Cerberus (Kerberos) is a triple-headed dog or doglike creature who guards the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld. Not originally a “Demonic” creature, Cerberus became the model for the Hellhounds of the Devil and other Black Dogs in folklore.
In classical myth, Cerberus is the offspring of Typhon, a dragon and Serpent-shaped monster associated with wind and volcanic eruptions. Typhon fathered many of the beasts of Greek legend, including Echidna, a half-woman, half-serpent. Cerberus lives in a den on one side of the river Styx that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. There, he greets the shades of the newly dead as they are ferried across the river by Charon. Cerberus is unpredictable in his friendliness or hostility; therefore, the dead are buried with honey cake offerings for the shades to give him, which guarantee his friendliness.
As gatekeeper to the underworld, Cerberus also prevents shades from escaping. He figures in numerous myths of descent to the underworld, including the labors of Hercules and Orpheus’ foiled rescue attempt of his lover, Eurydice.
In Homeric poems, Cerberus is “the dog.” Hades gives Hercules permission to take him up from the river Acheron provided he can quell the beast without weapons. Hercules descends accompanied by Mercury and Minerva, wrestles the dog into submission, and takes him to Eurystheus, king of Tiryns. Saliva drips from Cerberus and creates the poison aconite.
Hesiod, a Greek poet ca. the eighth century B.C.E., was the first writer known to have called Cerberus by a proper name. Hesiod described the beast as having 50 heads.
By the time of the Roman poets, Cerberus had evolved into a three-headed dog with a dragon’s neck and tail and serpent’s heads along his back. Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) provided the most detailed description of Cerberus in book 6 of the Aeneid, describing the underworld journey of Aeneas:
Grim Cerberus, who soon began to rear His crested snakes, and arm’d his bristling hair. The prudent Sibyl had before prepar’d A sop, in honey steep’d, to charm the guard; Which, mix’d with pow’rful drugs, she cast before His greedy grinning jaws, just op’d to roar. With three enormous mouths he gapes; and straight, With hunger press’d, devours the pleasing bait. Long draughts of sleep his monstrous limbs enslave; He reels, and, falling, fills the spacious cave. The keeper charm’d, the chief without delay Pass’d on, and took th’ irremeable way.
See also : Naberius