Cerberus (classical Greek: Κέρβερος; romaniz.: Kerberos - trad.: "demon of the pit"; Latin: Cerberus), in Greek mythology, was a monstrous three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the nether world, the underground realm of the dead, letting souls in but never out and tearing apart mortals who ventured there.
According to Hesiod, Cerberus was the son of Typhon and Echidna, brother of Ortros, Chimera and the Hydra of Lerna. Pseudo-Apolodorus includes Ladon, the Dragon of the Hesperides, Ethon, the Eagle of Caucasus, the Sphinx and Phaea, the Nut of Chromion, as sons of Typhon and Echidna and brothers of Cerberus, and includes the Lion of Nemeia as son of Typhon. Hyginus, on the other hand, includes Gorgon Aix, the Dragon of Colchida, and Scylla as sons of Typhon and Echidna.
The description of Cerberus' morphology is not always the same, and there are variations. But one thing that is present in all the sources is that Cerberus was a dog that guarded the gates of Tartarus, not preventing entry but rather exit. When someone arrived, Cerberus was an adorable creature.
But when the person wanted to leave, he stopped him; becoming a ferocious dog feared by all. The only ones who managed to get past Cerberus and get out of the underworld alive were Heracles, Orpheus, Aeneas, Psyche, and Ulysses.
Cerberus was a multi-headed dog, there is no certain number, but most often he is described as tricephalous (three heads). His tail is not always described in the same way either, sometimes as dragon-like, as snake-like or even dog-like. Sometimes fire-breathing snakes are found along with its head, coming out of its neck, and even from its trunk.
As for the afterlife, the Greeks believed that the abode of the dead was the realm of Hades, the god of the underworld, alongside Persephone (Goddess of Spring, daughter of Zeus and Demeter).
Hades was Zeus' brother. He was located underground, surrounded by rivers, which could only be crossed by the dead. The dead kept their human form, but had no body, and could not be touched. The dead wandered through Hades, but also appeared at the burial place.
There were careful ritual burials, and the dead were worshiped, especially by families in their homes. When men died, they were transported in Charon's barge to the other bank of the river Aqueron, where the entrance to the kingdom of Hades was located. The entrance was through a diamond door where Cerberus stood guard.
To calm Cerberus' rage, the dead who resided in the underworld threw him a cake of flour and honey that their loved ones had left in the tomb.
His name, Cerberus, comes from the word Kroboros, which means flesh-eater. Cerberus ate people. An example of this in mythology is Pyrrhus, who for trying to seduce Persephone, the wife of Hades and daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility on Earth, was handed over to the dog. As punishment Cerberus ate the body of the condemned.
Cerberus, when asleep, has his eyes open, but when his eyes are closed he is awake.
Cerberus appears in the Inferno of the Gluttons (Canto VI), from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, where they are left alone in the mud, unable to eat and drink freely. And they are left under a freezing rain and the presence of Cerberus, who eats them eternally with his insatiable appetite. Cerberus is the image of uncontrolled appetite.
Twelve labors of Heracles
Eurystheus, knowing that Heracles would only be under his orders for another year, was desperate with fear, and for his twelfth job he ordered him to go down to the realm of Hades and bring back the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates of hell.
This, he was sure, was beyond his strength; and Heracles himself was doubting that he could accomplish this reckless and dangerous feat. He offered great sacrifices to the gods, asking for their protection; his prayers were heard.
The goddess Athena, and Hermes, messenger of the gods, presented themselves to him, accompanying him into the gloomy cave, through the long, dark tunnel that led to the gates to a cursed, dark infinite world (hell).
When he saw them, the three heads of Cerberus howled horribly, which caught Hades' attention; but when he saw a god and a goddess in company with Heracles, he asked them what they were looking for.
- My lord Eurystheus commanded me to bring the three-headed dog Cerberus, who guards this door, to the earth, said Heracles, and it is by the will of Zeus, lord of the earth and heaven, that I obey him. Let me take your guard dog so that I can carry out the orders I have received. I promise you that Cerberus will suffer nothing and will be returned to you, safe and sound.
Hades closed his scowl and replied
- If you are able to carry Cerberus on your shoulders, without hurting him, then you may take him to your lord Eurystheus; but, promise to bring him back, unharmed.
So Heracles approached Cerberus and, in spite of his three huge mouths garnished with sharp, cruel teeth, he lifted the animal onto his shoulders and climbed up the path that led from the gloomy cave to the light of day.
The road was long, rough and steep, and its load heavy; the three heads growled and bit all the way, but Heracles, concentrating on the thought of the coming liberation, paid them no attention.
At last he arrived in Mycenae. Eurystheus was so terrified when he learned that Heracles was carrying the terrible three-headed dog on his shoulders, that he hid under the bronze vat, sending him a message in which he ordered him to stay away from Mycenae forever and ever. Then, light-hearted, Heracles headed for the cave. He descended the long tunnel and deposited Cerberus at the gates of hell.