HELLHOUNDS – FROM CONAN DOYLE TO ROBERT JOHNSON

hound-baskervilles 2

Here’s a good topic for the hinge of the year, the end of one calendar and the start of another. Have you been thinking about hellhounds lately? No? Well then, read on…

Oversized, red-eyed, shaggy, stinking and generally monstrous dogs have been with us from at least the era of ancient Greece. Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the underworld is pretty well-known. Less-so is the Norse equivalent of Garmr, among other canine creepies.

The infernal associations of ‘hellhounds’, as these apparitions are usually known, are also found in many legends heard in the traditions of Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Sometimes hellhounds appear in the form of ghostly predators shadowing travelers along lonely roads (and, very occasionally, protecting them from something worse). Sometimes they are associated with spectral hordes, such as ‘the Wild Hunt’ (see previous post on this).

Hound

But the most frequent form of hellhound tradition features, as Arthur Conan Doyle lastingly put it, ‘a gigantic hound’, that bays chillingly then appears at the imminent death of a member of a local aristocratic family, the basic premise of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle seems to have added a family curse to sex up the atmosphere a tad). The creator of Sherlock Holmes said little about his inspiration for this enduring literary spectre, beyond a casual reference to hearing about something similar from a friend. Most commentators have subsequently suggested that Doyle was probably referring to the legend of seventeenth century Devon squire, Richard Cabell.

Cabell did enough dirty work in his life to gather an impressive, if improbably evil, reputation. He was alleged to have murdered his wife (though she seems to have outlived him), made a pact with the devil and to have died while hunting down a maiden across Dartmoor one stormy night.  And it gets better. The locals were reputedly so afeared of him that they built a structure over his despised burying place and placed a large block of stone over his grave to make sure he stayed in it. Whether he has or not, the church was afflicted with lightning, Nazi bombs and arson, and is now a ruin.

The historian Mike Dash has also done some sleuthing on a little-known Scots version of the hellhound tradition. This one is a stonker, complete with clans, a loyal hound and a mysterious dark island in the middle of a loch. The story has a murky history – of course! – but was given flesh by Iain Thornber in a 1980s magazine article. Read all about HERE, where Dash spins the filaments into a fascinating yarn.

For blues fans, the primal music of Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ (1937) evokes a haunted, hunted atmosphere that draws from this tradition and invokes broader African American spooky lore. This includes meeting with the devil at the crossroads and the exploits of the badman, Stagolee (variously spelt), hero of another classic blues and a considerable body of folktale and supernatural – as well as bawdy – lore.

For those who like to take their legends with a drop of analysis, hellhound stories seem to be closely linked to their localities, even if the basic motif is widespread. They can also accrue other motifs, such as Faustian deals with the devil and membership of the Wild Hunt, as in the case of badass Richard Cabell’s tradition. The Scots ‘Grey Dog of Meoble’ also has an element of the loyal hound tradition, probably best-known in the Welsh Beth Gellert tale and also in a modern legend. Hellhounds may also shape-shift into different animal forms, though whatever their species, their function remains the same.

Dark wind rising

Blood moon hangs in troubled skies

Thunder, lightning, hail and rain

Hellhound baying, someone dies

 

SOURCES

Mike Dash, A Blast From the Past blog, https://mikedashhistory.com/2010/07/24/the-grey-dog-of-meoble/

William Henderson, Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, The Folk-Lore Society, London, 1879, pp. 273ff.

Howard Williams, Archaeodeath blog, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-diabolical-hounds-of-richard-cabell-and-the-commemoration-of-arson-buckfastleigh-church/

LEGENDS OF THE SPECTRAL HORDE

 

Wild Hunt

Franz Stuck’s ‘Wilde Jagd’ (The Wild Hunt), 1889

 

In the early 1860s, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, English antiquarian collector of lore and general know-all, was part of a group of men galloping across an expanse of arid black sand in Iceland. One of his local companions, Jon, shouted out that they were ‘sweeping over the country like the Yule host.’ Inveterate busy-body Baring- Gould’s ears pricked up and he asked for details.

Jon told him of the ‘wild rout of phantom horsemen’ that ride across the country, especially at the winter solstice and at Yule, or Christmas. The Reverend immediately recognized this as the local version of a widespread European tradition and filled the next four pages of his Icelandic travel adventures[1]with his prodigious knowledge of the phenomenon. Baring Gould regaled his readers with the details of the spectral hordes of Norway, Germany, France, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland and, of course, England:

‘Gervaise of Tilbury says that in the thirteenth century by full moon towards evening the wild hunt was frequently seen in England traversing forest and down. In the twelfth century it was called in England the Herlething. It appeared in the reign of Henry II and was witnessed by many. The banks of the Wye was [sic] the scene of the most frequent chases. At the head of the troop rode the ancient British Herla.’

