Who was Cerberus in Greek Mythology?
Cerberus was a monstrous three-headed dog, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. He was the watchdog of the Greek underworld and stopped anyone trying to return to the land of the living. He was the brother to the Hydra and the Chimera. According to the poet Hesiod, the Cerberus had 50 heads of snakes that grew from his back, and he had a serpent’s tail.
One of Heracles’ labours was to fetch Cerberus, a challenge the god of the dead and the underworld, Hades, allowed him to undertake, but only on condition, he was unharmed. Like the Gorgons, Cerberus was so dreadful to behold that anyone who looked upon him was turned to stone.
The concept of the underworld can be found in most religions and forms of mythology, and it’s often guarded by gods and other mythical creatures. Today, we take a look at Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology.
Cerberus was a monstrous three-headed hound, with a Mane made from hundreds of snakes, a Serpent’s tail and the claws of a lion. The three heads of Cerberus were believed to represent the past, the present, and the future. There are some different opinions in regard to the symbolism behind Cerberus three heads, with some believe in the heads a more symbolic of birth, youth and old age.
The Powers of Cerberus
Cerberus possess the ability to turn anyone who crossed his gaze into stone, much like Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. With razor-sharp teeth and a poisonous bite, not many dared to cross Cerberus.
The Origin of Cerberus
Like many of the fiercest monsters in Greek mythology, Cerberus’ father was Typhon, the most feared of all monsters, and his mother was Echidna, the half-woman half-snake creature also known as the mother of all monsters.
The Role of Cerberus in the Underworld
Cerberus’ primary role was to be the watchdog of the underworld, and he was a loyal servant to his master, Hades, the god of the underworld. He was chained to the gates of Hell by Hades, but he was still able to patrol the river Styx and Acheron, as they were the main way in and out of the underworld.
Cerberus prevented any of the dead attempting to escape the underworld, as well as the living who tried to enter without the permission of Hades.
He would often help guide the dead into the underworld but savagely attack and devour those who attempted to leave.
Cerberus in Greek Mythology Stories
Cerberus makes an appearance in several mythological stories, and often, he is shown being bested by the hero. One of these stories features Orpheus, a famed musician in Greek mythology.
A poisonous snake bit orpheus’ wife, and she died, resulting in her being sent to the underworld. Stricken by grief and no longer able to play his music, he decided he would attempt to rescue his wife from the underworld.
When attempting to cross the river Styx, Orpheus encountered Cerberus, and he began to play his harp. Cerberus was sent into a deep slumber, and Orpheus was able to cross the river unopposed.
Some of you may have seen a similar story without even knowing. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, we see a three-headed dog named Fluffy, who closely resembles Cerberus. Fluffy is charged with guiding the Philosopher’s Stone, and similar to the original myth, he was sent to sleep with the music of an enchanted harp.
Another encounter with Cerberus was by Heracles when tasked in his 12 labours to retrieve Cerberus from the underworld. When Heracles got to the underworld, Hades permitted him to take Cerberus to the land of the living on one condition. Heracles must tame the beast without the use of any weapon whatsoever but his bare hands.
In the legend, we were told that Heracles was able to accomplish this, and hence, she was able to take Cerberus to the land of the living.
Click here to read more: The 12 Labours of Hercules In Greek Mythology — The Complete Story.
Cerberus is an interesting figure in Greek mythology. As dogs were often presented as wild and rarely shown as domesticated or pets, but Cerberus is shown to be an obedient servant to Hades.
I feel that this is one of the main reasons why Cerberus is shown to be a mixture of creatures and not just a canine. There seems to be a recurring theme with canine-like creatures or gods being the Guardian to the underworld.
We see this with the god Anubis in Egyptian mythology, the hound known as Garmr in Norse mythology, and of course, Cerberus in Roman and Greek mythology.
Is it possible that this goes back to the age-old belief that a dog is man’s best friend? Or is this just a mere coincidence?
Images Sources: Tim Guo, Istrandar.