Cerberus the Three-Headed Dog

Introduction

After the golden apples of the Hesperides were brought back to Eurystheus, only one task remained of the twelve that Pythia had commanded Hercules. Since Eurystheus was greatly afraid of Hercules, he wanted to send him some place from where he could never return. He therefore gave him the task of bringing Cerberus, the infamous watchdog, out of the underworld and into the light of day. This task was the most difficult of all, fo rno one had ever returned from the underworld. In addition, Cerberus was a terrifying creature, which had three heads that were covered in savage snakes. Yet before we tell of this labor, it would not seem out of place, since we made mention of the underworld, to put forth a few things about this region.

Charon’s Ferry

Of Orcus, which is also called Hades, much is recounted. When each person departs from life, their shades are led by Mercury down to Orcus, the land of the dead. Pluto was king of this region, which is said to be underground, and his wife was Proserpina, the daughter of Jove and Ceres. The shades led by Mercury first came to the bank of the river Styx, by which the kingdom of Pluto was contained. It was necessary to cross this river before the shades could arrive in the underworld. Yet since there was no bridge built across the river, the shades were transported by Charon, who waited at the bank with a small ferry. For this service Charon required payment, and he refused to ferry anyone unless they had given him this payment prior. On account of this reason it was a custom among the ancients to place a coin in the mouth of the dead, so that when they came to the Styx, they could pay the price of transfer. Those who were not buried in the ground after death were not able to cross the Styx, but were gathered on the bank to wander for a hundred years; only then was it permitted to enter the underworld.

The Realm of Pluto

After the shades had crossed the Styx in this way, they came to another river, which was called Lethe. They were compelled to drink the water from this river, because when they did, all painful things in life were put out of their memory. Finally they came to the home of Pluto himself, the entrance of which was guarded by the dog Cerberus. There Pluto, dressed in dark clothes, sits with his wife Proserpina on his throne. Not far from that place there were three other thrones, in which sat Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacas, the three judges in hell. These judges set down the law for the dead, and meted out punishments and rewards. The good souls arrived in the Elysian Fields, the home of the blessed; whereas the wicked were sent into Tartarus, and there they suffered various torments.

Hercules Crosses the Styx

After Hercules received the orders of Eurystheus, he immediately traveled to Cape Tainaron in Laconia; for in this place was an enormous cave, through which, it is said, men descended to the underworld. When he arrived, he asked the inhabitants where the cave was located; when he found out, he immediately decided to enter. Yet he did not make this journey alone, for Mercury and Minerva joined him as companions. When he came to the bank of the Styx, Hercules boarded Charon’s ferry, so that he could cross to the farther bank. Yet since Hercules was an enormous man, Charon did not want to start the journey; for he was greatly afraid that his ferry, burdened by such a heavy weight, would sink in the middle of the river. Yet finally Charon, terrified by the threats of Hercules, paddled his ferry and led him to the farther bank unharmed.

The Last Labor is Accomplished

After he crossed the river Styx in this way, Hercules came to the throne of Pluto himself; and after he explained his reason for coming, he asked if it was permissible for him to take away Cerberus. Pluto, who had heard stories about Hercules, received him with kindness, and willingly gave him the permission that he had requested. Yet he asked that Hercules himself, after he completed the orders of Eurystheus, return Cerberus to the underworld. Hercules promised to do so, and, dangerously grabbing Cerberus with his hands, dragged him with great effort out of the underworld into the light of day, to the city of Eurystheus. When he arrived, Eurystheus was so afraid that he immediately fled his palace; when he had recovered himself a little from his fear, he begged Hercules, with tears streaming down his face, to immediately return this monster to the underworld. In such a way, and against all odds, the twelve labors that Pythia had commanded were completed in twelve years; and now that they were finished, Hercules, finally free from servitude, returned to Thebes full of joy.

The Centaur Nessus

Afterwards, Hercules accomplished many other famous deeds, which are now too numerous to write down. Eventually, advanced in age, he married Deianira, the daughter of Oeneus; yet after three years it so happened that he accidentally killed a boy named Eunomus. Since it was the custom that if someone kills a man by accident, he goes into exile, Hercules, along with his wife, hastened to leave the borders of their country.  Yet while they made this journey, they came to a certain river in which there was no bridge; and while they were searching for any way to cross, the centaur Nessus ran up to meet them, and offered his help to the travelers. Hercules set his wife on the back of Nessus; then he crossed the river himself. Nessus, already a little ways into the water, suddenly turned around and tried to kidnap Deianira. But when Hercules saw this, he was stirred to a great wrath, and he strung his bow and shot Nessus in the chest with an arrow.

The Poisoned Robe

Nessus, pierced through by Hercules’ arrow, lay on the ground dying; but lest he lose his chance at revenge, he said, “You, Deianira, hear my dying words. If you wish to safeguard the love of your husband, take this blood which is pouring from my chest and store it away; then, if ever he will come into suspicion, soak your husband’s clothing with this blood.” Having said these things Nessus breathed his last breath; Deianira, suspecting nothing bad, carried out the orders. After a short while Hercules undertook a war against Eurytus, the king of Oechalia; and after he had killed the king himself with his children, he took his captive daughter Iole back with him. Yet before he came home, he put his ship ashore at Cape Kenaion, and going forth onto the land he constructed an altar, so that he could sacrifice to Jove. Then while he was preparing the sacrifice, he sent his comrade Licha to his home, who brought back a white robe; for it was the custom among the ancients, while they were making sacrifices, to wear a white robe. But Deianira, afraid lest Hercules should fall in love with Iole, gave to Licha the robe which, earlier, she had soaked with Nessus’ blood.

The Death of Hercules

Hercules, suspecting nothing wrong, immediately put on the cloak which Licha carried; yet after a short while he felt pain through all his limbs, and he was greatly bewildered at what should be the cause of this event. Almost killed by the agony, he attempted to take off the robe; yet the robe stuck to his body, and by no way could it be torn off. Only then, Hercules, urged on by his frenzy, traveled to Mount Octa and placed himself in a funeral pyre, which he built as quickly as possible. After he had done this, he told those who were standing nearby to set the pyre on fire as soon as they could. Throughout the day people refused; yet finally a certain shepherd, moved to pity, supplied the fire. Then, when the smoke obscured everyone’s vision, Hercules, wrapped in a dense cloud, was carried away by Jove to Olympus.

Latin text (scroll down to §49)

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