A hellhound is a supernatural dog in folklore. A wide variety of ominous or hellish supernatural dogs occur in mythologies around the world. Features that have been attributed to hellhounds include mangled black fur, glowing red eyes, super strength and speed, ghostly or phantom characteristics, and a foul odor.
Certain European legends state that if someone stares into a hellhound’s eyes three times or more, that person will surely die. In cultures that associate the afterlife with fire, hellhounds may have fire-based abilities and appearance. They are often assigned to guard the entrances to the world of the dead, such as graveyards and burial grounds, or undertake other duties related to the afterlife or the supernatural, such as hunting lost souls or guarding a supernatural treasure. In European legends, seeing a hellhound or hearing it howl may be an omen or even a cause of death. They are said to be the protectors of the supernatural, guarding the secrecy of supernatural creatures, or beings, from the world.
Some supernatural dogs, such as the Welsh Cŵn Annwn, were regarded as benign, but encountering them was still considered a sign of imminent death.
Examples from folklore
The most famous hellhound is most likely Cerberus from Greek mythology. Hellhounds are also famous for appearing in Northern European mythology and folklore as a part of the Wild Hunt. These hounds are given several different names in local folklore, but they display typical hellhound characteristics. The myth is common across Great Britain, and many names are given to the apparitions: Moddey Dhoo of the Isle of Man, Gwyllgi of Wales. Other ghostly black dogs exist in legend. The earliest mention of these myths are in both Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (1190) and the Welsh myth cycle of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (c. tenth to thirteenth century).
In southern Mexico and Central America folklore, the cadejo is a big black dog that haunts travellers who walk late at night on rural roads. The term is also common in American blues music, such as with Robert Johnson’s 1937 song, “Hellhound on My Trail”.
In Greek mythology the hellhound Cerberus belonged to Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Cerberus was said to be a massive, three-headed black dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld.
Described as a very large dark black dog like creature that in some regions has only 3 toes. It is said to hunt the back mountain roads of Kentucky and West Virginia. It is likely this legend stems from earlier Scots Irish and Welsh folklore though some claim to see it still today.
Barghest, Bargtjest, Bo-guest, Bargest or Barguest is the name often given in the north of England, especially in Yorkshire, to a legendary monstrous black dog with huge teeth and claws, though in other cases the name can refer to a ghost or household elf, especially in Northumberland and Durham (see Cauld Lad of Hylton). One is said to frequent a remote gorge named Troller’s Gill. There is also a story of a Barghest entering the city of York occasionally, where, according to legend, it preys on lone travelers in the city’s narrow Snickelways. Whitby is also associated with the spectre. A famous Barghest was said to live near Darlington which was said to take the form of a headless man (who would vanish in flames), a headless lady, a white cat, a dog, rabbit and black dog. Another was said to live in an “uncannie-looking” dale between Darlington and Houghton, near Throstlenest.
The derivation of the word barghest is disputed. Ghost in the north of England was once pronounced guest, and the name is thought to be burh-ghest: town-ghost. Others explain it as German Berg-geist (mountain spirit), or Bär-geist (bear-spirit), in allusion to its alleged appearance at times as a bear. Another mooted derivation is “Bier-Geist”, the “spirit of the funeral bier”.
Bearer of Death
The Bearer of Death is a term used in describing the Hellhound. Hellhounds have been said to be as black as coal and smell of burning brimstone. They tend to leave behind a burned area wherever they go. Their eyes are a deep, bright, and almost glowing red. They have razor sharp teeth, super strength, and speed, and are commonly associated with graveyards and the underworld. Hellhounds are called The Bearers of Death because they were supposedly created by ancient demons to serve as heralds of death. According to legend, seeing one leads to a person’s death. Sometimes it is said to be once; other times it requires three sightings for the curse to take effect and kill the victim. These factors make the Hellhound a feared symbol and worthy of the name “Bearer of Death”.
Black Shuck or Old Shuck is the name given to a ghostly black dog said to roam the Norfolk, Essex, and Suffolk coastline of England. For centuries, locals have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming red eyes. According to reports, the beast varies in size and stature from that of a large dog to the size of a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck has appeared headless, and at other times he appears to float on a carpet of mist. According to folklore, the spectre often haunts graveyards, sideroads, crossroads and dark forests.
There are legends of Black Shuck roaming the Anglian countryside since before Vikings. His name may derive from the Old English word scucca meaning “demon”, or possibly from the local dialect word shucky meaning “shaggy” or “hairy”. The legend may have been part of the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
It is said that his appearance bodes ill to the beholder, although not always. More often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives; in some cases it has supposedly happened before close relatives to the observer die or become ill. In other tales the dog is considered relatively benign, and said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen.
One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog departed, he left scorch marks on the north door that remain to this day. Two men were touched by the beast and fell down dead.
The encounter on the same day at Bungay was described in A Strange and Terrible Wonder by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:
This black dog, or the devil in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible forum 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 clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they knelled, they strangely died.
Other accounts attribute the event to lightning or the Devil. The scorch marks on the door are referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints”.
In Catalan myth, Dip is an evil, black, hairy dog, an emissary of the Devil, who sucks people’s blood. Like other figures associated with demons in Catalan myth, he is lame in one leg. Dip is pictured on the escutcheon of Pratdip.
