Twelfth Labour : the Capture of Cerberus
Eurystheus ordered Heracles to go to Hades and bring back Cerberus.
According to Hesiod, it was a monstrous dog with fifty heads (he had only two or three in other traditions). He welcomed the arriving shadows but prevented them from going back towards the light, devouring those which tried to cross the threshold of the underground kingdom.
Hermes and Athena helped the hero achieve this task.
According to Apollodorus, when the hero arrived at Hades’ doors, the shadows fled except for two, that of the Gorgo Medusa and that of the hero Meleagros. Heracles drew his sword at Medusa, but Hermes warned him that it was an «empty shadow».
Penetrating further into the underground kingdom, he met Theseus and his friend Pirithoos who were still «alive» but chained for trying to kidnap Persephone. Some say that he freed Theseus but could not free Pirithoos.
In order to give some blood back to the shadows, the hero killed one of Hades’ bulls. The herdsman Menoetes got irritated and defied the hero to fight. During the fight, Heracles broke one of Menoetes’ ribs and his life was safe only thanks to Persephone’s intervention.
Finally, the hero found Cerberus on the banks of the Acheron (or, according to others, of the Styx).
Besides his monstrous heads, Cerberus had a tail made of a snake and a multitude of snakes’ heads covered his back.
Hades having forbidden Heracles to use weapons, the latter fought the monster with his bare hands. In spite of being bitten by the tail, he controlled him (or persuaded him to obey) and took him to Eurystheus’ house. The latter, terrorised, ordered Heracles to bring him back to Hades.
If the goal of the first Ten Labours was universalization of mind and vital, thus the abolition of the limits in those planes, the goal of the last Labour is to initiate the body’s transformation in order to ultimately obtain its divinisation and then its universalisation. According to Sri Aurobindo’s usage of words for the different phases of the yoga, the «perfection» of nature or “supramental transformation” must come after the «spiritual transformation» and «psychic transformation», and must lead to the realisation of a divine nature in a divinised body. It is no longer the work in order to obtain the personal liberation of the adventurer of consciousness, but the work of the Divine in a nature purified fully and receptive to the work and influence of the forces put into action.
This work leads to the depths of corporal matter where the union of the Spirit with the involuted Divine ultimately has to happen. This occurs in Hades’ kingdom which, let us recall, represents the force that watches over the union in matter’s unconscious. This god is simultaneously «he who is not visible» (who resides in the human unconscious) and the principle of a future integral union with full consciousness (ΙΔ).
The first stage is the awareness of what is opposing this process, Cerberus’ capture being the image of it.
Unlike the elements chased from the conscious which found refuge in the subconscious (from where they can always come back to consciousness through Poseidon’s action), it is impossible for those that have been rejected from the subconscious into the unconscious to cross the barrier in the opposite direction. Realisations which are no more necessary for evolution will not come back again to the conscious.
This can also indicate that once a victory has been achieved in the body, it is permanent, which is not the case in the mind or in the vital where the same work has to be done again and again until the obstacle is «worn out».
Besides Heracles, the rare exceptions in which heroes could come back from Hades could indicate a work-in-progress or the resumption of a process at a higher level. But it could be a confusion between unconscious and subconscious by late authors. To mention but a few, the legends of Theseus’ liberation do not appear before Euripides in the Vth century. The myth of Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld is still subsequent.
Like in the cattle of Geryon’s Labour and prior to approaching Hades, the hero faces two obstacles, both represented by a dog and a herdsman, Cerberus and Menoetes.
But here, it is only a matter of becoming aware of the obstacles: Heracles must kill neither the dog, nor the herdsman. Hades does not even allow him to use any weapon to control Cerberus.
It is thus only a very first approach of the yoga’s work in the body.
Before being able to move further, a number of realisations need to be effective. They will be detailed in the Praxeis, the hero’s «free acts» which we shall study in a next chapter.
If this work could begin in ancient Greece or even in ancient Egypt, it was doubtlessly limited to a small number of individual realisations. Nevertheless, let us note that in the Third Nemean mentioned earlier, Pindar seems to say that there was a time when this work was more easily realisable at the individual level (the time of «intuition»).
We are not going to discuss in detail this yoga of the body which is greatly described in Sri Aurobindo’s, Mother’s and Satprem’s works. We shall limit ourselves to the examination of the elements mentioned in the myth.
We must bear in mind that it is possible to descend into the archaic layers of the body consciousness to confront the forces that structured it only to the extent in which we realised the corresponding ascent in the worlds of the Spirit (the permanent union or realisation of the Self and the «psychisation» which brings a sense of Divine «presence»).
Demeter and her daughter Persephone work together to prepare this descent.
The authors who mention in this first stage the help of Hermes and Athena suggest that the seeker is not yet completely installed in the overmind.
The dog Cerberus is the first «guardian of the threshold» of body transformation.
Let us recall that he is the fourth child of Typhon and Echidna, «the ignorance» and «the halt of the evolution in the union». He is the brother of Orthros «falsehood», of the Lernaean Hydra «desire» and of Chimera «illusion».
According to the ascendants attributed to Typhon and Echidna, the victory in this work can only be considered by going back to the roots of life, at the level of Phorcys and Ceto, where the emergence of the animal ‘I’ occurs, according to Hesiod, and to the Tartarus, the primitive Nescience, for Apollodorus.
