Cerberus in Harry Potter

I love the Harry Potter books and movies, and thoroughly enjoy all the references to classical myth and use of Latin in the spells and potions. I am also a dog-lover, so my favourite animals in Harry Potter are Hagrid’s dog Fang, and of course Fluffy, the three-headed dog guarding the trapdoor which leads to the chamber where the Philosopher’s Stone has been hidden. Harry, Ron and Hermione encounter this ferocious beast and when they ask Hagrid about him, they are told that Fluffy can be soothed to sleep by playing music. Fluffy is based of course on Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates to the underworld. As with Fluffy, Cerberus was lulled to sleep with music by Orpheus.

When Harry and Ron see Professor Snape entering the door to Fluffy’s chamber, and for the next few days having a pronounced limp, they suspect Snape of attempting to steal the Philospher’s Stone. Harry also overhears Snape say to Filch “How are you meant to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?” It turns out though that Snape is innocent and knows nothing about Fluffy. Professor Quirrell has enchanted a harp to soothe Fluffy to sleep so that he can access the trapdoor. In the HP books, Harry uses a flute that Hagrid had given to him. As a conclusion to Fluffy’s part in the second Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling revealed on Twitter that Dumbledore repatriated Fluffy to Greece.

So that’s Fluffy, but who was Cerberus? Cerberus (Greek κέρβερος) was known as the “hound of Hades“ who guarded the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving. He was the child of two monsters. His father was Typhon, a multi-headed giant snake, and his mother was the Echidna, who was half-woman/half-snake. He had siblings who were all many-headed monsters. Cerberus was the only dog but he is depicted as having a snake for a tale, and snakes protruding from his body. We usually see him as having three heads. The ancient writer Hesiod recorded that he had 50 heads and poet Pindar that he had 100 heads!

Cerberus is famous for being captured by Heracles and there is a brief mention of Heracles’ task in Homer’s Odyssey. During his journey home to Ithaka, Odysseus visits the underworld. There, he meets with his mother, and with various Greek heroes who died during the Trojan War. Before Odysseus leaves Hades he meets Heracles who tells Odysseus about his task to bring Cerberus out of Hades.

Why was Heracles given a series of tasks/labours to complete? In a fit of madness placed on him by Hera, queen of the gods, Heracles killed his wife and children. Once he regained his senses and realized what he had done, Heracles went to the oracle at Delphi to ask what he should do. He was told to serve his cousin, King Eurystheus, for 12 years. If he obeyed his cousin and did whatever was asked of him, he would be rewarded with immortality. While there are different versions of the myth, from poets, playwrights, historians and geographers (Homer, Euripides, Aristophanes, Diodorus Siculus, Pausanius, Strabo, Seneca, Apollodorus), there seems to be some agreement that Heracles was not permitted to hurt Cerberus and so he used his strength to suffocate Cerberus to unconsciousness. In some accounts, Cerberus is in chains. Others have Heracles parade Cerberus around Greece. Once Cerberus has been shown to king Eurystheus, he is returned to Hades either by Heracles or by making his own way.  In the image above, Heracles, wearing his lionskin, is standing beside Cerberus, while cowardly king Eurystheus is attempting to hide in a large pithos jar.

Which is your favourite mythical beast?

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