According to legend, Cerberus was one of the monsters born from the union of Echidna and Typhon, both as monstrous and hideous as their offspring. Echidne was half-woman, half-serpent, while Typhon was the most fierce of all creatures.
Among his brothers, the most famous are Hydra, Chimera, and Orthrus.
According to Horace, Cerberus possessed one hundred heads. Hesiod wrote that he had fifty, while most sources agree to only three. The center head was in the shape of a lion, while the other two were in the shape of a dog and a wolf, respectively. He also had a dragon's tail and a thick mane of writhing snakes.
The Guardian Hound and HerculesEdit
Hercules' final labour was to capture Cerberus. After having been set the task, Hercules went to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries so that he could learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive, and in passing absolve himself for killing centaurs. He found the entrance to the underworld at Tanaerum, and Athena and Hermes helped him to traverse the entrance in each direction. He passed Charon thanks to Hermes' insistence, and his own heavy and fierce frowning. Whilst in the underworld, Hercules freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, so he had to leave him behind. They had been imprisoned by Hades, by magically binding them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone. The magic was so strong that when Hercules pulled Theseus free, part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench, explaining why his descendants had notably lean thighs. Hercules presented himself before the throne of Hades and Persephone and asked permission to take Cerberus, to which the gods agreed as long as Hercules does not harm the hound. Some say, Persephone gave her full consent because Heracles was her own brother. In either case, Hercules wrestled the dog into submission and dragged it out of Hades, passing through a cavern entrance in the Peloponnese. When he returned with Cerberus to the palace of Eurystheus, the man who had assigned the task to Hercules, Eurystheus was so afraid of the fearsome beast that he jumped into a pithos (large storage jar) to hide.
Cerberus and his defeatsEdit
- Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus, which he did by treating it with the first kindness it had ever received.
- Orpheus used his musical skills to lull Cerberus to sleep.
- Hermes put him to sleep with water from the river Lethe.
- In Roman mythology, Aeneas lulled Cerberus to sleep with drugged honeycakes.
- In a later Roman tale, Psyche also lulled him to sleep by giving him drugged honeycakes.
Symbolism and roleEdit
Cerberus’ three heads relate to the threefold symbol of the baser forces of life. They represent the past, the present and the time yet to come.
Dante described Cerberus as “il gran vermo inferno” thus linking the monsters with the legendary worms and orms.
Cerberus is the watchdog of Hell. He is often pictured with Hades, his master. He can be found on the banks of the river Styx, where he had the task of eating any mortals who attempted to enter, and any spirits who attempted to escape.
Cerberus is featured in several mythological stories in his role as the watchdog of Hades. Perhaps the best known involves the vigorous hero Hercules (or Herakles).
- Hercules underwent a series of Twelve Labors, one of which was to capture the fierce canine guardian and parade him around the Greek city of Mycenae for a bit, and then return the dog to Hades. This unbelievable stunt was in due course accomplished by the hero, although one would imagine that Cerberus did not enjoy it in the least.
- Another tale depicts the poet and singer Orpheus charming Cerberus by the power of his song, which emphasizes Orpheus's magical gifts of enchantment (indeed, Cerberus was notorious for not allowing mortals who were still alive to enter the Underworld, with the exception of a handful of mythological characters).
- Ancient Greeks and Romans were said to place a coin and a small cake in the hands of their deceased. The coin was meant as payment for Charon who ferried the souls across the river Styx, while the cake helped to pacify Cerberus. This custom gave rise to the expression 'to give a sop to Cerberus,' meaning to give a bribe or to quiet a troublesome customer.
- In the Aeneid, the Trojan hero, Aeneas descends to Tartarus to visit his father Anchises. He is escorted by the Bybil of Cumae, and upon encountering 'huge Cerberus barking from his triple jaws, stretched at his enormous length in a den that fronts the gate,' she throws him a cake seasoned with honey and poppy seeds. Now Cerberus, “his neck bristling with horrid snakes, opening his three mouths in the mad rage of hunger, snatches the offered morsel, and spreads on the ground, relaxes his enormous limbs, lies now extended at the vast length over all the cave. Aeneas, now that hell's keeper is buried in sleep, seizes the passage and swiftly over-passes the bank of that flood whence there is no return.”