Thursday, June 15, 2006


In Greek mythology, Cerberus or Kerberos (Greek Κέρβερος, Kerberos, demon of the pit), was the hound of Hades—a monstrous three-headed dog (sometimes said to have 50 or 100 heads) with a snake for a tail and innumerable snake heads on his back.

He guarded the gate to Hades (the Greek underworld) and ensured that the dead could not leave and the living could not enter. His brother was Orthrus. He is the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.

He was overcome several times:

  • Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus, which he did by treating it with the first kindness it had ever received.
  • Orpheus used his musical skills to lull Cerberus to sleep.
  • Hermes put him to sleep with water from the river Lethe.
  • In Roman mythology, Aeneas lulled Cerberus to sleep with drugged honeycakes.
  • In a later Roman tale, Psyche also lulled Cerberus to sleep with drugged honeycakes.

Cerberus has become an archetype for a protector, particularly the protector of a gate, door or boundary (as opposed to a personal protector). In this guise Cerberus features widely in fiction and cultural works from the Middle Ages (in Dante's Divine Comedy, in Canto VI of Inferno (third circle)) to the modern time (J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in the character of Fluffy) and a number of modern security and warfare-related artifacts named after it.

Heracles' capturing of Cerberus

Heracles' final labour was to capture Cerberus. After having been set the task, Heracles went to Eleusis to be initiated into 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 thanks to Hermes' insistence, and his own heavy and fierce frowning.

Whilst in the underworld, Heracles freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, so he had to leave him behind. They had been imprisoned by Hades, by magically binding them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone. The magic was so strong that when Heracles pulled Theseus free, part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench, explaining why his descendants had notably lean thighs.

In some versions, Heracles merely asks Hades for permission to take Cerberus, to which Hades agrees as long as Heracles does not harm the hound, though in other versions Heracles shot Hades with an arrow. In some versions, Heracles wrestles the dog into submission and drags it out of Hades, passing through the cavern Acherusia, but in other versions, Heracles treats the vicious dog with the first kindness it has seen, and easily walks out with it.

Theories of origin

The constellation of Pisces was not always associated with two fish. The original sky fish was Piscis Austrinus. It was considered also to be two people, tied together; in some stories they became fish, and so they evolved into just being fish (without having ever been people). They are above the ecliptic (the sun's transit), but they are tied together under the ecliptic, in the area considered to represent the underworld. So the ecliptic cuts through the bond. The western one has mostly escaped, but is still bound, whereas the eastern one appears to still be bound to the ecliptic and heading downwards.

That Theseus is named as the person Heracles released from being bound in the underworld marks an awareness that myths surrounding Theseus connect him to the queen of the Amazons, and that he thus had to appear in the following story as a companion of Heracles. This emphasis on continuity is possibly connected to the fact that the constellation which features in the subsequent story also partly exists in Pisces.

Under Pisces is the constellation Cetus, usually considered as a sea monster, or a whale. However, it is equally possible to view it as two closed gates with their gateposts, with a set of three stars behind the centre of the gate. Since they face the ecliptic, and are extremely close to it, such gates would be gates to the underworld (which was below the ecliptic). The guard of the gates to the underworld was traditionally Cerberus, who had three heads, an association requiring use of the three main (but comparatively faint) stars, in the modern constellation Fornax, as a tail.

Since Cerberus was considered a permanent fixture of Hades, nothing much could happen to him that was damaging. There being no other constellations in this region, little more story could be given other than doing something non permanent to Cerberus, such as moving him to the other side of the gates.

Alternately, an earlier version may not have featured the tale of Theseus being bound, which may have been a later reapplication of the constellations to the story. In such a case, the non-escaping branch of Pisces may have been taken to represent the usual patrol of Cerberus on a leash, whereas the other branch being taken to represent Cerberus' subsequent ascent (still on the leash, thus still having to eventually return).

