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The Medieval Tradition of Cerberus

  • John J. Savage (a1)


In the sixth canto of the Inferno Dante depicts the punishment of the gluttonous. They are represented as lying in the mire under a continuous heavy storm of hail and snow. Three-headed Cerberus keeps barking over them and rending them apart:



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1 For the most recent discussion of the symbolism of Cerberus see Silverstein, H. T., “Dante and Vergil the Mystic,’ [Harvard] Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 14 (1932) 51. The account there is brief but penetrating. The work of Bloomfield, M., Cerberus the Dog of Hades (Chicago 1905) is concerned chiefly with the tradition of Cerberus before Virgil. O. Immisch has a detailed treatment of the myth in Roscher's Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie 2, 1 s.v. H. F Dunbar in his Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in the Divine Comedy (New Haven 1929) has nothing on Cerberus.

2 I am now prepared to correct the erroneous statement in Harv. Stud. Class. Philol. 43 (1932) 111 on the date of this manuscript. The reference to Gerbertus (Pope Silvester II ?) in this codex has deceived others besides the present writer.

3 This is the comment on the well-known passage where the Sibyl is represented as throwing a drugged morsel (offa) to Cerberus. Servius is commenting on personat regna: ‘aut personare facit aut per regna sonat. et quia de animabus dicturus est bene facit ante Cerberi commemorationem, consumptoris corporum.’

4 Servii grammatici qui feruntur in Vergilii carmina commentarii (ed. Thilo, G., Leipzig 1883) II, 62. The commentators on Homer in the early empire had already interested themselves in the symbolism — modelled along philosophical lines — of the three-headed Cerberus; cf. Marti, B., Trans. Am. Philol. Assn. [=TAPA] 76 (1945) 223 n.24.

5 The interpretation of Cerberus as a ‘flesh-devourer’ became a commonplace; cf. Dracontius, , Romulea 10, 413–4 (Poetae latini minores 5, ed. Vollmer). What does the terra mean in the Welsh poem, a tentative translation of which is given by Rhys, J., Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Oxford 1891) 156:

The greatest disgrace, the Death on the Brythons side.

Round the court the rainbow river hastens,

That river of dread strife, hard by terra ,

Venom its essence, round the world it goes?

This passage, according to Rhys, deals with the hound of Gwyn, the Welsh analogue of Pluto (cf. Ovid, Metam. 7, 409f. on the venomous slaver of Cerberus).

6 Cf. Harv. Stud. Class. Philol. 36 (1925) 106–64.

7 Cf. Etym. 11, 3, 33 and Fabii Planciadis Fulgentii opera ed. Helm, R. (Leipzig 1898) 129f.

8 The Glossarium Ansileubi (Glossaria Latina I, ed. Lindsay, W. M. et al. [Paris 1926], CE 533) points towards ‘Cerverum’ as the customary spelling: ‘Cerverum : per B inveni.’ This glossary was compiled about the eighth century. Contrasted with Cerberus is Cervus in medieval tradition; cf. Maurus, Rhabanus, De universo (PL 111, 204D).

9 I refer to the scholiast who uses Tironian notes. The commentary of Remigius of Auxerre, a pupil of John the Scot, on the works of Virgil seems to have survived, in part at least, in the margins of Parisinus 7930, discussed above; cf. TAPA 56 (1925) 229-30. John the Scot's Descensus ad inferos describes in detail ‘Mors’ as a ‘bestia saeva’ (cf. Kroll, J. in Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 20 [1932] 137).

10 Cf. Messenger, Ruth E., TAPA 67 (1936) 130. The sixth-century Greek writer, Joannes Laurentius Lydus in his work De mensibus , ed. Wuensch, R. (Leipzig 1898) 3, 8, was aware of the poetic associations between and In a Greek Virgilian legend a certain Licinius is attacked by a Fury who is accompanied by a dog ‘trikerpiros’ This form seems to be a corruption of ‘Tricerberus’; cf. Peeters, P, ‘Une légende de Virgile dans l'hagiographie Grecque,’ in Mélanges Paul Thomas (1930) 548.

