For the snake genus Cerberus, see Cerberus (snake).
The Greek Underworld
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In Greek mythology, Cerberus (from Κέρϐερος, Kerberos, demon of the pit), was the hound of Hades—a monstrous three-headed dog (sometimes said to have 50 or 100 heads), (sometimes) with a snake for a tail and innumerable snake heads on his back.

He guarded the gate to Hades (the Greek underworld) and ensured that the dead could not leave and the living could not enter. His brother was Orthrus.

Cerberus is the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.

He was overcome several times:

  • 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 puts 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 Cerberus to sleep with drugged honeycakes.

He can be found also in Dante's Divine Comedy, in Canto VI of Inferno (third circle).


Heracles' capturing of Cerberus

Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus. After having been set the task, Heracles 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 underwold 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, Heracles freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, so he has to leave him behind. They had been imprisoned by Hades, by magic binding them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone. The magic was so strong that when Heracles pulled Theseus free, part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench, explaining why his descendants had notably lean thighs.

In some versions, Heracles merely asks Hades for permission to take Cerberus, to which Hades agrees as long as Heracles does not harm the hound, though in other versions Heracles shot Hades with an arrow. In some versions, Heracles drags the dog out of Hades, passing through the cavern Acherusia, but in other versions, Heracles treats the vicious dog with the first kindness it has seen, and easily walks out with it.

Theories of origin

The constellation of Pisces was not always associated with two fish, the original sky fish was Piscis Austrinus. It was considered also to be two people, tied together (who in some stories were turned into fish, thus evolving into just being fish). They are tied together under the ecliptic, the area considered to represent the underworld. The ecliptic, of the sun's transit, cuts through the bond. One clearly has mostly escaped (the western one), the other appears to still be bound to the ecliptic and heading downwards (the eastern one). However, part of the western one is still bound.

The naming, of the person Heracles successfully released, from being bound in the underworld, as Theseus, marks an awareness that myths surrounding Theseus connect him to the queen of the Amazons, and that he thus had to appear in the following story as a companion of Heracles. This emphasis on continuity is possibly connected to the fact that the constellation which features in the subsequent story also partly exists in Pisces.

Under Pisces is the constellation Cetus, usually considered as a sea monster, or a whale. However, it is equally possible to view it as two closed gates with their gateposts, with a set of three stars behind the centre of the gate. Since they face the ecliptic, and are extremely close to it, such gates would be gates to the underworld (which was below the ecliptic). The guard of the gates to the underworld was traditionally Cerberus, who had three heads, an association requiring use of the three main (but comparatively faint) stars, in the modern constellation Fornax, as a tail.

Since Cerberus was considered a permanent fixture of Hades, nothing much could happen to him that was damaging. There being no other constellations in this region, little more story could be given other than doing something non permanent to Cerberus, such as moving him to the other side of the gates.

Alternately, and earlier version may not have featured the tale of Theseus being bound, which may have been a later reapplication of the constellations to the story. In such a case, the non-escaping branch of Pisces may have been taken to represent the usual patrol of Cerberus on a leash, wheras the other branch being taken to represent Cerberus' subsequent ascent (still on the leash, thus still having to eventually return)


In Spanish, cancerbero (from Canis Cerberus, "dog Cerberus") is a Latinate form for gatekeeper, even for a football (soccer) goalkeeper.

In the first book of Harry Potter the large three-headed dog guarding the sorcerers stone is identified as a Cerberus.

In the game Final Fantasy VIII, One of the GF's (Guardian Force's) Is a Cerberus, which casts Double and Triple magics on your entire party when summoned.

See also

fr:Cerbre he:קרברוס (מיתולוגיה) it:Cerbero nl:Cerberus ja:ケルベロス pl:Cerber ru:Цербер sl:Kerber th:เซอร์เบอรัส


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