References to Cerberus in modern culture and literature

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed Kerberos as a computer network authentication protocol which allows individuals communicating over an insecure network to prove their identity to one another in a secure manner.
  • WebGroup Media LLC developed Cerberus Helpdesk, a popular e-mail management application, to guard companies against the hell of technical support.
  • The cult comic book Cerebus was named for this Greek and Roman mythical figure; the different spelling wasn't intentional -- the original author accidentally left out the second 'r' in a simple case of bad spelling.
  • In Spanish, cancerbero (from Canis Cerberus, "dog Cerberus") is a Latinate form for gatekeeper, even for a football (soccer) goalkeeper.
  • In Finnish, a strict, angry doorman of a restaurant or nightclub (who is likely not to let you in for some reason) is sometimes jokingly called "Kerberos". Also, there is similar usage of word "Cerber" in Polish.
  • Some aspects of video games, particularly of the RPG genre, are based on mythology. Cerberus is no exception.
    • In the Castlevania series, which makes extensive use of Hell-based themes, Cerberus is seen a few times, and is a boss in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
    • In Monolith's Blood, Cerberus was the third act's boss, most likely this is an allusion to Divine Comedy, in which Cerberus resides in the third layer of Hell.
    • In Final Fantasy VIII, one of the Guardian Forces was a three headed dog called Cerberus.
    • In God of War, the player faces several Cerberus as part of Poseidon's challenge, in order to obtain Pandora's Box.
    • In the PlayStation 2 game, Devil May Cry 3, Cerberus is one of the early bosses Dante will face; he appears in Mission 3 and is encased in ice.
    • In the Wing Commander game series, the TCS Cerberus was a Hades-class Quick Strike Cruiser - the player's base of operations in the final installment of the series.
    • Cerberus is a Heavy Assault Ship of the Caldari Faction in the EVE Online MMORPG, and is currently disliked by certain members of the EVE Community who argue that it is comparatively underpowered and doesn't perform well in Player vs Player combat.
    • Atlus' RPG franchise Shin Megami Tensei frequently features Cerberus as a helpful and powerful monster who helps the player in the earliest parts of the game, greatly overpowering any enemy he faces at the time. Cerberus is also in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, although he plays no special role in that game.
    • In Atlus' PS2 RPG Digital Devil Saga, one of the Tribe Leader's Atma (Demon) form is an abstract, mechanical-looking three-headed dog named Cerberus.
    • In the Resident Evil series, the zombie dogs are called cerberus.
    • In the Playstation 2 game R-Type Final, Cerberus (designation R-13A) is the name of one of the ships the player can collect.
    • In the Nintendo 64 game Mischief Makers, Cerberus Alpha is the name of a high-tech motorcycle boss.
    • In Mega Man X, one of the bosses called the Guardian of the Underworld. It bears remarkable resemblance to a mechanical Cerberus.
    • In Rygar, one of the creatures Rygar is able to summon using the Diskarmor is the dog Cerberus.
    • In Kingdom Hearts, at the Colosseum, you have to fight Cerberus after the seven rounds and Cloud Strife.
    • In Kingdom Hearts 2 Cerberus is a boss that you fight with Auron in the Underworld section of Olympus Coliseum and an optional boss in the Cerberus Cup. In the Cup you have 3 minutes to defeat 9 rounds of normal enemies and him.
    • In Age of Mythology: The Titans, Cerberus was a titan that had been freed and set loose in Egypt. It was defeated by the Egyptian stone Guardian.
  • In Manhunt (video game) The final gang of the game are called The Cerberus
  • In Japanese cartoons:
    • Kerberos, the guardian of the seal, is one of the main characters in the popular Japanese anime Cardcaptor Sakura
    • Kerberos is in the manga Devil & Devil where it was the dog that Devil Sword had tamed.
    • Kerberos is also the name of the core unit of the paramilitary "Capitol Police Organization" in Jin-Roh.
    • In the anime series and PlayStation 2 game Gungrave, the Cerberus are a set of three guns, individually referred to as the left, right, and center head. The right and left head are used by Grave and the center head is used by Fangoram.
    • A similar Digimon known as Cerberumon appears in Digimon Frontier.
  • In other film and television:
  • Cerberus is mentioned in Sylvia Plath's poem Fever 103°.
  • Cerberus is also in Final Fantasy XI: The Treasures of Aht Urghan. It is the guardian of Halvung guarding the gates to the capital City, The Astral Plains.
  • In episode 2.17 of the TV show Lost on ABC, a fluorescent map on a blast door makes mention of something on the island known by the name of Cerberus.
  • In Legends of the Ghost part III the main protagonist in the second scene has a dog which can occasionally powerup and turn into a Cerberus.
  • In Metal Gear Solid Acid on the second level behind the barrel there is a crate with the word 'Cerberus' on it.
  • In the Heroes of Might and Magic series of games, the Cerberus is a playable creature.
  • In Ninja Gaiden's 1 and 2, a variation of Cereberus appears as a boss.
  • Cerberus is a bitbeast in Bakuten No Shoot Beyblade.
(Via Wikipedia.)


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