”He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did—some little distance off, but fresh and clear."
"A man's or a woman's?"
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered. "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"
Excerpt from Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
You have probably heard the saying, “dogs are man’s best friend.” Our beloved best friends are said to have descended from wolves who wandered into human camps, possibly looking for food. As they were tamed, they served as guards, fellow hunters, and companions. Today there are hundreds of different dog breeds and potentially millions of combinations. Hounds in particular are hunting dogs, used by hunters to track or chase prey.
It’s no surprise then, that folklore is rife with dogs and especially hounds. From the baying during the Wild Hunt to the church grims and Black Shuck. They guard the entrance to the Otherworld, churchyards, and lonely crossroads.
The Scottish fairy dog or Cù-sìth is said to roam the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides. This hound is said to be the size of a small bull, with a green shaggy coat and wolf-like appearance. It was also said to have either a coiled or braided tail and giant paws the size of a man’s hand.
The Cù-sìth was thought to be an omen of death. If you sighted the fairy dog, you should fear for your life. The fairy dog only ever let forth three barks, but these could be heard for miles around, even out to sea. If you heard it baying you must seek safety immediately, before the third bark could be heard. If you were unlucky enough not to reach safety before that third bark sounded, you would essentially be so overcome with terror as to be scared to death. Nursing women had to be particularly careful. If the fairy dog came upon a woman nursing after the final baying of the hound, she would be abducted to the fairy realm to serve as a nurse for the fairy children.
In more recent stories, fairies used the Welsh Corgi as a steed and work dog. According to the poem, Corgi Fantasy which was written by Anne Biddlecombe in 1946, two Corgi puppies were found in a mountain hollow and brought home by children. The fairy heelers are described in the poem as being used to pull fairy coaches, work fairy cattle and serve as steeds for fairies to ride. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi's markings over the shoulders are known as a fairy saddle marking. It is also said that these dogs' mischievous nature is due to being gifts from the fairies, as fairies rarely give a gift without strings attached, and outfitting your Corgi with a collar with a bit of iron or steel will prevent them from biting their owners.
Another story says that the Corgis wandered away from the King and Queen of Fairy. One day, while out riding their Corgis, the King and Queen of Fairy saw a human family laboring in the fields, barely able to sustain themselves. The King and Queen saw these humans daily and felt sorry for them. One day, distracted by the sorrowful sight, the King stumbled and fell from his Corgi steed. The Queen immediately abandoned her own steed to care for him. The two Corgis continued on their way, leaving the King and Queen of Fairy behind. The King was concerned, but the Queen was not, saying that the Corgis would find their way to the poor family who needed them more. And indeed they did, finding the mortal family whose plight had so sorrowed the King and Queen. The Corgis became treasured companions as gifts from the fairy folk and invaluable on the farm, cherished by the Welsh from that point forward.
Our final Corgi story tells of a fairy war between two tribes of fairies. During war, Corgis acted as noble steeds for fairy warriors to ride into battle. Quick and sturdy, these little dogs were perfect for a fairy battlefield. During one such war, two fairy warriors were slain. Two children stumbled upon the funeral procession and were given the warriors’ steeds. The fairies told the children that though the Corgis were gifted in battle, they were also a great help to the fairies. The fairy dogs were perfect for herding; their short stature kept them out of the way of angry hooves when they nipped at the cattle’s heels.
The Wild Hunt is a folklore motif that we’ll discuss more fully in another episode. For our purposes today, the Wild Hunt is a procession chasing prey, usually consisting of supernatural hunters. In Welsh folklore, the Hunt is led by Gwyn ap Nudd and the Cŵn Annwn or Hounds of Annwn. The Cŵn Annwn are described as being white hounds with red ears. It is said the Cŵn Annwn ride through the skies in autumn, winter, and spring, ushering wandering souls to Annwn or the Otherworld with their baying. The baying is often associated with the sounds of wild geese as they migrate. The Wild Hunt may also take place on certain nights or simply from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Later, Christian mythology associated the Hounds of Annwn with Hellhounds.
Hellhounds are guardian spirits, often said to guard hell or act as a servant of the devil. They might also be considered guiding spirits, usually guiding the dead from life to the Otherworld. In the Black Dog depiction of Hellhounds, they are often considered to be death omens. Black dogs and Hellhounds are usually depicted as black and extremely strong and large, with glowing red eyes. They appear in different cultures throughout the world in a variety of incarnations.
