Three Heads for Hades

This 5 Mar 2011 paper was submitted to Dr. V. Walter Odajnyk for his course, “Dreams, Visions, Myths,” at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I am forever indebted to Dr. Odajnyk who is now (2016) another mentor guiding me from the other side and in my dreams.

Persephone, Cerberus and Hades

My husband is dying, according to the so-called experts and some days I agree — other days I rail and bargain, and hope it’s not true. After his diagnosis of Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer last June, my dreams while sleeping disappeared. For much of my life I’ve been an avid dream journalist, and this habit has helped me weave my bruised psyche through difficult life situations: teenage daughter problems, divorce (same man, we remarried), parents dying, IRS problems, money problems, career disappointments and so forth. It wasn’t a big deal really — not remembering or writing down dreams after cancer invaded my night and day thoughts. My brain felt cluttered, drained from this schizophrenic shift into an autopilot running on adrenalin and denial, shuttling to this doctor and that hospital and every new-ager with “the cure.” And, the autopilot does not fly in straight lines on some days. Watching a brilliant, active man you’ve shared your life with for over thirty years turn into a skeleton with vacant eyes might cause anyone to behave in unusual ways.

Starting a doctorate program at this time might seem an over-reach, but my husband wasn’t that sick in the beginning and continued to work. I’d already started the process the year before, so why not do something to take my mind off of grim realities? The next thing I know I’m sitting in a class with Dr. Odajnyk assigning me to write about dreams that I know I’m supposed to be having, but cannot access. But I plugged along, placing a journal and pen by my bed with a nightlight to facilitate uninterrupted dream-to-pen writing.

I poured over the course literature. I practiced “moving through a memory warehouse” right before going to sleep (Bosnak 7). I walked around my memory room, revisited a familiar house, studied objects in the room, objects in my head, yellow bricks, yellow brick road, the Wizard of Oz, the charlatan, the liar and where’s my Somewhere Over the Rainbow, anyway? A pleasant memory surfaced of me singing that song in the third grade talent show with my mother playing the accompaniment. I miss my mother every day. Now I face another loved one dying, my husband of over thirty years, for whom I have disappeared.

The memory room exercises started producing my dreams again and I noticed a lot of dogs, and all kinds of dogs: my current dog Charlie (a small black, very smart American Eskimo mix), a bright yellow, long-haired Chihuahua, a beautiful boxer, my beloved dead Miniature Schnauzer, a puppy, a car full of dogs, a big black and white dog, and a black Cocker Spaniel — male because I noticed his balls. And, since the program at Pacifica Graduate Institute integrates a cross section of mythological classes, it seemed reasonable for a certain dog to bubble through to ignite my active imagination, the active imagination Jung described as he “plunged down into dark depths (…) I caught sight of figures” (Jung, Memories 179). The plunge into my “dark depths” revealed Cerberus, a three-headed hound who guards the gates of Hades — possibly a spin-off from my recent Greek and Roman studies with Dr. Christine Downing, but just as likely, with the constant presence of death in the room, a dog showed up to guide me through these rooms of hell. Another reminder, “children relate to animals, not people” (Odajnyk), and facing the death of a loved one has, with most certainty, reduced me to many childlike moments of “needing my mommy” or seeking the unconditional love of my dog, always there to lick my face or toes, no matter how stinky.

The Dictionary of Symbols further corroborated my choice of “dog” as an appropriate pick for my current mindset since “there cannot be a mythology which does not (my italics) associate a dog, be it as Anubis, T’ien k’uan, Cerberus (…) with death, Hell, the Underworld “ (296). And, since my experience with death thus far has not included using a “dog” to guide me through the before or after-life, it seems likely that I tapped into the sum of human experiences collectively shared and so eloquently expressed as the “collective unconscious (…) a part of the psyche (…) distinguished from a personal unconscious” (Jung, Portable 59). What with all the dogs in my dreams it’s obvious that I’m still connected to the collective called humanity even when I feel abandoned and all alone on some very uncomfortable world I do not recognize. A world invaded by cancer — a hell on earth.

And since the cancer invasion, my heavenly bliss here on Earth reacts like mercury. When I attempt to enter a blissful state, the further it moves away. But Dr. Odajnyk suggested I create something out of a symbol in my dreams. Funny, furry monster entered the room as Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed guard dog — albeit, a kinder, gentler version.

The figures in my active imagination started talking and my short play, Three Heads for Hades, took form. And since “by reason of our glandular structure there are both male and female elements in all of us” (Jung, Approaching 17), assigning Cerberus’s three heads to the ratio of two males to one female seemed logical with one male incorporating some aspects of both sexes. In digging around an active imagination, my hope would be to do “inner work, these parts of ourselves [are] hidden from our conscious view” (Johnson 3). Once Cerberus’ heads started talking in my head, the story fleshed out quickly, in a day or two, a lot quicker than the months leading up to my mental anguish about the assignment.

