Heracles’ twelfth Labour: Kerberos

Drawn for revision of the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation topic.

An illustration based on the Olympian metope of Heracles’ 12th Labour. Heracles, dressed in his lionskin and tunic, is pulling Kerberos (Cerberus) out of Hades with a rope that is attached to the three-headed dog’s necks. He’s saying ‘Come on boys, it’s just walkies…’. Hermes is behind Kerberos, visibly shrinking away from the dog(s) and holding his Caduceus away from them. An arrow pointing to him reads ‘(not a dog person)’. Kerberos’ heads and forepaws look resistant to leaving Hades. By Greek Myth Comix

Heracles‘ twelfth Labour from King Eurystheus was absolutely, positively meant to finish him off this time – Eurystheus send him on a quest into Hades itself, to steal Kerberos (Cerberus), the three-headed guard dog of Hades – a literal katabasis.

Heracles knew he couldn’t just walk into Hades to get the dog(s). Instead, he ingratiated himself with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, by joining the Eleusinian Mystery Cult (see your GCSE Prescribed Source ‘The Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ for when this cult was set up).

Heracles then apparently had the aid of Athene (representing his cleverness) and Hermes; as psychopomp he was able to lead Heracles into Hades.

When he arrived in Hades, Heracles was met by Hades and Persephone, who told him that he could take Kerberos if he didn’t use any weapons to do so. He used the same stranglehold he used on theother monstrous animals he had caught in earlier Labours, and subdued Kerberos enough to put on a harness and lead him back to Eurystheus.

Like the Apples of the Hesperides, Kerberos was sent back to his rightful owners after being presented to Eurstheus.

After this, Eurystheus declared defeat, and Heracles, purified of the miasma of killing his family, was able to leave his service.

See the comic in more detail:

The comic is based on the metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, but has additions in order to help students remember both the metope and the story.

a lineart drawing reconstructing the Olympian metope of Heracles' 12th labour, drawing Kerberos out of Hades. Only parts of Heracles body and Kerberos remain, but the feet behind Kerberos suggest another figure, which the lineart reconstruction suggests is Hermes.
Sketch of the metope (author unknown, from Olympia) as it possibly looked when on the temple (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015) – only parts of Heracles body and Kerberos remain, but the feet behind Kerberos suggest another figure, which the reconstruction suggests is Hermes.

A photograph of the damaged metope at Olympia, showing Heracles pulling Kerberos out of Hades. Only Heracles body, and part of Kerberos', is still present. Photo by L Jenkinson-Brown
Remaining parts of the carved stone metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (photo taken by me at Museum of Olympia c.2015) Note that the position of Heracles’ left arm is different to the position in the lineart reconstruction.

This metope is filled well by the figure of Heracles that leans diagonally across from the centre of the metope to the left, Kerberos who fills the bottom-right corner, and Hermes (probably) standing behind, filling the right-hand top space left above Kerberos. Our eyes travel from the left to right, travelling across Heracles’ strained body, down to Kerberos, with Hermes behind to remind us of the presence of the Underworld (Hades) in this Labour. Kerberos is only partly in the metope, suggesting his lower body is still in Hades.

NOTE: AGAIN Heracles isn’t wearing the lion skin or the club to help identify him. The other figures – Hermes as psychopomp and Kerberos serve to identify the story overall.

In the illustration, the figures are pretty much the same as in the metope, and I have reinstated Hermes, adding his Caduceus to make the identification more obvious. Heracles has a pleated tunic on in the metope, but for continuity I’ve added his lionskin and tunic again. Kerberos has all three heads to make his identification clearer too.

I’ve chosen to use the position of Heracles’ left arm from the reconstruction instead of how the metope is positioned in the museum, because it makes more sense if he’s pulling on a lead to get Kerberos to follow him.

Heracles is saying ‘come on boys, it’s just walkies’ to Kerberos. Hermes is recoiling from a rather angry-looking set of dogs’ heads, so I’ve labelled him as ‘not a dog person‘ Because: fun.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these! Good luck with your revision!

heracles by greekmythcomix - a lineart drawing of him, older, holding his club over his shoulder. He has a figleaf over his member (hello US audience!) and is carrying his lion skin. He's based on most standing statues of Heracles.

Continue learning about the life of Heracles:

Videos on YouTube

Comix on GMC

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