He went on to give this version of the legend, featuring the legendary king of the Britons:

‘King Herla had once been to the marriage feast of a dwarf who lived in a mountain. As he left the bridal hall the host presented him with horses dogs and hunting gear also with a bloodhound which was set on the saddle bow before the king and the troop was bidden not to get off the horses till the dog leaped down. On returning to his palace the king learned that he had been absent for two hundred years which had passed as one night whilst he was in the mountain with the dwarf. Some of the retainers jumped off their horses and fell to dust but the king and the rest ride on till the bloodhound bounds from the saddle which will be at the Last Day’.[2]

The story was old well before Gervaise gave his version. Early in 1127 an unpopular abbot arrived at the Peterborough monastery. People soon began to talk of strange and frightening nightly apparitions. Twenty or thirty spectral huntsman, ‘black, huge and hideous’ rode through the town’s deer park and woods ‘on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.’ Every night for weeks on end until Easter, the monks listened fearfully to the sound of hunting horns echoing through the darkness.[3]

On another dark winter night thirty-six years earlier, in 1091, the English monk Orderic Vitalis was in Normandy where he documented an appearance of ghost riders he referred to as ‘Herlichin’s troop’.[4]Other accounts refer to frequent sightings of the hunt at this period.[5]

These unfortunate monks, and many others, were witnessing the ‘Wild Hunt’, an ancient and widespread apparition reported throughout Europe. The hunt is invariably a bad omen, foretelling war, tragedy or other disaster. In many traditions, anyone who lays eyes upon the spectral horde is doomed. The leader of the hunt varies from country to country. In Germany, it might be Woden, or malign figures of German tradition, such as Fraue Holle. In the Scandinavian countries it can be Odin; in Brittany, King Arthur and, in Ireland, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Other European countries have their own versions of the legend, often in diverse forms. In England and Wales, the leader can be any of Woden, Herne the Hunter, St Guthliac, Old Nick or any of a dozen or so other identities, depending on which part of the country the tradition is known.

Another leader of the (mainly) English pack is named Eadric, an historical figure who refused to bow to the Norman invaders in his domain within what is now the English and Welsh border, the Marches. Along these borderlands between 1067 and early 1070 Eadric held out against the invaders in a variety of activities that included attacking Hereford castle and occupying the city of Shrewsbury. He was one of a number of rebel leaders, including Hereward (‘the Wake’), attempting an ultimately lost resistance against the Normans, who named them silvatici, or ‘wild men’. Eadric probably made peace with William in 1070 but may have been involved in another rebellion against the ‘Norman yoke’ in 1075, probably losing his lands as a consequence, and possibly a lot more. There are no further mentions of Eadric in historical records[6], but in the Shropshire and Welsh versions of the wild hunt legend Eadric, sometimes in company with his wife, haunts the night skies. Eadric’s wild hunt has been reportedly seen or heard just before the Crimean War, the First World War and the Second World War.[7]

While the wild hunt seems to originate in the medieval era[8], it has endured into modern times. A German painting on the theme made by Franz Stuck in 1889gh was widely believed to foretell the tyranny of Adolph Hitler and his Nazis. Hitler was reportedly so enamoured of the painting that he purchased it and groomed himself in imitation of its forbidding depiction of the German god of war. There is even a possible connection with the popular country song ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, though that might be drawing the bow a little too long, as the song seems to have been based on a local legend of a fatal cattle stampede.[9]More recently, the anthropologist and historian, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, under her pen name of ‘Fred Vargas’ has used French version of the story as the basis of a detective novel, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec(2013) – and a great read it is.

The number of alleged sightings, along with the diffusion and duration of this powerful legend gives it a creepily convincing character. The legend is not going away any time soon either. It features in the best-selling ‘Witcher’ fantasy novel series byAndrzej Sapkowski,later turned into an award-winning and widely successful video game, ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, bringing an ancient folk tradition to the digital generation.

 

NOTES AND SOURCES:

[1]Sabine Baring Gould and Alfred Newton, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, Smithe, Elder and Son, London, 1863, pp. 200 -204.

[2]Baring Gould, pp. 201-202.

[3]Garmonsway, G.N., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Dent, Dutton, 1972 & 1975, p. 258.

[4]Harold Peake, ‘17. Horned Deities’, Man22, February 1922, p. 28.

