The Hidden Labor of Herakles
“Tell me, O Herakles, slayer of the Nemean Lion,
what happened when you went down to Hades’ realm
in pursuit of Cerberus of the three-heads.”
“I shall not stint in detailing my travails
to you, Antinous, when I went on that errand,
the last of my many labors for Eurystheus.
“Through the nekuomanteion hard by the Euxine
I descended to the land of the shades,
and was able to pass by Charon without word or fee–
“It was a trick I had learned from my shipmate,
Orpheus, which he had told to me in my mourning
for Hylas, in order to retrieve his soul from death–
“And I found the throne-room of the dread lord
with his wolf-skin cap, and at his side the beautiful
Lady, the Maiden, Queen of the just and unjust dead.
“I saw the feast set forth for Theseus,
and laughed at his fate, full of more hubris
than Aktaion had with one thought of Artemis.
“‘State your business, O son of Zeus,’
my uncle beckoned to me upon my arrival,
his Lady quiet at his side, looking down.
“‘I come to take Cerberus to the face of Gaia,
and I intend to do so without weapons, uncle,’
I answered him, without a breath of pause.
“‘It is only without weapons he can be taken,’
Hades answered me back, and saw me smirk,
and then paused for a moment before continuing:
“‘But it is not wrestling that you will have
with the three-headed hound of Hades, Herakles.
You cannot rely on the strength of your body.’
“This was unexpected, to say the least,
and I felt my entrails tighten within me
at what Hades might suggest instead of strength.
“‘My Lady and Queen will put this test before you,’
he finished, and the Lady rose and walked, wordless,
and I was barely able to keep up in following.
“She floated, ethereal, as if her feet were of the air
across the colorless plains and the barren fields,
the countless fruitless orchards of barbed branches.
“We came to the vestibule of Hades, a spot
on the far side of Styx, but not beyond the gate
which Cerberus guards, restless, without sleeping.
“There before me were creatures I had seen before:
two serpents I had strangled in my cradle,
the Nemean Lion, skinless, writhing on the ground,
“The Hydra’s severed heads and its blood-drained body,
Geryon of the triple heads and triple bodies with an arrow
through each forehead, and Orthrus lifeless at his feet,
“Eurytion the monstrous herdsman likewise in torpor,
and the dragon Ladon in pieces twined on tree limbs,
an innumerable flock of bruised bronze Stymphalian birds,
“And the strangled giant Cacus, deprived of air
when I crushed his throat and the fires within
could no longer lash out and bring calamity to men.
“Monsters all, the work of my labors eleven and beyond,
gathered as shades, no longer alive but not fully dead
and without a place in Hades or elsewhere.
“‘Your works, Herakles,’ the Lady said to me,
words that chilled my soul to its core
and made my limbs shiver in anguish.
“Even the lowliest shades in Hades, whose descendants
have never offered them sacrifice or libation
nor had their names sung or their bodies buried or burned
“Would not linger in such misery for all eternity,
until the pillar of Atlas is cut down from the heavens
and all the Gigantes rage across the earth.
“She said not a word further, and this confused me,
for I was no seer like Tiresias, no oracle or exegete
who could see what it was I was tasked with at the time.
“It then occurred to me that my works were not complete,
that though I had killed these formidable adversaries
and had rid the world of terrors it was happy to see go,
“I had not done what was really required:
monsters are not troubling because of the havoc they cause,
they are simply creatures out-of-place with their surroundings,
“And these ones, even in Hades, had no place–
my role was not to slay them, but instead
to put them in their proper place…which wasn’t Hades.
“There are several paths which the three-headed hound
guards on the far shore of the Styx:
the wide path to Hades itself, traveled by many,
“A narrower path that few are able to tread,
and a dark path that leads immeasurably beyond
deep into the realm of Tartaros far below.
“I would lead them there, not for punishment,
nor for their condemnation, but because that place
of such sublime ferocity and incalculable power
“Is the only rightful home for such a brood
of creatures that no mere mortal could dispatch,
that no god would come to reclaim in their deaths.
“But Cerberus himself would not let me pass,
his three maws foaming as he spat ear-breaking barks
and threatened to snap my head off my shoulders.
“I brought the body of Orthrus, two-headed, in my arms
and set him before Cerberus, his litter-mate,
and the three-headed hound whimpered his lament.
“A breath not of life returned to the dead dog,
and he stood on his own four feet, beckoning
his fellow monstrosities to follow him forward.
“I lead them as far as I could go into Tartaros,
and saw things it is not proper to speak
and met beings whose names cannot form words.
“When I returned to Cerberus’ side, he was as tame
as the friendliest lap-dog raised for the queens of Thebes.
On his back, the shade of Hylas rode, joyless.
“‘Take your reward, hero, and go swiftly to the surface,
but do not look forward where the hound and the shade lead you.’
A strange order, for certain, but I kept it in mind.
“I walked backwards, like the cattle under Hermes’ watch,
and felt Cerberus’ serpentine tail behind me,
wagging madly, a moving leash leading me upwards.
“But when I thought the first glimpses of light
across the Euxine sea on the horizon
gleamed on the walls of the cavern as we emerged,
“I looked forward to what I hoped was a new day
on which young Hylas would be with me again
and I would see him grow to manhood with honor.
“It was not to be, for as soon as I saw him
and thought for a moment of the future,
his form faded before me, not to be seen again…
“Until many years later, on the Isle of the Blessed,
for it was only the shade of his bodily form
that occupied the lifeless plains of Hades.
“The three-headed hound remained, however,
and I brought him, docile, to kneel before Eurystheus
and complete the labors he imposed upon me.
“At Eleusis, I came for purification,
but was refused entry into the Mysteries
by a surly torch-bearer with his snide responses.
“I had seen mysteries far greater already,
in the darkness of Holy Nyx in Tartaros,
had seen a flame more brilliant than Hekate’s torches,
“And I had seen the Maiden herself, the Queen below.
The torchbearer could not resist my response,
and the purifications were given to me
“Even despite the blood on my hands
from monsters or centaurs or my own children.
That is my tale for you today, Antinous.”
“And may all the gods above and below
honor you for the telling of it, Herakles,
greatest amongs the heroes who walked the earth.”
Hail to Herakles! Hail, Hail Antinous!