Cerberus: Three Headed Dog in Greek Mythology

Greek mythology comprises a huge pantheon, extensive use of anthropomorphism and mythical creatures that are symbolic. Cerberus, the three headed dog was believed to be the guardian of the realm of death, or Hades. Cerberus, it was believed, prevented those who crossed the river of death, Styx, from escaping. River Styx was supposed to be the boundary between the Underworld and Earth. Greek mythology propounded that Hades or the Underworld was encircled nine times by River Styx and that the rivers Phlegethon, Cocytus, Lethe, Eridanos and Acheron converged with Styx on the ‘Great Marsh’. Cerberus guarded the Great Marsh.

Importance of Styx in Greek Mythology:

Hades and Persephone were believed to be the mortal portals in the Underworld. This realm was also home to Phlegyas or guardian of the River Phlegethon, Charon or Kharon, the ferryman, and the living waters of Styx. Styx was believed to have miraculous powers that could make a person immortal, resulting in the grave need for it to be guarded. This realm relates to the concept of ‘hell’ in Christianity and the ‘Paradise lost’, in the literary genius of ‘The Divine Comedy’. In Greek mythology, the ferryman Charon was in charge of transporting souls across the Styx, into the Underworld. Here, it was believed that the sullen were drowned in Styx’s muddy waters.

Cerberus: The Guardian

Cerberus, the mythical guardian of River Styx has been immortalized through many works of ancient Greek literature, art and architecture. Cerberus is easily recognizable among the other members of the pantheon due to his three heads. Cerberus is believed to be the sibling of the Nemean Lion, Lernaean Hydra and the Chimaera. Cerberus’ parents were the half-woman-half-serpent, Echidna, and the fire-breathing giant, Typhon. Greek mythology projects Typhon as the one who even the Olympian gods feared. Cerberus had a two-headed hell hound brother called Orthrus. Cerberus, in Greek mythology, is depicted as a creature with three heads, a serpent mane like that of Medusa, a dog-like body and a dragon’s tail. He is believed to have the power to look into the past, present and future with his three heads. Another theory propounds that Cerberus’ heads represent birth, adulthood and old age. Cerberus has been an important part of Greek classics such as Aeneid, The Labors of Hercules, Symposium and Iliad.

Hercules and Cerberus:

This mythical creature was believed to have an eternal longing for fresh meat. This was the reason behind his being given the primary responsibility of ensuring that the souls that entered Hades remained there for fear of being torn to pieces. Hades’ loyal watchdog was supposedly presented to King Eurystheus by Hercules. The story highlights that the king had given Hercules the task of capturing the guardian of Hades alive, without the use of weapons. Hercules sought Eleusinian Mysteries to enter and exit Hades alive. He was helped by Hermes to get through the entrance, and by Hestia, to get past Charon. Hercules managed to earn an audience with Hades, the God of the Underworld, and sought permission to take Cerberus to the surface. Hades agreed, but like King Eurystheus, did not permit the use of weapons. However, empowered by the magical Eleusinian Mysteries, Hercules was able to subdue Cerberus and drag the creature out of Hades, to Eurystheus. But, the frightened king begged Hercules to return the monster to the Underworld and released the muscular hero from his labors.