“Over the souls of those submerged beneath that mess, is an outlandish, vicious beast,
his three throats barking, doglike: Cerberus.”
In Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Inferno, we are taken on a journey through Hell.
Beneath the earth, Dante descends the nine concentric circles of sin. In the third circle he comes upon the Gluttons and it is here he meets Cerberus.
Under a freezing rain this three-headed dog stands guard, flaying the flesh of the damned with razor-sharp teeth; punishment for their appetites above.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Cerberus stood guard at the gates of the Underworld. As Hades’ pet he prevented the dead from escaping.
And though his temperament was unpredictable, he was far from demonic.
Nevertheless, he became the first hellhound; an evil beast bringing death and damnation; a ravenous black dog whose only joy is found mauling sinners.
The image of the hellhound persists to this day. Folklore and pop culture contain countless supernatural canines. They often appear at night, their black fur and glowing eyes spreading fear.
To many they are seen as harbingers of death.
But there is more to this modern myth than Christianity would have us believe. For beyond Cerberus, their roots lie deep in the Celtic mythology of Northern Europe.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt was a common mythological motif throughout much of pre-Christian Europe. As a supernatural group of hunters, their passing was thought to foretell a catastrophe, perhaps war or plague.
The Wild Hunt brought with it danger. Rumor of the hunt sent villagers indoors, lest they be abducted by the spectres.
And it was said that these hunters brought with them dogs.
The most well known of these ghost dogs are the Cŵn Annwn of Wales.
Seen as escorts to the underworld, they are emissaries of their master Arawn, leader of the hunt and king of Annwn, the underworld of Welsh mythology.
But as Christianity spread, their ties to a legendary underworld made them omens of death, dogs of Hell, and servants of Satan.
On 4 August 1577, a black dog invaded a church in Northern England.
A number of parishioners were killed, their heads wrenched backwards as the mongrel ran wild among the pews. Its claws left scorch marks on the doorway as it left.
So began the legend of Black Shuck.
But stories of hellhounds are a worldwide phenomena. In Central America, tales are told of Los Cadejos. According to legend, these goat-footed dog creatures appear at night to travelers, the white to protect and the black to kill.
While indigenous peoples saw dogs as guides to the afterlife, Christianity spun the tale of Los Cadejos into one of Good versus Evil.
Beyond mythology & folklore, today’s pop culture continues the tradition of the hellhound.
In the movie The Ghostbusters, Gozer is a demi-god brought to Earth by his two servants, Zuul the Gatekeeper & Vinz the Keymaster.
As Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades, these Terror Dogs guard their master’s portal to our mortal plane.
But it’s friendly hellhounds that reside in the world of Pokemon. Houndoom will be your friend, so long as you catch him.
But tread lightly, as its howl induces fear to any who hear. Moreover, its guts are full of toxins used to create fire. Like Black Shuck’s marks upon the church door, the wounds it inflicts will never heal.
In Harry Potter’s world, Cerberus is no myth. But in this world, his name is Fluffy.
He was groundskeeper Hagrid’s pet and quite ferocious. Nevertheless, the beast could be lulled to sleep by the faintest of musical tunes.
After serving headmaster Dumbledore as guard of the Philosopher’s Stone, Fluffy was returned to his native Greece; a just reward for a good boy.
From the pits of Dante’s Inferno to the shores of the river Styx, Cerberus was home.
Christianity has a history of turning pagan symbols into demons and devils. Nevertheless, the hellhound mythos may ring true.
While dogs are often loyal companions, there is indeed a wildness to them; a glint in their eyes that betrays something unknown.
It’s best to be careful, for we know not what truly lies within Man’s Best Friend.
“I wrenched DOG backwards to find GOD; now GOD barks.”-Aleister Crowley,
‘Book of Lies’