In ancient Greek mythology this massive dog became the guardian of the gates of the Underworld. Its job was to ensure that the shades of the dead could not leave, as well as prevent any living soul from trying to enter. The meaning of the name, sometimes spelt Kerberos, is death or daemon of the dark. Sighting of this terrible beast invoked fear into even the bravest men and he is described as having three hound heads, a serpent for a tail, a mane of snakes and a lion’s claws.
Cerberus came from a family of terrifying monsters. His father, Typhon, was a multi-headed snake and his mother, Echidna, was half snake and half woman. In addition to Cerberus, his parents had three other children: Hydra – 9 headed water serpent, Orthus – 2 headed dog, who guarded the cattle of Geryon and the Chimera who had three heads: one of a lion, one of a goat and one of a snake.
Shortly after Cerberus hatched from an egg, Hades visited Echidna with a gift of gold jewellery which he wanted to use as payment for her son. Refusing to hand over her child for a simple treasure, she scorned the god’s gift. Hades left it with her anyway, secretly vowing that one day the hound would be his.
When Cerberus grew older he came upon a shark trying to capsize a boat in which the beautiful maiden, Delia, was seated. He killed the shark, saving her, and the two immediately became good friends. One day as he accompanied her while she was healing animals, he was lured away. In his absence a monster, sent by Hades, killed Delia and left Cerberus devastated. Hades offered to make a deal with the hound, promising to return Delia’s spirit to him if he became guard of the Underworld for 1000 years. Failing to see any other way of getting his friend back Cerberus agreed and started to work immediately.
During his extended period guarding the realm of the dead, there were only three people who ever got past Cerberus.
- Persephone – The goddess of innocence and Hades’ partner in ruling the Underworld was allowed to pass twice a year when the seasons changed.
- Orpheus – This musician put Cerberus to sleep with the beautiful music from his lyre. He then slipped past the hound and attempted to lead his wife’s soul from Hades. He would have succeeded as well, but gave into the forbidden temptation to look back and make sure she was following him.
- Hercules – The demi-god’s 12th and final task was to bring the hound to king Eurystheus. He approached Hades, asking for permission to take the beast with him. This he was granted provided that no weapons were used in the capture. Hercules used his strength to overpower Cerberus and took him to the king. The dog’s ferocious appearance terrified Eurystheus, who begged Hercules to take it back and in return he would be granted his freedom. Happy to oblige, Hercules did so and Cerberus became the only monster which the hero faced but never killed.