If Cerberus is a consequence of mental ignorance and of an evolutionary “halt” in the union, it must be defeated by the transcendence of the mind during the installation of humanity into the supramental. Thus, it is the first guardian of the secret the ancients were seeking, «the immortality» or integral non-duality, not only in the spirit but also in the vital and in the body (the victory over death does not necessarily mean an eternal body but a matter submitted to consciousness). We can then associate this to the «feeling of separation» in the body (the spiritual root of the mental-vital ego has been eliminated during the labour of Geryon’s cattle). Ultimately each of the three big stages corresponds to an universalisation: that of the mind, then of the vital and finally of the body. In the current mentality, if it is already very difficult to conceive the universalisation of the vital, it is even more for that of the body, which implies loosing the sensations of one’s own corporeal limits. The Mother’s Agenda and Satprem’s Notebooks of an Apocalypse suggest some characteristics of this transformation.
In the chapter about «the Origins of Life», we have assumed that the name Cerberus could mean «the principle that causes the process of death (of cutting)» or even, with the structuring letters, «the right movement that reverses the process of incarnation». The latter meaning explains the attitude of Cerberus towards the shadows. If he welcomes the ones entering Hades, he is known to devour those wanting to exit: that is to say that the elements or forces which finished their work or were chased from conscious and subconscious evolution, personal or collective, cannot go back.
According to the authors, he is endowed with a variable number of heads of which we can only imagine the meaning: two to express the fundamental duality, three to indicate the planes where it is active (physical, vital and mental), or fifty as a sign of totality in the world of forms.
According to Apollodorus, when Heracles went down to Hades, he was at first confronted with Medusa, the source of fear and of the processes of response to aggression, but he learnt from Hermes that she was only an empty shadow (the overmind informs the seeker that fear is only a lure). Satprem’s writings (Notebooks of an Apocalypse) show nevertheless that one has to dive deep into the body, beyond instinctive fears of dissolution or of the body itself bursting, in order to reach a state free of all fear.
Besides Medusa, Meleagros is the only shadow that does not flee when Heracles arrives (Ulysses will meet many others). Meleagros conducted the hunt for Calydon’s boar that will be discussed later and which deals with the mastery of the primary vital energies. He symbolises «that which follows the work of accuracy (exactitude, rightness)». He will make Heracles promise to marry his sister Deianira, the perfect «detachment». If Meleagros does not flee when the hero arrives, it is because he represents the only method of yoga conceivable in the body, «the accuracy» or «perfect sincerity».
The episode of Theseus’ liberation appears for the first time with Euripides, and was repeated by Apollodorus. It probably allows to follow up Theseus’ feats. But it appears as the right course of action that the greatest king of Athens – among those who lead the evolution of the inner being – accompanied by Pirithoos «he who experiments swiftly», attempts the descent into the body consciousness. This episode appeared, it seems, in the oldest sources.
Nevertheless, this hero does not intervene in the advanced stages of the yoga since, as the unique sigma of his name indicates, he still belongs to the domain of mental duality. We shall examine the texts about his liberation in a later chapter.
Then, still according to Apollodorus, the hero killed one of Hades’ bulls to give back some blood to the shadows «psychai» (this name is mentioned here as a reminder of the fact that the «shadows» of Hades’ kingdom are related to the growth of the psychic being and represent the seeker’s achievements): it seems that this episode indicates that the seeker has to sacrifice a «power» gained by the beginnings of a union in the body – for example, that of healing – in order to be able to revive the processes of consciousness which finished their work in the mind and in the vital and must from then on apply to the body. Indeed, the work is a spiral-like process which requires to face obstacles at a deeper level every time, but most often according to apparently similar requirements.
Yet, as was already the case for the growth of the mind which required to renounce many achievements of the vital, here the seeker must «sacrifice» spiritual realisations.
Since it is an evolution, opposition forces manifest to ensure it is happening «in the right way»: that is what irritates Hades’ herdsman, Menoetes, «consciousness of the separate existence» which continues to the level of the cells, the yoga of the body precisely consisting of giving them back the consciousness of unity. The hero broke the herdsman’s ribs whose life was saved only thanks to Persephone’s intervention: the broken ribs may hint to a «stifling» of the process of separation no more sustained by the «breath».
Then the hero found Cerberus on the banks of the Acheron.
According to the Odyssey (X, verse 487 and following), there were several rivers in the underground world: «at the end of the ocean, the Pyriphlegethon and the Cocytus (Kokytos), whose waters come from the Styx, flow into the Acheron. Both resounding rivers merge in front of the Stone. » It was usually admitted that the Cocytus was flowing in the opposite direction than the Pyriphlegethon.
To understand this passage from Homer, one must refer to the Caduceus symbol with its two currents of energy flowing in opposite directions.
The Styx «that which rights the Truth» is a current of consciousness the crossing of which «gives the shivers». It is fed by the tenth of Oceanos’ water, «the currents of consciousness’ indefinite broadening». It is associated to the Sephira Malkuth, one of the ten Sephiroth or main energy centers of the subtle body in the Kabbalah.
At the bottom is the Acheron, symbol of «the right movement of the One consciousness (or gathered consciousness) ». It is this river (or lake) that one must pass to reach Hades’ kingdom, in «the Unity of Consciousness-Existence».
The Cocytus is the current that descends from the Styx towards the Acheron, towards the worlds of Hades and of unconsciousness: it is then a river of «moaning and whining». As for the Pyriphlegethon, which flows upwards in the Cocytus’ opposite direction, it is the current of aspiration or «consuming fire».
The seeker meets the first guardian of unity, Cerberus, only once he reaches «the edges» of a certain exactitude in the body (the banks of the Acheron). There again is the «stone», the rock that must be crossed to reach unity.
But since it is still only the beginning of the work in the body for the hero, he had to bring back Cerberus in Hades after showing it to Eurystheus.
Thus ends the series of the twelve challenges, the «athloi», of which only ten were recorded by Eurystheus. Yet the hero’s adventures do not stop here since Heracles’ deeds continue with the praxeis, «the free acts».