In this post, Jason takes an in-depth look at Cerberus; the three-headed hound of Hades himself!
We know Cerberus by many names, the hound of Hades, guardian of the gates to the underworld and Fluffy (apparently Hagrid’s famous guard dog was based on Cerberus) to name a few. This mythical, giant multi-headed dog guards the entrance to the Underworld and prevents the dead from leaving…except in a few cases, including one occasion where Cerberus himself was taken out of the underworld!
A Little Bit About The Family
Father – Typhon is an enormous serpent-humanoid (in some descriptions said to have numerous dragon heads coming out of its body)
Mother – Echidna is half-humanoid and half-serpent.
Siblings – Orthus – Two-headed dog
Lernaean Hydra – A multiple-headed serpent that could regenerate heads
Chimaera – Three-headed lion, goat and snake hybrid capable of breathing fire and injecting venom
As you can see, Cerberus comes from quite an impressive lineage. Like many of his family members, Cerberus appears in a number of Greek and Roman legends.
Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, she is seen as the goddess of agriculture and queen of the underworld. After Hades abducted her and took her to the underworld, Demeter wept and grew angry toward Zeus, causing the living world to become dark, barren and desolate. Negotiations were made for the return of Persephone to Olympus but Persephone was now married and bound to the underworld due to eating pomegranate seeds in the underworld.
It was therefore agreed that Persephone would spend six months in Olympus and 6 months in the underworld each year so that Zeus, Demeter and Hades were all able to spend time with their loved one. The living world was then said to flourish six months of the year, celebrating Spring and Summer, when Persephone was allowed to pass through the underworld by Cerberus and, upon her return, Autumn and Winter took hold.
Orpheus was a famously talented musician and poet who lost his wife to the venomous bite of snakes. Through his sorrow and grief, he travelled to the underworld in the hopes of returning with his lost love – Eurydice. It was said that when he met Cerberus, Orpheus played his lyre with such dexterity that Cerberus fell asleep, allowing Orpheus to go through the gate, and make his plea to Hades and Persephone. Orpheus was granted an opportunity to return his wife to the world of the living on one condition; that during his journey from out of the underworld he does not turn around to check if his beloved is following behind. Anxious to check Eurydice was really there, Orpheus could not resist turning back just moments before reaching the world of the living and saw his wife disappear into the depths of the underworld once more.
In the 12th labour of Heracles (or Hercules), Eurystheus challenged him to capture and bring Cerberus back from the Underworld. Heracles travelled to the Underworld and directly asked Hades, the god of the Underworld, whether he could take the dog. Hades allowed him the opportunity to try and capture Cerberus on the condition that Heracles does not harm or kill him. Heracles, using his wit and demi-god strength, wrestled Cerberus until he became unconscious, allowing Heracles to carry him back to Eurysthesus’ Palace. After returning to the palace, Eurysthesus was said to be so fearful of the hound that he hid and pleaded with Heracles to leave and take the hound with him, thus completing 12th and final labour of Heracles.
In our White Psyche exhibition, we have one more story to add to the list.
Cupid and Psyche
In Psyche’s final task, she is told to travel to the underworld and bring back some of Proserpina’s beauty in a box for Venus. Guided by voices, she brought gold coins to travel with the ferryman across the river Styx and honey cakes to feed and distract Cerberus in order to reach Proserpina. Once she had retrieved some beauty in the box, she quickly made her way back to deliver the prize to Venus. However, before reaching Venus, Psyche opened the box. She hoped to enhance her own beauty but instead was rewarded with a deep sleep. Cupid returned to her in her moment of need and revived her. He then flew her to the gods to put forward his case of marriage. The gods grant his wish and make Psyche immortal, making their union last forever.
Although Cerberus spends its days looking after the gates of the underworld, the three headed-dog is remarkably and indirectly involved in quite a few stories of legendary figures that we know of.
The question on my mind is, how many other stories does Cerberus appear in?
If you find out, please comment below and let us know!
Thanks for reading!