Probably the earliest legend of a hell-hound comes from Ancient Greece. Cerberus was a monstrous three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades. Yet, despite his frightening form, Cerberus only prevented souls from recrossing the River Styx to return to the world above. Tales of such creatures are Europe-wide, and the
"notion of 'spectral' or 'ghostly' dogs, whether single or in packs, is found throughout the British Isles even today... . "
Walker said that these tales were "demoted versions" of the Nordic 'Ride of the Valkyries', nine or twelve handmaidens of Odin who bore away souls of warriors slain in battle. They were carried on swift horses to Valhalla [literally 'Hall of the Slain'] in Asgard, the Realm of the Gods. Another suggestion is that the Vikings brought to England the legend of the Hounds of Odin, spectral war-dogs.
This is plausible as there is a bizarre entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1127, a strange tale connected to a Norman [they had Nordic roots] abbot of Peterborough, Henry of Poitou. Henry was a shady character accused of plurality [he held several ecclesiastical offices in France simultaneously, not to mention in quick succession], and duped Henry I, a close relation, to gain the abbacy. Once in place he defrauded the Abbey!
The Chronicle says "general knowledge throughout the whole country" held he'd been in league with the Devil since his arrival in England! The manifestations were "huge and hideous" shadowy huntsmen on "black horses and goats" [the latter believed by the early Church to be Satanic beasts] accompanied by dark hounds "with eyes like saucers and horrible". Numbering about 20 or 30 [according to "reliable witnesses"], the riders travelled through woodland from Peterborough to Stamford, Lincolnshire, "winding their horns as they went", The sightings lasted from Lent to Easter.
This tale is strikingly similar to the one of Herne the Hunter's night-time gallop through the ancient forest of Windsor Great Park. Accompanied by howling hounds, Herne was last seen in 1962 by a group of youths. They were terrified by this antler-wearing chain-draped phantom astride a large dark horse sounding a horn. Shakespeare mentions Herne, a legendary royal huntsman who saved a king's life, in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Dartmoor has its own Wild Huntsman who rides with the Whist or Yell Hounds. Known as the 'Midnight Hunter of the Moor' he rides a huge, dark, flame-breathing horse. The fiery-eyed dogs with salivating jaws are held to be a portent of death within a year of being seen! They are said to hound unwary travellers till they plunge to their doom below Dewerstone Rock. One local legend says they are led by Sir Francis Drake (1545-96) no less! According to Walker this tale "inspired...Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles."
Bodmin Moor has its own spectral hounds. Headless, and guided by the Devil this time, they relentlessly pursue the tormented soul of Jan Tregeagle, an unpopular early 17th century magistrate. The sins of a lifetime eternally condemned him [his soul was tried in a courtroom and sentence passed] to carry out impossible tasks, such as weaving sand ropes and draining a pool with a limpet! If he faltered the Hounds of Hell would take him... .
There is a legend in northern England of Gabriel Ratchet's Hounds [from the Anglo-Saxon 'gabbara' - corpse], a pack of demon dogs that chase damned souls through the sky. It's said that they 're the spirits of the unbaptised being pursued until Judgement Day. The explanation of how this story arose is more down-to-earth: the cries of migratory geese!
Another red-eyed hound, known as Old Shuck [from Anglo Saxon 'scucca' - a demon], local legend tells, terrorised Bungay, Suffolk, in 1577. During a fearful storm this demonic dog killed three parishioners in the church. His appearance is held to be another deathly omen.
A tale from Appletreewick, Yorkshire, from 1881, tells how a foolish man went to Troller's Gorge at midnight. His body was found next day bearing inexplicable marks on his chest. He was said to have been a victim of the local barguest, a fearsome spectral dog with a shaggy coat.
The final tale concerns the Mauthe Dog or Moddey Dhoo, which for some time haunted Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. This ghostly black spaniel used to enter the guardroom when the candles were lit, and lie beside the fire until dawn. The soldier who locked up at night always ensured he was accompanied when taking the keys to the captain. However, one drunken soldier went alone. He was left speechless and died three days later. As a footnote, when the remains of Simon, Bishop of Sodor and Man [died 1247] were found in 1871, a dog's skeleton lay at his feet.