Cerberus: The Hound of Hades
Cerberus: The Hound of Hades
Forget about being man’s best friend – the most famous dog in Greek mythology, Cerberus, was a hero’s worst nightmare!
Dogs are some of mankind’s most beloved companions. Most pet owners love and care for their pups as if they are a member of the family, or even a child.
In the ancient world, though, dogs were not just favorite pets and they certainly weren’t pampered. Humans domesticated dogs not just for companionship but also to do important jobs, and the best dogs were the ones who served their owners with loyalty and obedience.
By that measure, Cerberus was a very good dog.
He did his job as a guard dog more diligently than any other animal in history. The only time the myths ever have him leave his post was when he was dragged away by force.
Even then, he came right back.
The difference was that Cerberus was no ordinary guard dog. His master was the ruler of the dead, and the door he guarded was the gateway to the underworld.
An enormous, monstrous canine with three heads and a snake for a tail, Cerberus was enough to keep any would-be intruder at bay. His real job, though, was to keep any would-be escapees from finding a way out of the land of the dead.
Cerberus didn’t guard flocks or riches, he guarded the souls of the dead.
From his monstrous family to his only defeat, Cerberus was the most memorable dog in Greek mythology!
The Family of Cerberus
Cerberus was generally considered to be one of the many terrifying children of Typhon and Echidna.
Typhon was a child of Gaia and Tartarus, the earth and the most dreadful aspect of the underworld, who was sent by his mother to challenge Zeus for power when he angered her. He failed in his task, and was imprisoned in Tartarus.
Descriptions of him vary, but the ancient sources agreed that he was an enormous, monstrous giant associated with snakes and fire. Some said he had multiple heads, others claimed he had wings.
The later writings of Nonnus said that Typhon not only had a hundred heads but that each was that of a different animal.
His mate was Echidna, a monster that was half a beautiful woman and half a horrible snake. Her mother may have been Ceto, the primordial sea goddess who gave birth to many of the terrors of the ocean.
Together, Typhon and Echidna were the parents of many of the most terrifying monsters in Greek mythology.
The Hydra, Namean Lion, Sphynx, Ladon, and Scylla were all said to be their children. Some writers added the Caucasion Eagle that tortured Prometheus and the first Gorgon to the family tree.
The list of these monstrous siblings has some variation, but the two terrible dogs of Greek mythology are always on it. Cerberus and Orthrus were both multi-headed hounds known for guarding great sites.
The Greeks described these two as wild dogs, not the domesticated animals common in daily life. Wild dogs were well-known in Greece and were seen as ferocious, dangerous beasts.
Orthrus and Cerberus embodied the wildness and viciousness the Greeks feared in wild dogs.
Orthrus, with two heads and a serpent’s tail, watched over the cattle that belonged to the giant Geryon. Fetching one of these animals was a task assigned to Heracles, who killed the terrifying dog in the process.
Cerberus, meanwhile, became the guardian of the underworld. His job in the realm of Hades was as much to keep the souls of the dead within the afterlife as to keep the living out.
The Lands of Hades
The Greek underworld was ruled by Hades. It was a dreary place, mostly consisting of darkness and haze.
The worst humans were imprisoned in Tartarus, the deepest and blackest part of the underworld. Those with exceptionally good lives or close connections to the gods enjoyed a more pleasant existence in Elysium.
For most people, however, an undistinguished and unremarkable life led to an afterlife that was just as neutral. Most souls wandered the Asphodel Fields without emotion, joy, or purpose.
Cerberus guarded the gates of this underworld at the River Acheron, one of the main rivers of the realm. When a soul was ferried across by Charon, Cerberus would be the last being they saw before they faced the judges of the afterlife.
And once a soul entered the realm of Hades, the only way it could get out was to go past the dreadful monster.
According to some, Cerberus was friendly to the souls of the dead. He welcomed newly deceased souls and watched over the residents of Hades’ realm with care.
He only troubled these souls when one tried to sneak past him and escape.
This was easier said than done. In fact, sneaking past Cerberus was impossible.
While he is usually depicted with three heads, some writers gave him as many as fifty. So many eyes meant he could be watchful at all times.
A giant animal, he towered above the gates he watched. Some accounts also said he had a snake in place of a tail, and several more serpents protruding from his back, neck and joints.
Later images gave the dog qualities of a lion as well. He had great claws, a shaggy mane, or a more lion-like face in later Greek and Roman images.
The great hound was so closely associated with the underworld that his inclusion is one of the only ways to identify images of Hades.
There were only a few occasions on which anyone got past the enormous watchdog.
