A good friend (@professormortis) asked me yesterday if the internet rumors are right that the etymology of Kerberos (or the Latin Cerberus) indicates “spotted” because it is cognate with Sanskrit karbarah, sabalah “spotted, speckled;” and, therefore, that it is related to our pet name “Spot”. This is a nice story, but like many nice stories, it is probably not true.
But the idea is not one of those internet age fantasies. It has actually appeared in the annals of historical linguistics–internet etymologies selected this one because it is cool and funny. But linguists have largely abandoned the idea.
Pierre Chantraine (Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, 1968) lists this as a “doubted for good reasons”. (Here’s a link for a free download of the dictionary). Robert Beekes in his Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Brill: 2010) is much more certain that the Sanskrit word has no connection to the Greek word.
The article Beekes dismisses (Bruce Lincoln. 1977 “The Hellhound.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 7: 273-286.) suggests that the dog names in IE myth like Kerberos are derived from a PIE root *gher which has to do with growling.
Here’s a summary and an anticipation of what the rest of the post will cover.
Things Kerberos does not mean:
- Spotted or Spot
- Growling thing
New Proposals (from twitter, see below)
- From Proto-turkic: kara-boru (“black-wolfhound”)
- Phoenician root *klb-‘rz (“hound of the earth”)
Trying to make sense of the dog’s name has good precedent in antiquity. There are etymological and allegorical interpretations to entertain us.
Kerberos: From “karbaros” which is from having a heavy head. For the dog in Hades had three heads, as the story goes about the dog Kerberos.
Κέρβερος, παρὰ τὸ κάρβαρος, ἢ παρὰ τὸ τὴν κάραν βαρεῖν· τρικέφαλος γὰρ ἦν κύων ἐν ᾅδου, ὡς μυθεύεται κύωνος κέρβερος.
Cf. κάραβος (karabos) “horned beetle”
Also consider from Hesychius the Lexicographer:
Kerberioi: Weak-men. They also call the Kimmerians Kerberians. And some call their city Kerberia, but others call it Kimmeria. Others say that Kimmê is as place in Hades.
κερβέριοι· ἀσθενεῖς. φασὶ δὲ καὶ τοὺς Κιμμερίους Κερβερίους· καὶ τὴν πόλιν οἱ μὲν Κερβερίαν καλοῦσιν, οἱ δὲ Κιμμερίην· ἄλλοι δὲ †Κιμμη. ἔστι δὲ τόπος ἐν ᾅδου (λ 14).
“For Cerberus is the earth, that means the consumer of all corpses. This is where Cerberus is also said to be from, just as kreoberos, that is “devouring flesh”: from here we also get “reclining over bones”, for the earth does not consume bones quickly”
nam Cerberus terra est, id est consumptrix omnium corporum. unde et Cerberus dictus est, quasi κρεοβόρος, id est carnem vorans: unde legitur “ossa super recubans” : nam non ossa citius terra consumit.
On the number of Kerberos’ heads
In a Pindaric fragment, Kerberos has one hundred heads! (Dith. Fr. 249 b Κέρβερος <> ἑκατογκεφάλας (vel ἑκατόγκρανος vel sim.). In vase images, he has two or three (typically). Lincoln and many others (see Daniel Ogden, Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers 2013: 96-106) note how his number of heads shift and that a vase image of him with two heads may indicate that he was once part of a pair of dogs (usually Orthos, matching pairs of dogs elsewhere in IE traditions).
In Hesiod, Kerberos and Orthos are children of Ekhidna with Typhaon. This Kerberos has 50 heads! (Theoi.com has a good selection of passages and images.)
Hesiod, Theogony 308-312
“After she was pregnant, she gave birth to powerful-minded children,
First, she gave birth to Orthos, Geryones’ hound.
Then she bore an impossible, unspeakable thing,
Kerberos raw flesh-eating, bronze-voiced hound of Hades,
With fifty heads, a creature shameless and strong.”
ἡ δ’ ὑποκυσαμένη τέκετο κρατερόφρονα τέκνα.
῎Ορθον μὲν πρῶτον κύνα γείνατο Γηρυονῆι·
δεύτερον αὖτις ἔτικτεν ἀμήχανον, οὔ τι φατειόν,
Κέρβερον ὠμηστήν, ᾿Αίδεω κύνα χαλκεόφωνον,
πεντηκοντακέφαλον, ἀναιδέα τε κρατερόν τε·
The number of heads seems to stick at three and various reasons are given to explain why or how this could be.
Heraclitus the Paradoxographer, On Incredible things 33
“Concerning Kerberos: This could be the same as with the Hydra. For that dog had two puppies, and he seemed to have three heads because the puppies were always walking alongside their father.”
Τοῦτ’ ἂν εἴη ὃ καὶ περὶ τῆς ῞Υδρας. οὗτος γὰρ εἶχε δύο σκύμνους, ὧν ἀεὶ συμβαδιζόντων τῷ πατρὶ ἐφαίνετο εἶναι τρικέφαλος.
Palaephatus (39) argues that Kerberos had three heads because he was from the city Trikarênos (“Three-peaks”) and the name was misunderstood.
Porphyry, Peri Agalmatôn 8
“Kerberos is three-headed because of the three stages of the sun, rising, midday, and setting.”
῾Ο δὲ Κέρβερος τρικέφαλος μέν, ὅτι τρεῖς αἱ ἄνω χῶραι ἡλίου, ἀνατολή, μεσημβρία, δύσις.
Heraclitus, Allegories 33.9
“Kerberos himself is shown to be three-headed perhaps rightfully to hint at the three-shaped nature of philosophy: the parts we call logic, physics, and ethics.”
Αὐτός γε μὴν ὁ τρικέφαλος δειχθεὶς ἡλίῳ κέρβερος εἰκότως ἂν τὴν τριμερῆ φιλοσοφίαν ὑπαινίττοιτο· τὸ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῆς λογικόν, τὸ δὲ φυσικόν, τὸ δὲ ἠθικὸν ὀνομάζεται·
Zonaras Kappa 1186
“Kerberos: the three-headed dog: [this is because] the wretched demon is in three regions: the water, the earth and the air.”
†Κέρβερος. κύων τρικέφαλος, ὁ ἐν τοῖς τρισὶ στοιχείοις, ὕδατι, γῇ, ἀέρι, πονηρὸς δαίμων.†
A Twitter-sourced Etymology
A few years ago we witnessed the true beauty of twitter when we had a long discussion about this, yielding two new proposes which are really no worse than the Byzantine folk etymologies. One, suggests that it may be a borrowing from Asia Minor, related to Proto-turkic kara-boru (“black-wolfhound”); the other posits a Phoenician root *klb-‘rz (“hound of the earth”). I could describe how we got there, but I would rather just post all the tweets here. It is also instructive to post them again, because it is a reminder that social media can be used to build things up instead of burning them down