What does Cerberus represent?


Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
Three heads, whilst the most popular depiction, was not the only or the earliest imagery.The earliest writers say that the hound of Hades (Cerberus) had fifty heads or more, maybe including the many serpents that acted as hair around his neck and down his back. There are also a number of C6th B.C. depictions on vases that show him with only two heads. This makes him very similar to his brother-hound, Orthrus, who was the cattle dog of the giant Geryon, who himself was said to have three heads, or more commonly said to have three bodies joined at the waist. Geryon and Orthrus were both killed by Herakles.

The three heads of Cerberus made him thrice-powerful. No one can escape the devourer of souls. Greek mythology has many 'companies of three' that symbolize strength and unity. Maybe his three heads represented the three ages of man (young, mid-age, old) when death can come, or the three stages of time (past, present, future). Maybe they just meant he was ever vigilant and never slept (he could look all ways at once, and each head could rest whilst the other two stayed on guard).

He guarded the gates of Hades, preventing mortals from entering and devouring any shades of the dead trying to escape. His name comes from 'ker' = decay/death, and 'erebus' = darkness. There were other death demons called 'Ker/es' who personified either the necessity of death in general, or violent death in particular. These were the children of Erebos (primordial darkness) who gave his name to the Underworld as a region of misty darkness. Perhaps the original many heads of Cerberus were a way of representing the multiple Ker that were possible. Keres was also a name for the goddess Demeter (the mother of Persephone, Queen of Hades) in her personification of the harvest, which preceded the inevitable winter decay and death of vegetation.

As far as I am aware, the commonly depicted three heads did not have separate names.