Cerberus is one of the so many monstrous beasts which abound in the Greek myths. His genealogy tree reveals his parents are two other fearsome creatures: Echdna and Typhon. And he has the Lernean Hydra, the two-headed hound Orthrus and the Chimaera as siblings. Hesiod claims that the Sphinx and the Lion of Nemea would also be his sibilings.
Cerberus is Hades’ (the Greek god of the underworld) watchdog. However, he performs his main function in a way contrary to what one would expect. As a guard dog, he does not prevent the dead from entering Hades’ kingdom – but rather from leaving it! He is a kind of watchdog in reverse, in the words of William Hansen (p. 24):
“… the voracious, multiheaded hound Cerberus stands guard, a watchdog in reverse, since he welcomes persons coming to the place, wagging his tail and fawning, but he devours anyone he catches outside the gates.”
Cerberus would not allow anyone still alive to cross the gates into the underworld. Nevertheless, it is widely known that Heracles, Aeneas, Orpheus and Theseus managed to overpower him (albeit temporarily) by making use of different stratagems: Orpheus lulled Cerberus to sleep; Aeneas and Theseus drugged the hellhound with laced honey cake and Heracles wrestled him to the ground.
As you can see from his renditions in art throughout history, he is usually depicted with 3 heads. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he is given as many as 50 heads, though! All the heads are wrapped up in a mane of living snakes.
Snakes are also part of other Greek monsters, such as the Chimaera, the Echdna and the most famous of all, Medusa. Snakes are symbolic of the relashionship between life and death because of their ability to shed their skin, leaving it behind – which was once taken for a capacity of rebirth.
PARTICIPATION IN MYTH
Cereberus is present in an array of myths. The most well-known is definitely Heracles’ descent into the underworld as his 12th and last labour imposed by his cousin Eurystheus.
This labour differs from all the others because it involves the desecration of a sacred place and violation of the laws of nature. Eurystheus asked Heracles to bring him the guardian dog of the underworld. Only a hero such as Heracles could trascend the abilities of man so as to be able to enter the underworld – and not only that, but to bring its guardian dog, too.
Hades allowed Heracles to take Cerberus with him on condition that he should tame the creature without weapons. And so he did! When he took the dog to Mycenae, Eurystheus hid in a storage jar out of utter fear. Since there seemed little to do with the dog, Heracles took him back to the underworld where he belonged.