AKA: Kérberos
Detail of sculpture of god Hades with Cerberus
Mythology Greek mythology and Roman mythology
Grouping Legendary creature
Country Greece, Italy
Habitat Underworld
Cerberus guarding the entrance to the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

Cerberus (play /ˈsɜrbərəs/),[1] or Kerberos, (Greek form: Κέρβερος, [ˈkerberos])[2] in Greek and Roman mythology, is a multi-headed hound (usually three-headed)[1][3][4] which guards the gates of the Underworld, to prevent those who have crossed the river Styx from ever escaping. Cerberus featured in many works of ancient Greek and Roman literature and in works of both ancient and modern art and architecture, although, the depiction and background surrounding Cerberus often differed across various works by different authors of the era. The most notable difference is the number of its heads: Most sources describe or depict three heads; others show it with two or even just one; a smaller number of sources show a variable number, sometimes as many as 50.



Cerberus was the offspring of Echidna, a hybrid half-woman and half-serpent, and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant whom even the Olympian gods feared. Its brother is Orthrus, always depicted as a two-headed hellhound.[5] The common depiction of Cerberus in Greek mythology and art is as having three heads. In most works the three-heads each respectively see and represent the past, the present, and the future, while other sources suggest the heads represent birth, youth, and old age.[6] Each of Cerberus' heads is said to have an appetite only for live meat and thus allow the spirits of the dead to freely enter the underworld, but allow none to leave.[7] Cerberus was always employed as Hades' loyal watchdog, and guarded the gates that granted access and exit to the underworld (also called Hades).[8]

The Twelfth Labor of Heracles

An ancient Etruscan vase from Caere (ca 525 BC) depicting Heracles presenting Cerberus to Eurystheus.

Capturing Cerberus alive, without using weapons, was the final labour assigned to Heracles (Hercules) by King Eurystheus, in recompense for the killing of his own children by Megara after he was driven insane by Hera, and therefore was the most dangerous and difficult. In the traditional version, Heracles would not have been required to capture Cerberus, however Eurystheus discounted the completion of two of the tasks as Heracles had received assistance.[5]

After having been given the task, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries so that he could learn how to enter and exit the underworld alive, and in passing absolve himself for killing centaurs. He found the entrance to the underworld at Tanaerum, and Athena and Hermes helped him to traverse the entrance in each direction. He passed Charon with Hestia's assistance and his own heavy and fierce frowning.

Whilst in the underworld, Heracles met Theseus and Pirithous. The two companions had been imprisoned by Hades for attempting to kidnap Persephone. One tradition tells of snakes coiling around their legs then turning into stone; another that Hades feigned hospitality and prepared a feast inviting them to sit. They unknowingly sat in chairs of forgetfulness and were permanently ensnared. When Heracles had pulled Theseus first from his chair, some of his thigh stuck to it (this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians), but the earth shook at the attempt to liberate Pirithous, whose desire to have the wife of a god for himself was so insulting he was doomed to stay behind.

Heracles found Hades and asked permission to bring Cerberus to the surface, which Hades agreed to if Heracles could overpower the beast without using weapons. Heracles was able to overpower Cerberus and proceeded to sling the beast over his back, dragging it out of the underworld through a cavern entrance in the Peloponnese and bringing it to Eurystheus. The king was so frightened of the beast that he jumped into a pithos, and asked Heracles to return it to the underworld in return for releasing him from his labors.


Cerberus, as illustrated by Gustave Doré in Dante's Divine Comedy.

Cerberus featured in many prominent works of Greek and Roman literature, most famously in Virgil's Aeneid, Peisandros of Rhodes' epic poem the Labours of Hercules, the story of Orpheus in Plato's Symposium, and in Homer's Iliad, which is the only known reference to one of Heracles' labours which first appeared in a literary source.[9]

The depiction of Cerberus is relatively consistent between different works and authors, the common theme of the mane of serpents is kept across works, as is the serpent's tail, most literary works of the era describe Cerberus as having three heads with the only notable exception being Hesiod's Theogony in which he had 50 heads.[10]