The Cadejo is a Black Dog native to Central America. The Cadejo appears as a large black dog with a shaggy coat, cloven hooves, and fiery red eyes. One story tells of several young men in Guatemala City who were returning home one evening. One by one they were splitting off and going their separate ways. As they were passing through a particular area an enormous black dog with fiery eyes and hooves like a goat appeared and began to follow them. The boys sped up their pace, but the Black Dog remained hard on their heels until only two young men remained. When they reached the second young man’s house they were both exhausted and entered together. The Cadejo tried to enter behind them, but the young man’s mother made the sign of the cross which caused the Black Dog to disappear.
In Honduras, the Cadejo is said to look like a hyena or a goat, appearing in a street leading to a cemetery. Here, it would leap out at unwary travelers or follow them, with the tell-tale sound of goat’s hooves clattering on the paving stones. It was said that the Cadejo would disappear if you drew your dagger and thrust it into the ground. If you listened to the episode Don’t Go Into the Light, this may remind you of the faeu boulanger of Guernsey, which was repelled with a knife thrust into the ground blade up.
While the Cadejo appears to be of European origin, the Mayans held several beliefs regarding dogs as well. One belief says that you should never mistreat a dog in life because the dead require a dog’s help to cross a river in the afterlife. If you mistreat dogs in life, there will be no help forthcoming in death. The Chinanteco Indians of southern Mexico believe that after death, a great black dog carries the newly dead across the sea in the afterlife. And in the beliefs of the Mixe Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico a black dog is also needed to aid in crossing a river or sea in the afterlife.
In Columbia, La Coch Lagoon is haunted by a Black Dog as well. Called Carbunco, this Black Dog has a diamond in its forehead and dwells in rivers and streams. It is also linked with the earth, being the guardian of subterranean treasures such as gold and other valuable minerals.
In ancient Greek, Cerberus guards the gates of Hades and prevents the dead from leaving. Cerberus was often described as a three-headed hound with a serpent’s tail, but this varies depending on the source. In some depictions, Cerberus has a single head, in others as many as a hundred. Sometimes these heads were a mixture of dog and snake. Whatever the Hound of Hades appearance, it was considered a fearsome creature.
Cerberus is mostly known for its association with the Labors of Heracles (or Hercules). If you aren’t familiar with the story, Heracles is made temporarily mad by Hera and kills his wife and children. Distraught by what he has done, he prays to the god Apollo for guidance. The god’s oracle told him he would have to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years as punishment. As part of his sentence, Heracles had to perform twelve feats, or Labors, so difficult as to seem impossible. The final Labor was to capture and bring Cerberus to King Eurystheus. Heracles, aided by Hermes and Athena, was able to succeed in his final task. Heracles and Cerberus are forever depicted in our skies, as their own constellations.
In China, the Heavenly Dog or Tian Gou is the black dog that eats the moon. The legend varies from source to source, but my favorite says that Tian Gou was formerly the loyal hound of Hou Yi, who was a legendary hero in Chinese folklore. For his great feats, he was granted the Elixir of Immortality by the gods. But before he could drink it, his wife Chang’E took the elixir. Chang’E, then began to feel weightless and floated up into the air. Hou Yi’s loyal hound witnessed her betrayal and began to bark at her. The hound then licked the last drops of the elixir and floated up after her. As he did, he grew in size. Seeing this, Chang’E sought to hide behind the moon. The black dog, however, now enormous in size, swallowed her and the moon in one go. When the Queen Mother of the west heard of this she demanded the hound be captured. Once captured, the hound was forced to spit the moon and Chang’E back out. The Queen Mother of the west then renamed the hound Tian Gou and assigned it to guard the Southern Gate of Heaven.
In the United States, a spectral Black Dog haunts The Hanging Hills of Connecticut. “If you meet the Black Dog once, it shall be for joy; if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time shall bring death.” Those who say they have seen the dog claim that it is a supernatural entity that leaves no footprints and remains completely silent.
The legend seems to mostly draw from a story published in the Connecticut Quarterly by geologist W.H.C. Pynchon. According to Pynchon, he and fellow geologist Herbert Marshall encountered the dog in February 1891. This was the second time for Pynchon, but the third for Marshall. While studying a rock formation near the edge of a cliff, they were approached by the dog and Marshall slipped and fell to his death.
