MYTH MAN'S HOMEWORK
HELP CENTER - CERBERUS
from The Book of
According to Horace, Cerberus possessed one hundred heads. Hesiod wrote that he had fifty, while most sources agree to only three. The center head was in the shape of a lion, while the other two were in the shape of a dog and a wolf, respectively. His shape was that of the dogs who haunted the battlefields in the dark of the night, feasting on the bodies of the fallen warriors. He also had a dragon's tail and a thick mane of writhing snakes.
Cerberus' father was Typhon, a huge dragon-like monster. His mother, Echidna, had the head and torso of a beautiful woman, though the lower part of her body was that of a speckled serpent. She dwelled in a cave where she ate men raw. With her husband Typhon she raised a monstrous brood which included the Hydra, the Chimaera, Orthrus, and, according to some sources, the Sphinx.
Cerberus was the watchdog of hell. There he lay, chained to the gates of Acheron, harassing the spirits entering Hades and devouring those who tried to escape. His Egyptian incarnation was Anubis, the dog who guarded the tombs and conducted the souls to the underworld. Virgil described him by saying:
'No sooner landed, in his den they found the Triple porter of the Stygian sound, Grim Cerberus, who soon began to rear His crested Snakes, and armed His bristling hair.'
And another passage:
'Orcus' warder, blood-besmeared, Growling o'er gory bones half-cleared Down in his gloomy den.'
According to Homer, Heracles' last and most difficult labor was to bring Cerberus up from Hades. He was told he could take Cerberus (Pluto) if he could do so without using weapons. When he found Cerberus on the shore of Acheron, he seized hold of Cerberus' throat. Cerberus' barbed and poisonous tail whipped the air but, unable to pierce the lion pelt, the monster soon choked and yielded. Heracles bound him with unbreakable chains and dragged him to the upper world to show Eurystheus, who then took Cerberus back down to Hades.
Also of note, as Cerberus vehemently resisted Heracles, barking furiously, his saliva dripped on the ground, giving birth to a poisonous plant called aconite; thus named because it flourishes on bare rocks. It is also known as 'hecateis,' because Hecate were the first to use it. Medea tried to poison Theseus with it, and the Thessalian witches used it in preparing the ointment which enabled them to fly. In medieval times, French witches concocted a similar ointment. Its main ingredients were aconite, abortificient parsley, bat's blook (to assist nocturnal vision), belladonna, hemlock, and cowbane. The modern name for aconite is wolfsbane.
In the Aeneid, the Trojan hero, Aeneas descends to Tartarus to visit his father Anchises. He is escorted by the Bybil of Cumae, and upon encountering 'huge Cerberus barking from his triple jaws, stretched at his enormous length in a den that fronts the gate,' she throws him a cake seasoned with honey and poppy seeds. Now Cerberus, 'his neck bristling with horrid snakes, opening his three mouths in the mad rage of hunger, snatches the offered morsel, and spreads on the ground, relaxes his enormous limbs, lies now extended at the vast length over all the cave. Aeneas, now that hell's keeper is buried in sleep, seizes the passage and swiftly over-passes the bank of that flood whence there is no return.'
In another legend, Orpheus makes the same journey to the underworld to bring back his lover, Eurydice. He manages to soothe Cerberus with his lyre. Ancient Greeks and Romans placed a coin and a small cake in the hands of their deceased. The coin was meant as payment for Charon who ferried the souls across the river Styx, while the cake helped to pacify Cerberus. This custom gave rise to the expression 'to give a sop to Cerberus,' meaning to give a bribe or to quiet a troublesome customer.
In Dante's Inferno, Cerberus was the tormenting genius of the third circle. There the gluttonous and incontinent souls could be found immersed in turbid water. Hail and snow poured down through the dark air upon their grimacing faces. Cerberus took care to see that each soul received its due share of torment:
'Cerberus, a monster fierce and strange, with three throats, barks dog-like over those that are immersed in it. His eyes are red, his beard greasy and black, his belly wide, and clawed his hands; he clutches the spirits, flays and piecemeal renders them. When Cerberus, the great Worm, perceived us, he opened his mouth and showed his tusks: no limb of him kept still. My guide, spreading his palms, took up earth; and, with full fists, cast it into his ravening gullets. As the dog, that barking craves, and grows quiet when he bites his food, for he strains and battles only to devour it: so did those squalid visages of Cerberus the Demon, who thunders on the spirits so, that they would fain be deaf.'
Medieval authors report that Cerberus openly stalks the surface of the earth, mingling with mankind. He is described as possessing a violent and hurtful nature, and is known to plot and endeavor brutal and sudden mischief. As one commentator says: 'When he makes incursions sometimes he lies hidden and sometimes he offers open violence; he is much delighted in al things done wickedly and mischievously.' He is also said to be a marquis in the demonic hierarchy of hell, a rank which puts him at the head of nineteen legions of demons.
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