Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Opportunity for Comparative Study: Cerberus

Maybe you've noticed my addiction to archiving, or to collecting oddments. Had I lived in the eighteenth century, I would have built a wunderkammern, a cabinet of marvels and beautiful things. Had I lived in the eighteenth century, though, the eighteenth century would have driven me mad.

Here is a collection for the sharing: a cabinet of portraits of Cerberus, the Guardian of the Gates of the Underworld, Hesiod's "Cerberus who eats raw flesh, relentless and strong," whom I first met in raw terror in the pages of Dante. Though I have been unable to find a digital copy of the illustration from my tattered old copy of Mandelbaum's paperback translation of the Inferno (I'll have to scan it later), I remember the illustration upon my first encounter with it gave me vivid nightmares - something about the ice-cold, ravenous eyes. As did Dante's verbal imagery: the three-headed, snarling creature tearing the souls with its claws:

Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,
e 'l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;
graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra.

This is what Mandelbaum makes of that last line, trying to capture the viciousness of the sound in English:

His talons tear and rend and flay the shades.

And it is not just the sound that's vicious: it's the way Dante piles ed on ed, and on and: Cerberus does not just tear the damned, he tears them and rends and flays them.

Gustav Dore's Cerberus doesn't do this horror justice at all, although his Cerberus does have a dark grotesquerie to it that I like:

So I met Cerberus first in the pages of Dante. But we can find Cerberus in many places, some of them surprising. First, though, here are some of the older depictions of Cerberus on Greek plates, vases, and amphorae:

And, as proof that Cerberus continues to haunt our imagination, here is the eater of flesh in two renditions in modern popular culture:

Cerberus: Guardian of Hell
, a horror film. The one-line pitch for the film: "Three times the terror." Enough said.

Titan Quest: Immortal Throne, a blockbuster PC roleplaying game, sold with a cover illustration of the gaming world's standard scantily-clad amazon facing off with the three-headed beast. Titan Quest deserves much more credit than the Cerberus horror film, though; with a rhapsode in each village to tell the player tales of ancient heroes - Herakles, Orpheus, Achilles slayer of men - often in compelling prose and in a more compelling voice recording, Titan Quest introduces the gamer generation to the attractions of Hellenic mythology.

Levity aside, Cerberus is everywhere. While writing this post, I ran a search on deviantart for "Cerberus" and found 9,372 results, some cartoonish, some deeply haunting. Here is a brief selection - not just from deviantart, but from artists of this century and previous ones, showing how Cerberus has appeared in the dreams and nightmares of many artists. If I've missed some worth noting, please drop a comment or an e-mail! Let's build this menagerie....

That is Herakles in the tradition of Tarzan.

This next Cerberus, with its medusan hair-of-serpents, and with the Boatman in the background, is from Slovenia, I think. See the forlorn slant of light and the snarling of the beast - the emphasis on both the melancholy and the horror of the approach to the dimmer world:

Christopher (Topher) Allen Shephard's Dante and Virgil Encounter Cerberus captures the cruel and mindlessly animal gluttony of the creature:

Things that I really like about Topher's drawing are its antique style and its mix of stylized symbolism and grit-detail: it is almost like a Renaissance emblem.

Here is Cerberus in origami - a creation that truly boggles my mind. Origami as an art both eludes and enchants me - what folding the artist responsible for this one must have taken!

And finally, this gem of a photograph - I have no idea what to say about this one:

The artist offered this comment as a caption: "3 heads, but only 2 hind legs to scratch with. No wonder he got so mean." The photo is a finalist in the Cryptozoo contest, an inspired competition of Photoshopped renditions of "all the animals rumored to exist, but haven't been caught."

What does Cerberus mean to us, to a culture that no longer paints vivid visions of the physicality of hell or the underworld? Why does the image of this deadly guardian, whose claws flay the dead, still pull at our minds?


Andrew said...

I suspect any fascination with Cerberus is connected to our much more common fascination with the wolf. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols dedicates a number of paragraphs to the wolf as devourer. For example, it notes, "In Scandinavian mythology the wolf is explicitly described as 'devouring the stars'. . . . the wolf's mouth is night, the carvern, the Underworld or the phase of cosmic -pralaya-. Release from the wolf's jaws is dawn, the light of initiation which follows a descent into the Underworld or -kalpa-." Of course, there is the wolf Fenrir of Norse myth and the wolves of fairy tales. We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood and her encounter with the ravenous Wolf.

The list could go on, but clearly the wolf, like Cerberus, is connected with our fear of death and what lies beyond. The Wolf as a symbol is the World as Destroyer, Time as Devourer, the End of Space beyond which the Abyss of the Wolf's Mouth gapes needfully. Cerberus with his three heads seems a multiplication of this fear of the unknown beyond death. Three heads means three times the fear, three good reasons for fear rather than one.

That he appears in Dante's third circle of hell as a figure of gluttony is a nice spin on this idea. But in the third circle, Cerberus becomes a reflection of humanity's own avarice and potential for devouring destruction without hope of redemption. The gluttonous souls in the jaws of Dante's Cerberus stay there, torn and flayed without hope of sunlight or spiritual illumination. In Dante, the Great Devourer is not Cerberus at all and he does not guard the gates to the Underworld. The Great Devourer is us. The worst of human nature untouched by the light of knowledge and wisdom. And the Devourer need not guard the gates of Hell, waiting for the unfortunate to wander into his maw. The Devourer in the human mind can more easily make the earth a hell, nevermind the afterlife, and feast on the poor souls that cross its fetid path. Witness human history if any doubt it.

Not all is lost. Like all stories, there's a moral here. The Wolf may choose to release its pray, a merciful act, and as in Scandinavian mythology usher in the daylight to counter the merciless night. For the human does have this capacity.

Perhaps such a thought explains our delight at the sight of the three-headed puppy. It signifies the possible. A new Cerberus may become a Luciferine bringer of light before the fall rather than devouring and darkness.

Dante's Heart said...


The wolf! Great heavens! It was right in front of my eyes the whole time, and I looked right by it. I can't believe it. Brilliant! This makes me want to run to see what was written/drawn up about wolves circa 1300, when Dante was at work.

The fault is in my upbringing: on a farm, "dog" and "wolf" are such terribly defined opposites that it is a real mental struggle to bring them together and realize that they can be one and the same creature/symbol.