Cerberus (Ancient Greek: Κέρβερος Kérberos), also referred to as "The Hound of Hades," is a bronze, traditionally three-headed, dog from ancient Greek and Roman mythology who guards the entrance to Hades, the realm of the dead, to prevent those who've entered from ever escaping.
The exact etymology and meaning of Κέρβερος (Kérberos) is unknown, but according to Kleins Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Cerberus is possibly a cognate of with the Sanskrit "karbarah," meaning "variegated," and "sabalah," also meaning "variegated" or "spotted." Sabalah is also the name of one of the two dogs of Yama, the Hindu god of the dead. This etymology though is highly contested.
Another possible etymology of Cerberus is that it's derived from κήρ ("kêr"), meaning "death" and Ἔρεβος ("erebos"), meaning "darkness." Therefore, his name could be roughly translated to "Death-Daemon of the Dark."
According to descriptions, Cerberus was gigantic in size and terrible to behold. The poet Hesiod describes Cerberus as being "unspeakable, unmanageable...," and, "...a dreaded hound." He was bronze with a mane of snakes, snakes down the ridge of his back, and the tail of a dragon-like serpent. Cerberus also had the claws of a lion. According to Hesiod, Cerberus had a total of fifty heads, though most later sources say that he had three. A common descriptor used by ancient authors for Cerberus is "jagged-toothed."
According to Hesiod, Bacchylides, and Ovid, Cerberus is the offspring to Echidna, a monstrous she-dragon who had the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a serpent, who was the mother of many famous Greek monsters. Sources also agree that Cerberus' father was Typhon, son of Gaia and Tartarus, a monstrous storm-giant that even the Greek gods feared.
According to Hesiod, Cerberus' siblings were the two-headed dog Orthos, the multi-headed Lernaean Hydra, and the Chimera, which had the head of a lion and a goat. According to the Latin author Hyginus, Cerberus was also siblings with Gorgo, mother of the Gorgons, the hundred-headed Hesperian Dragon, the Colchian Dragon, the sea monster Scylla, and the Sphinx.
In mythology, Cerberus' main role is as the watchdog of the realm of Hades. Cerberus prevents the dead from ever leaving Hades, and denies entry of the living into the realm of the dead. Hesiod describes Cerberus guarding Hades as follows:
|“||There in the front stand the resounding abodes of the infernal god, of mighty Hādēs, and awesome Persephone besides; and a fierce dog keeps guard in front, a ruthless dog; 770 and he has an evil trick: those who enter he fawns upon with his tail and both ears alike, yet he allows them not to go forth back again, but lies in wait and devours whomsoever he may have caught going forth outside the gates of strong Hādēs and dread Persephone.
Cerberus is primarily featured in mythological stories describing the few times he's ever been bested or overcome. The first of these is the story of Orpheus' attempt at rescuing his love, Eurydice, from the realm of Hades. Orpheus, as a fabled musician, was able to sneak past Cerberus by lulling him with his music. The second, is the story of Heracles' twelfth labor, where the demigod was tasked with bringing Cerberus to the surface from Hades.
Orpheus' Attempt at Rescuing Eurydice
Orpheus was a Greek hero who was gifted with superhuman musical abilities. He was said to be the son of King Oeagrus of Trace and the muse Calliope, but in some legends his father is actually the god Apollo himself. Orpheus joined the Argonauts, where he once saved himself and his crew from Sirens by outdoing them with his own magical music. After his journey with the Argonauts, Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice, who tragically died of a snakebite.
Overcome by grief, Orpheus attempted rescue his wife from Hades. But to do so he would have to get past Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, and the fearsome Cerberus. With his magical singing and playing of his lyre, he managed to charm both Charon and Cerberus enough to get past them. The Roman poet Virgil's account of the event is as follows:
|“||"Stirred by his [Orpheus'] song, up from the lowest realms of Erebeus came the unsubstantial shades . . . Still more: the very house of Death and deepest abysses of Tartarus were spellbound, and the Eumenides [Erinyes] with livid snakes entwined in their hair; Cerberus stood agape and his triple jaws forgot to bark."
The Twelfth Labor of Heracles
The Greek hero Heracles (also known as Hercules) was the product of an illicit affair of the god Zeus with the mortal Alcmene. Because of this Zeus' wife, Hera, the goddess of marriage, was determined to take out her frustrations on him. Hera cursed Heracles to temporarily go into an insane rage that lead to him killing his wife and children.