In Welsh mythology and folklore, Cŵn Annwn (/ˌkuːn ˈænʊn/; “hounds of Annwn”) were the spectral hounds of Annwn, the otherworld of Welsh myth. They were associated with a form of the Wild Hunt, presided over by Gwynn ap Nudd (rather than Arawn, king of Annwn in the First Branch of the Mabinogi). Christians came to dub these mythical creatures as “The Hounds of Hell” or “Dogs of Hell” and theorised they were therefore owned by Satan.
However, the Annwn of medieval Welsh tradition is an otherworldly paradise and not a hell or abode of dead souls.
In Wales, they were associated with migrating geese, supposedly because their honking in the night is reminiscent of barking dogs. They are supposed to hunt on specific nights (the eves of St. John, St. Martin, Saint Michael the Archangel, All Saints, Christmas, New Year, Saint Agnes, Saint David, and Good Friday), or just in the autumn and winter. Some say Arawn only hunts from Christmas to Twelfth Night. The Cŵn Annwn also came to be regarded as the escorts of souls on their journey to the Otherworld. The hounds are sometimes accompanied by a fearsome hag called Mallt-y-Nos, “Matilda of the Night”. An alternative name in Welsh folklore is Cŵn Mamau (“Hounds of the Mothers”).
In other traditions similar spectral hounds are found, e.g., Gabriel Hounds (England), Ratchets (England), Yell Hounds (Isle of Man), related to Herne the Hunter’s hounds, which form part of the Wild Hunt.
Hunting grounds for the Cŵn Annwn are said to include the mountain of Cadair Idris, where it is believed “the howling of these huge dogs foretold death to anyone who heard them”.
According to Welsh folklore, their growling is loudest when they are at a distance, and as they draw nearer, it grows softer and softer. Their coming is generally seen as a death portent.
The Moddey Dhoo, also referred to as Mauthe Dhoog, is known to inhabit only one locale; Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. The most famous interaction occurred between the dog and a guard. The guard, emboldened by alcohol, determined that he would find and deal with this haunter. So off he went alone down the corridors of the castle. Shortly thereafter, his screams were heard. When he was found, he mentioned only the dog. Several days later he died.
The gwyllgi (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈɡwɪɬɡi]; compound noun of either gwyllt “wild” or gwyll “twilight” + ci “dog”) is a mythical dog from Wales that appears as a frightful apparition of a mastiff with baleful breath and blazing red eyes.
It is referred to as “The Dog of Darkness” or “The Black Hound of Destiny”, the apparition’s favorite haunt being lonely roads at night.
The yeth hound, also called the yell hound is a Black dog found in Devon folklore. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the yeth hound is a headless dog, said to be the spirit of an unbaptised child, which rambles through the woods at night making wailing noises. The yeth hound is also mentioned in The Denham Tracts.
The Church Grim, Kirk Grim, Kyrkogrim (Swedish) or Kirkonväki (Finnish) is a figure from English and Scandinavian folklore. They are said to be the attendant spirits of churches, overseeing the welfare of their particular church. English Church Grims are said to enjoy loudly ringing the bells. They may appear as black dogs or as small, misshapen, dark-skinned people.
The Swedish Kyrkogrim are said to be the spirits of animals sacrificed by early Christians at the building of a new church. In parts of Europe, including Britain and Scandinavia, a completely black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the grounds of a newly built church, creating a guardian spirit, the church grim, to protect the church from the devil.
The Gytrash /ɡaɪˈtræʃ/, a legendary black dog known in northern England, was said to haunt lonely roads awaiting travelers. Appearing in the shape of horses, mules, or dogs, the Gytrash haunt solitary ways and lead people astray. They are usually feared, but they can also be benevolent, guiding lost travelers to the right road.
In some parts of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire the gytrash was known as the ‘Shagfoal’ and took the form of a spectral mule or donkey with eyes that glowed like burning coals. In this form the beast was believed to be purely malevolent.
As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travelers, as this horse was now coming upon me. It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white color made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash – a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head […], with strange pretercanine eyes […]. The horse followed – a tall steed […]. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone […].
— Excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, chapter xii
The Gytrash’s emergence as Rochester’s innocuous dog Pilot has been interpreted as a subtle mockery of the mysteriousness and romanticism that surrounds his character and clouds Jane’s perception. Brontë’s reference in 1847 is probably the earliest reference to the beast and forms the basis for subsequent citations.
The Black Dog of Bouley
The Black Dog of Bouley (Le Chien de Bouley or, in Jèrriais, Le Tchan du Bouôle) is a monstrous hound that supposedly haunts the area around Bouley Bay in Jersey, Channel Islands. It is huge, black, with eyes the size of saucers and (in some versions of the legend) a chain which it drags behind it, the sound of which is often the first warning victims have of its presence. After ambushing its victim it circles them at great speed, terrifying them, although never doing physical harm. Its appearance is said to herald a storm. It has been theorised that the legend of the Black Dog was promoted – or even invented – by smugglers, perhaps with the aid of a costume, in order to keep people away from their activities in the Bay. Another theory has it that Le Tchan (“The Dog”) is an aural corruption of Le Chouan, a Jèrriais term for a French Royalist émigré (many of which took refuge in the Island during the French Revolution), and the legend took off from there.