Cerberus was the guardian hound of Hades, the Greek Underworld, and a faithful servant of Hades (the god who ruled that gloomy realm). He was represented as a grotesque dog who had three heads, all of which snarled at those foolish enough to attempt to leave the Underworld; the hound was also said to sport the tail of a snake.
According to legend, Cerberus was one of the monsters born from the union of Echidna and Typhon, both as monstrous and hideous as their offspring.
Echidne was half-woman, half-serpent, while Typhon was the most fierce of all creatures.
Among his brothers, the most famous are Hydra, Chimera, and Orthrus.
According to Horace, Cerberus possessed one hundred heads. Hesiod wrote that he had fifty, while most sources agree to only three.
The center head was in the shape of a lion, while the other two were in the shape of a dog and a wolf, respectively.
He also had a dragon's tail and a thick mane of writhing snakes.
Virgil described him by saying:
- No sooner landed, in his den they found the Triple porter of the Stygian sound, Grim Cerberus, who soon began to rear His crested Snakes, and armed His bristling hair. '
- Orcus' warder, blood-besmeared, Growling o'er gory bones half-cleared Down in his gloomy den. '
- He guarded the gate to Hades and ensured that the dead could not leave and the living could not enter.
- From Cerberus’ spittle which fell upon earth, the first poisonous plants were born, including deadly aconite, thus named because it flourishes on bare rocks. It is also known as 'hecateis,' because Hecate was the first to use it. Medea tried to poison Theseus with it, and the Thessalian witches used it in preparing the ointment that enabled them to fly. The modern name for aconite is wolfsbane.
The Guardian Hound and Hercules
Hercules' final labour was to capture Cerberus.
After having been set the task, Hercules went to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries so that he could learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive, and in passing absolve himself for killing centaurs. He found the entrance to the underworld at Tanaerum, and Athena and Hermes helped him to traverse the entrance in each direction. He passed Charon thanks to Hermes' insistence, and his own heavy and fierce frowning.
Whilst in the underworld, Hercules freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, so he had to leave him behind. They had been imprisoned by Hades, by magically binding them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone. The magic was so strong that when Hercules pulled Theseus free, part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench, explaining why his descendants had notably lean thighs.
Hercules presented himself before the throne of Hades and Persephone and asked permission to take Cerberus, to which the gods agreed as long as Hercules does not harm the hound. Some say, Persephone gave her full consent because Heracles was her own brother. In either case, Hercules wrestled the dog into submission and dragged it out of Hades, passing through a cavern entrance in the Peloponnese. When he returned with Cerberus to the palace of Eurystheus, the man who had assigned the task to Hercules, Eurystheus was so afraid of the fearsome beast that he jumped into a pithos (large storage jar) to hide.
Cerberus and his defeats
- Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus, which he did by treating it with the first kindness it had ever received.
- Orpheus used his musical skills to lull Cerberus to sleep.
- Hermes put him to sleep with water from the river Lethe.
- In Roman mythology, Aeneas lulled Cerberus to sleep with drugged honeycakes.
- In a later Roman tale, Psyche also lulled him to sleep by giving him drugged honeycakes.
Symbolism and role
Cerberus’ three heads relate to the threefold symbol of the baser forces of life. They represent the past, the present and the time yet to come.
Dante described Cerberus as “il gran vermo inferno” thus linking the monsters with the legendary worms and orms.
Cerberus is the watchdog of Hell. He is often pictured with Hades, his master. He can be found on the banks of the river Styx, where he had the task of eating any mortals who attempted to enter, and any spirits who attempted to escape.
Cerberus is featured in several mythological stories in his role as the watchdog of Hades. Perhaps the best known involves the vigorous hero Hercules (or Herakles).
- Hercules underwent a series of Twelve Labors, one of which was to capture the fierce canine guardian and parade him around the Greek city of Mycenae for a bit, and then return the dog to Hades. This unbelievable stunt was in due course accomplished by the hero, although one would imagine that Cerberus did not enjoy it in the least.
- Another tale depicts the poet and singer Orpheus charming Cerberus by the power of his song, which emphasizes Orpheus's magical gifts of enchantment (indeed, Cerberus was notorious for not allowing mortals who were still alive to enter the Underworld, with the exception of a handful of mythological characters).
- Ancient Greeks and Romans were said to place a coin and a small cake in the hands of their deceased. The coin was meant as payment for Charon who ferried the souls across the river Styx, while the cake helped to pacify Cerberus. This custom gave rise to the expression 'to give a sop to Cerberus,' meaning to give a bribe or to quiet a troublesome customer.