[5]Map, Walter. Master Walter Map’s book, De nugis curialium (Courtier’s trifles). trans. Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. London: Chatto & Windus, 1924, at http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/map1.html, accessed November 2018. Map was writing towards the end of the twelfth century.

[6]Reynolds, S., ‘Eadric Silvaticus and the English Resistance’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical ResearchVol LIV, No 129, 1981, pp. 102-105.

[7]Westwood, J., Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, Granada, London, 1985, pp. 300-304. Also Hutton, Ronald (2014). ‘The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath’. Folklore. London: The Folklore Society. 125 (2): 161–178.

[8]Though Jacob Grimm, who produced the first scholarly study of the tradition in 1883, located it in pagan belief.

[9]Composed by Stan Jones and first recorded by Burl Ives in 1949, and by many since. For the local stampede legend, see Fairweather Lewis, ‘Stampede Mesa: The Story Behind ‘(Ghost’) Riders in the Sky’ at https://fairweatherlewis.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/stampede-mesa-the-story-behind-ghost-riders-in-the-sky/, accessed November 2018.

 

PIED PIPER STILL PIPING

From a window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633), thought to be the earliest representation of the legend.
 
A well-known story of German, and now global, tradition is a constant reminder of what might happen if a helper is not properly rewarded for his assistance. The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the ambivalent focus of an enduring medieval legend. In 1284 the town of Hamelin in Saxony is disturbed by a plague of rats. The piper, dressed in motley, hence the term ‘pied’, pipes the rats into the River Weser where they drown. But the people of the town refuse to pay him and so he pipes their children inside Koppenberg Hill, from where they have never emerged. Only one lame child, too slow to keep up with the others, survived.
 
This is the most familiar version of this enigmatic legend today, though its original form, as far as can be known, was a little different. One of the earliest and most significant accounts of the event is the fourteenth century version appearing in the Latin chronicle Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain) and written by a monk known as Heinrich of Hereford. This account has nothing about a plague of rats but simply tells of a handsome and well-dressed young man appearing in the city on the Feast of Saints John and Paul (26 June). He went through the streets playing a magnificent silver pipe, attracting about 130 children to follow him out of the city to the execution ground known as Calvary. There they all vanished without trace. Heinrich gives an earlier written source for this information and also refers to the testimony of an eye-witness relayed to him through the witnesses’ son.
 
As well as the absence of the rats and the reluctance of the townspeople to pay the piper’s fee, there is nothing ‘pied’ about the piper in Heinrich’s version of events, and no children returned. By the mid-1550s, though, an account written in Bamberg elaborated the story with such details as the threat of the piper to return in three hundred years and take more children away and the return of two naked children, one blind and one mute. Another account from around the same period identifies the piper as the devil and the fate of the children a result of God’s retribution for human sin. The return of the one lame child seems to appear first in the English translation made by Richard Verstegan in 1605.
 
The detail of the rat plague is first heard of in the Swabian Zimmer Chronicle of 1565. However, it is known that by this time there were other legends involving rat and mouse-catchers attached to other parts of Europe and it may be that these became mixed with the basic Hamelin story. By whatever and various ways the story evolved, it was already a popular item of print entertainment by the early seventeenth century and, in one version or another, continued to attract the interest of poets like Robert Browning (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, 1842) and of folklorists like the Brothers Grimm as well as carrying on a busy life in oral tradition, including a number of German folksongs.
 
This disturbing legend has attracted a good deal of scholarly speculation through the succeeding centuries. Some suggest the legend is derived from the eastward migrations of young Germanic peoples during the thirteenth century. Others relate the story to the disastrous Children’s Crusade in which many children left their homes, never to return. There are also suggestions that the story is related to the medieval dance epidemic known as ‘St John’s Dance’ or ‘St Vitus’ Dance’ or to a major bubonic plague outbreak. Others have looked to mythological and historical sources for enlightenment and explanation.
 
Whatever its source, the tale has been continually in oral tradition and, later, in literature, theatre, children’s books, advertising, cartoons, political propaganda, films and, of course, in the tourism industry of the city of Hamelin. The many-faceted legend of the Pied Piper is largely due to the ambiguity of the piper’s character, both good and evil, and the ingratitude and stupidity of the burghers of Weser. As well as all the other many uses to which the tradition has been put, in the end it is perhaps primarily an appealing moral tale about just rewards (‘you must pay the piper’s fee’) and being careful about which processions you follow.
 
 

From Graham Seal and Kim Kennedy-White, Folk Heroes and Heroines Around the World