Most occurrences in ancient literature revolve around the basis of the threat of Cerberus being overcome to allow a living being access to the underworld; in the Aeneid Cerberus was lulled to sleep after being tricked into eating drugged honeycakes and Orpheus put the creature to sleep with his music. Capturing Cerberus alive was the twelfth and final labour of Heracles. In Dante Alighieri's Inferno, Canto VI, the "great worm" Cerberus is found in the Third Circle of Hell, where he oversees and rends to pieces those who have succumbed to gluttony, one of Roman Catholicism's seven deadly sins. [11]

In the constellation Cerberus introduced by Johannes Hevelius in 1687, Cerberus is sometimes substituted for the "branch from the tree of the golden apples" fetched by Atlas from the garden of the Hesperides.[12] This branch is the literary source of the "golden bough" in the Aeneid by Virgil.

In Paradise Lost11.65, Cerberean hounds are mentioned in Hell: "A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark'd With wide Cerberean mouths full loud".


In this vase painting, Heracles leads a two-headed Cerberus out of Hades.

Numerous references to Cerberus have appeared in ancient Greek and Roman art,[13] found in archaeological ruins and often including in statues and architecture, inspired by the mythology of the creature. Cerberus' depiction in ancient art is not as definitive as in literature; the poets and linguists of ancient Greece and Rome mostly agreed on the physical appearance (with the notable exception in Hesiod's Theogony in which he had 50 heads).[10] His depiction in classical art mostly shows the recurring motif of serpents, but the number of heads differs.[14] A statue in the Galleria Borghese depicts Cerberus with three heads sitting by the side of Hades, while a bronze sculpture depicting Heracles' twelfth labour shows the demi-god leading a two-headed Cerberus from the underworld. The majority of vases depicting the twelfth task also show Cerberus as having two heads.[15] Classical critics have identified one of the earliest works of Cerberus as "the most imaginative," that being a Laconian vase created around 560 BC in which Cerberus is shown with three-heads and with rows of serpents covering his body and heads.[16]


There have been many attempts to explain the depiction of Cerberus. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, claimed Euhemeristically that Cerberus had two pups which were never away from their father, as such Cerberus was in fact a normal (however very large) dog but artists incorporating the two pups into their work made it appear as if his two children were in fact extra heads.[17] Classical historians have dismissed Heraclitus' explanation as "feeble".[18] Mythologers have speculated that if Cerberus was given his name in Trikarenos it could be interpreted as "three karenos".[18] Certain experts believe that the monster was inspired by the golden jackal.[19]


Cerberus, watercolor by William Blake.

The name "Cerberus" is a Latinised version of the Greek Kerberos, which may be related to the Sanskrit word सर्वरा "sarvarā", used as an epithet of one of the dogs of Yama, from a Proto-Indo-European word *ḱerberos, meaning "spotted"[20] (This etymology suffers from the fact that it includes a reconstructed *b, which is extremely rare in Proto-Indo-European. Yet according to Pokorny it is well distributed, with additional apparent cognates in Slavic, British and Lithuanian).[21] The use of a dog is uncertain,[22][23] although mythologists have speculated that the association was first made in the city of Trikarenos in Phliasia.[18]

"Cerberus" is generally pronounced in English with a soft C as in cell, even though the ancient pronunciation, in both Greek and Latin was with a hard C as in cat.