Heracles immediately regretted what he had done, and as part of his penance he was to serve Eurystheus, king of the Tiryns for twelve years. While serving his penance, King Eurystheus gave Heracles twelve labors to accomplish that were designed to be impossible to complete. One by one Heracles succeeded in these impossible tasks, the final of which was to capture Cerberus and bring him to the land of the living.
Heracles travelled to Taenarum in Laconia, where he found a deep, rocky cavern through which he could reach the realm of Hades. Eventually he found Hades, the god of the underworld, and his wife, the goddess Persephone. Heracles asked if he could take Cerberus to the surface, but authors differ on exactly what happened next. According the the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, from the 1st century BCE, Heracles came to possess Cerberus through the help of Persephone after being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries by Orpheus' son Musaios:
|“||"He [Herakles] received a command from Eurystheus to bring Kerberos (Cerberus) up from Hades to the light of day. And assuming that it would be to his advantage for the accomplishment of this Labour, he went to Athens and took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, Musaios (Musaeus), the son of Orpheus, being at that time in charge of the initiatory rites . . . Herakles then, according to the myths which have come down to us, descended into the realm of Hades, and being welcomed like a brother by Persephone brought Theseus and Peirithous back to the upper world after freeing them from their bonds. This he accomplished by the favour of Persephone, and receiving the dog Kerberos in chains he carried him away to the amazement of all and exhibited him to men."
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 25. 1
In Hercules Furens, a tragic play from the 1st century CE written by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, Theseus describes Heracles fighting a cataclysmic battle with the hound:
|“||"[Theseus :] ‘Next after this [the boat of Kharon (Charon)] there appears the palace of greedy Dis [Haides]. Here the savage Stygian dog [Kerberos (Cerberus)] frightens the shades; tossing back and forth his triple heads, with huge bayings he guards the realm. Around his head, foul with corruption, serpents lap, his shaggy man bristles with vipers, and in his twisted tail a long snake hisses. His rage matches his shape. Soon as he feels the stir of feet he raises his head, rough with darting snakes, and with ears erect catches at the onsped sound, wont as he is to hear even the shades. When [Herakles] the son of Jove stood closer, within his cave the dog crouches hesitant and feels a touch of fear. Then suddenly, with deep bayings, he terrifies the silent places; the snakes hiss threateningly along all his shoulders. The clamour of his dreadful voice, issuing from triple throats, fills even the blessed shades with dread. Then from his left arm the hero looses the fierce-grinning jaws, thrusts out before him the Cleonaean head and, beneath that huge shield crouching, plies his mighty club with victorious right hand. Now here, now there, with unremitting blows he whirls it, redoubling the strokes. At last the dog, vanquished ceases his threatenings and, spent with struggle, lowers all his heads and yields all wardship of his cavern. Both rulers [Haides and Persephone] shiver on their throne, and bid lead the dog away. Me also [Theseus trapped in Haides] they give as boon to Alcides' prayer."
-Seneca, Hercules Furens (782 ff.)
According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, an author from the second century CE, Hades granted Heracles' request upon the condition that Heracles would have to subdue Cerberus without the use of weapons:
|“||"Herakles asked Pouton (Pluton) [Haides] for Kerberos (Cerberus), and was told to take the hound if he could overpower it without using any of the weapons he had brought with him. He found Kerberos at the gates of Akheron (Acheron), and there, pressed inside his armour and totally covered by the lion's skin, he threw his arms round its head and hung on, despite bites from the serpent-tail, until he convinced the beast with his choke-hold. Then, with it in tow, he made his ascent through Troizenos (Troezen). After showing Kerberos to Eurystheus, he took it back to Haides' realm."
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2, 125
Once seeing the beast, Eurystheus jumped into a pithos (a large vase) out of fright and told Heracles to take it back in return for releasing him from his labors.
Cerberus and the Aconite Plant
Another myth related to Heracles bringing Cerberus to the surface is that of how the aconite plant came to be. Acanitum is a genus of plants within the buttercup family that includes Wolfsbane and Monkshood. In ancient Greece, these plants were referred to as "Akoniton," from "akon," the Greek word for the tip of a dart or javelin, due to these highly poisonous plants being used to create poisons to dip the tips of these weapons into. Another etymology, given by Pliny, is that aconite plants were named after the port of Aconae, which had an infamous reputation due to the poison, and also from aconae, the word for the rocky crags that the plants grew out of.
In Metamorphoses, a work detailing Greek myths written by the Roman poet Ovid, it is told how aconite was created by the flecks of saliva that dropped to the ground as Heracles dragged Cerberus out of Hades to the surface:
|“||"The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers."||”|