- In the Aeneid, the Trojan hero, Aeneas descends to Tartarus to visit his father Anchises. He is escorted by the Bybil of Cumae, and upon encountering 'huge Cerberus barking from his triple jaws, stretched at his enormous length in a den that fronts the gate,' she throws him a cake seasoned with honey and poppy seeds. Now Cerberus, “his neck bristling with horrid snakes, opening his three mouths in the mad rage of hunger, snatches the offered morsel, and spreads on the ground, relaxes his enormous limbs, lies now extended at the vast length over all the cave. Aeneas, now that hell's keeper is buried in sleep, seizes the passage and swiftly over-passes the bank of that flood whence there is no return.”
Cerberus has become an archetype for a protector, particularly the protector of a gate, door or boundary (as opposed to a personal protector). In this guise Cerberus features widely in fiction and cultural works from the Middle Ages (in Dante's Divine Comedy, in Canto VI of Inferno (third circle)) to the modern time (J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in the character of Fluffy) and a number of modern security and warfare-related artifacts named after it.
Cerberus and other hounds
- Cerberus’ brother Orphus is a monstrous two-headed dog.
- Cerberus’ Egyptian counterpart is Anubis, the dog who guarded the tombs and conducted the souls to the underworld.
A similar dog, '"Garm'", is guarding the house of deaths in the Norse mythology. These monsters were all probably inspired from the dogs that haunted the battlefields in the dark of the night, feasting on the bodies of the fallen warriors.
- Kerberos, the guardian of the seal, is one of the main characters in the popular Japanese anime Cardcaptor Sakura. In his true form, he looks more like a lion and he doesn't have 3 heads.
- Kerberos is in the manga Devil & Devil where it was the dog that Devil Sword had tamed.
- In the anime series and PlayStation 2 game Gungrave, the Cerberus are a set of three guns, individually referred to as the left, right, and center head. The right and left head are used by Grave and the center head is used by Fangoram.
- In chapter 52 of the manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, a dog-like chimaera with 3 heads is one of the guardians that Mei Chang and Scar battle against.
- In the Greek Oracle of the Dead at Cumae in southern Italy, the recently excavated subterranean shrine was found to contain chains fixed to the wall for three large dogs before the entrance to the shrine of Hades and Persephone. The three dogs would have represented Cerberus in this ancient temple.
- The cult comic book Cerebus was named for this Greek and Roman mythical figure; the different spelling wasn't intentional -- the original author accidentally left out the second 'r' in a pure case of mispelling.
- Some aspects of video games, particularly of the RPG genre, are based on mythology. Cerberus is no exception.
- In the Castlevania series, which makes extensive use of Hell-based themes, Cerberus is seen a few times, and is a boss in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon' and Castlevania: Dracula X.
- In Monolith's Blood, Cerberus was the third act's boss, most likely this is an allusion to Divine Comedy, in which Cerberus resides in the third layer of Hell.
- In Final Fantasy VIII, one of the Guardian Forces was a three headed dog called Cerberus.
- In God of War, the player faces several Cerberus as part of Poseidon's challenge, in order to obtain Pandora's Box. Also, most Cerberus' the player faces start out as a pup, and, if left alive long enough, they grow up to their full size and become harder to kill.
- In the PlayStation 2 game, Devil May Cry 3, Cerberus is one of the early bosses Dante will face; he appears in Mission 3 and is encased in ice.
- In the Wing Commander game series, the TCS Cerberus was a Hades-class Quick Strike Cruiser - the player's base of operations in the final installment of the series.
- Cerberus is a Heavy Assault Ship of the Caldari Faction in the EVE Online MMORPG.
- Atlus'RPG franchise Shin Megami Tensei frequently features Cerberus as a helpful and powerful monster who helps the player in the earliest parts of the game, greatly overpowering any enemy he faces at the time. Cerberus is also in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, although he plays no special role in that game.
- In Atlus' PS2 RPG Digital Devil Saga, one of the Tribe Leader's Atma (Demon) form is an abstract, mechanical-looking three-headed dog named Cerberus.
- In the Resident Evil, the zombie dogs (which are all Doberman Pinschers) are called "Cerberus".
- In the Playstation 2 game R-Type Final, Cerberus (designation R-13A) is the name of one of the ships the player can collect.
- In the Nintendo 64 game Mischief Makers, Cerberus Alpha is the name of a high-tech motorcycle boss.
- In Mega Man Zero 3, there is a boss called Tretista Kelverian. He is a Cerberus android (or the more fitting term "'Reploid'"), with his center head positioned normally on his body and the other 2 heads are each his shoulder pads. The 2 heads can separate from Kelverian and become separate canine units of their own.
- In Rygar, one of the creatures Rygar is able to summon using the Diskarmor is the dog Cerberus.
- In Kingdom Hearts, at the Colosseum, you have to fight Cerberus after the seven rounds and Cloud Strife.
