Cerberus (Ancient Greek: Κέρβερος), often called the “hound of Hades”, is a monstrous multi-headed dog (usually three), who guards the gates of the underworld, preventing the dead from leaving. He was the offspring of the monsters Echidna and Typhon, and is usually described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, with snakes protruding from various parts of his body. Cerberus is primarily known for his capture by Heracles, one of Heracles’ twelve labors.
Honey-cakes and Music:
Cerberus’ job was to make sure the dead stay within the gates and the living stay away from them. Only a few heroes ever escaped Cerberus’s guard. However, the Greeks did note in their myths that Cerberus was a fan of sweet things like honey cakes and music, and this became his undoing; the great musician Orpheus charmed it with his lyre, and both the beautiful maiden Psyche and the Trojan prince Aeneas were able to pacify Cerberus with a honey cake and thus continue their journey through the underworld.
Theseus and Pirithous:
While in the underworld, Heracles met the heroes Theseus and Pirithous, where the two companions were being held prisoner by Hades for attempting to carry off Persephone, and, along with bringing back Cerberus, Heracles also managed (usually) to rescue Theseus, and in some versions Pirithous as well. According to Apollodorus, Heracles found Theseus and Pirithous near the gates of Hades, bound to the “Chair of Forgetfulness, to which they grew and were held fast by coils of serpents”, and when they saw Heracles, “they stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from the dead by his might”, and Heracles was able to free Theseus, but when he tried to raise up Pirithous, “the earth quaked and he let go.”
When Typhon threatened the gods, Hades went into battle with Cerberus. Cerberus was afraid of his father, and did not want to fight him. Hades saw this, and fled to Egypt with the Olympians, save for Zeus.
Capturing Cerberus without using any weapons or receiving any help was Herakles’s final, twelfth labor he needed to complete. Heracles went into Hades with the help of Hestia, and went to the castle to which Hades resided. Heracles asked Hades if he could bring Cerberus to the surface, and Hades agreed. Cerberus charged at Heracles, but Heracles had such incredible strength, he lifted Cerberus and tossed him over his back, causing him to faint. Herakles dragged the unconscious dog to King Eurystheus. However, while outside of his palace, Cerberus awoke, which scared Eurystheus so much he jumped into a pithos. Herakles then returned Cerberus to Hades, and went back to the surface world.
Cerberus’s exact personality is not clear, as it hasn’t been explored or investigated in great detail. From all the information that is revealed about him, it can be said that he is steadfast and loyal, willingly standing at the gates of the Underworld, devoted to his role as Hades’ monstrous sentinel. He also is shown to adore his master, Hades, and vice versa. Although they rarely interact, Cerberus eagerly anticipates every one of his visits. He is shown to also be affectionate to Hades’ wife Persephone. One theory explains that this is due to the similarities between their positions in the Underworld. Hades kidnapped Persephone and made her his queen against her will, and Cerberus was also taken into the Underworld without a personal choice, although he wasn’t kidnapped, but adopted in a way.
In other renditions of the Greek Pantheon, such as in the Percy Jackson series, Cerberus is given a more soft and light-hearted personality, as he is shown to be lonely and in need of companionship.
Powers and abilities
While some early myths account for Cerberus having one-hundred heads most myths actually refer to him as having three heads and such other accounts are widely considered non-cannon exaggerations to the established character. Each of Cerberus’ heads had it’s own mind capable of seeing, hearing and acting independently of each-other, however all three heads were governed by a single will; This allowed Cerberus three times the perceptive capabilities of a single hound without fighting amongst himself. The heads would sleep in shifts, ensuring Cerberus was a danger even while he slept and always felt refreshed and well rested. Cerberus is said to have tremendous strength that could shake the ground and break walls. Cerberus was a skilled tracker that could hunt endlessly once he acquired something’s scent, guaranteeing no one could hide from him. Cerberus was a man-eater who was fed the bones of the dead by Hades but he also had a taste for the souls of the dead and though Hades ordered Cerberus to spit out spirits when caught they were still described as making his mouth water. Cerberus jaws could not only affect ghosts but snap steel spears and swords like twigs. Cerberus had speed three times faster than a traditional hunting hound, allowing him to cross great distances with ease.