In England, one of the most well-known types of Hellhound or Black Dog is the Church Grim, thanks to the popularity of the Harry Potter series. In the series, the Grim is a death omen. In folklore, the Church Grim guards Christian churches and churchyards from thieves and vandals, as well as more supernatural threats like witches. It was said that the first buried in the churchyard had to guard the church against the Devil. In order to spare a human soul from this duty, a black dog was sacrificed and buried instead. As for omens, the Church Grim was said to toll the church bells at midnight before a death occurred. It also might be seen in the church tower during a funeral, giving the clergyman a hint as to whether the soul of the recently dead would be going to Heaven or Hell.
In West Yorkshire, another Black Dog has a name that will be familiar to fans of Harry Potter. Padfoot is known as a death omen, like many other Black Dogs. Padfoot may become invisible or visible at will and is named for the characteristic of following alongside a person, so all they hear is the padding of its paws. It is also said to have a roar, unlike any known animal.
Moddey Dhoo is a Black Dog from the Isle of Man. This great spectral hound is said to haunt Peel Castle and was described as a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair. It was said to be seen in every room of the castle, but most particularly the guard chamber. The stories even say that the guards became so accustomed to its presence as to cease to be terrified, but still treated it with caution. The Moddey Dhoo was said to always be seen emerging from a passage leading to the captain’s apartment at night and returning there in the morning. When the soldiers locked the castle gates at night they took care to deliver the keys to the captain in pairs, so as to never be alone with the Moddey Dhoo.
One story tells of a drunken soldier, who felt much more daring because of it, who laughed at his comrades' caution. Though not his turn, he volunteered to take the keys by himself to the captain’s apartments. The other soldiers tried to dissuade him, but he became more belligerent than ever and could not be deterred. He continued to brag and say that he desired nothing more than to be confronted by the hound. After all this boasting, he snatched up the keys and went out of the guardroom to the captain’s apartment.
A short while after his departure, there came a great noise, but no one was daring enough to investigate. Presently, the boisterous guard returned, but when begged for an explanation, he spoke not a word. He lived another three days, but though he was often begged to speak and tell his tale, he never spoke again. The Moddey Dhoo was never again seen in the castle and the passageway was closed off.
A very famous black dog is that of Black Shuck or Old Shuck of Norfolk, Suffolk, northern Essex and the Cambridgeshire fens. Black Shuck, like most Black Dogs or Hellhounds, is described as being a large, shaggy black dog with fiery eyes, though some stories say Black Shuck has but one eye. It is said that should you see Black Shuck, you or someone close to you will die within the year.
The most notable story of Black Shuck comes from the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk on August 4, 1577. It is said that the Hellhound attacked both of these churches that day.
At Blythburgh, it is said that Black Shuck burst through the church doors to a clap of thunder. He raced up the nave, killing at least one man and one boy and causing the church steeple to collapse, before leaving. Upon leaving, he left scorch marks on the north door of the church, which are said to still be there today. Bungay shared a similar fate, which was described in A Strange and Terrible Wonder by Abraham Fleming, which you can hear an excerpt from at the end of the episode.
For a fun version of the story of Black Shuck, you can listen to Black Shuck by The Darkness from their album, Permission to Land. Be aware this song may not be suitable for all listeners.
“Immediately hereupon, there appeared in a most horrible similitude and likeness to the congregation then and there present, a dog as they might discern it, of a black color: at the sight whereof, together with the fearful flashes of fire which then were seen, moued such admiration in the minds of the assembly, that they thought doomsday was already come.
This black dog, or the dual in such a likeness (God he knoweth all who worketh all) running all along down the body of the Church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died.”
Excerpt from A Strange and Terrible Wonder by Abraham Fleming, regarding the appearance of Black Shuck
This week’s recommendation is for a TV show. One of my personal favorites, in fact. Supernatural is a show that I have loved for a long time and this week it makes the list due to the depiction of Hellhounds that is so prominent in early seasons.
The summary of Supernatural from IMDb is pretty straightforward: “Two brothers follow their father's footsteps as hunters, fighting evil supernatural beings of many kinds, including monsters, demons, and gods that roam the earth.”
Hellhounds show up pretty early on in the series as canine-like monsters described as demonic pit bulls. Associated specifically with hell, these creatures are feared by everyone except their master. Originally they were depicted as being tools of a crossroads demon for collecting the souls of those whose ten-year deal had ended. They could only be seen by those who they came for. In later episodes, they are shown as being general foot soldiers, guard dogs, and assassins.