As I already alluded to in the discussion of Hercules, the plant to his right represents Cerberus (Greek Kerberos). This three-headed dog lived in the underworld, where its task was to prevent the dead from escaping. You’d think this would make him a good guy, single-handedly preventing a zombie apocalypse, but his appearance didn’t work in his favour: he had three heads, a serpent for a tail, and often snake-like appendages on various other parts of his body. As usual, descriptions vary.[1]

The capture of Cerberus is one of the earliest known “labours” of Hercules. Homer tells us that Hercules was tasked by king Eurysteus to bring back Cerberus from the underworld – a task considered impossible.  Let’s first take a look at our plant, and see how it is drawn to resemble the hellhound. The detail below has been slightly rotated clockwise for easier recognition of the mnemonic. Just for fun I’ll leave in Hercules bending down towards Cerberus (like he was often depicted) and stepping on its snake-tail. In my opinion, his composition is one of the most intelligent, beautiful and elegant illustrations in the entire manuscript – even though, as we will learn, the details of the scene are far from pretty.


So on the left we have Hercules. His right foot intersects with Cerberus’ “bottom root”, its tail. Note that there was absolutely no reason to make these roots intersect, apart from mnemonic intent. Root and leaf section plants rarely overlap, and the roots could have easily been drawn differently to avoid this – especially the ones on Hercules are rather generic. An additional argument for the root-as-snake-tail analysis is found in the part most near the manuscript’s lower border. The right half seems like it’s been given a snake’s head.

Apart from the branching snake root, there are four more roots, clearly divided in two pairs. They represent Cerberus’ legs, but something strange is going on – they look rather wobbly, weak or unstable. We will learn the reason for this when the story of Cerberus’ capture continues.

First, however, we move on to the “head”, the large, white structure on the right with a green leaf protruding from it. Note that our Cerberus has only one head, but three necks. As far as I know, there are no stories about Cerberus being double-decapitated, so I can only assume the draughtsman was satisfied with one head, and the suggestion of the other two. Note how the empty necks fade away instead of ending abruptly. What is the green stuff coming out of the dog’s mouth though? A flame, perhaps? Oh no, there’s a way better explanation. Let’s continue our story.

After an intense fight, Cerberus submits to Hercules – the reason why he is often depicted as rather tame. The dog allows his conqueror to put a chain around its necks, and is meekly walked to the exit of the underworld. As soon as the first sunlight reaches this subterranean creature, however, it reacts violently. Many ancient authors describe how Cerberus is sickened by the light, and starts vomiting bile all over the surrounding area.



Let’s take a moment to appreciate how awesome it is. We may be witnessing the only historical depiction of the Cerberus vomiting story. When I entered “Cerberus vomiting” into google images, the only thing that came even close was this:

Was it Xenophon or Seneca who wrote about Cerberus also urinating snakes and frogs?

Back to business now. Remember the wobbly, “seasick” legs? Kind of like the legs of someone who spent his entire life in a cave and then gets smacked by sunlight hard enough to cover the whole area in vomit, perhaps?

As elaborate as my analysis for this mnemonic is, as little I know about the actual plant. One possibility is aconite: when Cerberus vomited on the local vegetation, he supposedly poisoned the aconites growing there. This seems like an unlikely candidate though, since it would be a silent mnemonic (a thematic link instead of a “sounds like” link). Also, sure, aconite was also used as a drug, but it would be totally out of line with the other valuable, edible plants: saffron, sugar, mango… One possibility I’m considering is sesame oil, the main oil used in India. This is however so speculative at this point that I will not elaborate further.