Sunday, March 24, 2002


By Linda

This essay will deal with the sources I think were used to create Darkhounds.

Giant hounds derived from wolves

According to Elyas, Darkhounds:

“were wolves once. The souls of wolves, anyway, caught and twisted by the Shadow. That was the core used to make Darkhounds, the Shadowbrothers. I think that’s why wolves have to be at the Last Battle. Or maybe Darkhounds were made because wolves will be there, to fight them…A hundred wolves could die trying to kill one Shadowbrother. Worse, if they fail, the Darkhound can eat the souls of those that aren’t dead yet, and in a year or so, there’d be a new pack of Shadowbrothers that didn’t remember ever being wolves.”

- Crossroads of Twilight, Whirlpools of Colour

Wolves have interbred with dogs to form fierce large dogs throughout history. An early example was recorded by Pliny in his Natural History where he mentioned crossing dogs with wolves to breed war dogs—to put a bit of wolf ‘soul’ into the dogs, if you like. Such interbreeding also occurred naturally in the wild between wolves and feral dogs and would have provided a starting point for Robert Jordan’s ideas on Darkhounds.

Darkhounds are far more than wolves or wolf–dog crosses though, they are much more dangerous and spooky—which brings us to spectral dogs.

Spectral hounds of ill omen

Folk tales of spectral dogs, especially large black dogs, abound throughout Britain—Devon alone:

is said to harbour at least 50 black dog haunts

- Paul Devereux, Haunted Land, 2001

These dogs are reported to have various unnatural features: large or glowing eyes, no head, the ability to disappear or appear out of thin air or into and out of the ground, or the ability to change their size or appearance.

Common haunts for the spectral black dogs are roads, paths, crossroads, bridges, gates, doors, stairs and corridors. Other common haunts, especially in Wiltshire, are graveyards and barrows. Spectral dogs have also been reported in buildings, even churches.

In some tales, the dogs attack people: one tale tells of a spectral dog biting a man on the back and causing him to curl up and shrink, and another of a hound attacking people in church. There are also tales of spectral dogs that disappear in dramatic flashes, in one case burning to death a farmer, his horse and wagon.

The spectral dogs may leave claw marks on stone floors, or they may run over the tilled earth of the garden without leaving footprints. Similarly, Darkhounds leave:

no print on even the softest dirt, only on stone.

- The Fires of Heaven, Gateways

In the tales, the spectral dogs are usually omens of death—either one’s own death or the death of a family member. In The Wheel of Time series, the Darkhounds actually do the killing and, since they are difficult to kill or evade, the sight of one certainly indicates one’s doom.

Not all spectral hounds were black however. The Cwn Annwn or Hounds of Annwn (Hounds of Hell) were small, white, red-eared hounds that were chained and led by a horned figure. These were ghost dogs that appeared only at night to foretell death. They were sent from Annwn to seek out corpses and human souls and were associated with the Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a folk myth “known throughout the world” (Encyclopaedia Britannica), but is especially prevalent in Northern Europe and Great Britain.

The basic image is of a powerful mythical figure—a god, goddess, or legendary personage—leading a hunt through the night skies that swooped to gather up the souls of the dying in its course across the countryside.

- Paul Devereux, Haunted Land, 2001

The leader may even be Satan. In Germany, Woden usually led the Wild Hunt. His Norse equivalent, Odin, riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, was the leader of the Wild Hunt in Scandinavia. In Celtic countries, the Wild Hunt was the hosting of the Sidhe (the fairies) and its leaders included the King or Queen of the Fairies, Gwydion, Nuada, and Herne the Hunter. The leader of the Wild Hunt has changed throughout history to include other gods and folk heroes: King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, and Sir Francis Drake have all been claimed as leaders.

The hunter was variously said to be searching for women, sinners, the unbaptised, the dying; certainly human souls and not wild animals.

While the real-world Wild Hunt has been linked with the Otherworld or Faerie, the Wheel of Time version is obviously diabolic, with the Dark One leading:

The tales he had heard said the Darkhounds ran the night in the Wild Hunt, with the Dark One himself the hunter;

The Fires of Heaven, Gateways

The Saldeans name the leader of the Wild Hunt as Old Grim—another euphemism for Shaitan (The Dragon Reborn, Shadowbrothers). The real-world equivalent of Old Grim would be the Grim Reaper, Death. This is Shaitan/Satan in his role as Lord of the Grave (or perhaps later his captain, Moridin, Death). The Dark One did not literally run with the Darkhounds, since he was captive, but the Darkhounds certainly hunted with the Dark One’s influence and purpose (or at least those of the Forsaken) running with them.

