The Dogs of Wales
The lore of dogs in Wales shows how deep the relationship is between humans and their animal best friend. They appear not only in Welsh mythology, but extant breeds have been developed by the Welsh to aid them in many ways. From pagan mythology to more modern folklore to Welsh dog breeds, here shall be unleashed the Dogs of Wales.
Dogs of Myth
Perhaps the most famous of Welsh dogs are the Cŵn Annwn, the Hounds of Annwn. These are the spectral hunting hounds of Arawn, the ruler of the Welsh Otherworld Annwn. Featured in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, we meet them as they have taken down a stag, but then are driven away by Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, setting up his first meeting with Annwn. The hounds are said to be of white coloration with red ears, red being the color associated with death for the Celts and white being associated with the supernatural. Their existence and sightings continue in to the Christian era, where they are called The Hounds of Hell or Dogs of Hell, although of course there is a vast difference between the Christian Hell and the Welsh Otherworld, a place of beauty, repose, and feasting, rather than a realm of eternal punishment. In post-pagan Wales, they are also said to be accompanied by the hag Mallt-y-Nos, Matilda of the Night. In both Pagan and Christian times, they are a part of the Wild Hunt, a folk myth in Northern, Western, and Central Europe. The Wild Hunt is a group of ghostly hunters that pursue humans, sometimes the living and sometimes the souls of the departed. The Hounds of Annwn themselves are used to hunt the evil doer until the Huntsman, whether Arawn or Gwyn ap Nudd, another Welsh deity of the Otherworld, catches up to them. Even today, it is said to hear their howl is a portent of death, a belief that is very prominent around the mountain of Cadair Idris, which is a known hunting ground for the hounds.
Another mythical dog from Wales is the Gwyllgi. It appears as a ghostly mastiff with blazing red eyes and baleful breath that haunts lonely roads at night. A related beast is the spectral black dog of St. Donat’s castle, in the Vale of Glamorgan, who haunts alongside a frightening hag.
A less frightening, but more poignantly sad tale is that of Gelert. The favorite hunting hound of Prince Llywelyn, Gelert was usually at the front of the pack. On one fateful hunt, the prince noticed Gelert was missing and came back to find the dog coming out of his infant son’s room covered in blood. Fearful and angry that the hound had killed his heir, Prince Llywelyn drew his sword and killed Gelert. He then walked into his son’s room to find the infant unharmed, along with the body of a wolf that Gelert had killed in order to protect the babe. The prince erected a monument to the dog, for which the village of Beddgelert (Gelert’s Grave) owes its name.
Dogs of Folk-Lore
Many are the tales of lost fairy dogs being found by farmers, only to not then being taken care of properly. Once the fairy owners find the dog, it is willingly given back to them, with the farmer being handed a bag of coins as a reward. Later, though, the coins would turn into worthless items, such as leaves or shells, as the fairies teaching them a lesson for being so uncaring towards their pets. Unlike the stingy farmers, though, there are tales of kindly women taking care of the found fairy dogs. A farmer’s wife took care of such a dog and, when the fairies inquired, she willingly gave back the now-healthy animal. The fairies rewarded her by making her cows give more milk than any other in the area.
Fairy dogs would howl at crossroads, biting anyone foolish enough to get in their way or those who would attempt to shoo them off. Occasionally the person would even be drug away by the dog, never to be seen again. Even normal dogs had abilities, such as being able to see the aura that surrounds humans, are also able to track their masters’ souls after death, as the soul also contains that aura.
A more Christian tale, it is said Satan erected the Devil’s Bridge, to help people cross a deep gorge, with the understanding that the first thing to cross would become his. A man came upon the bridge but, knowing whose it was, threw bread across it. The man’s trusty dog ran across, chasing the bread, becoming the first thing to cross. Satan, afraid of the dog, chose not to take his due. In a similar tale, it was an old woman who threw the bread across. While Satan was not afraid of the dog, he also did not want it in place of the woman, either. In separate tales, it’s the devil himself who is the dog, appearing around Wales as an enormous mastiff black.
Many famous figures of legend had dogs as companions. Lupus, the dog of St. Kevin, helped capture the last snake that left Ireland. Cavall was the favorite hound of King Arthur, and was the first of his hounds to run down a stag. Hodain of Sir Tristram passed up stags in order to find the knight, succeeding when finding his owner’s corpse laying in wake in a church. Gorban, the white dog of Ummad, was lamented at death by his bardic master with poem and song.
Corgis – the fairy mount
Although there are several Welsh dog breeds, including the well-known Welsh Terrier and the Welsh Sheepdog, perhaps the best known, and most linked with folk-lore, is the Welsh Corgi, a name derived from the Welsh words for dwarf (“cor”) and dog (“ci”).
Bred as a herding dog, the corgi is the embodiment of Welsh tenacity. Rather than herd cattle by running around the animals, the corgi instead nips at their heels, working and worrying them from behind. As a herder, it is an offensive dog, as it does not back away when a member of the herd decides to charge the dog. Rather, the dog will simply snap at and bite the charging animal’s nose, causing it to rejoin the herd. Although cattle are the primary herding unit, the corgi is just as adept at herding sheep and Welsh ponies. They are even strong willed enough to herd flocks of geese!
A faithful dog, they can be pets as well as work dogs, and have been used to guard children. Their herding instinct still kicks in when playing, as they may nip at the children’s heels during play! They make excellent guard dogs, being shy around strangers, causing them to bark loudly when an unknown presence is close.
The corgi is said to be a gift to humans from the fairies, returning to their fairy friends at night to play. Those who stay with the fae are sometimes used as mounts for the woodland warriors and even today some carry the mark of saddles on their back fur. The companionship between the fairies and corgwn are commemorated in songs and poetry, such as this poem:
Made them work the fairy cattle,
Made them pull the fairy coaches,
Made them steeds for fairy riders,
Made them fairy children’s playmates;
Kept them hidden in the mountains,
Kept them in the mountain’s shadow,
Lest the eye of mortal see one.
The Mabinogion (a collection of Welsh mythology of which several versions are available)
The Mythology of Dogs: Canine Legend (Gerald Hausman and Loretta Hausman)
Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales (Elias Owen)
British Goblins, Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions (Wirt Sikes)
The Bizarre Notes and Queries in History, Folk-Lore, Mathematics, Mysticism, Art, Science, Etc. (S.C. & L.M. Gould)
A Book of South Wales (Sabine Baring-Gould)
The Welsh Fairy Book (W. Jenkyn Thomas)
© 2015 James Slaven