Guardian dog of the underworld. A hellhound is a large dog with shadow-black fur and eyes that burn like embers. They stand at least as tall as a common mastiff. Some breeds are larger, closer to the size of a direwolf. The largest and most powerful have three heads and can grow to monstrous sizes.
Illustration by @danaxbraga
"I was right. He is a threat." The man rummaged through the boy's backpack with a scowl. He pulled out a knife and held it up. On the hilt was a rune, shaped like a "W". He stopped moving for a second. "It's him. He's been after us all along." The man stood up and called to his dog: "Trym!" He knelt down and put his mouth right beside the beast's ear and began whispering in a language long forgotten. The dog's snout showed its age with a splash of gray hairs near the tip. He perked up, looking towards the sky at the sound of his master's voice. "Find him." The dog's eyes started glowing and changing, turning a fiery copper colour. "Become what you once were and do what you were meant to do." The dog's hackles were raised, tension mounted across its entire body. He was shaking and staring ahead with anticipation. "Kill him." The man let go and the dog sprang forward, almost too fast for mortal eyes to track it. By now it had grown to almost double its original size. As it ran, the mountainside gave way under it's feet. Hard stone was rent like soft earth under its massive paws.
Meanwhile the boy was wandering further down the mountain, moving quickly. A vague sense of dread was coming over him. He did not know exactly why, but he knew he had to get away. He had confronted the man directly and confirmed his suspicions about him – that the man was not human and he had murdered the boy's best friend. That man was evil. Suddenly, the boy came upon a depression in the mountainside. He turned his head around, looking left and right, searching for the best path. A howl pierced the air just behind him. He was trapped – the dog was upon him. He saw the beast crest the ridge he had just descended from. It seemed to stand almost as tall as the boy did. Its ears were bent back and its lips were pulled, revealing supernaturally long fangs. Its eyes glowed red now, like burning embers. It lunged in an instant, knocking the boy flat on his back. The boy threw his arm into the dogs jaws at the last moment and felt the teeth clamp down, piercing bone. He screamed in terror and started to panic as he saw his death drew closer. The dogs teeth and burning eyes filled his vision. He closed his eyes, and turned into himself. He thought of his own death and felt sadness. Then he thought of his murdered friend and the sadness changed quickly to anger. It caught like wildfire, and the anger became rage as it swept through him. Rage at the circumstance. Rage at the injustice. The rage brought the memory flooding back – the memory of what he once was and what he was meant to do. He took the dogs jaws in his hand and opened his eyes. He screamed down the dog's throat as he felt his ancient strength return to him – a strength that could flatten the very mountain he lay upon. He ripped the dogs jaws wide apart, spilling blood everywhere. He left its corpse on top of a boulder, like a hunting trophy to mark his victory for all to see. He continued down the mountain, faster now, and free.
A hellhound is a supernatural dog with a connection to the world of the dead. They stand at least as tall as a large breed of dog like a mastiff, but there are many sightings of larger hellhounds that are closer to the size of a direwolf. The largest and most powerful hellhounds, who usually remain in the underworld, can grow even larger and may have multiple heads. The most ancient stories speak of hellhounds with many heads – in Thesiod's Theogony, the famous hellhound Cerberus has fifty. But most accounts of the underworld guardians claim the dogs have three, and three is known to be a significant number. Jorges writes the following:
“Virgil mentions the creature’s three gullets; Ovid, its triple bark; Butler compares the three crowns of the diadem worn by the Pope, who is heaven’s doorman, with the three heads of the dog who stands at the gates of Hell.”
And Rowling also describes such a beast, with the number three a repetitive focus of the passage:
“They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling, mad eyes; three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs. It was standing quite still, all six eyes staring at them, and Harry knew that the only reason they weren't already dead was that their sudden appearance had taken it by surprise, but it was quickly getting over that, there was no mistaking what those thunderous growls meant.”
A hellhound has eyes that glow red like fiery embers. These burning eyes stand out against their black fur. The shadowy black and burning red juxtaposition is a clear mark of their association with the underworld. Perhaps the most famous hellhound is Cerberus, who guarded the gates at the house of Hades in Greek mythology. Cerberus had three heads which faced towards the underworld and a draconic tail which faced away. In this configuration, any who entered the underworld would be greeted by a serpent, and any who tried to escape would be devoured. At the gates of Hel, the goddess of the underworld in Norse mythology, there stands the hellhound Garmr. Garmr is covered in blood and his howl signals Ragnarök, which is the battle at the end of the world. It is written that Garmr will attack Tyr, the One-handed, god of war and they will destroy each other. We have a similar example from Middle Earth. Consider this quote from David Day:
“In Tolkien’s world we have a comparable monster in the gigantic Carcharoth, meaning ‘red maw’, the greatest wolf of the First Age and the unsleeping guardian at the gates of Morgoth’s underworld realm of Angband. In the Quest for the Silmaril, Carcharoth bites off the hand of the hero, Beren (henceforth, like Tyr, known as the One-handed).”
I do not advise you ever attempt to enter the underworld. If you go seeking great treasure you may encounter a hellhound standing guard. If you're fated to die, it is possible that one will come hunting you. In any case, you should be equipped with the basic knowledge to defeat one. A hellhound will be supernaturally fast and strong, and it will be gifted with all the hunting prowess of the greatest wolf. There are some stories that suggest you can calm the beasts with music, but I would warn you not to overestimate that strategy. The most famous story of music calming a hellhound, is the story of Orpheus who played his lyre and stopped Cerberus from standing guard. But Orpheus was a musician beyond all other mortals – his music could draw tears even from gods. A simple song alone would not suffice. Strangely enough, there have been multiple stories that suggest Cerberus had a fondness for honeycakes. It seems hard to believe but, like a common household dog, you may have better luck bribing them with food than with anything else.
Written by Giles Ravensong.