The Twelfth Labor
Source: Myths And Legends Of All Nations.
Instead of destroying his hated enemy the labors which Eurystheus had
imposed upon Hercules had only strengthened the hero in the fame for
which fate had selected him. He had become the protector of all the
wronged upon earth, and the boldest adventurer among mortals.
But the last labor he was to undertake in the region in which his
hero strength--so the impious king hoped--would not accompany him.
This was a fight with the dark powers of the underworld. He was to
bring forth from Hades Cerberus, the dog of Hell. This animal had
three heads with frightful jaws, from which incessantly poison flowed.
A dragon's tail hung from his body, and the hair of his head and of
his back formed hissing, coiling serpents.
To prepare himself for this fearful journey Hercules went to the city
of Eleusis, in Attic territory, where, from a wise priest, he received
secret instruction in the things of the upper and lower world, and
where also he received pardon for the murder of the Centaur.
Then, with strength to meet the horrors of the underworld, Hercules
traveled on to Peloponnesus, and to the Laconian city of Taenarus,
which contained the opening to the lower world. Here, accompanied by
Mercury, he descended through a cleft in the earth, and came to the
entrance of the city of King Pluto. The shades which sadly wandered
back and forth before the gates of the city took flight as soon as
they caught sight of flesh and blood in the form of a living man. Only
the Gorgon Medusa and the spirit of Meleager remained. The former
Hercules wished to overthrow with his sword, but Mercury touched him
on the arm and told him that the souls of the departed were only empty
shadow pictures and could not be wounded by mortal weapons.
With the soul of Meleager the hero chatted in friendly fashion, and
received from him loving messages for the upper world. Still nearer to
the gates of Hades Hercules caught sight of his friends Theseus and
Pirithous. When both saw the friendly form of Hercules they stretched
beseeching hands towards him, trembling with the hope that through his
strength they might again reach the upper world. Hercules grasped
Theseus by the hand, freed him from his chains and raised him from the
ground. A second attempt to free Pirithous did not succeed, for the
ground opened beneath his feet.
At the gate of the City of the Dead stood King Pluto, and denied
entrance to Hercules. But with an arrow the hero shot the god in the
shoulder, so that he feared the mortal; and when Hercules then asked
whether he might lead away the dog of Hades he did not longer oppose
him. But he imposed the condition that Hercules should become master
of Cerberus without using any weapons. So the hero set out, protected
only with cuirass and the lion skin.
He found the dog camping near the dwelling of Acheron, and without
paying any attention to the bellowing of the three heads, which was
like the echo of fearful resounding thunder, he seized the dog by the
legs, put his arms around his neck, and would not let him go, although
the dragon tail of the animal bit him in the cheek.
He held the neck of Cerberus firm, and did not let go until he was
really master of the monster. Then he raised it, and through another
opening of Hades returned in happiness to his own country. When the
dog of Hades saw the light of day he was afraid and began to spit
poison, from which poisonous plants sprung up out of the earth.
Hercules brought the monster in chains to Tirynth, and led it before
the astonished Eurystheus, who could not believe his eyes.
Now at last the king doubted whether he could ever rid himself of the
hated son of Jupiter. He yielded to his fate and dismissed the hero,
who led the dog of Hades back to his owner in the lower world.
Thus Hercules after all his labors was at last set free from the
service of Eurystheus, and returned to Thebes.
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