The Sybil of Cumae, an oracle priestess of Apollo, charmed the dog with a honey cake to allow Aeneas to pass into the underworld. In some regions, mourners left a honeycake offering with their gifts for the dead so the departed could similarly gain the monster’s favor.
Dionysus went past him to retrieve the soul of his mother, Semele, and bring her back to life.
When Orpheus journeyed to the afterlife in search of his late wife, Eurydice, he too charmed the dog. The famous musician played a sweet song that caused pacified the beast and made it fall asleep.
But the most famous case of someone overcoming Cerberus was also the one that involved Greece’s most famous hero – Heracles.
Heracles and Cerberus
When Heracles began to make a name for himself as a hero of great renown, his stepmother Hera became increasingly determined to see him destroyed. Constantly threatened and jealous of the children her husband Zeus had fathered with other women, she hated to see an illegitimate half-mortal son of Zeus rise to fame.
After many attempts on his life, Hera found a way to drive the hero insane. In a state of madness, he murdered his wife and children.
Overcome with grief and guilt, he asked an oracle how he could ever be absolved for such an awful crime. She told him to enter the service of his cousin, Eurystheus.
Eurystheus, acting in partnership with Hera, devised a series of impossible tasks for the hero to complete to prove his worth and absolve him of his sins.
In the course of performing these feats, Heracles had become well-acquainted with the monstrous family of Cerberus.
He had killed the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, and Orthrus. While not one of his assigned tasks, he had also killed the Caucasion Eagle and, in some versions of his eleventh labor, the dragon Ladron.
His defeat over the Hydra led to a problem, however.
Originally, Heracles had only been given ten impossible tasks. When he had completed them, however, Eurystheus determined that two of them had not counted.
In both killing the Hydra and cleaning the stables of Augeas, the hero had been given assistance. His nephew had held the firebrand to cauterize the Hydra’s severed necks to prevent its heads from regrowing, and two rivers had been diverted to clear the Augean stables instead of mucking them out by hand.
Although the tasks had been completed, he was given two more to prove that he could complete his duties on his own.
The two additional labors of Heracles were designed to be his most impossible quests yet. Eurystheus and Hera were determined to see the hero fail.
First, he was told to retrieve a golden apple of immortality from the garden of the Hesperides. Although he got help in this task as well, in the form of the Titan Atlas, Eurystheus accepted its completion.
His twelfth and final task would take him to the underworld. He was to go there and capture Cerberus.
Hera and Eurystheus were thrilled when he accepted this challenge. They were certain the hero would not survive the dangers of the underworld or a fight against the Hound of Hades.
As preparation, Heracles traveled to Eleusis and was inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This cult, dedicated to Persephone and Demeter, sought to understand the secrets of the afterlife.
Although there were some missteps in his training, he was eventually accepted into the cult and learned all its secret wisdom. He now knew as much about the afterlife as any mortal man could hope to before death.
Armed with the knowledge he gained from Persephone’s priests, he travelled through a deep cave into the land of the dead.
In most versions of the story Heracles is accompanied by Hermes, who often acted as a guide to souls travelling to the underworld. Some also have his patroness Athena making the journey alongside him.
The first obstacle he faced was the boatman, Charon. As Heracles was not dead and did not have the necessary payment, Charon initially refused to let him pass.
Heracles was able to get by without violence, though. One stern look from the formidable hero was all it took for Charon to change his mind.
As he travelled through the underworld, Heracles met many of the spirits contained there. He freed Theseus, his cousin, from the Chair of Forgetfulness he had been bound to for entering the underworld himself.
He attempted to free the other hero’s companion, Pirithous, as well, but the ground quaked when he tried. Theseus was guilty only of entering the underworld without permission, but Pirithous had come with the intention of abducting Persephone, the queen of the realm.
Heracles eventually made his way to the throne of Hades to stand before the god himself. He asked Hades and Persephone for permission to take the dog out of the underworld.
With the support of some of the spirits of the dead, he was able to convince the ruler of the underworld to grant him his request. There was one condition, though – Heracles would not be able to use any weapons.
Hades was, after all, a dog owner. He made Heracles vow that his pet would not be injured in either the capture or the journey to the world above.
Hades also asked to know who had demanded to see his dog. He would undoubtedly remember the name Eurystheus.
Heracles agreed to these conditions and prepared to overpower the dread dog of the underworld with his bare hands.
Herakles asked Plouton [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).
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2, 125 (trans. Aldrich)
Heracles had accomplished the most impossible task he could have been given. He had not only survived his trip to the underworld and won the favor of Hades, but had overpowered Cerberus using nothing but his own strength.
In some stories, Hades was still not willing to let Heracles leave with the dog. He had given permission only to attempt to overpower Cerberus, not take him away.