- In Kingdom Hearts II Cerberus is a boss that you fight with Auron in the Underworld section of Olympus Coliseum and an optional boss in the Cerberus Cup. In the Cup you have 3 minutes to defeat 9 rounds of normal enemies and him.
- In Age of Mythology: The Titans, Cerberus was a titan that had been freed and set loose in Egypt. It was defeated by the Egyptian stone Guardian.
- In Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, Cerberus guards the gate of Hades, and must be bribed or defeated before the hero can enter the Underworld.
- In Manhunt The final gang of the game are called The Cerberus
- A similar Digimon known as Cerberumon appears in Digimon Frontier.
- Cerberus is also in Final Fantasy XI: The Treasures of Aht Urghan. It is the guardian of Halvung guarding the gates to the capital City, The Astral Plains.,
- Kerberos guards the way to the Dungeon Dimension in Tdome Rise of the Freejacks.
- In Dante's Inferno, Cerberus was the tormenting genius of the third circle. There the gluttonous and incontinent souls could be found immersed in turbid water. Hail and snow poured down through the dark air upon their grimacing faces. Cerberus took care to see that each soul received its due share of torment: Cerberus, a monster fierce and strange, with three throats, barks dog-like over those that are immersed in it. His eyes are red, his beard greasy and black, his belly wide, and clawed his hands; he clutches the spirits, flays and piecemeal renders them. When Cerberus, the great Worm, perceived us, he opened his mouth and showed his tusks: no limb of him kept still. My guide, spreading his palms, took up earth; and, with full fists, cast it into his ravening gullets. As the dog, that barking craves, and grows quiet when he bites his food, for he strains and battles only to devour it: so did those squalid visages of Cerberus the Demon, who thunders on the spirits so, that they would fain be deaf.
- Cerberus is also mentioned in Sylvia Plath's poem Fever 103°.
- Cerberus was one of the many monsters seen in the 1997 Disney film Hercules. The Cerberus which appears as a boss in both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II is the same one from this movie.
- In the movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and the upcoming video game, Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, Vincent Valentine's three barrelled gun is named Cerberus.
- In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone there is a giant three-headed dog named Fluffy which guards the Philosopher's Stone. It can be lulled to sleep by playing music to him.
- In the 1992 film Highway to Hell Cerberus guards the entrance to Hell City, and only allows people that are dead to pass through
- In Matrix Revolutions, the elevator entrance to the S&M club named Hell, appropriately run by a man married to Persephone, are a triplet of guards with identical appearance ('three heads') and the general disposition of guard dogs, an likely reference to Cerberus.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the prestigious MIT) developed Kerberos as a computer network authentication cryptographic protocol which allows individuals communicating over an insecure network to prove their identity to one another in a secure manner.
- WebGroup Media LLC developed Cerberus Helpdesk, a popular e-mail management application, to guard companies against the hell of technical support.
- In Spanish, cancerbero (from Canis Cerberus, "dog Cerberus") is a Latinate form for 'gatekeeper', even used for a goalkeeper.
- In Finnish, a strict, angry doorman of a restaurant or nightclub (who is likely not to let you in for some reason) is sometimes jokingly called "Kerberos". Also, there is similar usage of word "Cerber" in Polish.
- Kerberos is also the name of the core unit of the paramilitary 'Capitol Police Organization' in Jin-Roh.
- In the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hercules (played by Kevin Sorbo) fought against Cerberus.
- In The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy episode Mandy Bites Dog, Cerberus is Grim, an out-of-control dog which Mandy manages to tame. Two of the heads are male hunting dogs and the third is a female poodle.
- In an episode of The Simpsons' the staff of Itchy & Scratchy created a new dog character named Poochie. At one point, when producers are describing the new character to the writers, one says, "He's the original dog from hell" to which a writer responds, "You mean Cerberus?".
- In The Venture Bros episode, Escape to the House of Mummies Part II, Dr. Orpheus approaches the throne of his master. Sitting on the throne however, is Cerberus, which Orpheus strikes with a fireball. Cerberus complains to Orpheus about the attack, revealing that it is actually Orpheus's teacher in animal form (initially, and incorrectly, described as Argos). They begin a long discussion about Orpheus' lack of friends, the master sorcerer berates Orpheus about his failed marriage, and licks his own crotch with another of his heads (and discusses the pleasures thereof) amongst other things.
- On the television show Animaniacs, Satan asks Cerberus to destroy the protagonists, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, only to be scared away by Dot's vicious huge venus fly trap.
- On the television show LOST, the smoke monster is mistaken for Cerberus by the ancient Egyptians of the island. Their Hieroglyphics reveal that they called it Cerberus.