Who is Cerberus?
Cerberus, also known as “hound of Hades”, is a multi-headed dog who guards the gates of the underworld. Although he will devour anyone who tries to sneak past him, there’s more to this dog than his monstrous appearance and gruesome job would suggest!
As you might expect of a dog that guards the gates to the underworld, Cerberus is a ghastly monster. He has the body of a dog with shaggy bronze or black fur, but there ends any sort of normality to this monster.
Cerberus has multiple heads—usually three, although some writers have given him as many as one hundred—with “eyes that flash fire,” “jagged teeth” and three tongues per mouth. Most writers claim that all of these heads are dog-like, but a few writers have described half of the heads as dog-like and the other half are “heads of beasts of all sorts.”
Cerberus’s tail slowly morphs into a serpent, with a venomous head at the end, and more serpents sprout from his body. Some writers claim that these serpents form a mane around his head, while others describe the serpents growing up from his spine or hanging down like tangled fur all over his body.
Despite his nightmarish appearance and his position at the gates of the underworld, Cerberus was not a demonic creature.
Above all else, this mighty dog was loyal. He was deeply devoted to his master, Hades, and when Hades decided to make him one of the guardians of the underworld, he became devoted to his duty as well. Cerberus obeyed two rules: he prevented living souls from entering the underworld and dead souls from leaving the underworld. Anyone, alive or dead, who tried to break these rules and sneak past Cerberus was sure to be torn to pieces—but remember, this was a duty given to him by his master, not a random slaughter of innocent victims.
Cerberus was capable of being loving and affectionate, as well as loyal. Greek writers described him “fawning over” the new souls who arrived at the underworld, welcoming them with excited affection. He also has a special relationship with Persephone, who he allows free passage to and from the underworld.
Legends about Cerberus
Although Cerberus spent most of his life in the care of Hades, he was actually born to Typhon and Echidna.
Typhon was the deadliest monster in Greek mythology, a huge dragon with a hundred heads and even more wings. He spread fear and disaster everywhere he went and terrified even the Olympian gods. Echidna was a half-woman, half-snake creature known as the “mother of all monsters.” She lived in a cave, where she was visited only by Typhon, her lover.
Together, Typhon and Echidna produced Greece’s most dreaded monsters, including the Lynean Hydra, the Sphinx, the Nemean Lion, the Chimera, and, of course, Cerberus. Zeus allowed all of these monsters to live, claiming that he spared their lives so that they could serve as challenges for the Greek heroes. In reality, he was probably just afraid of provoking Typhon’s wrath!
Most of these monstrous children were allowed to run wild, but Zeus saw special potential in Cerberus. He took the young pup and gave it to Hades, to be raised as a guardian of the underworld.
Encounter with Orpheus
Hades was an excellent guardian, but he wasn’t invincible.
Orpheus was the first mortal to overcome Cerberus. Orpheus was revered in his kingdom for his amazing musical talents. It was said that
“Hermes invented the lyre, but Orpheus perfected it.”
His music could even make rocks and water dance—so when he fell in love with the beautiful nymph, Eurydices, he had no problem wooing her with his song. But tragedy struck on their wedding day. Eurydices was attacked by a satyr, then fell into a nest of vipers, where she received a fatal bite. Immediately, her spirit past to the underworld.
When Orpheus found his beautiful bride, dead and cold in the viper’s nest, he played such mournful songs on his lyre that all the nymphs and gods wept. They advised him to go to the underworld and try to soften Hades’ heart with his music.
But before Orpheus could reach Hades, he had to get past Cerberus.
Orpheus snuck as close as he could to the mighty dog, who sat in his customary place, guarding the gates to the underworld. Then, still in hiding, Orpheus began to play a gentle lullaby. His magic didn’t fail him. The music made the dog so drowsy that it laid down and, eventually, began to snore.
Now, Orpheus’s path to Hades was clear. He entered the underworld, kneeled before Hades and Persephone, and played his music. The gods wept for his sadness and agreed to let Eurydices return with him, provided that he didn’t look at her until they had returned to the land of the living. Orpheus, with his heart full of joy, ran back to the entrance of the underworld, but just before he stepped into the land of the living, he glanced over his shoulder to make sure that Eurydices was following him. Instantly, she turned back into a ghost and disappeared into the underworld.
Encounter with Hercules
Heracles was the second mortal to conquer Cerberus, and although the details of this story are more debated, one thing is certain: Heracles was not as gentle as Orpheus.
Eurystheus ordered Heracles to bring Cerberus up from the underworld. This was to be Heracles’ twelfth and final task, and Eurystheus was confident that it was impossible.
Luckily for Heracles, he had a lot of help.
First, he was allowed to participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which studied the way that Persephone was allowed to pass in and out of the underworld.
Next, he was assisted by Athena and Hermes, who guided him to a secret entrance to the underworld. Heracles used this secret entrance to confront Hades before he had to face Cerberus. According to some legends, Heracles attacked Hades, shooting arrows and throwing stones at him. According to other legends, the mere fact that Heracles had discovered a secret entrance to the underworld was enough to intimidate Hades. Either way, the god of the underworld agreed to let Heracles remove Cerberus, provided that he could capture him without using weapons.
Heracles began to make his way out of the underworld, this time heading for the entrance that was guarded by Cerberus. On his way, he met more helpers, the heroes Theseus and Pirithous, who had been imprisoned after they tried to steal Persephone. They offered to help Heracles subdue Cerberus, in exchange for him breaking the chains that trapped them in the underworld. Heracles agreed and broke their chains, although, according to some legends, Pirithous was swallowed in an earth quake as soon as his chains were broken.
At last, Heracles and his gang approached Cerberus. Using the Nemean lion’s skin as a shield, Heracles threw his arms around Cerberus’s neck and began to squeeze the dog. Meanwhile, Theseus prevented Cerberus from fighting back. After a few minutes, Cerberus collapsed from being strangled. Heracles then bound the mighty guardian in chains and dragged him up from the underworld.
The sunlight in the land of the living made Cerberus sick, and he vomited all over the grass, causing poisonous flowers to grow up. Although he was still sick and weak, the poor dog howled in shame and despair. Nevertheless, Heracles paraded him around Greek cities for weeks, until the gods were tired of seeing the poor beast suffer. Then and only then did Heracles deliver Cerberus to Eurystheus, who returned him to Hades.
Cerberus first appears as “the hound of Hades” in Greek texts dating back to the 8th century BC. By the 7th century, he had been given his name in texts and begun to appear in paintings and statues as well. Eventually, Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Plutarch, Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca all contributed to Cerberus’s legend.
Some scholars have drawn a connection between Cerberus and the Egyptian god Anubis, who had the head of a jackal and was seen as a guardian of the underworld. It’s possible that Anubis, who pre-dated Cerberus, may have influenced the legend.
Today, Cerberus is still a well-known and terrifying character. He has appeared in Marvel comics, the Harry Potter series, and Final Fantasy. A number of military weapons and technologies have also been named after this protective beast.