For Heracles’ last labour Eurystheus devised a truly deadly mission: to bring back to Tiryns the guardian of Hades – Cerberus, the three-headed dog with a snaky mane and serpent tail. Protected once more by Athene, Heracles descended through an underwater cave at Cape Taenarum, south of Sparta and crossed the River Styx (where he menaced Charon into conveying him on his ferry) to the court of Haides and Persephone. Here Heracles pleaded his case. With unusual sympathy, Haides agreed to part temporarily with Cerberus, on condition that Heracles subdued the creature without causing it lasting harm.
Heracles grappled with the hound. Cerberus fought back, viciously lashing his tail – to no avail. Nothing could penetrate Heracles’ lion skin. Exhausted, Cerberus allowed himself to be led meekly up into the sunlight, where he cringed, blinking at the unaccustomed brightness before trotting obediently at Heracles’ heels all the way back to Tiryns.
Capturing Cerberus Photo Gallery
The labours were complete. Heracles’ enslavement was ended. But there were further traumas still to come.
A Murder & Further Enslavement
A young prince, Iphitus, was tricked into accusing Heracles of stealing his prize herd of horses. He came to Tiryns, where Heracles took Iphitus up to the highest tower, told him to scan the plain and asked if he could see the horses. He could not. But, despite his gracious apologies, Heracles was so furious that he picked up the youth and flung him to his death – an impious act, which demanded atonement.
In desperation, Heracles fled to Delphi, but the oracle refused him audience. Again the mist of anger engulfed the hero. He raged through the sanctuary causing terrible destruction before seizing the sacred tripod in Apollo’s temple. Now Apollo himself intervened, and for long hours the two wrestled for control of this most sacred object. At last Zeus interceded, hurling a thunderbolt that exploded in a blinding flash and restored Heracles’ sanity.
As punishment, Zeus caused Heracles to be enslaved for a further year, this time to the Lydian queen, Omphale. For the red-blooded hero this was an even more terrifying experience than his servitude to Eurystheus. The queen unmanned him: not only did she confiscate his club and lionskin, she made him dress in women’s clothes, wear jewelry and make-up, and help her and her maidservants at the spinning-wheel.