In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, Cerberus is the three-headed dog that guards the entrance into Hades (the underground realm of the dead, and also the name of the god that rules it).
What Did Cerberus Look Like?
Cerberus was the kind of dog you would expect a god of Hell to own. Cerberus had not only three heads but also a mane of snakes, a dragon's or snake-like tail, and the claws of a lion.
Some earlier description deviate from this description, such as Hesiod's account where Cerberus had not three but 50 heads. And even few modern depictions such as the Beatles Yellow Submarine--give the ultimate hell hound more than three heads.
Some versions show Cerberus with three heads from different species: dog, wolf and lion. Also, some artists can't resist showing the snake tail as threefold also--for symmetry. And even relatively ancient depiction take artistic license such as showing Cerberus more like a dragon.
What Did Cerberus do?
Cerberus would allow those who had died to enter Hades, but he stopped the living from entering and the dead from leaving.
However he was not above occasionally being bribed or charmed, The are many tales of heroes finding ways to get into Hades as they go on their quests. Orpheus was able to get part Cerberus by using the power of music to enchant him.
The twelfth and final labor of Hercules was to seize Cerberus from Hades and bring him to Eurystheus. The jar shown above depicts the heads of Cerberus in three different colors. It shows Hercules presenting Cerberus to king Eurystheus. Hades allowed Hercules to borrow his dog, so long as he was returned unharmed. Upon seeing Cerberus, the alarmed king asked Hercules to return Cerberus to Hades forthwith, and freed him from his labors.
Also know as:
- Kerberos,Cerber, Cerbera, Cereberus
Cerberus in Ancient Symbollism
The name Cerberus translates roughly as 'demon of the pit'. Cerberus is naturally associated with death and the underworld, but also with the idea of a compulsive hoarder.
The three head of Cerberus are thought to refer to a number of different things with a threefold nature. For example:
- the past, present and future,
- birth, adulthood and old age,
- or loyalty, obedience and courage.
Because of his three tongues (and implied glibness) Cerberus is sometimes considered symbolic of lawyers, or of being controlled by overwhelming desires (pictured above).
In a similar basis, his three heads (and three brains) are sometimes seen as a symbol of evil intelligence or genius. Modern art has created yet more interpretations for the meaning of the three-headed hell-beast.
Bloomfield's excellent book ( Cerberus, The Dog of Hades The History of an Idea ) on the meaning of the Cerberus myth and link to other mythical dogs is currently free on Kindle!
Cerberus in Art
Cerberus is depicted as the companion of the god of the underworld, Hades. The statue shown right is on display in Museum of Archeology in Crete.Cerberus is often depicted in sculpture just as a three-headed hound, without the snake and serpent embellishments.
Cerberus also appear with Hercules on a vase held in the Louvre. And this 6th century depiction clearly shows a mane of snakes. (See also:200 BC burial caves at Marisa, 1stc Fresco, 2ndc bronze, 4thc AD painting,6thC plate, 6thc redware, On Notre Dame).
One of the best modern two-dimensional depictions of Cerberus is an illustration for the Divine Comedy by William Blake (shown right). Completed around 1825 this work is currently held in the Tate Museum. Ancient depiction of Cerberus sow him as a hound but Blake probably influenced later art which tends to show him closer to a Rottweiler in shape.
A particularly striking recent interpretation is a semi-abstract sculpture by Seymour Lipton (1947). Other great modern Cerberus artworks include Josh Keyes' 2011 "Cerberus" depicts a three-headed tiger and Elizabeth McGrath's 'Cerberus' jeweled figurine.
Cerberus remains an inspiration for a diverse range of modern day for creative expressions including: prints, origami, sand sculpture, a crochet pattern and Halloween decorations. From high church to steampunk, the variations and reinterpretations are endless!
A particularly striking recent example is the recent 'Lady Gaga as Cerberus' cover of V magazine. I wonder which particular interpretation of the threefold heads was intended here?
Cerberus in Prose and poetry
Cerberus naturally appears in Greek classics such as Aeneid, The Labors of Hercules, Symposium and Iliad.
As a result of this established mythical role Cerberus also appears in literature such as Dante's Inferno.
More recently Cerberus appears in haiku and even comicbooks.
Cerberus in Computer Games
Cerberus is a "monster" in a range of games including: Final Fantasy, God of War, Kingdom Hearts and Mass Effect. Some of these are literally a three-headed dog and other merely namesakes.
Cerberus in Movies
Cerberus (2005) is one of the many low budget Sci Fi channel monster movies. Cerberus attack those who steal the a museum artifact. People run around, Cerberus kills them--this is not exactly Oscar material.
Characters with the name 'Cerberus' appear in shows including Caprica.
Cerberus also appears in:
- Clash of the Titans (1981)--Although he was short changed a head and called "Dioskilos".
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)--Going by the name of "fluffy".
...And the television series:
- Hercules (1995)
Cerberus in Idiom
The saying "a sop to Cerberus" is used to refer to any concession or bribe given to pacify a difficult customer. It refers to the ancient Greek customer of burying a corpse with a coin to pay Charon and a cake to calm Cerberus so that they can safely enter Hades.
Both Aeneas and Psyche managed to get past Cerberus by bribing him with sweet honey-cakes. (Hermes put him to sleep with water from the river Lethe and Orpheus lulled him with music. All in all he seems to have been a less than a perfectly effective guard dog).
Cerberus supplied the name for:
- Companies including Cerberus Capital Management and Cerberus Records
- Predictably, a Metal band.
- Cerberus Sciences (provider of pathology and other analytical services).
- Cerberus the Aardvark--long running comic character created by Dave Sim, and a DC Comic villain (Superman)
- The HMVS Cerberus, a steam powered Australian warship commissioned in 1866, and a British frigate sunk during the Revolutionary War.
- Products including authentication software for computers and Flying Kerberos beer.
- A genus of "dog-faced water snakes".
For obvious reasons Cerberus inspires many fantastic dog halloween costumes.
- Bloomfield, M. (1905). Cerberus, The Dog of Hades, The History of an Idea.
- Murphy, J. C., Voris, H. K., & Karns, D. R. (2012). The dog–faced water snakes, a revision of the genus Cerberus Cuvier,(Squamata). Zootaxa, 3484, 1-34.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
bill on May 17, 2012:
cerbius dog is cute
faolan on October 25, 2011:
i'm look'in for a wolf with three heads and a mane of
vipers with a viper tail . plez help me find it !