The Capture of Cerberus

The last of the Twelve Labors of Heracles.

To fetch this three-headed monster from the lower world is the crown of the twelve labors of Heracles, and is therefore usually reckoned as the twelfth or last in the series. It is the only one that is expressly mentioned in the Homeric poems.1 Later writers have added to the simple story several particulars, such, e.g. that Heracles, previous to setting out on his expedition, was initiated by Eumolpus in the Eleusinian mysteries, in order to purify him from the murder of the centaurs.

Accompanied by Hermes and Athena, Heracles descended into Hades, near Cape Taenarum, in Laconia. On his arrival most of the shades fled before him, and he found only Meleager and Medusa, with whom he intended to fight; but, on the command of Hermes, he left them in peace. Near the gates of Hades he met Theseus and Pirithous, who stretched their arms imploringly towards him. He delivered Theseus, but, when he attempted to do the same for Pirithous, the earth began to tremble.

After having rolled the stone from Ascalaphus, he killed one of the oxen of Hades, in order to give the shades the blood to drink, and fought with Menoetius, the herdsman. Upon this, he asked Pluto permission to take Cerberus, and the request was granted, on condition of its being done without force of arms. This was accomplished, for Heracles found Cerberus on the Acheron, and, notwithstanding the bites of the dragon, he took the monster, and in the neighborhood of Troezen he brought it to the upper world. The place where he appeared with Cerberus is not the same in all traditions, for some say that it was at Taenarum, others at Hermione, or Coroneia, and others again at Heracleia.

When Cerberus appeared in the upper world, it is said that, unable to bear the light, he spit, and thus called forth the poisonous plant called aconitun. After having shown the monster to Eurystheus, Heracles took it back to the lower world. Some traditions connect the descent of Heracles into the lower world with a contest with Hades, as we see even in the Iliad,2 and more particularly in the Alcestis of Euripides.3

Previous labor: The Apples of the Hesperides.



  1. Odyssey xii, 623 ff.
  2. v, 397.
  3. 24, 846, ff.


  • Diodorus Siculus, iv, 25 ff.
  • Ovid. Metamorphoses vii, 415.
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 31.2; ix, 34.4; iii, 25.4; ii, 35.7.
  • Plutarch. Theseus, 30.
  • Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 5.12.
  • Servius on Virgil's Georgics ii, 152; Aeneid vi, 617.
  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.