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).
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
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/