This hellish image was created by the artist, William Blake (c. 1757–1827), using an effective mix of ink, chalk, and watercolor paint. It depicts Cerberus, the famous three-headed hellhound of Greek mythology, who was tasked with keeping the dead from leaving the underworld. The ancient Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE), wrote an early description of the beast in his poem, Theogony:
“There, further on, stands the echoing house of the chthonic god, and in front of it a fearsome hound stands guard. He is pitiless, and he has a nasty trick: those who enter, he fawns upon with his tail and both his ears, but does not let them come out again, but watches, and devours whoever he catches going out of the gates” (Theogony, approximately line 767).
William Blake, for his artwork, decided to not turn to the ancients for inspiration on how to depict Cerberus, but instead drew on the vivid imagery of the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). In the bottom left section of the artwork, Blake left the message “Hell Canto 6,” referencing Dante’s description of the mythical beast. The Poet wrote:
“Cerberus, cruel monster, fierce and strange,
Though his wide threefold throat, barks as a dog
Over the multitude immersed beneath.
His eyes glare crimson, black his unctuous beard,
His belly large, and claw’d hands, with which
He tears the spirits, flays them, and their limbs
(Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto VI)
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.
- Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, translated by Henry F. Cary in the Harvard Classics series, edited by Charles W. Eliot, and published by P. F. Collier & Son (1909, 1937).