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?