Cerberus, The Hound of Hades

Left without any other option, Hercules engaged the monster in melee combat. The tail snakes hissed, the dog heads growled, the hero’s muscles were stretched to their limits and his mind tried to reckon every move and every outcome...

Hercules had come very far since he first undertook his oath to complete twelve Labors. Under a new name, he was born a new as a hero of the people, living in a constant struggle with the obstacles presented to him by King Eurystheus and the will of the gods - and he had overcome all of them, one by one. As his cousin stood before him, his arrogant look never leaving his eyes, he was confident that nothing the King could utter would be able to instil fear in his soul. He was wrong though.

"The time has come for your final Labor, dear cousin. You have rid the land of the most fearsome of beasts and monsters, of giants and centaurs, but there is one more battle you have to fight. Far away from our world, beyond the ultimate barrier where life ends and death begins, at the land where the unforgiving Hades rules, there is a fierce hound that guards its inner gates. Cerberus is its name and its fifty heads grab the unfortunate souls that try to return to our world and throw them back into the depths of the Underworld.

This time, Hercules, I demand that you capture this hound and bring him here, subdued, right in front of me." Hercules felt a trace of fear inside his heart but quickly drowned it under his sheer determination. He accepted the task and moved back towards his camp outside Tiryns. In two days, the hero had made his way to Eleusis, a holy place where the rites of Persephone were held. The priest Eumolpus initiated him to the mysteries of life and death, of the denizens of the Underworld and of the ways to travel between the two worlds. After his initiation was complete, Hercules was instructed to go to the cave of Tainaron in Laconia, where there was an entrance to the Underworld.

After a week of travel, the hero reached the mouth of the cave and was silently welcomed by priests who knew of his mission. They showed him the way to the inner cave and soon the hero found himself wandering in ancient stone-made corridors. The symbols carved into the stone walls of the cave were not familiar to him and he thought that they probably predated the people of his era. As he delved deeper, strange noises and chants reached the hero’s ears and a light but distinctive aroma felt his nostrils. He didn't quite understand when the solid rock gave its place to decaying mud and the voices grew louder, the strange smell grew stronger. He saw an opening in front of him. He climbed it and found himself in a misty riverbank.

The river Styx was flowing mournfully, its waters filled with the souls of the deceased. Charon was nowhere to be seen, and that reassured Hercules that he was still alive. But he had to somehow pass through the river of the dead, a daunting task indeed. He put one foot in the river, daringly, and was surprised to see that the souls of the dead made room for him. He then let himself plunge into the river and swam across to the other side. When he stepped on solid land again, the hero proceeded to search for the hound of Hades. The vast adobe of the lord of the Underworld was filled with the souls suffering eternal punishment.

Hercules was surprised to see his friend Theseus trapped there as well, tied on the Chair of Forgetfulness. He had heard rumours that he was ill but had no time to visit him since he embarked upon his Labors. Right next to Theseus, another man was being held tight on the same kind of chair; both were surrounded and held fast by coiling snakes. "Dear friend, what did you do to end up here? Are you really dead?" Theseus’s eyes were filled with hope as they recognized his friend’s face. "Not yet, dear friend, but I have to endure an unending torment. Still my body should still be intact under the care of my doctors in Athens. Can you help me and my friend Peirithous get away from this place?" Hercules quickly accepted and began grabbing and throwing the snakes away. ‘‘What were you two punished for?’’ he demanded to know. "I tried to free Persephone, the wife of Hades, and have her join me in marriage" Theseus responded, evidently ashamed of his action. "How did you dare…!" the hero could hardly fathom his friend's impudence. At that moment, a massive shadow covered the three men and a strange whispering voice approached their ears. Hercules removed the last snake from Theseus's chair and the trapped hero vanished, immediately returning to the mortal world.

As Hercules turned around, he felt an irresistible force trying to subdue him and bring him to his knees. He resisted with all his might, but to no avail. The god of death stood now before him, Hades himself. ‘‘Why you, a mortal of great sire, wish to challenge my authority in my own realm? Know that you owe your life to your father and no one else, for I would have brought you to my kingdom of the dead if I was allowed to by Zeus. Tell me now, have you done all that you had come for?’’ Hercules, fighting his urge to flee from this morbid and fearful presence, responded: ‘‘I have come to bring your hound Cerberus back to the world of the living.’’ There was a pause. After what Hercules perceived to be hours of waiting, Hades replied: ‘‘This is interesting. I will grant your demand only if you manage to face and capture my hound without any weapons. Only then you may return to the world of the living. If you fail, your place will be in my kingdom.’’

The god pointed Hercules to the door to the Over world that was guarded by Cerberus. The hound's tail was a mass of snakes and each one of their fifty heads looked deadly. Left without any other option, the hero engaged the monster in melee combat. The snakes hissed, the dog heads growled, the hero’s muscles were stretched to their limits and his mind reckoned every move and every outcome. After a long fight, the beast was subdued by the hero that had used up every bit of his power and resourcefulness to beat it.

Hades stepped aside and a tame and exhausted Cerberus was carried by Hercules to the world of the living. Back at Tiryns, when Eurystheus set his eyes on the beast, he immediately turned his back and fled in fear. Hercules was still waiting in the throne room with Cerberus at his feet, when a written order was delivered to him by a particularly brave messenger at the service of King Eurystheus. "Hercules, this is my last order to you. I demand that you return that monster back to the Underworld. Do that and you will be free to go because hereby, by my right as a King, I deem that you have completed all of the Labors set forth by me." Hercules returned the beast to the Gates of Hades and let it take its long way to the Underworld.

Subsequently, the hero travelled to Delphi to conclude his journey where it all began twelve years ago. When he asked for permission to pose Pythia his question, the oracle’s attendant left after instructing him to wait. After quite some time, he returned and handed Hercules a message written by Pythia herself on a linen cloth. He whispered, ‘‘This is for your eyes only’’, and left the waiting room. Curious, Hercules unfolded the cloth. The letters were somewhat obscure and written in an erratic manner, as if the priestess was entranced while she was composing the text. The message read:

"You have been far but now you are here,
unbound by hatred or by fear,
away from slumber and denial,
your soul now burns with stellar fire.
You came in shadow, filled with doubt
fearful, with sadness and redoubt
but from all mortals the earth holds
you are now the closest to the gods.
So let me know then hero, the greatest to ever be,
should you be asking  Pythia or I should be asking thee?"

After reading Pythia's response, Hercules realized that he already possessed all the answers to his questions. All these years of struggle for knowledge and atonement, all that was sacrificed by him and by others, demanded only one offering. He thought that it was time for him to undertake his greatest Labor, one that would never end: to share his knowledge and power with the people. In the following month, the hero made his way to the Olympian Temple of Peloponnese and founded the Olympic Games, the foundation that would bring about the end of wars, in memory of the Labors he had undertaken to earn his place in his father’s adobe, the heavenly Olympus.