Hounds of the Underworld
Dogs are typically thought of as man’s best friend and guardian of the household, where they protect children, land, and livestock. It is no wonder that they are also used as guardians of the underworlds and the afterlife. They guard the entrances to the realms of the dead and accompany the psychopompic lords and ladies as they travel their own lands and the lands of the living. They are fierce, loyal, and brave, and those who would stand against them must be daring or mad or both, as they are not peaceful or polite.
Arguably the most famous of such hounds in the western world is Cerberus (the Latinized version of the Greek Kerberos), the three headed guardian of the Greek underworld Hades, who served the realm’s eponymous ruler. Cerberus both watched for those attempting to enter and exit the nether region, and was adept at sniffing out living intruders. Having a penchant for live meat, only the dead were safe to enter into Hades’ land.
Born of the half-woman/half-serpent Echidna and whose father was the feared Typhon, Cerberus lived up to his monstrous parents’ image. Not only did the hound have three heads, but was also said to have a main of live serpents and a serpent’s tail. While this is the standard description of the animal, it has also been said to have as many as 50 or 100 heads, but never less than two. Its siblings were the famous hydra and chimera, as well as the two headed Orthrus, another hellhound that figures into Greek mythology.
In general, Cerberus was an unstoppable guard dog. However, there were ways around him. He was lulled to sleep by Orpheus, although unless you are a legendary musician this may not be the best idea to try. It is also possible to knock the beast out with drugged food, which also shows he has a non-carnivore side, as the successful use of this trick used oatcakes. If all else fails, having the strength of a demi-god would also work. Heracles, hero and strongman of legend, overpowered Cerberus using only his body, and was able to drag it back to the world above as the last of his twelve labors. Here he set the dog to guard the secret groves of Demeter.
Cerberus’ utility in the afterlife was continued into the Christian era. Dante writes of Cerberus being the punishment for gluttons, rending their souls for eternity, although here he is described as a great work rather than a canine.
Norse tradition holds that the dog Garmr (Old Norse for “rag”) guards Nilfheim, the lowest of the nine realms in Norse cosmology, where the dead who have not died in battle find themselves. Little is written about Garmr’s responsibilities for Hel, the ruler of Nilfheim, however the hound does play a role at Ragnarök. His howl will be heard at the start of the world’s end and he and the god Tyr will give the other his fatal blow. Sometimes confused with the great wolf Fenrir, they are indeed distinct animals, with Garmr guarding Hel’s abode and Fenrir having been chained by the gods.
Garmr is mentioned in the two best sources of Norse mythology, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. These are collections of Old Norse poems and literature that describe the Norse Deities, as well as heroes in Germanic lore. The poem Grímnismál, which gives the best examples of things, mentions Garm (an alternate spelling) as the best of hounds. One of Garmr’s few listed duties is given in the Poetic Edda, as he howls when Odin approaches his master’s realm. It is in the Poetic Edda that we learn of his howls at Ragnarök and from the Prose Edda of his fight with Tyr, saying “he is the greatest monster and he shall do battle with Tyr, and each become the other’s slayer.”
Cŵn Annwn, the Hounds of Annwn
From Welsh tales, the Cŵn Annwn are the spectral hunting hounds of Arawn, the ruler of the Welsh Otherworld Annwn. The hounds are said to be of white coloration with red ears, red being the color associated with death for the Celts and white being associated with the supernatural. They are found primarily in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. This is the first part of a collection of Welsh mythology, the Mabinogion, which also happens to be the earliest extant British prose literature. Here they are shown to be hunting a stag and help set up the initial meeting between their master and Pwyll, a Welsh prince that is the focus of the first branch. In the Fourth Branch they are mentioned, although not by name, as also having as a master Gwyn ap Nudd. Both Arawn and Gwyn are lords of the Otherworld and of the Fair Folk.
Folklore of the Cŵn Annwn exists into modern times, where they are said to hunt the area around the mountain Cadair Idris, where their howling foretells death of those that hear it. It is also said their howling is louder the further away they are, with the volume becoming softer and softer as they near their prey.
They are also said to hunt with the hag Mallt-y-Nos, Matilda of the Night, to run with King Arthur’s cousin Culhwch, and even resemble the hounds of Da Derga from Irish legend. A Celtic relative of The Hounds are the Scottish Cù-Sìth. This hound was a harbinger of death and would take a person’s soul away to the afterlife. Its only warning was three loud and frightening bays that would be heard across the landscape.
