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Creatures of Death
Death Hounds

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Aka: Black Dog, Black Angus, Gwyllgi, Spectral dog, Dog of Darkness, Hellhound

UK: In Suffolk the black dog becomes 'Old Shock' (from the Old English scucca, meaning 'demon'). In the Quantock Hills of Somerset the black dog was frequently seen and called the 'Gurt Dog'. Cornwall has various tales of the 'Devil's Dandy (or Dando) Dogs', Devon has the 'Yeth (Heath) or Wisht Hounds. Other local names include Barguest, Black Shag, Padfoot or Hooter. Just to be different, in West Yorkshire the common name is 'Guytrash'; in Lancashire this is reduced to 'Trash' or changed to 'Skriker'. Further afield, a particularly unpleasant phantom pooch frequented Peel Castle on the Isle of Man in the seventeenth century and was known as the Moddey Dhoo, or Mauthe Doog. In Ireland we hear of the Pooka. In Scotland they are called CuSith, which literally means "faery dog," or Barguest. They are called Cwn Annw in Wales, where they are seen crossing moors and wastelands by night. In England, they are called In Germanic countries they are called by a name which translates as "Gabriel's Hounds," named for the Judeo-Christian Angel of Death.



There are numerous mythological references to  'hellhounds' in Greek, Indic, Celtic, Germanic, Latin, Armenian and Iranian sources. As scavengers and carrion-eaters, dogs came to be associated with death, in both the classical and Celtic religious traditions.

The cult is older than that of Osiris, and can be traced to the Sumerian goddess Bau who was also dog-headed. Her name may well be onomatopoeic, little removed from 'bow-wow'. Anubis himself, written in early heiroglyphs as 'An-pu', may be a direct continuation of Bau's father, the Sumerian god An.

In the early stages of Egyptian religion, at least, Anubis was linked with the star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, known in most mythologies throughout the world as the 'Dog Star' and the central consideration of the Egyptian calendar - although Sirius was later most closely linked with Isis, of course. Incidentally, this is where our expression 'dog days' originated: the hot, parched season that followed the heliacal rising of Sirius coinciding with the Nile's annual inundation of the valley.

Dogs were closely linked with the Greek goddess Hecate (along with lions and horses). Indeed, at times she was depicted as dog-headed and was certainly linked to the Dog Star, Sirius. Her pet was the dog Cerberus (or Kerberos) who is the watchdog at the entrance to Hades.

A dog as companion on the road to the Otherworld occurs explicitly in one of the tales in that vast hindu epic the Mahabharata. Yudhishthira, the King of Pandavas, with his five brothers, their joint wife and a dog set off on a rambling journey which took them to the sacred 'omphalos' of the hindus, Mount Meru. The companions die one-by-one of exhaustion but Yudhishthira survives and 'enters heaven in his mortal body, not having tasted death' . The dog too comes with him, and is revealed to be Dharma (the Law) in disguise.

The Altaic shaman encounters a dog that guards the underworld realm of Erlik Khan. When the Yukaghir shaman follows the road to the kingdom of shadows, he finds an old woman's house guarded by a barking dog. In Koryak shamanism the entrance to the land of the dead is guarded by dogs. In Eskimo shamanism, a dog with bared teeth guards the entrance to the undersea land of Takakapsaluk, Mother of the Sea Beasts. The custom of burying a dog and the skin of a favourite reindeer with a dead man was still current among Ugrian people of Siberia earlier this century

Greyhounds are specifically mentioned in the early Welsh literature: they formed some of the many gifts presented to Pwyll by Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Two greyhounds accompany Culhwch, when he sets out in all his splendour to visit his cousin Arthur, in 'Culhwch and Olwen.'

Hellhounds almost abound in the northern myths - such dogs are mentioned in Baldrs Draumar, Voluspa, Gylfaginning, Grimnismal, Skirnismal and Fjolsvinnsmal.



Black Angus is a large black dog with yellow eyes and sharp fangs who roams the northern English and Scottish countryside showing himself to those who will die within a fortnight. Scottish Lowlanders claim he has horns on his head, which may have derived from some confusion with the Christian Devil. Like death itself, the hellhound speaks, but does not listen; acts, but never reflects or reconsiders. Driven by hunger and greed, he is insatiable and his growl is eternal in duration.

