The Myth of Cerberus, the Three-Headed Hound of the Greek Underworld
A quick look at some of the major mythologies and religions around the world and immediately one cannot help but notice that the concept of the underworld exists in almost every one of them.
What is even more interesting is that the place is often guarded by gods and other mythical creatures. The rationale for doing so is to prevent uninvited people, i.e. the living, from making their way into the underworld as well as keep the dead from leaving the underworld. In ancient Egypt, the jackal-headed god Anubis, also known as the god of funerals and embalming, was the one who stood guard at the Underworld. In Norse mythology, it is Garmr, the fierce blood-stained wolf/dog.
In ancient Greek mythology, that role fell to Cerberus, a monstrous three-headed dog whose mane was made from several hundreds of poisonous snakes. A loyal servant of the Greek god Hades, Cerberus was placed at the gates of hell to gracefully guide the dead into the underworld. He was also tasked to perform other duties: first, prevent the dead from escaping the underworld; second, stop any living being from making it into the underworld without the permission of Hades. It is for this reason Cerberus was sometimes known as the “hound of Hades”, as the word Hades was also used as a synonym of the underworld in Greek mythology.
What else was this three-headed monster most known for? In the article below WHE explores all the major myths surrounding Cerberus, a terrifying three-headed dog placed at the entrance of the underworld in Greek mythology. It includes the birth story, symbols, and powers of this monstrous mythical creature.
Cerberus: Fast Facts
Role: guardian of the underworld
Siblings: Chimera, Orthrus, and the Lernaean Hydra.
Other names: “Hound of Hades”
Symbol: aconite plant
How the Greeks and Romans depicted Cerberus
Over the centuries, depictions of Cerberus in art and literature have been diverse. However, the common denominator is the terrifying nature of this ancient Greek mythical hellhound. The ancient Greeks commonly depicted Cerberus as a three-headed hound with razor-sharp teeth and claws similar to that of a lion. It was believed that his mane was made from hundreds of poisonous snakes. Similarly, his tail was that of a serpent. To both ancient Greeks and Romans, Cerberus’s three heads symbolized the past, present and the future. In some accounts, some authors opined that the heads were symbols of birth, youth and old age.
Latin writer and mythographer Fabius Planciades Fulgentius stated that Cerberus’s three heads symbolized three very immense human strife – nature, cause and accident.
According to an account by ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Cerberus possesses a total of fifty heads. Similarly, ancient Greek lyric poet Pindar of Thebes described Cerberus as a monster with hundred heads. However, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the Roman lyric poet during the era of Emperor Augustus, described Cerberus as having just one dog head and a hundred snake heads.
In quite a good number of the the Greek and Roman art that we have discovered so far, Cerberus is often seen with two visible dog heads.
A flesh-eating monster with fiery eyes
It was often the case that the Greeks believed Cerberus ate raw flesh. According to Euphorion, the monster possessed eyes that literally shot out fire. And the Latin poet Horace described the beast as having a three-tongued mouth that was poisonous. Owing to the role that he played in the underworld, Cerberus’s had very sharp hearing; it’s been said that he could hear everything that went on around the boundaries of the underworld.
What does his name mean?
There have been some ancient sources that have made the claim that Cerberus’s name comes from the Greek word creoboros, which means “flesh-devouring”. This meaning gives a lot of credence to Greek myths that describe Cerberus as a loyal guide for the dead, but a vicious creature who attacks and devours those who attempt to leave the underworld. In the myths, Cerberus is loyal to his master Hades, the god of the Underworld. And although he is chained to gates of hell, he still has a lot of leeway to patrol the River Styx and Akram – regions considered as the main ways in and out of the underworld.
Cerberus’s birth story and family
The Hellhound in Greek mythology Cerberus, also known as the Hound of Hades, was believed to be the offspring of the fiercest monster couple – Typhon and Echidna.
Cerberus’s father, Typhon (also known as Typhos), was a very powerful serpentine creature considered the most terrifying creature in all accounts. Hesiod’s Theogony states that Typhon was the product of the union between Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (a deep abyss in Greek mythology). However, in a different account, the multi-headed snake creature is the son of the Titan Cronus. Together with his consort Echidna, Typhon bore many multi-headed monstrous creatures, including Chimera, Orthrus, Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra.