In popular culture


  1. ^ a b "Cerberus". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Cerberus. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  2. ^ Κέρβερος, Wiktionary (This version)
  3. ^ "Yahoo! Deducation". http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/Cerberus. 
  4. ^ "Cerberus definition - Dictionary - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. http://www.webcitation.org/5kwQkTyG3. 
  5. ^ a b "Hercules' Twelfth Labor: Cerberus". Perseus Project. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/cerberus.html. Retrieved 2008-10-21. 
  6. ^ Bloomfield, Maurice (2003). Cerberus the Dog of Hades. Kessinger Publishing. p. 8. ISBN 0766130207. 
  7. ^ Allardice, Pamela (1991). Myths, Gods & Fantasy. ABC-CLIO. p. 52. ISBN 0874366607. 
  8. ^ Guerber, Helene (2003). Myths of Greece and Rome. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0766148564. 
  9. ^ Homer. "8". Iliad. p. 366–369. 
  10. ^ a b Hesiod. Theogony. p. 310. 
  11. ^ Dante. Divine Comedy Inferno, canto VI
  12. ^ Ian Ridpath, "Star Tales"
  13. ^ Hegeler, Edward (1904). The Monist. Hegeler Institute. p. 524. 
  14. ^ Bloomfield, Maurice (2003). "Cerberus in Classical Art". Cerberus the Dog of Hades. Kessinger Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 0766130207. 
  15. ^ Bloomfield, Maurice (2003). "Cerberus in Classical Art". Cerberus the Dog of Hades. Kessinger Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 0766130207. 
  16. ^ Lenardon, Robert; Mark Morford, Michael Sham (1997). A Companion to Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195147251. 
  17. ^ Heraclitus. Περὶ ἀπίστων. p. 331. 
  18. ^ a b c Bloomfield, Maurice (2003). Cerberus the Dog of Hades. Kessinger Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 0766130207. 
  19. ^ "Golden Jackal". Canids.org. http://www.canids.org/species/Golden_jackal.pdf. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  20. ^ The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press. 2006. p. 411. ISBN 0199287910. 
  21. ^ "?". http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/response.cgi?root=config&morpho=0&basename=%5Cdata%5Cie%5Cpokorny&first=921. 
  22. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Cerberus". Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Cerberus. Retrieved 2008-10-21. 
  23. ^ "Woodhouse's English-Greek Dictionary". University of Chicago Library. http://colet.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/chuck/woodhouse_pages.pl?page_num=1005. Retrieved 2008-10-21. 

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  • Cerberus — bezeichnet: den Höllenhund der griechischen Mythologie, siehe Kerberos (Mythologie) einen Asteroiden, siehe (1865) Cerberus einen Computergroßhandel, siehe Cerberus IT eine Investmentgesellschaft, siehe Cerberus Capital Management ein ehemaliges… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • CERBERUS — a Poêtis fingitur canis triceps; inferorum custos, quem ab Hercule catenâ ab inferis tractum esse iidem fabulantur. Virgil. Aen. l. 6. v. 417. Cerberus haec ingens latratu regna trifauci Personat, adverso recubans immams in antro. Tibullus, l. 3 …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • Cerberus — Cer be*rus, n. [L. Cerberus (in sense 1), gr. ?.] [1913 Webster] 1. (Class. Myth.) A monster, in the shape of a three headed dog, guarding the entrance into the infernal regions, Hence: Any vigilant custodian or guardian, esp. if surly. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Cerberus — Cerberus. Ein Ungeheuer mit drei, nach andern mit funfzig bis hundert, Hundeköpfen, erzeugt vom Typhon und der Echidna. Es war der schreckliche Wächter des Plutonischen Reiches, und wohnte am Rande des Styx, da, wo die Schatten aus Charon s… …   Damen Conversations Lexikon

  • Cerbĕrus — Cerbĕrus, 1) (Myth.), so v.w. Kerberos; 2) (Astr.), nördliches Sternbild, von Hevel dem Hercules in die Hand gegeben (Bayer zeichnet dafür einen Olivenzweig, andere eine dreiköpfige Schlange); hat nur wenige kleine Sterne; 3) (Zool.), so v.w.… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Cerbĕrus — Cerbĕrus, s. Kerberos …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Cerberus — Cerbĕrus, s. Kerberos …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Cerberus — Cerberus, in der griech. Mythe der vielköpfige unsterbliche Höllenhund, der den Eingang bewacht …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • Cerberus — watch dog guardian of Hades, late 14c., Latinized form of Gk. Kerberos, of unknown origin, perhaps cognate with Skt. karbarah, sabalah spotted, speckled. Sabalah was the name of one of the two dogs of Yama …   Etymology dictionary

  • Cerberus — [sʉr′bər əs] n. [L < Gr Kerberos] Gr. & Rom. Myth. the three headed dog guarding the gate of Hades Cerberean [sər bir′ē ən] adj …   English World dictionary

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