Heracles shot an arrow with a stone point at the god of the dead, who fled to avoid a conflict.
Eurystheus was amazed to see the hero returning with the hound of Hades in tow. He, and Hera, had fully expected that the final task would kill the son of Zeus.
Instead, Heracles proved himself and earned atonement. Having completed his labors, he was offered a place among the gods of Olympus.
In at least one version of the story, Hades was responsible for putting an end to the hero’s servitude. Remembering the name of the man who demanded the removal of Cerberus from the underworld, he appeared before Eurystheus as a figure of dread.
The terrified king admitted that he had set Heracles to the task, but that he had only done so at Hera’s bidding. Hades warned his sister that if she ever required such a thing of Heracles again she would have to face his own wrath.
Cerberus, meanwhile, enjoyed a much better fate than his siblings and the other monsters who had crossed paths with Heracles. He was safely returned to the underworld to serve his master as the guardian of Acheron.
Some stories said that he had one more encounter with Heracles, though. The hero distracted the dog while Dionysus slipped into the underworld to bring back his mother, Semele.
The Many Hounds of Hell
As the Hound of Hades, Cerberus was one of many of his type.
The association between dogs and the underworld is common in world religions and creates an archetype that is familiar across several cultures.
There are many reasons canines were associated with the lands of the dead.
Often, these dogs are presented as guards or gatekeepers. Like their real-world counterparts, these mythological gods are valued for their watchfulness and ability to defend their territories.
In other cases, they are hunting dogs. As dogs in real life were used to chase down prey, so did these supernatural dogs stalk or chase after human lives and souls.
Dogs occupy a unique space in human life, particularly in antiquity. While they made for loyal companions, they could also be vicious and dangerous.
This made them perfect companions for chthonic gods and demons, as they were loyal servants, terrible guards, and skilled hunters and trackers.
The link between dogs and the underworld is so pronounced that a special term has been applied to the archetype. Hellhounds are common in both ancient mythology and more modern depictions of the supernatural.
Some of the hellhounds and terrible dogs from around the world include:
- Anubis – The Egyptian god of the dead was shown with the head of a canine, usually recognized today as a golden wolf.
- The Black Dog – In English folklore, the Black Dog is a specter associated with death and misfortune. It is often described as either a ghost or a hellhound. The Barghest, Church Grim, and Gwyllgi are all variations on the Black Dog specific to different regions of the British Isles.
- Cadejo – In Central American folklore, this black dog spirit is very similar to the British hellhounds. It is most often seen lurking on deserted and isolated roadways, waiting for unlucky men to pass by.
- Fenrir – One of the monstrous children of Loki in Norse mythology, the giant wolf was prophesied to kill Odin, the king of the gods, at Ragnarok.
- Garmr – Also in Norse mythology, this blood-covered hound guarded the gate to the underworld that was ruled by Hel, another of Loki’s children.
- Xolotl – This Aztec dog god guided the dead into the afterlife. Dogs were often sacrificed in funeral rites to help guide their owners through the underworld as his creatures.
- Dip – In the folklore of Catalonia, this demonic dog is an emissary of the devil who sucks the blood of unsuspecting humans.
- Surma – This Finnish monster is similar to many in Greek mythology, being a dog with a serpent’s tail who can turn men to stone. It guards the gates to the underworld as well.
- The Wild Hunt – The hunting party that goes after souls is widespread in European folklore and is often accompanied by spectral hunting dogs. In Wales, these dogs were called the Cwn Annwn. Tales of the Wild Hunt say their presence is announced by the howling of their dogs.
- The dog of Bhairava – In Hinduism, Bhairava is an aspect of the divine associated with destruction. His mount is a dog.
- Bul-Gae – In Korean mythology, these dogs from the realm of darkness eternally chase the sun and moon, causing eclipses when they catch them. The Chinese Tiangou has a similar mythology.
- The dogs of Yama – A Rigvedic Hindu god of the underworld, he was often shown accompanied by one or more dogs.
Hell hounds have also become a popular motif in art and literature.
In the book and miniseries Good Omens a hell hound is sent to earth to help usher in the end of the world. The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third book in the Sherlock Holmes series, centers around the many British legends of spectral black dogs that stalked the moors and foretold death.
Demonic or spectral dogs in the hell hound tradition are popular in films and video games as fantastical enemies with supernatural powers.
Around the world and throughout time, Cerberus has been reflected in the dogs of various underworlds, demons, and gods.
Cerberus in Art
The fight that took place between Cerberus and Heracles in the underworld was a popular theme in Greek and Roman art.
Not only did the hero and the beast provide interesting forms, but the scene was an important one in mythology. As the last of the labors of Heracles, his defeat of the monstrous guard dog of Hades marked the moment at which his nature became more divine than human.