The Wild Hunt
A fixture of Northern, Western, and Central European mythology, the Wild Hunt transcends several pantheons. Its leaders include the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd who were written about above, Irish folk hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, and the French Hellequin who was an emissary of the Christian devil, and many more. The Wild Hunt is a group of ghostly hunters and hounds that pursue humans, sometimes the living and sometimes the souls of the departed, to take the souls back to the Underworld. In some cases they just hunted the evil-doer, but in others they hunted anyone the Hunt found.
The traditions of the Hunt vary across and within regions. While the leader is always legendary, whether a deity or a hero of renown, the other members of the hunt range from normal hounds to supernatural hounds, such as the Cŵn Annwn above, or even fairies in the guise of dogs. You could escape the hounds by different methods. Throwing them bread would sometimes work, as would staying directly in the center of the road. Not looking directly at the pack was also a possible safety measure, but sometimes it was best to join in the Hunt and help them in their activities. These methods of safety not only depended on who the leader was and what region you are in, but they even changed within region, so there is no exact way of ensuring the Hunt would not use you as their prey.
Beyond the hounds and the leader, members of the Hunt would include fairies, demons, and the souls of the departed. There are still sightings of the hunt in modern time, with folklore evolving to give the Hunt a similar purpose to the Norse Valkyries, for they would take slain British soldiers into the afterlife.
It would be remiss not to at least mention Anubis. Obviously he is not an animal himself, but rather is a deity of the Egyptian afterlife and mummification. His sacred animal is the jackal and shares their appearance, having the head of that canine. Before the responsibility was given to Osiris, it was he who would weigh the hearts of the deceased to determine whether the soul would enter the underworld or be devoured by Ammit, a hideous monster.
He is also associated with mummification, which is an embalming process used by the ancient Egyptians to prepare the body for its journey into the afterlife. Even after Osiris took over the position of weighing the heart, it was Anubis who would act as a guide for the souls in the afterlife, bringing them across the threshold from life and leading them to Osiris.
Hounds in Christian and Modern Mythology
Most of the pagan myths that involve hounds managed to stay after the advent of Christianity, with the animals coming from hell now, rather than the Otherworlds. These hellhounds typically follow the pattern of having black fur, glowing red eyes, a baleful howl, and a malodorous odor. They may haunt graveyards or desolate moors, or may roam the country side. Their typical function is to hunt humans in order to take the souls to Hell.
There is the Barghest from northern England around Yorkshire, who preys on lonely travelers. The Black Shuck is another English dog, a ghostly animal from the Norfolk, Essex, and Suffolk areas whose name comes from the regional term for shaggy, and may have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes story “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The yeth hound is a headless dog, said to be the spirit of an unbaptized child, and makes horrible crying noises as it roams the countryside.
In southern Mexico and Central America folklore, the Cadejo is a big black dog that haunts travelers 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, from an American folk tale that involves selling one’s soul to the devil for musical fame, with the devil sending hellhounds to collect when the contract came up.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse has ties to the Wild Hunt, as riders in the sky who boded no human well. Western United States folklore has the Ghost Riders, a ghastly collection of eerie cowboys who haunt the skies across the American frontier. Similar to the Ghost Riders, the Buckriders were ghosts and devils who were seen in Germany and Belgium, riding the night skies on the backs of Satan’s own goats.
Whether they maintained their fierceness in modern times (and sometimes becoming even more wicked) or they have turned into tales (tails?) for the nursery, the hound is a permanent fixture in mythology and folklore, keeping its position as man’s best friend, whether that “man” is human, fae, or a god/goddess.
For further reading:
The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
Bulfinch’s Mythology (Thomas Bulfinch)
The Prose Edda (various translations)
The Poetic Edda (various translations)
The Mabinogion (a collection of Welsh mythology of which several versions are available)
The Mythology of Dogs: Canine Legend (Gerald Hausman and Loretta Hausman)
Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales (Elias Owen)
British Goblins, Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions (Wirt Sikes)
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Ronald Hutton)
Teutonic Mythology (multiple volumes) (Jacob Grimm, 2004)