Hellhounds: Gatekeepers of Death

It is true that dogs are mans’ best friends. They have been our faithful companions from the beginning of time. They have filled many roles throughout our history. Some dogs were our hunting partners, some were heard dogs, and still some were guard dogs. However, there is one occupation that dogs have held in folklore for a very long time, and it is held by literal demon canines. They have been called many things depending on what culture tells these stories. I am, of course, talking about the Hellhound.

These four-legged devils have been described in a few different ways. However, the most popular description is a big, black dog with red eyes. Legends also say they have the ability to shapeshift into other creatures or beings. Some have appeared as black horses or goats, even a demonic donkey is said to be one of the forms these creatures can take. As to what a Hellhound is, well, it is a little more complicated. There are all kinds of theories as to what they are. Depending on the origin of the legend, a Hellhound can be a demon that guards the gates of Hell and corrals escaped souls, or it could be a ghost or spirit that haunts graveyards and wreaks havoc on visitors and the local population. If you’re wanting to avoid being in the path of these creatures, I would do what most people would. Stay away from graveyards and old church buildings at night. It is said that if you ever see one you will die or become ill. This could also extend to close family and friends. The best course of action in any case if you see one is to probably make your peace.

There are all kinds of accounts of Hellhounds in history and myth. For example, the three-headed dog Cerberus that guards the underworld in Greek mythology is often called a hellhound. In Egyptian mythology, Anubis, the god of death, is depicted with a dog head and his sacred animal is the Egyptian canid, Golden Wolf. I tell you this to stress the fact that these creatures are linked to death in many cultures. However, most of the stories you will hear when you type in “Hellhound” or “Black Dog” will be English or Scandinavian. For example, the legend of Old Shuck or Black Shuck from England is said to roam the shores of Norfolk, Essex, and Suffolk. He often appears as a dog of varying sizes, such as a medium dog to a large horse, sometimes even appearing headless. It’s said that he haunts graveyards, churches, sideroads, crossroads, and dark forests. The usual places on my “do not go to at night” list. Old Shuck is blamed for the deaths of a man and a boy in a church service when he ran up the aisle in a church and murdered them then escaped, leaving burn marks on the door. Interestingly enough, Black Shuck isn’t always described as a murderous demon hound. Other reports say that he often leaves those that see him alone and nothing happens to them, as opposed to a legend that says when you see a hellhound you die. He also has appeared to women walking home and escorts them to their destination. The whole stories surrounding Black Shuck could probably be put into their own article. This could fall in with another manifestation of the creature called a Church Grim, which is a protective spirit that haunts graveyards as well.

Black Dog legends aren’t only found in the U.K. They also show up in America, with many sightings and reports of black dogs in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. The description of the beasts seen are just like the ones across the pond- big horse-sized dogs with fiery red eyes. Many believe the stories of the Appalachian Hellhound came from the Irish settlers that found homes in the mountains. This would make sense because a culture’s stories and folklore often follow the people. Talk of hellhounds also shows up in American originated music. The famous blues artist Robert Johnson has a song titled Hell Hound on my Trail. This may just be another blues artist writing about demons and devils, but I thought it was interesting that hellhounds show up in lyrics that are detached from settlers from the U.K.

After reading about these encounters and legends, the question, like with all other myths, arises. Is this beast real? If not, what could be the cause of these ghostly sightings? The most obvious explanation would be that the creature being seen is just a large stray or wild dog. History is full of instances of things being made up to explain strange happenings in the world. This very well could be that. The term “Black Dog” is even a term to describe hallucinations seen by truckers because they are too tired. The truth is we may never know what these strange occurrences are, especially if the norm for the legend is if you see one you die.

Hellhounds are some of the most terrifying creatures someone could ever encounter. If this beast’s job is to guard Hell and the underworld, then I don’t think I’d ever want to see one. The stories and legends are bone-chilling enough without the added experience of seeing one up close. What do you think? Are these ghostly apparitions just legend, or are they a real thing stalking graveyards at night? Let me know in the comments below!