The image of a hell hound has long been a staple of fiction, film and games. They are seen as demonic beings that, obviously, take the shape of hounds and are usually thought to serve as guardians or hunters for the forces of evil. The concept itself has its roots in legends from throughout Europe and can probably be traced back as far as Ancient Greece.
The prototype of the idea of the hell hound is almost certainly Cerberus from Greek mythology. Cerberus is a large canine beast with three heads and a serpent for at tail who’s said to guard the gates of Hades. While Hades, in Greek mythology at least, is the place that all spirits of the dead go rather than Hell in a Judeo Christian sense this concept carried on into Rome and beyond even appearing in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, although Dante placed the dog deeper in Hell at the third circle, that he reserved for gluttons, rather than the gates themselves.
While Cerberus has an obvious tie to the general idea of a hell hound he doesn’t fit the more common image of a monster that comes to earth to prey upon mortals. Another set of folkloric hounds falls better into this category and is known variously as wish hounds, barghests, black hounds or black shucks. While the details vary from country to country these are generally seen as large black dogs that are encountered in desolate places like the moors of Scotland. In some of the legends they themselves are not dangerous by themselves but seeing one is a herald of approaching death. In other cases these creatures actively attack and kill human beings they come across. An example of this second type inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (although in the book a mundane explanation for the creature is offered). As for the first it’s interesting to note that Winston Churchill referred to his own periods of depression as a black dog on his shoulder. It was also said that a black dog (associated with an accused witch who was murdered by prisoners before his trial in 1596) would appear at the gates of Newgate Prison for centuries appearing prior to each execution. While Newgate has since been closed rumors of sightings of a dog like shadow persist to this day.
The last particularly notable example of dogs that are associated with the concept of hell hounds is what’s commonly known as the Wild Hunt. According to legend on certain nights a great hunt is called involving a large pack of huge and ferocious dogs. The story goes that these dogs roam the earth attacking and devouring anyone who crosses their path; although in one famous account a victim fell to his knees in prayer upon sighting the pack leading the huntsman to call off the dogs. The pack is in turn lead by a huntsman usually depicted as a horned man (typically stag horns as opposed to the more traditional rams horns thought of in relation to demons) who in various legends is said to either be King Arthur, the Norse god Odin or Satan himself.
Copyright 2013 Kevin P Meares All Rights Reserved
Article on the black dog of Newgate: http://www.ghostbooks.net/story.php?id=039
Collection of accounts of the Wild Hunt: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/huntsman.html#jewitt