanied by Hermes and Athena,
Heracles descended into Hades, near Cape Taenarum, in Laconia. On his arrival
most of the shades fled before him, and he found only Meleager and Medusa, with
whom he intended to fight; but, on the command of Hermes, he left them in peace.
Near the gates of Hades he met Theseus and Peirithous, who stretched their arms
imploringly towards him. He delivered Theseus, but, when lie attempted to do the
same for Peirithous, the earth began to tremble. After having rolled the stone
from Ascalaphus, he killed one of the oxen of Hades, in order to give the shades
the blood to drink, and fought with Menoetius, the herdsman. Upon this, he asked
Pluto permission to take Cerberus, and the request was granted, on condition of
its being done without force of arms. This was accomplished, for Heracles found
Cerberus on the Acheron, and, notwithstanding the bites of the dragon, he took
the monster, and in the neighbourhood of Troezene he brought it to the upper world.
The place where he appeared with Cerberus is not the same in all traditions, for
some say that it was at Taenarum, others at Hermione, or Coroneia, and others
again at Heracleia. When Cerberus appeared in the upper world, it is said that,
unable to bear the light, he spit, and thus called forth the poisonous plant called
aconitun. After having shown the monster to Eurystheus, Heracles took it back
to the lower world. Some traditions connect the descent of Heracles into the lower
world with a contest with Hades, as we see even in the Iliad (v. 397), and more
particularly in the Alcestis of Euripides (24, 846, &c. See Apollod. ii. 5.12;
Diod. iv. 25, &c.; Plut. Thes. 30; Paus. ii. 31.2, ix. 34.4, iii. 25.4, ii. 35.7;
Ov. Met. vii. 415, Serv. ad Virg. Georg. ii. 152, Aen. vi. 617).
Such is the account of the twelve labours of Heracles. According to
Apollodorus, Eurystheus originally required only ten, and commanded him to perform
two more, because he was dissatisfied with two of them; but Diodorus represents
twelve as the original number required. Along with these labours (athloi), the
ancients relate a considerable number of other feats (parerga) which he performed
without being commanded by Eurystheus; some of them are interwoven with the twelve
Athloi, and others belong to a later period.
This text is from: A dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, 1873 (ed. William Smith). Cited Nov 2005 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
Cerberus (Kerberos), the many-headed dog that guarded the entrance of Hades, is
mentioned as early as the Homeric poems, but simply as "the dog", and without
the name of Cerberus (Il. viii. 368, Od. xi. 623). Hesiod, who is the first that
gives his name and origin, calls him (Theog. 311) fifty-headed and a son of Typhaon
and Echidna. Later writers describe him as a monster with only three heads, with
the tail of a serpent and a mane consisting of the heads of various snakes (Apollod.
ii. 5.12; Eurip. Here. fur. 24, 611; Virg. Aen. vi. 417; Ov. Met. iv. 449). Some
poets again call him many-headed or hundred-headed (Horat. Carm. ii. 13. 34; Tzetz.
ad Lycoph. 678; Senec. Here. fur. 784). The place where Cerberus kept watch was
according to some at the mouth of the Acheron, and according to others at the
gates of Hades, into which he admitted the shades, but never let them out again.
- Kerberos: Perseus Encyclopedia
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Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined
in love to her (Echidna), the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought
forth fierce offspring; first she bore Orthus the hound of Geryones, and then
again she bore a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described,
Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless
(Hesiod, Theogony. 304)
Cerberus, (Kerberos). The famous dog of Hades, the fruit of
Echidna's union with Typhon. He was stationed at the entrance of hell, as a watchful
keeper, to prevent the living from entering the infernal regions, and the dead
from escaping from their confinement. Orpheus lulled him to sleep with his lyre;
and Heracles dragged him from hell in the performance of his twelfth and last
labour. The poets differ in their descriptions of this fabled animal. Hesiod assigns
him fifty heads, calling him kuon pentekontakarenos. Sophocles styles him Haidou
trikranon skulaka, "the three-headed dog of Pluto," and in this last
account the Latin poets generally coincide, describing him also as having serpents
coiled about his neck. Horace, however, calls him belua centiceps, either by poetic
amplification, or else in accordance with some Greek authority. Champollion traces
a curious analogy between the Egyptian and the Grecian mythology as regards the
dog of Hades.
This text is from: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Cited Oct 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Perseus: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)