Cerberus’s mother was Echidna, the half woman half snake creature, who was known as the mother of all monsters in Greek mythology. Cerberus’s association with snakes stems from the depictions that were mainly given to his parents, whom were both described as part snakes.
Cerberus’s abilities and power
Similar to his parents, Cerberus was believed to be a very powerful creature. He has the ability to turn anyone that crossed his path into stone, almost like Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. He has very sharp teeth that could tear to shreds anything that his mouth touched. Additionally, many ancient poets and authors made mention of how Cerberus’s bite is extremely poisonous. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Cerberus’s mouth is filled with very lethal substances, and his neck is vile with snakes, making the ferocious beast a big handful for many Greek heroes.
How Heracles captured Cerberus
In the last of the twelve labors of Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology), the Greek demigod was sent by Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, to bring the guardian of the underworld to the land of the living. The king was not eager to see the three-headed monster; instead he simply wanted to set an impossible task before Heracles. Just before Heracles to go into the underworld, he received a huge boost by being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult ritual held on a yearly basis in honor of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. The initiation ceremony was handled by Musaeus, the son of the famous Greek hero and musician Orpheus.
The Greek hero also sought the help of the god Hermes, a member of the twelve Olympian gods and one of few gods who could make in and out of the underworld unscathed. Heracles also received a bit of help from Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare.
Once he was ready, Heracles descended into the underworld through a large gate at Tainaron, one of the few entrances into the underworld. In his journey through the underworld, his path crossed with famous Greek heroes like Pirithous and Theseus, both of whom were being held captive by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, because of their attempt to take Hades’s wife the goddess Persephone back to the land of the living.
When he came face to face with Cerberus and Hades, Hercules simply asked that Cerberus be allowed to go with him to King Eurystheus. Hades agreed to Heracles’s to allow Cerberus go with Heracles provided the demigod could defeat Cerberus without the use of any weapon. Heracles, fighting with bare hands and his lion-skin armor, prevailed over the beast.
In a different account, Heracles had to fight Hades before he was able to capture Cerberus. In Homer’s Iliad, Heracles even injures Hades with an arrow shot from a bow. In another account, Heracles injures Hades with a stone.
In any case, Heracles successfully captured Cerberus and then proceeded to make his way out of the underworld with the subdued beast in chains. Again, Heracles as he made his way out of the underworld received some bit of guidance from Athena and Hermes.
According to ancient geographer Strabo, Heracles emerged out of the underworld at Tainaron. In the Apollodorus, an ancient Greek compilation of texts, Heracles exited at Troezen.
Did you know: While in the underworld, Heracles was able to set Theseus free from his bondage of the “Chair of Forgetfulness”; however, just as he was about to free Pirithous, the ground shook and Heracles let go of Pirithous’s hand?
Cerberus’s dislike of daylight
In one account, Heracles emerged from the Underworld with Cerberus at a place called Heraclea Pontica. Shortly after, many poisonous aconite plants began to grow in that area. According to Greek scholar Herodorus of Heraclea, those poisonous plants grew out from the vomit of Cerberus, who was still getting used to daylight. Having spent all his life in pitch black darkness of the underworld, Cerberus resisted coming into contact with daylight. Heracles and Theseus then had to force the beast into the light before proceeding to make their way to King Eurystheus’s palace.
Presentation to King Eurystheus
Before making his way to King Eurystheus’s kingdom, Heracles is said to have paraded Cerberus through the streets of Midea and other Greek-city states in Argolis. While he walked with the chained beast, people stopped to gaze at the monstrous creature. Many showered praises on Heracles, claiming he was the greatest hero the land of Greece had ever had.
Cerberus returns to Hades
With Cerberus in chains, Heracles enjoyed the attention he received as he walked down the streets of Greece, heading towards Eurystheus. Everywhere Heracles went with Cerberus, onlookers gazed at the terrifying monster with complete fear. If Heracles’s reputation as one of the greatest hero in Greek mythology was in doubt, the sight of him with Cerberus certainly dispelled all those doubts. Inspired by the songs of praises that the people showered upon him, Heracles held on firmly to Cerberus using a chain. Upon arriving at Tiryns in Mycenae, Heracles was given a rousing welcome. The demigod then presented Cerberus to King Eurystheus. Once that was over, Cerberus was returned to the underworld to be reunited with his master Hades.
