Cerberus bites back: A tale with three heads — the Syrophoenician and her imitators

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Cerberus held a fearsome reputation in the ancient world, this Cerberus “whose barking strikes the shades with terror”; “take care he doesn’t bite you”. In most imaginings, the fear of the bite lay in his three-heads, a tri-kephalitic threat that snapped at any unwary traveller into unfamiliar territory. One can barely fathom the horror at confronting the haunting vision of a fifty or hundred-headed canine monster, such as is found in the lurid hyperbole of Hesiod or Pindar. I have no intention of ponderously exhausting an account of a century of dog-heads for the story of a woman’s encounter with Jesus, though a sweep of the history of interpretation suggests that such an enumeration would be possible. But I do intend to investigate the three most prominent heads of the story: that of the Syrophoenician women in Mark’s gospel, that of the Canaanite woman in Matthew and that of the righteous Justa in the Ps-Clementine Homilies. Here the intention will be to explore how the exchanges about dogs operate rhetorically in the shape of the stories and how the variations in the way the dogs are used reflect different periods and contexts in the application of the story in the complex picture of early Christianities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115–147
Number of pages33
JournalRelegere: studies in religion and reception
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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