Perhaps one of the best known mythological stories involves Hercules and his 12 Labors.
For the final and most difficult labor, King Eurytheus asked Hercules to bring him Cerberus from the Underworld to prove his strength and fearlessness. To King Eurytheus this seemed an impossible task.
- Cerberus was a fearsome hellhound monster, not easily bested.
- While many spirits went in to the underworld, none ever came back.
- Cerberus was the beloved pet of Hades and surely Hades would not be happy about this slight.
Hercules was not daunted. The first barrier to the soul’s journey beyond the grave was the Styx. There, the newly dead congregated as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves. They awaited passage on Charon the Boatman’s ferryboat. Charon accepted only those who were dead and whose corpses had gold coins under their tongues. Hercules met neither condition, but he had but to glower at Charon to gain passage. That glower must have been something fierce!
After he found the entrance to the underworld, instead of attacking Cerberus, he went straight to Hades to ask permission to take his beloved hellhound. Hades was impressed by the respect shown by Hercules in coming to him first before acting on the abduction… especially since Hercules’ reputation made him out to be quite impetuous.
Hades was so impressed in fact, that Hades allowed Hercules to try his luck, but only on a few conditions. Heracles could not kill or seriously injure Cerberus — this meant no weapons could be used. He had to tell Hades who had asked him to bring back Cerberus as a trophy — which did not bode well for King Eurytheus. And finally Heracles had to bring the monstrous pup back safe and sound once the labor was completed.
The greater challenge was Cerberus. Sheathing his weapons Heracles returned to Cerberus to wrestle him barehanded. Cerberus’ snake-like extremities lashed out at Hercules while the three heads, rabidly biting and snarling, tried to gain purchase on his throat. The fighting was so savage that the walls shook and the earth cracked beneath them. Fortunately, the hero was wearing his trusty lion’s skin, which was impenetrable by anything short of a thunderbolt from Zeus. Eventually, Hercules choked Cerberus into submission and dragged him to Tiryns and King Eurytheus. The King who thought this was a suicide mission was shocked, dismayed and not only a little frightened when he saw Hercules with Cerberus. Cowering behind his throne, he begrudgingly gave Hercules due credit for this final Labor.
After succeeding, Hercules returned the creature to Hades. While he was carefully taking the hellhound back home, Hades made an appearance in front of King Eurytheus demanding to know why he would demand his favorite pup as a trophy. Eurystheus collapsed in fear.
Begging Hades forgiveness and asking that he spare him, Eurystheus revealing that he received orders for all of Heracles’ labors from Hera herself. Obviously Hera was determined to send Heracles to his death. The tale goes that a none-to-happy Hades visited Hera and warned her if she ever sent Heracles on any such errand again she would have to deal with him. Thus did the Labors of Hercules come to an end.