Hercules Labour XII: Cerberos
Hercules’ journey into the underworld is a nightmarish scene encapsulated by his struggle with the hell-hound Cerberos. What we are seeing is a man fighting his ego against entering the realm of his subconscious. By bridging the gap of consciousness and entering his own underworld, Hercules can obtain self-mastery. But this episode of the myth tells us more than just the path of spirituality and we can study the rituals of Eleusis and its importance in Greek spiritualism.
The bringing back of Cerberos from the house of Hades was ordered as a twelfth labour. Cerberos had three dog heads, the tail of a serpent, and along his back, the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Heracles was about to go off to get him, he went to Eumolpos in Eleusis because he wanted to be initiated into the mysteries. Since he was unable to see the mysteries because he had not been purified of the killing of the Centaurs, Eumolpos purified him and then initiated him. He came to Tainaron in Laconia Where the cave that leads to the house of Hades is located. He made his descent through it. When the souls saw him, they all fled except for Meleagros and Medousa the Gorgon. He drew his sword against the Gorgon in the belief that she was still alive, but he learned from Hermes that she was just an empty phantom. When he went near the gates of Hades’ realm, he found Theseus together with Peinthous, the man who tried to win Persephone’s hand in marriage and for that reason was in bonds. When they caught sight of Heracles, they stretched forth their arms so that they could rise up by means of Heracles’ might. He did take hold of Theseus by the hand and lift him up, but when he wanted to raise up Peirithous, the earth shook and he let go. He also rolled Ascalaphos’ rock off. He wanted to provide some blood for the souls, so he slaughtered one of the cows of Hades. Their herder, Menoites son of Ceuthonymos, challenged Heracles to wrestle. Heracles grabbed him around the middle and broke his ribs. Menoites was saved when Persephone begged for mercy for him. When Heracles asked Plouton for Cerberos, Plouton told him to take him if he could defeat him without any of the weapons he carried. Heracles found Cerberos by the gates of Acheron, and, encased by his breastplate and covered entirely by the lion’s skin, he threw his arms around Cerberos’ head and did not stop holding on and choking the beast until he prevailed, even though he was being bitten by the serpent that served as his tail. So he took Cerberos and returned, making his ascent through Troizen. Demeter turned Ascalaphos into an owl; Heracles showed Cerberos to Eurystheus and then brought him back to the house of Hades.
All of Heracles labours so far have led him to this final task. Each challenge has refined his character and soul to a point where he can finally undergo his chthonic adventure and journey into the underworld. As discussed earlier, the underworld is a symbolic feature of mythology to denote the individual journeying past the conscious mind and into their sub- and unconscious where they will face their shadow.
However, an individual cannot simply waltz into the underworld on their own accord, it is a dangerous land where the hero has just as much chance of perishing as they do of succeeding. Despite all his refinement, Heracles still needs to prepare himself for the journey ahead and this is why he goes to Eleusis.
Eleusis is home to the Mysteries of Demeter, and it is here that he is purified of all his blood guilt to date and is indoctrinated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This prepares him for ‘death’ with the divine knowledge that all people are immortal and that the ‘death’ Heracles will endure when he ventures into the underworld is only the destruction of his own materialistic ego.
The underworld, or subconscious mind, is usually off limits to the living which is why it is guarded by the monstrous Cerberos. In modern psychology, we perceive the world around us through the eyes of our ego, but this is only a minute part of the much larger psyche. The greater body of the mind includes the subconscious and unconscious mind which is only unlocked through dreams. However, humanity has known the power of psychotropic drugs for unknown millennia and these allow the waking mind access to these deeper depths of the psyche. During the rites at Eleusis, the psychedelic drink, kykeon, was consumed by initiates allowing them an experience with the divine. As Heracles underwent these initiations in preparation for his journey, we can conclude that he had gained the key to his own underworld or subconscious.
This is why he enters the underworld unchallenged, Cerberos does not block his entrance as it would have for any other living mortal.
When he enters the underworld, all the spirits flee from Heracles and this is because of the refinement of his soul from the previous labours. These spirits might represent all the fears and weaknesses of Heracles unconscious mind but he has overcome them. When Meleagros and Medousa confront him, Heracles feels fear but has the bravery to attack them with his sword instead of fleeing. They only have the power to defeat him through fear, much as our own negative thoughts can only affect us if we allow them too. This is why Hermes reveals the true nature of the spirits. Hermes here is acting a ‘psychopomp’, or an intermediary between worlds, or an intermediary between the conscious and unconscious mind. So in a way, Hermes rationalized what these phantoms truly are so Heracles knows not to fear them.
Heracles then came to Theseus and Peirithous who were trapped by Hades within the underworld. It is worth mentioning now the beautiful intricacies of Greek mythology and the way in which separate mythic cycles become intertwined within each other creating a living and breathing world. It is important to understand this separate myth, so I will quickly paraphrase.
Theseus and Peirithous agreed to marry the daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen of Troy and kidnapped her, Peirithous chose Persephone, the wife of Hades. So the two heroes went to the underworld to kidnap her but Hades knew of their intentions. He had the pair sit at his feast table but fooled them, having them seated in the chairs of forgetfulness from which they could not get back out. This is where Heracles finds them.
Heracles manages to free Theseus, but Peirithous is forced by Hades to remain. This episode is symbolic in portraying the role of intent and spiritual evolution. Because Peirithous came to the underworld with ignoble intentions he is trapped there forever, giving the audience insight into the consequences of failing within their own subconscious. Theseus however was there to help his friend, he also failed in the underworld but retained his purity and so could be freed. This is a commentary on the various perspectives of intention and purity and how they play out during the journey for spiritual enlightenment.
Next comes Heracles encounter with Plouton (Hades himself) where we see a peculiar episode take place. Heracles asks permission to take Cerberos. This is important because it shows our hero paying respect to the powers of the underworld, or to interpret this, he is respecting the powers of his own unconscious which is terribly important in understanding and accepting love for ones whole being. With the struggle with Cerberos to come, this can be seen as Heracles encounter with his shadow, he is accepting its existence and bringing it into himself without succumbing to it.
Heracles defeats Cerberos without any weapons and only bears his armour and the cloak of the Cithaironian Lion. This is telling us that his only defenses are those that he has won through his hardships and is symbolic of the inner strength that he has attained. It is bringing to a point that all of Heracles deeds to date have in fact led him to this moment, the final conflict. So Cerberos can be seen as Heracles shadow which he successfully defeats.
Cerberos is taken to Eurystheus before being returned to guard the gates of the underworld so that future individuals who attempt the same journey have the opportunity to face their own shadow.
Eurystheus freed Heracles from performing any future labours under his command. Heracles had paid his penance and had transformed his self from a mortal living in ignorance to a hero full of divine knowledge. This is why he was granted deification by Zeus after his death.
I hope you have enjoyed the series on interpreting Hercules. You can find even more information on the greatest of Greek heroes in my book Mythology Unveiled where we discuss Hercules and mythology in general in much greater detail.
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