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Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus with animals. (Roman mosaic ca. 200-250 AD)

Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal.  His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry.  Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams.  Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice.  Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care.  He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love.  Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

Orpheus And Eurydice (Louis Ducis, 1826, oil on canvas)

In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her.  Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise.  She was dead.  Her spirit had fled away.

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent  from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Eurydice Stung by a Serpent from Les Métamorphoses (Pablo Picasso, 1930, print)

Then Orpheus went mad with grief.  He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead.  Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned.  Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Giovanni Bellini, 1515, oil on canvas)

The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow.  Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked.  Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips.  The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed.  Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Orpheus in the Underworld (Ambrosius Francken the Elder, ca. 1600?, oil on canvas)

Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition:  Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld.  Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (Jean -Baptise-Camille Corot, 1861, oil on canvas)

Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards.  Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange.  In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him.  He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer.  As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him.  For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld.  All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

Orpheus and Eurydice (Antonio Canova, 1776, marble)

The world held no joy for Orpheus.  Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy.  Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

Orpheus and the Bacchantes (Gregorio Lazzarini, circa 1710, oil on canvas)

The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang.  Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills.  The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies.  They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus.  His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river.  Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

Death of Orpheus (Henri Levy, 1870, oil on canvas)

So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows.  He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest.  Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that).  The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort.  Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness.  Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.

It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal.  Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans.  Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back.  Only art can surmount death.

La Mort d'Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

La Mort d’Orphee (Louis Bouquet, ca. 1925-1939, oil on canvas)

I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art.  His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity.  His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology.  Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure.  He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.

This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them.  The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

Orpheus with a Harp Playing to Pluto and Persephone in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, 1594, oil on canvas)

There is no underworld.  It is all made up.  There are no deities there (or probably anywhere).  Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get.  But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us.  We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be.  Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning.   The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).

Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.

stock-illustration-13056848-lyre-antique-design-illustrations

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.

To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:

Aita Conjuring.  A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita Conjuring. A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.

Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.

Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.

Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.

Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!

Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.

Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.

Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!

etruscan_stone_sarcophagus

SerapisHellenistic

Serapis was a deity created by fiat for political convenience. When the Macedonian empire conquered Egypt during the heady reign of Alexander the Great, it proved difficult to integrate Greek and Egyptian culture. Religion was a particular sticking point: the animal-headed & multitudinous gods of Ancient Egypt struck the Greeks as barbarous and primitive. Likewise, the Greek gods, who cared little for humans (and even less about what happened to them in the afterlife) struck the Egyptians as cold. Ptolemy I, Alexander’s satrap who came into control of the Egyptian part of the empire realized that this was a dangerous tension, and so during the 3rd century BC he proclaimed a new god, Serapis, who combined elements of Greek and Egyptian deities (although some ancient sources suggest that worship of Serapis existed before, at least in some form, and Ptolemy merely stylized and popularized him).

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century BC)

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century AD)

Serapis took the form of a powerful Greek nobleman with a fulsome beard, a modius upon his head, a forked scepter in his hand, and the dog of the underworld, Cerberus, at his feet. Sometimes a serpent was depicted beneath Serapis. Serapis was meant to combine the Egyptian gods Osiris, death lord of the underworld, and Apis, a mighty bull god of fertility, but soon the new deity acquired characteristics of Hades and Demeter as well (who were also deities of the underworld and fertility, respectively). Serapis thus stood for the mystical death/resurrection cycle of living things. He shepherded the dead to a comfortable land beyond while simultaneously bringing life and fecundity to the world of the living.

 

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Serapis became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. During Roman times he was often portrayed as the consort of Isis (whose cult was extremely fashionable and beloved throughout the Roman sphere). Great temples—Serapeums—were built throughout Egypt and beyond to venerate the cosmopolitan international deity. Yet Serapis did not transition out of classical antiquity very well. Christians had their own deity of death and resurrection (who had uncomfortable parallels with the older god), and one of the defining moments of transition between the classical and Christian eras was the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum in 389 AD. Later, Renaissance classicists and scholars were drawn to the Olympian pantheon with their gripping moral dramas, but not to the perplexing syncretic figure. Yet numerous statues and artworks are left to testify to the age of Serapis, when the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world blended together (as did their deities of the underworld).

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

 

Dactylanthus taylorii

In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air.  In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything).  It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.

However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture.  There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight.  Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites.  Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all.  They leach nourishment out of other vegetation.  One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand.  Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.

Dactylanthus taylorii: close-up of male flowers (Photo by Helen Jonas)

Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family to other plants are anything but clear.  The Hades plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees.  It has not roots and no leaves but is connected to its host via a stem.  The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure.  Plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) (a strange and evocative creature which the native Maori call by the name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto”).  The flowers produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat–which apparently attracts the bats which then carry pollen between male and female plants.

The Lesser Short-tailed Bat pollinating Dactylanthus taylorii

Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find.  Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown.  However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create.  In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

Asphodel tenufolius

This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras.  One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.

Statue of Pluto (Roman, ca. First Century, Marble)

The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:

Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld.  He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance.  The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak.  A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity.  Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)

Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans.  When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.

Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse.  The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy.  The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses.  The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead.  No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion.  The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.

Rape of Proserpine (Niccolò dell'Abbate, ca. 1571, oil on canvas)

Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath.  She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved.  The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.

Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities.  Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship.  There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”.  Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.

Dante and Virgil encounter Cerberus" by Christopher ´Topher´ Allen Shepard

Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld.  As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life.  Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead.  Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music.  Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes.   Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.

Hercules of course used brute strength.  In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right.  Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit).  Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog.  Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons.  When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations.  Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.

Herakles, Cerberus and Eurystheus (from a black-figured Caeretan hydria vessal of Etruscan make, ca 525 BC)

Dante also described Cerberus.  The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun.  Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:

In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.

Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster.  Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet.  You all are truly the best.

Cerberus (by Allison Smith)Cerberus (by Evolvana)

Sorcier (David Teniers)

(by R'john-aka-THE LOCKER)

Cerberus (an amazing pencil drawing by Todd Lockwood, 1994)

I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon.  So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!

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