Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Mythological Monster of the Month: Cerberus

November’s Roman Calendar Feature

The 2019–2020 Roman Calendar features twelve mythical monsters from the 2019 edition of Martia Dementia, Bolchazy-Carducci’s annual spring bracket tournament. Visit us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and our blog) for announcements regarding the 2020 Martia Dementia.

Cerberus, third-century BCE Sidonian Burial Caves 
(© Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic/Ian Scott)

The infernal hound Cerberus is famous for his three heads, as in this third-century BCE tomb painting. The painting was found in the Sidonian Burial Caves in central Israel. These burial caves belonged to a family that originated in Sidon in what is now Lebanon.

Ancient sources differ in their depictions of Cerberus. The Greek poet Hesiod (ca. 750–650 BCE) describes Cerberus as having fifty heads (Theogony 306–12):

            τῇ δὲ Τυφάονά φασι μιγήμεναι ἐν φιλότητι

            δεινόν θ᾽ ὑβριστήν τ᾽ ἄνομόν θ᾽ ἑλικώπιδι κούρῃ:
            ἣ δ᾽ ὑποκυσαμένη τέκετο κρατερόφρονα τέκνα.
            Ὄρθον μὲν πρῶτον κύνα γείνατο Γηρυονῆι:
310      δεύτερον αὖτις ἔτικτεν ἀμήχανον, οὔ τι φατειὸν
            Κέρβερον ὠμηστήν, Ἀίδεω κύνα χαλκεόφωνον,
            πεντηκοντακέφαλον, ἀναιδέα τε κρατερόν τε:

            Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her [Echidna], the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bore Orthus the hound of Geryones, [310] and then again she bore a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong.
translation in Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

In Horace’s telling (Odes 2.13.33–36), the songs of the poets Alcaeus and Sappho transfix a hundred-headed Cerberus and other denizens of the Underworld:

            quid mirum, ubi illis carminibus stupens
            demittit atras belua centiceps
35        auris et intorti capillis
            Eumenidum recreantur angues?

            What marvel, when at those sweet airs
            The hundred-headed beast spell-bound
            Each black ear droops, and Furies' hairs
            Uncoil their serpents at the sound?
translation in Horace: The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace by John Conington

Orpheus was also famous for enchanting Cerberus and other intimidating figures on his journey to the Underworld, as in Vergil’s rendition (Georgics 4.481–484):
            Quin ipsae stupuere domus atque intima Leti
            tartara caeruleosque implexae crinibus angues
            Eumenides, tenuitque inhians tria Cerberus ora
            atque Ixionii vento rota constitit orbis.

            Nay, even the deep Tartarean Halls of death
            Stood lost in wonderment, and the Eumenides [Furies],
            Their brows with livid locks of serpents twined;
            Even Cerberus held his triple jaws agape,
            And, the wind hushed, Ixion's wheel stood still.
translation in Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil by J. B. Greenough

Hercules and Cerberus on a sixth-century BCE red-figure 
amphora now housed at the Louvre (Public Domain)
Cerberus is often discussed in association with the labors of Hercules, who was ordered to abduct the creature from the Underworld. Deianira, wife of Hercules, describes Cerberus in a catalog of Hercules’s labors (Ovid, Heroides 9.91–94):

            Prodigiumque triplex, armenti dives Hiberi
                 Geryones, quamvis in tribus unus erat;
            Inque canes totidem trunco digestus ab uno
                Cerberos inplicitis angue minante comis;

            You tell also of the heads that were fixed upon Thracian gates, and the mares fattened by the blood of men; of Geryon, that three-fold monster, rich in Iberian herds, who had three bodies in one; of Cerberus, forming three dogs from the same trunk, having his hair wreathed with hissing snakes . . .
translation in The Epistles of Ovid, translated into English prose . . .

Hercules presenting Cerberus to Eurystheus on a sixth-century BCE 
black-figure hydria, also at the Louvre (Public Domain)
Teachers may wish to ask students to discuss other depictions of Cerberus that they have encountered, and which written descriptions match them most closely.

—Laurel Draper, Editor

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