11 Op. cit. 20; 98-99 (cf. n.7 supra).

12 Commentum Bernardi Silvestris super sex libros Eneidos Virgilii, ed. Riedel, G. (Greifswald 1924) 87.20.

13 Cf. Elliott, K. O. and Elder, J. P, “A Critical Edition of the Vatican Mythographers,’ TAPA 78 (1948) 205 for the date of this work: ‘the middle or later years of the twelfth century.’

14 Bernard may have profited from a hint given by Fulgentius, , De Virg. cont. (ed. Helm, ) 97, regarding the allegorical meaning of the four islands of the Hesperides; cf. Silverstein, H. T., Mod. Philol. 46 (1948) 98 n.34.

15 For bibliography on the subject of Renaissance commentaries on Virgil, consult the important work of Zabughin, Vladimiro, Vergilio nel Rinascimento Italiano da Dante a Torquato Tasso (Bologna n.d.) I, 99 n.253.

16 Cf. Il commento di Giovanni Boccaccio sopra la Commedia (ed. Milanesi, G., 1863) 61. The specific references to Cerberus in the Renaissance commentaries on Dante are given by Silverstein, H. T. (cf. n.1).

17 The words of Isidore are repeated practically without change in the ninth-century work of Maurus, Rhabanus, De universo 22, 7 (PL 111, 198A).

18 But Isidore's ‘six ages’ (Etym. 5, 39) are based on historical events. The work of Fulgentius, , De aetatibus mundi et hominis (Opera ed. Helm, ) 129f., follows too the scheme of six ages; cf. Silverstein, , op. cit. 79 n.4 for the six ages which John of Salisbury ascribed to the first six books of the Aeneid. Bernard Silvester has a similar scheme. Both follow a suggestion (ibid. 78) in Servius on Aen. 6, 114.

19 Cf. the edition of Thilo and Hagen (III, p.3, 28f.) where Servius agrees with Donatus that Virgil followed the natural order in writing successively of pastoral, agricultural and military life in his three major works.

20 See the Morale scolarium of John of Garland (ed. Paetow, L. J., Berkeley, Calif. 1927) for a scholium on cap. 32, verses 603-4 : ‘per tria capita ipsius designantur tres partes mundi, scilicet Affrica, Asia, Europa qui devorati sunt a Cerbero, id est a terra.’ Cf. Ghisalberti, F., Giovanni di Garlandia, Integumenta Ovidii, poemetto inedito del secolo XIII (Milan 1933) 52.

21 Op. cit. 99 n.253. See also Zabughin's paper “L'oltretomba classico medievale Dantesco nel Rinascimento,’ Pontif. accad. arc. VI centen. Dant. (Rome 1922) 15.

22 Cf. n.1. Silverstein (op. cit.) has briefly sketched the tradition of Cerberus from the time of Servius' commentary to the Renaissance without, however, tracing fully its various ramifications down the ages.

23 Vol. I, verses 2598f. in the edition of J. J. Salverda de Grave (Paris 1925). I owe this reference to my colleague, Professor J. P Misrahi.

24 Imtheachta Aeniasa, ed. and tr. by Calder, G. (Irish Texts Society Publ. 6; 1903) 86. Cerberus is a giant in a late Irish version of the story of Hercules. His three heads represent ‘greed’, ‘pride’, and ‘lust’ (Stair Ercuil ogus a Bás , ed. and tr. Quin, G., 1930, p. 47).

25 Did Dante intend to balance the three-headed Cerberus with the three-headed Lucifer in the Inferno? The three colors so conspicuous in Lucifer's features may well connote the three races of men who inhabited the three continents known to Dante. For Dante's interest in the tripartite world and its association with Aeneas and his family, see the detailed disccussion in his De monarchia 2, 3.

The Medieval Tradition of Cerberus

  • John J. Savage (a1)


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