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Myth Madness: Cerberus

Image taken from ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001)

My, what sharp teeth you have.

The creature seen above, as many of you likely know due to his presence in the Harry Potter series, is the Cerberus. He was originally born to Echidna, a massive Naga (half-woman half-snake), and to Typhon, the deadliest monster in all of Greek Mythology – even the Gods feared him. Typhon was the last son of Gaea, mother of the Titans and Zeus, and the song of Tartarus. He was described as a massive creature, with a viper’s never-ending coils in place of his legs, a human torso of great strength to even rival Atlas, and a hundred dragon heads. Not even Zeus could kill him in battle – he could only be detained in Tartarus.

Together, Echidna and Typhon were known as the Mother and Father of All Monsters; indeed, they created some of the most widely known creatures of Greek Mythology, which include:

  • The Sphinx of Thebes. She was the most brilliant of his children who would ask impossible riddles to any who crossed her path, and kill the trespassers if they could not answer correctly. She was bested by Oedipus and killed herself shortly after in rage.
  • The Nemean Lion, a gigantic lion with impermeable skin.
  • Ladon, a serpentine dragon which never slept and inherited his father’s heads – all one hundred of them. He was charged by Hera to protect the Tree which produced the golden apples that granted immortality to any who ate them, in the Garden of the Hesperides, a paradise hidden away from human eyes and tended to by the nymphs. This myth is thought to have had some influence on the Old Testament’s portrayal of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  • The Caucasian Eagle, otherwise known as the eternal tormentor of Prometheus, who feasts upon the god’s ever-regenerating liver daily.
  • The Lernaean Hydra, a monstrous serpentine creature with many heads. If one was cut off, two more would take its place, while one original head remained immortal. Her breath, her blood, and even her footprints were poisonous.
  • Orthus, a two-headed hound owned by the Giant Eurytion, son of Ares (God of War). The two were tasked with watching over the red cattle of the Giant Geryon, grandson of the infamous Medusa.
  • The Chimera, a fearsome hybrid firebreather. The most popular interpretations portrayed her with the primary body of a large lioness, with the tail of a venomous snake and the head of a goat in the middle of her back; however, this is only one of many interpretations.

Oddly enough, almost every single one of Echidna and Typhon’s children were slain or otherwise bested by Heracles/Herkules.

The Cerberus was best known for having three heads, although some myths label him with only one, two, or a hundred (like his father). The three heads were rumored to have been that of a dog’s, a wolf’s, and a lion’s head. Each head saw the past, present, and future, much like the ability of the Three Fates. Each head also only had the appetite for living flesh; this meant that the incoming dead could pass safely into the Underworld without fear, but none could leave, as this would mean they were returning to life, and thus, a body of living flesh and blood.

The Cerberus was the loyal watchdog of Hades, Lord of the Underworld. He guarded the only entrance in and out of the Underworld, and none could fool his keen eyes, ears, or noses. There have only ever been two exceptions to this.

The first exception comes with Orpheus, a mortal man and masterful musician who longed for his departed wife Eurydice so keenly, that he set out to retrieve her from the Underworld in the hopes of swaying Hades and Persephone to release her to the land of the living. Before he could meet with them, however, he had to get passed Cerberus, who would only let the deceased pass him by. Orpheus gave him a drugged honeycake, similar to the ones given to the dead to assuage Cerberus as they passed him (a common practice in the funerals of Ancient Greece), and played him a song so soothing that the three-headed dog was lulled to sleep, allowing Orpheus to pass. Unfortunately, Orpheus did not receive his happy ending for his troubles.

The second exception came with Heracles. As the final Twelfth Labour set to him, Heracles was to successfully capture and bring Cerberus up to the surface. Heracles entered the Underworld and sought permission from Hades to do so, which he was summarily granted – so long as he did not use any weapons against his pet, nor killed him. Heracles agreed, and, using only his godly strength and his bare hands, managed to overpower Cerberus and threw the body over his shoulder, carrying the poor dog up to the surface world to prove his completion of the Twelve Labors.

But while Cerberus was a frightful enough beast, his intimidating figure becomes much less so once you understand the meaning of his name. Cerberus is reportedly derived from the Latinised version of the Greek word Kerberos, which roughly translates, today, to the word “spotted”.

In other words, Hades, God of the Dead, Lord of the Underworld and all the Riches of the Earth, named his ferocious, all-seeing, almighty, three-headed dog “Spot”.

The Gods had a strange sense of humor indeed.

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This entry was posted on 09/04/2014 by in Myth Madness and tagged , , , , , .
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