In defeating the Hound of Hades, Greece’s most renowned hero finally earned redemption for his human failures and a chance at immortality.
Some of the earliest known representations of the scene also laid the foundation for how it would be depicted in later eras.
On a cup from the early 6th century BC, Heracles is shown fighting in the nude. This was common for heroes and warriors in art as a way to show the perfection of their physicality and demonstrate their courage.
The particular cup shows Cerberus already defeated and Heracles threatening Hades to be allowed to leave with the dog. Hades is fleeing while a goddess, either Persephone or Athena, intervenes by putting herself between him and the rock Heracles is about to throw.
Hermes, too, is present, standing next to the hero.
Cerberus is shown with only one head, which is not unusual in early depictions.
The elements of this depiction of Cerberus and Heracles became the standard. They were typically shown in the company of Athena and Hermes, and sometimes Hades and Persephone.
Even the column to the side of the image, denoting the gateway the dog guarded, was a standard part of the image.
Later images added more heads and snake-like features, making the image of the hellhound more in keeping with the usual descriptions of him. Heracles was often shown with his club even though he was weaponless in the story, as it was one of his key identifying attributes.
This standardization of the imagery was not due to a lack of imagination or skill on the part of Greek artists.
Rather, the repetition of the attributes and elements made the scene instantly recognizable to anyone who saw it. Even those who had never read the legends or heard a poet sing about them could identify the figures and the scene through the use of set attributes and repeated motifs.
The number of heads given to Cerberus sometimes varied and some characters, particularly Hades and Persephone, could be left out of the scene. But the moment a Greek person saw a man with a club holding an enormous dog, they knew the entire story told in the image.
Later Interpretations of the Myth
There is a misconception in the modern world that everyone in ancient civilizations believed all of their myths to be completely factual.
In fact, even in the past some people recognized that many of the fantastic elements of their culture’s mythology were impossible, illogical, or contradictory.
As early as the 6th century BC, Greek thinkers made attempts to rationalize the more amazing elements of mythology. One of the things they tried to explain rationally was the appearance of monsters like Cerberus.
One such early historian put forth the argument that Cerberus was never a dog at all. It was an ordinary, albeit large, viper that Heracles caught.
The snake, which also explained the association with serpents in images of the dog, was called a “hound of Hades” because its bite was venomous enough to immediately sent a man to the afterlife.
As Homer never gave a physical description of Cerberus in his poems, later scholars agreed that this explanation didn’t necessarily contradict his works. The hound in Homer could have been a poetic description instead of a literal classification.
Another rationalization was that Cerberus was an ordinary dog.
Heracles was sent to steal the cattle of Geryon, which in this possible story were guarded by both Orthrus and Cerberus. Heracles killed one while the other followed him.
Attempts to explain the myth rationally continued after the Greek era. Later writers would attempt to paint the dog not as an exaggeration, but as an allegory.
Servius, for example, a medieval commenter on the works of Virgil, believed the dog symbolized the earth. Using the etymology based on the Greek creoboros, or “flesh-devouring,” he saw the dog as symbolic of the decay that took place underground.
With a medieval Christian understanding, he thus interpreted the defeat of Cerberus as a defeat over earthly desire.
Another medieval interpretation was that the three heads of the beast represented the three ages of man – infancy, youth and old age – and the three causes of death that affected each – nature, accident, and cause.
This was later expanded by Vatican mythographers to represent the three excuses man made for his bad behavior and sins.
While some of the early explanations for the myth could be based in historical fact of the evolution of the legend in oral tradition, the later interpretations are largely discounted as an attempt by medieval thinkers to either villify or Christianize the pagan past.
Cerberus: The Dog with a Job
Unlike some of the other monsters in Greek mythology, Cerberus does not have a complex origin story. Even his family tree is fairly straightforward.
While he was shown often in art and literature, he really only appears in the few myths that take place in the underworld.
In an often complex mythology filled with intrigue and family quarrels, Cerberus stands out less for his monstrosity and more for his simplicity.
The Hound of Hades was never cursed with his monstrous form or involved in any plots or schemes.
Had he not been literally dragged into the story of Heracles, Cerberus would never have even left his post. He remained, reliably and steadfastly, at the gates of the underworld.
Such consistency was rare in a mythology in which even the sun and the moon could stray from their paths.
Like any good guard dog, Cerberus stayed where he was told. He never ran off and when he was forcibly removed he returned to his post as soon as he gained his freedom.
Ever watchful and diligent in his duty, the three-headed dog performed his task more admirably than even many of the gods.
The Hound of Hades was, despite his form, the perfect guard dog.