Dogs and hounds are sacred and otherworldly in many cultures and prevalent in many myths, particularly those regarding the gods of the wild places. They are guardians of the way between; bounding through the forest on the hunt, they cross through the boundary between the worlds.
Playful Pan gifted the virgin-huntress Artemis seven dogs “which pulled down very lions when they clutched their throats and haled them still living to the fold” (Callimachus, Hymn to Artemis). In Thrace, dogs were sacrificed to the goddess, to whom the animal is sacred. When Artemis made Cyrene, a Thessalian (northern Greek) princess, her companion, the goddess also bestowed the princess with a pair of magical dogs.
But Artemis’ vengeance is just as swift as her generosity is deep, and when Actaeon, who boasted of being a superior hunter than the goddess herself, spied on Artemis bathing with her attendants in a river, she sprouted antlers from his head, causing his own hounds to instantly attack and devour him.
An entire war was begun among the gods of Wales over a young hound, a lapwing, and a white roebuck. These three animals were stolen from Lord Arawn of the Otherworld, keeper of the Cŵn Annwn, the otherworldly hounds of the Welsh Wild Hunt, by Amaethon, son of Dôn and god of agriculture. Cad Goddeu was waged between Arawn and the Children of Dôn, called “the Battle of Trees” because of the magic cast by Amaethon’s brother Gwydion that enchanted the trees to their aid; what service each did for the Children of Dôn is laid out in Taliesin’s beautiful poem “Cad Goddeu.”
The three-headed guardian at the gates of Hades, Cerberus prevents passage beyond the River Styx–both keeping the dead in the underworld, and keeping the living out (he has a taste only for living flesh). The monstrous offspring of the half-woman, half-snake Echidna and the fire-breathing giant Typhon who strikes fear even into the hearts of the gods, Cerberus is reminiscent of a serpent, called a “great worm” in Dante’s Inferno and often said to have a mane of serpents, he tail of a serpent, and the claws of a lion. The three heads of the dog look at once into the past, the present, and the future. Like all dogs, Cerberus is fiercely loyal to his companion, Hades.
The familiar twelve labors of Heracles recalls the capture of Cerberus, Heracles’ final task in recompense for killing his own children after Hera sparked madness in his mind. He went to Eleusis to become initiated in the Mysteries to learn how to enter and exit the underworld with his life, which he did with the aid of Athena, Hermes, and Hestia. When Heracles had made it to the deathly court, he asked permission of dark Hades and Persephone who “shiver on their throne” to bring Cerberus to the surface, which they would only allow if Heracles could overpower the beast without weapons, which the hero famously did by slinging the beast over his back with chains of adamant and dragging it out to this realm (Seneca, Hercules Furens).
Cŵn Annwn and the Wild Hunt
In Welsh folklore, Cŵn Annwn are the white spectral hounds of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, engaged in the Wild Hunt with dark King Gwyn ap Nudd of the Tylwyth Teg, hounding human souls and guiding them on, wet-nosed psychopomps; to hear the wailing of Gwyn’s hounds was an omen of imminent death in the family. The group hunts from Christmas to Twelfth Night while the wind howls fiercely, accompanied by the crone Mallt-y-Nos, “Matilda of the Night,” the Night Mallt who drives the hounds ever on with her shrieking and wailing. The hunting party meets at the crossroads, and if any of their feet tread upon a mandrake, it screams into the night. Though King Gwyn, whose face is blackened as deeply as the dark night into which the hounds howl, leads the party through the hunting grounds, which include the lush rocky mountain of Cadair Idris, the dogs belong to Arawn, King of the Underworld and a skilled huntsman.
The tale of the Wild Hunt is prevalent across northern Europe, perhaps originating with Odin’s Hunt. In Norse folklore, the souls of the dead waft away on storm winds; and it is wind, lightning, and thunder that announces the Wild Huntsman and his enormous party of hunters on horseback and their baying dogs. With Sleipnir’s eight legs quickened by the howling wind, Odin leads the Wild Hunt through the night sky, trailed by the ghosts of the dead. After the Northern Wild Hunt passed, a small spectral black dog remained, which was carefully tended to for a year unless it could be frightened away with a beer brewed in eggshells, the same brew for getting rid of changelings.
When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees–a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.
But then the barking of dogs fills the air, and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses.
Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson, “The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host,” Mountain Thunder (Issue 7, Winter 1992)
Barking dogs announce her passing,
She’s unbound and cunning of face.
Hekate is Skylakagetis, “leader of the dogs,” whose animal familiars are a polecat who was once the witch Gale, transformed as punishment for her lack of chastity; and a black female dog, previously the Trojan Queen Hekabe, who leapt into the sea as Troy fell and was saved by the formidable goddess of witchcraft. She is accompanied by Stygian dogs, and as she travels to supplications at that place where two roads meet and wanders the world on moonless nights with the souls of the dead, her approach is announced by the howling of dogs. The triple-figured maiden goddess has three heads: that of a horse, a dog, and a lion. The Greeks offered black dogs (and lambs) to her in sacrifice, just as they did to noble Artemis, for whom they are also sacred; but Artemis does not have a place in the sky, as Hekate does in the Dog Star.
Dogs’ great involvement with the hunt, both in this world and the Otherworld, hints at their nature: half domestic and half wild, able to walk the way between and using this ability to loyally serve and aid in a mutually beneficial relationship. People with Dog medicine often serve in the same way, as caretakers, soldiers, or spiritual community leaders. This half-and-half nature also gives dogs a hypersensitivity and awareness that tend towards the territorial. Dogs are capable of such deep compassion and sight that they still have compassion and understanding for our species, despite whatever violence and ill treatment may come their way. Dog medicine teaches us that we must foster compassion and eliminate fear so we can identify truth and remain loyal to our true selves and our “clan.” “Become like Dog–your own best friend” (Jamie Sans, Carson David, Medicine Cards).
- Llyfr Taliesin
- “Hekate” by Aaron J. Atsma
- “Kerberos” by Aaron J. Atsma
- “Wrath of Artemis” by Aaron J. Atsma
- “The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host” by Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson, Mountain Thunder (Issue 7, Winter 1992)
- Hymns of Callimachus, translated by A.W. Mair
- Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson
- Hercules Furens by Seneca
- “The Wild Hunt” by Sigurd Towrie
- Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales by Marie Trevelyan