Read More: Persephone and Hades
How legendary Greek musician Orpheus caused Cerberus to sleep
Cerberus appears in many mythological stories in ancient Greece. Often times, he is bested by the hero of the story, as was seen in the case of Heracles. In another famous story of Cerberus being outwitted, the Hellhound is said to have been put to sleep by the legendary Greek hero and musician Orpheus. After his wife Eurydice died (from a poisonous snake bite) and was taken to the underworld, Orpheus sets out to bring his wife back.
Orpheus, a gifted musician whose song could soften both mortals’ and gods’ hearts, meets up with Hades and Persephone in the underworld. After crossing the River Styx and coming face to face with Cerberus at the gates of the Underworld, Orpheus famously played the harp to put the three-headed hound to sleep. Orpheus then made his way beyond the gates of underworld. In the underworld, Hades agreed Orpheus to go back to the land of the living with his wife on the condition that the musician walks in front of his wife and never looks back until when he was out of the underworld. Orpheus agrees to Hades’ condition.
Orpheus then journeyed out of the underworld with his wife Eurydice just behind him. As fate would have it, just as Orpheus had made crossed the boundary separating the land of the dead and the land of the living, he quickly turned back to look at his wife. It was in that moment that Eurydice vanished for good. Although Orpheus had made his way out, Eurydice, who was behind Orpheus all throughout the journey, was still technically in the underworld.
Read More: The Greatest Heroes in Greek Mythology
The Cattle of Geryon
According to the 4th century BC author Palaephatus, Cerberus and his brother Orthrus were the ones who guarded the cattle of Geryon. Geryon is the powerful three-headed giant and descendant of Medusa. In Heracles’s tenth labor, which involved him obtaining the Cattle of Geryon, the Greek demigod came face to face with the guardians of the Cattle of Geryon on the island of Erytheia. Heracles overpowers the guardians as well as the giant Geryon himself. Heracles then herds the cattle back to Eurystheus.
More on Cerberus in Greek mythology
- Euphorion of Chalcis, a famed Greek poet and grammarian, stated that Cerberus was the multi-headed snake creature that created the poisonous aconite plant.
- The Greek tragedian Euripedes described Cerberus as having not just three heads but three bodies.
- According to Hesiod, Cerberus had a terrifying voice. As a result, the monster was sometimes called the “brazen-voiced hound of Hades”.
- A 3rd century BC Greek poet Euphorion of Chalcis describes Cerberus as having eyes that shoot out fiery substances like the ones from a blacksmith’s forge. The author also compared the beast’s eyes to the magma that comes out of the volcanic Mount Etna.
- In Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek deities Hermes and Athena guide the demigod Heracles in and out of the underworld. Heracles had been tasked by King Eurystheus to capture Cerberus. It was the demigod’s twelfth and final labor in a series of twelve very difficult tasks.
- In a different account of the myth, Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter and the wife of Hades, is said to have simply handed Cerberus in chains to Heracles. On the other hand, Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic playwright, stated that Heracles had to overpower Cerberus using a stranglehold.
How Cerberus compares to other hellhounds
It is somewhat interesting that in many major mythologies and religions around the world a dog or some sort of canine-like creature or god is often the preferred choice when it comes to guarding the underworld. Take the examples of Garmr in Norse mythology and the god Anubis in Egyptian mythology. In the latter, Anubis is often depicted with canine-like head that in some way resembles the head of a jackal.
- Cerberus’s name has sometimes been linked to the name of one of the dogs of the god Yama from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
- Ancient Greek polymath Plato is said to have described Cerberus as a creature of many animal forms whose stories came from ancient fables.
- There are some authors and mythographers that have drawn some bit of similarities between Garmr, the Hellhound in Norse mythology, and Cerberus. Both of those fierce creatures guarded the entrances to their respective underworlds. In Norse accounts, Garmr is mentioned in the Poetic Edda poems Völuspá and Grímnismál. In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, Garmr is fated to battle the Norse god of war Tyr during Ragnarok (i.e. the demise of the gods).
- French naturalist Georges Cuvier named a genus of Asian snakes, also known as the “dog-faced water snakes”, Cerberus. This genus of snakes belong to the family Homalopsidae.