The 12th Labour of Hercules

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Capturing Cerberus alive, without using weapons, was the final labour assigned to Hercules by Eurystheus, in recompense for the killing of his own children by Megara after he was driven insane by Hera, and therefore was the most dangerous and difficult.

Hercules capturing Cerberus (1545), by Sebald Beham

After having been given the task, Hercules went to Eleusis to be initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries so that he could learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive, and in passing absolve himself for killing centaurs. He found the entrance to the underworld at Tanaerum, and Athena and Hermes helped him to traverse the entrance in each direction. He passed Charon with Hestia’s assistance and his own heavy and fierce frowning.

Whilst in the underworld, Hercules met Theseus and Pirithous. The two companions had been imprisoned by Hades for attempting to kidnap Persephone. One tradition tells of snakes coiling around their legs then turning into stone; another that Hades feigned hospitality and prepared a feast inviting them to sit. They unknowingly sat in chairs of forgetfulness and were permanently ensnared. When Hercules had pulled Theseus first from his chair, some of his thigh stuck to it (this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians), but the earth shook at the attempt to liberate Pirithous, whose desire to have the wife of a god for himself was so insulting he was doomed to stay behind.

Hercules found Hades and asked permission to bring Cerberus to the surface, which Hades agreed to if Hercules could overpower the beast without using weapons. Hercules was able to overpower Cerberus and proceeded to sling the beast over his back, dragging it out of the underworld through a cavern entrance in the Peloponnese and bringing it to Eurystheus. The king was so frightened of the beast that he jumped into a pithos, and asked Hercules to return it to the underworld in return for releasing him from his labors. After completing the labours Heracles joined the Argonauts in the search for the Golden Fleece.