In Greek mythology, Cerberus (in ancient Greek Κέρϐερος / Kerberos) is the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Underworld preventing the dead from escaping from Hades’ lair and the living from coming to recover some dead.
It is found in many works of ancient Greek and Roman literature, as well as in art and architecture, both modern and ancient.
As with most creatures of classical mythology, the description and context surrounding the Cerberus differ from one work to another. The main disagreement is the number of heads given to the infernal dog, usually three, but also fifty according to Hesiod or one hundred in Horace.
Cerberus is particularly known for his capture by Heracles during the twelve works of Hercules.
Hercules capturing Cerberus
by B. Vallejo
Cerberus was the son of Echidna, with the body of a snake and the face of a woman, and of Typhon the multi-headed snake. His brother is Orthos, a two-headed dog in charge of guarding the cattle and the castle of Geryon. He would also be the brother of the Hydra of Lerna, the lion of Nemea and the Chimera. In most of the works, he is represented with three heads.
According to some myths, the three heads see and represent the past, present, and future respectively; other sources suggest that they represent birth, youth and old age. Each of the heads would only have an appetite for live meat and therefore allow the spirits of the dead to enter the underworld, but prevent them from leaving it. Cerberus was always used as Hades’ faithful guardian, guarding the gates to the underground world.
He was chained to the entrance of the Underworld and terrorized the dead themselves who had to appease him by bringing him a honey cake that had been placed in their graves at the same time as the obole for Charon placed in his mouth. But Cerberus was also terrible for the living who tried to force the door of the underworld like Pirithoos and Theseus, who tried to take Persephone. The psyche who had come to get Persephone’s cosmetic box on Aphrodite’s order put him to sleep with a cake dipped in drugged wine. Aeneas did the same with a soporific cake prepared by the Sibyl.
Several heroes succeed in thwarting his vigilance, even defeating him. Orpheus, determined to get his wife Eurydice out of the underworld, who died of a viper bite, managed to charm him by singing and playing his lyre. Hercules succeeded in doing so in the twelve works of Hercules (see below).
But Cerberus was even more terrible for the shadows that would have wanted to come out of it and for the living who were trying to force the door of hell like:
– Pirithoos and Theseus, who were trying to remove Persephone.
– Orpheus, came to get his Eurydice, calm him by playing the lyre.
– Psyche who had come to get Persephone’s cosmetic box on Aphrodite’s order put him to sleep with a cake dipped in drugged wine.
– Deiphobe the Cumae Sibylle that accompanied Aeneas.
– Enee did the same with a soporific cake made from honey and poppy seeds prepared by the Sibylle Deiphobe.
– During his twelfth work, Heracles succeeded in taming him alone, without weapons or artifice as Hades had asked him to do and brought him back to Mycenes to show him to Eurystheus. As usual, he did not shine with his courage and demanded that Heracles immediately take the monster back to hell.
At his request, the monster was brought back to hell, but his drooling on the ground gave birth to the monkshood, which is a toxic plant whose juice was used to poison the tips of arrows and spears and to make the magicians’ filters.
Description of Cerberus
He was a multiheaded dog: Hesiod gave him fifty heads, Horace a hundred, but usually, he was given three. His black, sharp teeth penetrated to the bone marrow causing excruciating pain.
He is depicted with a dragon tail, and snakeheads on the spine.
He was chained to the entrance of hell and terrorized the dead themselves who had to appease him by bringing him the honey cake that had been placed in their graves at the same time as the obole for Charon placed in his mouth.
Cerberus chained by Heracles © Louvre Museum