Cerberus, whom Homer calls “the hound of Hades,” was one of the brood of monsters, which include the Hydra of Lerna and the Chimaera, spawned by Typhon and the half maiden, half serpent Echidna. He was variously described as having as many as fifty or one hundred heads and as few as three. The mythographer Apollodorus writes that Cerberus, the three-headed dog, had the tail of a dragon and snakes’ heads growing from his back. For the poet Hesiod, Cerberus was an eater of raw flesh and had a bark like clashing bronze.

Cerberus’s duty was to allow the deceased to enter the House of Hades but to block the living from entering and the dead from leaving. On the instruction of the Sibyl of Cumae, the living hero Aeneas secured passage into Hades by throwing Cerberus a drugged honey cake. The best-known myth involving Cerberus is the tale of Hercules’s twelfth and final Labor (or by some accounts, the tenth): Hercules was ordered to bring Cerberus up from the Underworld, a task that he accomplished by overpowering the beast without the use of weapons. As the poet Ovid writes, upon reaching the realm of the living, the distressed hound raged, foam from its mouth falling upon the earth to produce the poisonous plant aconite, which the sorceress Medea used in attempting to kill the hero Theseus.

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