Cwn Annwn Or Dogs Of The Abyss

: Welsh Folk-lore

The words Cwn Annwn are variously translated as Dogs of Hell, Dogs of

Elfinland. In some parts of Wales they are called Cwn Wybir, Dogs of

the Sky, and in other places Cwn Bendith Y Mamau. We have seen that

Bendith y Mamau is a name given to the Fairies, and in this way these

dogs become Fairy Dogs.

A description of these Fairy dogs is given in Y Brython, vol. iii p.

22. Briefly stated it is as follows
--Cwn Bendith y Mamau were a pack

of small hounds, headed by a large dog. Their howl was something

terrible to listen to, and it foretold death. At their approach all

other dogs ceased barking, and fled before them in terror, taking refuge

in their kennels. The birds of the air stopped singing in the groves

when they heard their cry, and even the owl was silent when they were

near. The laugh of the young, and the talk at the fireside were hushed

when the dreadful howl of these Hell hounds was heard, and pale and

trembling with fear the inmates crowded together for mutual protection.

And what was worse than all, these dogs often foretold a death in some

particular family in the neighbourhood where they appeared, and should a

member of this family be in a public-house, or other place of amusement,

his fright would be so great that he could not move, believing that

already had death seized upon some one in his house.

The Fairy dogs howled more at Cross-roads, and such like public places,

than elsewhere. And woe betide any one who stood in their way, for they

bit them, and were likely even to drag a man away with them, and their

bite was often fatal. They collected together in huge numbers in the

churchyard where the person whose death they announced was to be buried,

and, howling around the place that was to be his grave, disappeared on

that very spot, sinking there into the earth, and afterwards they were

not to be seen.

A somewhat different description of Cwn Annwn is given in the

Cambro-Briton, vol. i., p. 350. Here we are told that these terrific

animals are supposed to be devils under the semblance of hunting dogs . .

. and they are usually accompanied by fire in some form or other. Their

appearance is supposed to indicate the death of some friend or relative

of the person to whom they shew themselves. They have never been known

to commit any mischief on the persons of either man or woman, goat,

sheep, or cow, etc.

In Motley's Tales of the Cymry, p. 58, that author says:--I have met

with but a few old people who still cherished a belief in these infernal

hounds which were supposed after death to hunt the souls of the wretched

to their allotted place of torment.

It was, however, once firmly and generally believed, that these awful

creatures could be heard of a wild stormy night in full cry pursuing the

souls of the unbaptized and unshriven. Mr. Chapman, Dolfor, near

Newtown, Montgomeryshire, writes to me thus:--These mysterious animals

are never seen, only heard. A whole pack were recently heard on the

borders of Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire. They went from the Kerry

hills towards the Llanbadarn road, and a funeral quickly followed the

same route. The sound was similar to that made by a pack of hounds in

full cry, but softer in tone.

The Rev. Edmund Jones, in his work entitled An Account of Apparitions of

Spirits in the county of Monmouth, says that, The nearer these dogs are

to a man, the less their voice is, and the farther the louder, and

sometimes, like the voice of a great hound, or like that of a blood

hound, a deep hollow voice. It is needless to say that this gentleman

believed implicitly in the existence of Cwn Annwn, and adduces

instances of their appearance.

The following is one of his tales:--

As Thomas Andrews was coming towards home one night with some

persons with him, he heard, as he thought, the sound of hunting. He

was afraid it was some person hunting the sheep, so he hastened on to

meet, and hinder them; he heard them coming towards him, though he

saw them not. When they came near him, their voices were but small,

but increasing as they went from him; they went down the steep

towards the river Ebwy, dividing between this parish and

Mynyddislwyn, whereby he knew they were what are called Cwn wybir

(Sky dogs), but in the inward part of Wales Cwn Annwn (Dogs of

Hell). I have heard say that these spiritual hunting-dogs have been

heard to pass by the eaves of several houses before the death of

someone in the family. Thomas Andrews was an honest, religious man,

and would not have told an untruth either for fear or for favour.

The colour of these dogs is variously given, as white, with red ears, and

an old man informed Mr. Motley that their colour was blood-red, and that

they always were dripping with gore, and that their eyes and teeth were

of fire. This person confessed that he had never seen these dogs, but

that he described them from what he had heard.--Tales of the Cymry, p.

60. There is in The Cambro-Briton, vol. ii., p. 271, another and more

natural description of Cwn Annwn. It is there stated that Pwyll,

prince of Dyved, went out to hunt, and:--

He sounded his horn and began to enter upon the chase, following his

dogs and separating from his companions. And, as he was listening to

the cry of his pack, he could distinctly hear the cry of another

pack, different from that of his own, and which was coming in an

opposite direction. He could also discern an opening in the wood

towards a level plain; and as his pack was entering the skirt of the

opening, he perceived a stag before the other pack, and about the

middle of the glade the pack in the rear coming up and throwing the

stag on the ground; upon this be fixed his attention on the colour of

the pack without recollecting to look at the stag; and, of all the

hounds in the world he had ever seen, he never saw any like them in

colour. Their colour was a shining clear white, with red ears; and

the whiteness of the dogs, and the redness of their ears, were

equally conspicuous.

We are informed that these dogs belonged to Arawn, or the silver-tongued

King of Annwn, of the lower or southern regions. In this way these dogs

are identified with the creatures treated of in this chapter. But their

work was less weird than soul-hunting.

A superstition akin to that attached to Cwn Annwn prevails in many

countries, as in Normandy and Bretagne. In Devonshire, the Wish, or

Wisked Hounds, were once believed in, and certain places on Dartmoor were

thought to be their peculiar resort, and it was supposed that they hunted

on certain nights, one of which was always St. John's Eve. These

terrible creations of a cruel mind indicate a phase of faith antagonistic

to, and therefore more ancient than, Christianity.

With another quotation from Tales of the Cymry (p. 61-62), I will

conclude my remarks:--

In the north of Devon the spectral pack are called Yesh hounds and

Yell hounds. There is another legend, evidently of Christian origin,

which represents them in incessant pursuit of a lost spirit. In the

northern quarter of the moor the Wish hounds, in pursuit of the

spirit of a man who had been well known in the country, entered a

cottage, the door of which had been incautiously left open, and ran

round the kitchen, but quietly, without their usual cry. The Sunday

after the same man appeared in church, and the person whose house the

dogs had entered, made bold by the consecrated place in which they

were, ventured to ask why he had been with the Wish hounds. 'Why

should not my spirit wander,' he replied, 'as well as another man's?'

Another version represents the hounds as following the spirit of a

beautiful woman, changed into the form of a hare; and the reader will

find a similar legend, with some remarkable additions, in the

Disquisitiones Magicae of the Jesuit Delrio, lib. vi., c.2.

The preceding paragraph is from the pen of R.J.K., and appears in the

Athenaeum, March 27, 1847, Art. Folk-lore.