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Cerberus, ( ; Greek form: Κέρβερος, ) in Greek and Roman mythology, is a multi-headed hound (usually three-headed) which guards the gates of Hades, 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 amount, sometimes as many as 50.

Etymology

The name "Cerberus" is a Latinised version of the Greek Kerberos, which may be related to the Sanskrit word "śarvara-," used as an epithet of one of the dogs of Yama, from a Proto-Indo-European word *ḱerberos, meaning "spotted" (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.). The use of a dog is uncertain, although mythologists have speculated that the association was first made in the city of Trikarenos in Phliasia.

Cerberus is said to be the sibling of the Lernaean Hydra, the Nemean Lion, and the Chimaera.

"Cerberus" is generally pronounced in English with a soft C as in emancipate, even though the correct pronunciation, in both Greek and Latin is with a hard C as in ecstatic.

Mythology

Cerberus pictured next to Hades.
Cerberus was the son of Echidna, a hybrid half-woman, 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. The common depiction of Cerberus in Greek mythology and art is as having three heads, a mane of live serpents (similar to Medusa's hair) and a snake's tail. 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. 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. Cerberus was always employed as Hades' loyal watchdog, and guarded the gates that granted access and exit to the underworld (also called Hades).

The Twelfth Labour of Heracles

The task of capturing Cerberus alive, without using weapons, was the final labour assigned to Heracles by King Eurystheus, in recompense for the killing of his own wife and children 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.

After having been given the task, Hercules went to Eleusismarker 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 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, who magically bound them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone. The magic was so strong that when Hercules pulled Theseus free, part of Theseus' thighs remained on the bench.

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

Literature

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.

The depiction of Cerberus in classical literature 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.

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 Divine Comedy, Cerberus is found in the Third Circle of Hell, where he oversees those who have succumbed to gluttony, one of Roman Catholicism's seven deadly sins.

"Cerberus" is sometimes substituted for the "branch from the tree of the golden apples" fetched by Atlas from the garden of the Hesperides. This branch is the literary source of the "golden bough" in the Aeneid by Vergilius.

Art

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, 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). His depiction in classical art mostly shows the recurring motif of serpents, but the number of heads differs. A statue in the Galleria Borghesemarker 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 Cerberbus as having two heads. 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.

Explanations

There have been many attempts to explain the depiction of Cerberus. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, claimed 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. Classical historians have dismissed Heraclitus' explanation as "feeble." Mythologers have speculated that if Cerberus was given his name in Trikarenos it could be interpreted as "three karenos." Certain experts believe that the monster was inspired by the golden jackal.

References

  1. Κέρβερος, Wiktionary ( This version)
  2. [1]
  3. http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/response.cgi?root=config&morpho=0&basename=%5Cdata%5Cie%5Cpokorny&first=921
  4. http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/cerberus.htm






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