Anthropomorphizing Cerberus into three distinctive personalities allowed me (and hopefully the audience) to fantastically be inserted into the minds of the characters, a new way into the psyche through a mythical creature, and analyze how one head’s problem is another head’s pleasure. During this process, I became more aware of my own “hidden personalities” and it’s not always a pretty sight. Head #2, my warrior, loves to bite at dead people, while Head #1 (my girl) would rather recite poetry than harass the dead, and neither #1 or #3 entirely enjoy the “macho” part of their job, but they all agree on one thing; they miss their walks with King Hades. “We miss our walks. We never play, all death and dying, a grim display. Lonely sad, we sit all day, so, mommy, please, take us away!”


Defending your child, even a monster, is the burden a mother must carry sometimes and so Cerberus’ loving mother, Echidna, a snake Goddess, slides in to help as only a mother would.

I, too, miss my walks with my “King” (my husband) and at times feel as if I am a monstrous being guarding the Gate to Hades with my own multiple personalities, not letting him walk through this final gate. If only it were that simple. Some days I find myself switching from one head to another in lightning speed. The warrior wants him to hurry up and be dead, so the biting can begin. The next second, I wax poetic and continue with heroic efforts to keep him alive for surely a miracle will come along and heal him. The hermaphrodite wants acceptance and fresh air, and clean clothes with flowers erasing the stench of death and urine.

In spite of the decay or because of it, my heroic descent into the underworld presents my psyche with more, different rooms to explore, twisty roads to travel, more people to include in my arsenal as a writer and a collector of life travels. Cerberus and Hades are symbols to be viewed as “important to recognize in our euphemistic references to the unconscious as the giver(s) of wholeness” (Hillman 20). Hillman believes that “depth psychology begins with the perspective of death” and the mythological underworld with its “shadowy images of fantasy” is a bridge leading to a natural mind (5). And, without a relationship with the underworld, depression will follow. “It is as if, when we have no vivid imagination of the underworld, a flattening takes place, even a depersonalization” (Hillman 73). It seems an avoidance of my underworld might be unhealthy for my soul or psyche, so thanks to my “dogs” I am being guided through this difficult life passage, hopefully with my psyche intact.

Yet, living through the death of a loved one does not seem to bode well for feeling “whole” or “euphemistic” about much of anything. But Hillman was right. The symbolic nature of Cerberus inspired a project that for a few whole minutes gave me some happiness and a feeling of at least not being totally broken if not entirely whole. The real levity in the room prompted by the satire in Three Heads for Hades felt genuine and even with no rehearsal, my cohorts who indulged me by reading my parts, seemed to be enjoying themselves along with the audience. My King Hades even kept his “crown” on for the rest of the class.

What fun to envision three actors playing the head of Cerberus. What fun to see the actors/classmates in class read the parts for the first time. A moment of respite from grief and a glimpse of a former bliss currently beyond my reach. Laughter is a good medicine, but it is in short supply in rooms I share with my husband who is a brilliant, witty, angry man, and not accepting of his situation. “The unconscious is no mere depository of the past, but is also full of germs of future psychic situations and ideas” (Jung, Approaching 25). Just considering the idea of a future without my husband is unfathomable, but there is some comfort in feeling connected to a collective mind whether past, present or in some unlikely future.

No one escapes death. But whether we accept Hades, Hell or Heaven as our final destination is entirely our choice in this life — the chapter after death, who really knows? As of this moment, no one has come back from the dead to tell me about it.

EPILOGUE: My husband, Roger Nichols, died 9 Apr 2011 at home surrounded by his loving family. Dr. Odajnyk died 22 May 2013 leaving many, like me, grateful to have known such a wise man. My play, Three Heads for Hades, awaits a staged production (2016).

Works Cited

Bosnak, Robert. A Little Course in Dreams. Boston: Shambhala P., 1988. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. On Dreams. (1914) Trans. M.D. Eder. NY: Cosimo Class., 2009. Print.

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. NY: Harper, 1979. Print.

Johnson, Robert A.. Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. NY: Harper Collins, 1986. Print.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Approaching the Unconscious.” Man and His Symbols. NY: Doubleday, 1964. Print

— -. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffé. Trans. Clara and Richard Winston. NY: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

— -. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. NY: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.

Odajnyk, V. Walter. “Working With Dreams.” Dreams, Visions, Myths Class Lecture. Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, CA. 7 Dec. 2010.

The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Eds. Jean Chevalier and Lain Gheerbrant. Trans. John Buchanan-Brown. Eng.: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

von Franz, Marie-Louis. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. NY: Double Day, 1964. Print.