In Greek mythology, Cerberus was a dog-demon that guarded the River Styx, the entrance to Hades (the Underworld). Cerberus’s job was to only let the dead enter the Underworld, and to stop all from leaving. He was called the three-headed hound of Hell. Cerberus was so savage that even the Greek gods were afraid of him. Fear of Cerberus was extremely real in Ancient Greece. As well as a coin being put in the mouth of the deceased to pay the River Styx ferryman Charon, burials were sometimes accompanied with a piece of honeycake or bread to placate Cerberus.
Most commonly, Cerberus is known to have three heads. In other stories, he is said to have as many as fifty to one hundred heads. Hesiod, a poet, claimed Cerberus had fifty heads. He has a mane of serpents on each head and ferocious teeth. He has serpents for hands and feet, a poisonous barbed tail, as well as poisonous saliva. It is said that Cerberus was so hideous that anyone who looked at him would turn into stone. His center head was the shape of a lion, and the other two heads were the shape of a dog and a wolf respectively. Cerberus had a dragon's tail as well as a thick mane of writhing snakes.
Cerberus is in a number of stories as an obstacle for any living person who tries to force their way into the underworld. Although his parents are known as Typhon and Echidne, Typhaon and Chimaera, or a varied spelling of these names, Cerberus was untamed and only obeyed the voices of Hades and Persephone. Cerberus was used as the gatekeeper of the Underworld, and would try to eat anyone who attempted passing through the gates and returning to the land of the living. The name “Cerberus” is said to stem from “ker berethrou”, which translates to “demon of the pit”. It is also said that Cerberus's three heads symbolized the past, the present, and the future.
Cerberus was most commonly said to be born to Echidna, a half-woman and half-serpent, and Typhon, the fiercest of all creatures. Other spellings of these names are used, such as Echidne, Typhaon, and Typhoon. Echidna was a viper-goddess from the sea, and Typhon was god of hurricanes. It is even said in some stories that Cerberus is the child of Typhaon and Chimara. Cerberus is also known to be associated with Hydra, according to some myths. Cerberus’s brothers were the Nemean Lion and Orthrus (a double-headed dog). Most stories agree that Cerberus is the sibling of the Lernaean Hydra, the Chimera, as well as several other creatures. Chimera, also spelled as Chimaera, was a lion-headed beast.
Cerberus is mentioned in a great number of myths and stories as an obstacle for any living person that tried to force their way into the Underworld. It was said that only true heroes were able to overcome Cerberus. Orpheus, a great musician who was looking for his dead wife Eurydice, charmed Cerberus with the music of his lyre and lulled him to sleep.
Another mention of Cerberus involved Heracles, a hero that is also known by the name Hercules. Capturing Cerberus alive was Heracles’s twelfth and final task, given to him by his taskmaster King Eurystheus. Heracles killed Cerberus’s three siblings, the Lion of Nemea, the Lernaean Hydra, and Orthrus, during his tasks. This angered Cerberus and made Heracles’s task even more difficult. Some versions of this myth say that Heracles got Cerberus in a choke hold and knocked him out while others say that Heracles was able to capture Cerberus by treating him with the first kindness he had ever received.
Sibyl of Cumae, in the Roman classic the Aeneid, was able to distract Cerberus and put him to sleep by giving him a cake soaked in drugged wine. This gave Roman hero Aeneas access to the Underworld. Psyche, another character in Roman mythology, was able to charm Cerberus with her beauty and also with a drugged honeycake.
Another mention of Cerberus was when Medea used poison made from Cerberus’s drool in an attempt to murder Theseus. Hermes was said to have used water from the river Lethe to put Cerberus to sleep.
Some believe that due to his dedication to the ancient Greek gods, Cerberus was released by Hades and that he joined the gods in a more human, immortal form and became known as Nabierius.
Cerberus had many magical powers. He had ferocious fangs, a barbed and poisonous tail, poisonous saliva, and it was said by some that he was so hideous he could turn anyone who looked at him into stone. Cerberus’s saliva was used in Medea’s attempt to poison Theseus, although it also grew a poisonous plant called aconite that flourishes on bare rocks. This plant was later called “hecateis” because Hecate was the first to use it.
· In Spanish, the word “cancerbero” (from Canis Cerberus, “dog Cerberus”) is a Latinate form for gatekeeper
· Cerberus appeared in games such as Final Fantasy and Castlevania
· There is a Greek Army emblem with Cerberus on it, the 10th Infantry Brigade
· Fluffy, the 3-headed pet dog of Hagrid who guarded the Sorcerer’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, was based on Cerberus
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