Cerberus: Hound of Hades

We’ve seen many a mythical dog. There was Yudhistara and the black dog at the gates of heaven from the Mahabharata; there was Fenrir, who bit off Tyr’s hand after Tyr betrayed him, binding him until Ragnarok, when the great wolf shall be set free.

There was Odysseus’ dog, who loyally waited twenty long years for his master’s return.

But one dog stands out symbolically, if not in myth: that would be Cerberus, the Hound of Hell, guardian of Hades…

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Appearance:

Typically, Cerberus is pictured as a three headed dog with the tail of a serpent and random snakes darting out from his body.

While Charon serves to take the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron into Hades, Cerberus serves to keep the dead from trying to leave Hades, blocking their journey out.

Parentage:

Echidna and Typhon.

Let’s stick with Hesiod, our oldest source:

The “terrible” and “lawless” Typhon, “was joined in love to [Echidna], the maid with glancing eyes” and she bore “fierce offspring” (Theogony, 306-314).

Echidna is described by Hesiod as a half beautiful maiden and half fearsome snake. Hesiod describes “the goddess fierce Echidna” as a flesh eating “monster, irresistible”, who was like neither “mortal men” nor “the undying gods”, but was “half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin”, who “dies not nor grows old all her days” (Theogony, 295-305).

Typhon was the son of Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus: “when Zeus had driven the Titans from heaven, huge Earth bore her youngest child Typhoeus of the love of Tartarus, by the aid of golden Aphrodite” (Theogony 820-822).

Siblings:

Orthrus: a two headed dog, slain by Heracles as part of his tenth labour (stealing the monster Garyon’s cattle).

Lernean Hydra: a multi headed, poison breathing serpent with the power to regenerate two heads for every one lost, killed by Heracles as his second labour (the regeneration is a post Hesiod addition).

Chimera (?): Hesiod is vague; could be a daughter or descendant of Echidna.

Sphinx: best known for her riddles, defeated by Oedipus.

Nemean Lion: killed by Heracles as past of his first labour.

Other siblings (authors other than Hesiod, such as pseudo-Apollodorus and Hyginis)

Ladon, the dragon who guarded the Apples of Hesperidis; depending on the source, may have been killed by Heracles during the eleventh labour.

Others include the eagle that chewed on Prometheus‘ liver, the Crommyonian Sow slain by Theseus, the Gorgon, mother of Medusa (slain by Perseus), the Colchian Dragon (subdued by Medea or Orpheus), and Scylla, who Odysseus had to navigate past.

So, as part of his first, second, tenth and possibly eleventh labours, Heracles killed a sibling of Cerberus…

Do you see a pattern?

The Twelfth Labour of Heracles: bringing back Cerberus

For his final redemptive task, Heracles is commanded to recover Cerberus. From here, the myth gets muddled; here’s a rough composite:

Heracles descends into Hades, typically guided by Athena and Hermes.

Heracles either steals Cerberus, duels Hades for Cerberus or is offered Cerberus by Persephone, with or without her husband’s approval. Regardless of how (given Heracles’ typical brute strength approach to most of life’s problems, I imagine force was involved), Heracles took the dog.

Hades-et-Cerberus-III
Cerberus and Hades/Serapis. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece.

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Theseus:

Along the way, he freed Theseus.

Minotaur Theseus? Ship of Theseus Theseus?

How the Hell did he end up in Hades?

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According to pseudo-Apollodorus, Theseus and his friend Pirithous had gone to Hades because Pirithous, bored with mortal women, wanted to sleep with Persephone.

Hades wasn’t impressed.

Finding the two frozen near the gates of Hades, bound to the “Chair of Forgetfulness, to which they grew and were held fast by coils of serpents”, they saw Heracles,  and “stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from the dead by his might.”

They could not.

Heracles was able to free Theseus, but when he tried to release Pirithous, “the earth quaked and he let go.”

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Aconite:

As Heracles brought Cerberus into the land of the living, the dog vomited violently, giving rise to the Aconite plant.

Aconite isn’t very descriptive: here are some more colorful names for the highly toxic Aconitum:

monkshood, wolf’s-bane, leopard’s bane, mousebane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet and the queen of poisons.

Thanks, Cerberus!

Monkshood
Safely handled, Aconitum can win you the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. Not so safely handled, and you can win a one trip to Hades, courtesy of Cerberus.

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So most of Ceberus’ siblings didnt fare well around Heracles.

How about the Hound of Hell in the Land of the Living?

He came. He saw.

I assume he enjoyed the party favors.

And then he grew bored.

Cerberus had already made an entrance; he couldn’t be bothered with an exit.

So, pretty much just like that, Cerberus went home.

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What’s the take away?

It’s one thing to poke a stick at a dragon, a lion or a Hydra…

But whatever you do, whoever you are,

Don’t mess with the Devil’s Dog.

P.S. Stay away from the Aconite also.

Inferno_Canto_6_lines_24-26
Virgil feeding Cerberus earth, in the Third Circle of Hell. Illustration from Dante’s Inferno by Gustave Doré.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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