“Another belief is that there are ghostly black dogs, the size of large retrievers, about the fields at night, that these dogs are generally near gates and stiles, and are of such a forbidding aspect that no one dare venture to pass them, and that it means death to shout at them. In some places the spectral dog is named "Shuck" and is said to be headless.”

Rev Worthington-Smith's book on the folklore of Dunstable, published in 1910




They are 'psycopomp', a quality assigned to some creatures and animals, whose function is to guide the departed souls on the paths to the Otherworld.

Faery foretellers of death

Any person who is the target of this dark messenger's pronouncement dies within a fortnight, and one must wonder how much of this is self-fulfilling prophecy.



In the various british tales of Piper's Holes, a man, usually a piper but sometimes a fiddler, enters an underground passage way. Those above ground follow his progress by listening for his music but suddenly all goes quite. Intriguingly, in the tales the man seems to invariably be accompanied by a dog. The dog emerges from the entrance, desperately frightened (or badly burned, in some versions) but the man is never seen again. Although never explicitly tied to a 'hollow hill' legend, this folk tale motif seems to have much in common with the even-more common notions of barrows being hollow and of underground tunnels of improbable length.

Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Culann - had a very special and close relationship with dogs. As a young boy, he is called Stanta, but he kills the huge guard dog of Culann the smith and, as a penance, he takes the dog's place and also his name. This affinity with dogs recurs in the adult life of Cu Chulainn: he has a geis (a bond or taboo) on him that he must never eat hound-flesh. But he is offered dogmeat at a feast, and there is another geis on him never to refuse hospitality. He breaks the first rule and eats the meat; this act weakens the hero's supernatural strength and leads ultimately to his death.

In the Old English Passion of St Christopher the saint is described thus: 'He was of the race of mankind who are half hound'. The OE Martyrology says he was of 'The nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other'.
St Christopher, of course, lived by a ford and made a name for himself by carrying Jesus across a river. The crossing of the river is reminescent of the watery boundary with the Otherworld and other death characters “passers” such as Caron


Guardians of the corpse ways

These perhaps derive from the belief that the first person to be buried in a churchyard would have to guard any subsequent inhumed souls. Baring-Gould put forward the belief that it was the custom to sacrifice a dog, specifically one without a single white hair, in the foundations of the church - although direct evidence is lacking. In Scandinavia a similar practice more commonly use a lamb, but the creature was still known as the Kirkogrim .

The hellhound sits at the border of this world and next, between life and death, hope and fear, and also between good and evil. For this role, the dog is perfectly suited, being the domestic species par excellence, the tamed carnivore who stands midway between animal and human, savagery and civilization, nature and culture.The dog is the oldest domestic animal, traceable to the paleolithic, since when dogs have enjoyed a peculiarly close relationship with humans, sharing their hearths at night and guarding the home, working during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. This close symbiotic relationship with people is reflected in the early literature where dogs seem to have clear connections with the Otherworld. But this is not unique to hounds as many species from bulls, boars, to owls and cuckoos have clear associations with deities which lead to ritual veneration.


Hunting hounds

Dogs were used in the hunt and this may have been the origin of their symbolic link with death. In tales and myths, hunted animals appear sometimes as messengers of the divine or underworld. The hunted creature itself may be enchanted or possess magical qualities: it may be a transformed human or a god in animal form.

In 'Pwyll', Arawn, king of the underworld, has a pack of shining white, red-eared dogs, their colouring proclaiming their fairy origins. The Cwn Annwn or Hounds of Annwn were ghost dogs which appeared only at night to foretell death, sent from Annwn to seek out corpses and human souls, described in an early Welsh poem as small, speckled and greyish-red, chained and led by a black-horned figure.

In the Welsh 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen', Culhwych's quest for the hand of Olwen is associated with a number of tasks connected with supernatural dogs: one of his 'labours' is to seek the two whelps of a great bitch called Rhymni, who is in the shape of a she-wolf and extraordinarily swift.


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