Monday, March 25, 2013


There's a dog in Greek mythology that is very famous, and his name is Cerberus.  This dog was owned by Hades, the God of the Underworld, and he was pretty much like any other pet dog except for three things:

1.  He had a very special job to do as the Guard Dog of the Underworld.  
2.  He was extremely fierce and aggressive.
3.  He had at least three heads.

Hades and his faithful dog, Cerberus.
The Romans called Hades "Pluto."

The name Cerberus, or Kerberos, comes from the Greek word Κέρβερος and it can be translated "hellhound" or "demon of the pit."  The most usual description of Cerberus was that he had three heads, a serpent's tail, a mane of snakes, and a lion's claws.  A few writers said that Cerberus had 50 or even 100 heads, but these writers might have been counting the heads of all the snakes.

Cerberus had a very important job that he did for Hades, which was that he guarded the gate to the Underworld.  The ancient Greeks believed that when you died, that's where you went, and to get there, you crossed the River Styx.  But only dead people were allowed to go in, and once they got in there, they were not allowed to leave.  It was Cerberus' job to make sure that none of the wrong kind of people got in or out.

Everybody went to the kingdom of Hades when they died, and then it was decided if they would be punished forever or not.  The way this decision was made was by whether people had been good or bad during their lives.

Hades and his wife, Persephone, hanging out at home with their dog

In most stories, one of the heads of Cerberus looks to the past, another one to the present, and the third one to the future.  But a few writers have said that the three heads represent birth, youth, and old age.  

The mother of Cerberus was Echidna, who was half-woman and half-serpent.  And his father was a fire-breathing giant named Typhon.  Even the Greek Gods were afraid of Typhon.  Cerberus had two siblings, and one of them was Hydra, a creature with lots of serpent heads.  The other one was Chimera, a beast with the head of a lion.

Cerberus as a puppy

Now I am going to tell you about the Twelfth Labor of Heracles.  The Romans called him Hercules, so you might have heard that name more often.  But Heracles and Hercules are one and the same guy, and he was what is called a demigod.  Which means one of his parents was a god, and the other was a regular mortal.  In the case of Heracles, his father was Zeus, the King of the Gods.

Anyway, Zeus's wife, Hera, didn't like Heracles much, so there was this little incident where she drove him insane and caused him to kill his own children and maybe his wife, too.  Later on, he tried to make up for doing this horrible thing, and so King Eurystheus assigned Heracles twelve "labors" which were tasks that would have killed any ordinary person.  But Heracles was extra-strong on account of being a demigod.

The last of the labors was to capture Cerberus without using any weapons.  This was supposedly the hardest of all the labors, and the king did not think Heracles would come back alive.  But Heracles was very clever, and he found someone to show him a way to sneak into the Underworld.  Once he got there, he ran into all kinds of monsters, ghosts, and heroes.  And he had to wrestle somebody, but I don't know all the details.

Anyway, finally he found Hades, and he asked the god's permission to take Cerberus out of the Underworld.  Hades said it was okay for Heracles to do that if he could subdue the beast by using only his own strength.  Heracles roamed around the Underworld some more until he found Cerberus.  Then he grabbed him and held on really tight, even though the three-headed dog fought Heracles and bit him.  But in the end, Heracles was stronger, so Cerberus had to give in.  This might have been the case of someone using the "alpha roll" technique on a dog, but I'm not sure.  

Then Heracles led Cerberus to King Eurystheus, and the king was so scared when he saw Cerberus that he had to hide in a pithos, which is like a huge clay pot for storing stuff in.  The king told Heracles that if he would take Cerberus back to the Underworld, he would be released from his labors.  So Heracles took Cerberus back, and he didn't even kill him, which was a better deal than most of the monsters got that Heracles fought with.

An Etruscan vase from the 6th century B.C., Musée du Louvre
At the left side, you can see King Eurystheus in the pithos.

Besides Heracles, only two other living people managed to sneak past Cerberus into the Underworld.  One was Orpheus, who charmed him with music.  And the other was Aeneas, who got in after Sibyl of Cumae gave Cerberus some cake soaked in drugged wine.

Artwork by Ilias Sounas

So that is the story of the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who was mostly a very faithful Guard Dog of the Underworld, except when he got tricked a few times.  I think that Hades must have been proud to have a dog who was so loyal and did his job so well.

Now I will end this blog entry by sharing a funny definition of Cerberus written by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary:

CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance -- against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance. Cerberus is known to have had three heads, and some of the poets have credited him with as many as a hundred. Professor Graybill, whose clerky erudition and profound knowledge of Greek give his opinion great weight, has averaged all the estimates, and makes the number twenty-seven -- a judgment that would be entirely conclusive if Professor Graybill had known (a) something about dogs, and (b) something about arithmetic. 

No comments:

Post a Comment