Olver’s final blast on the Horn of Valere called the souls of Wolves gathered in the north of Tel’aran’rhiod to fight the Darkhounds under the leadership of Perrin, Wolf King and King of the Wild (A Memory of Light, To Awaken). The Light’s Last Hunt with Perrin as a Herne the Hunter type figure, was the counterbalance to the Shadow’s Wild Hunt.

Throughout our history, seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to be an omen of some catastrophe such as pestilence, death or war, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. (This links in with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and with Revelations.) If such a witness aided the hunt they would be given a reward that was usually cursed, if they defied the hunter they would be punished—bad news either way.

People encountering or following the Wild Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead. In fact, the Northern French term for the Wild Hunt, "MesneƩ d'Hellequin", was named after Hel, the Norse Queen of the Dead, depicted right, a parallel of Lanfear. Her land was guarded by the great dog Garmr who will fight Tyr (a parallel of Rand, see Rand essay) at Ragnarok and they will kill each other. No Darkhounds have attacked Rand since The Fires of Heaven, but Lanfear wanted Rand dead.

There is another Queen of the Underworld closely associated with hellish dogs—Hecate.

Hecate and her black dogs

Hecate was the Greek goddess of the underworld (the dead), night, magic (witchcraft), the waning moon, and crossroads (Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology). At night during the dark moon, Hecate was believed to carry torches as she roamed the roads with her howling black dogs. Hecate and her dogs were said to journey over graves to search for souls to carry to the underworld. Offerings were made to her at crossroads, which were sacred to her (Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology).

In the Wheel of Time series, Darkhounds, graveyards and crossroads are all linked to the Dark One, the Lord of the Grave, rather than the Queen of the Dead, who is a parallel of Lanfear. Darkhounds are especially dangerous at crossroads and graveyards (The Fires of Heaven, Gateways and Crossroads of Twilight, The Scent of a Dream), because the Dark One’s power is at its strongest there. Likewise at twilight, as day dies, and dawn, as the night dies.

Liandrin explained this very well:

Twilight was a troubled time for Liandrin of late, that and dawn. At dawn, the day was born, just as twilight gave birth to night, but at dawn, night died, and at twilight, day. The Dark One’s power was rooted in death, he gained power from death, and at those times she could feel his power stirring.

- The Great Hunt, The Shadow in Shienar

Cerberus the Hellhound

In Greek mythology, Hecate’s three-headed dog Cerberus watched the entrance to Hades and was:

the guardian of Styx, the dark river separating life and death.

- Paul Devereux, Haunted Land, 2001

Cerberus was brought out of the Underworld by Hercules as his last and most difficult labour (Encyclopaedia Britannica) (see right), a parallel of Rand performing nine impossible things as was prophesied (see Foretellings article). There was a belief that while Cerberus was above ground, a highly poisonous plant called aconite was formed wherever drops of Cerberus’ poisonous saliva fell. An alternative legend had Hecate making aconite herself from the foam(ing saliva) of Cerberus (Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931). Not surprisingly, the plant (also known as Hecateis, monkshood or wolfsbane) was sacred to Hecate. The plant was called wolfsbane because the tips of arrows were dipped in aconite extract to make them more deadly when hunting wolves.

There are a couple of parallels here. Like Cerberus, the Darkhounds have poisonous saliva:

even their saliva is poison…a drop on the skin can kill

- The Fires of Heaven, Gateways

and like aconite, Darkhounds surely are wolves’ banes:

a hundred wolves could die trying to kill one Shadowbrother.

- Crossroads of Twilight, Whirlpools of Colour

Burned sulphur scent—a whiff of brimstone from hell?

Perrin smelled a burned sulphur sort of smell when he found Darkhound footprints on stone (The Dragon Reborn, Shadowbrothers) and Rand smelled it when Darkhounds attacked him in Rhuidean (The Fires of Heaven, Gateways).

The common name for sulphur was brimstone and is used as such in the Bible. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by:

brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven

- Genesis 19: 24

as punishment. In Revelation 19: 20 there is a hellish "lake of fire burning with brimstone." The Pit of Doom where the Dark One can be sensed most strongly is similar:

[it is] a lake of molten stone, red mottled with black...[and] the black slopes of Shayol Ghul, forever shrouded in twilight,... [have] vents and tunnels... [that emit] steam and smoke and harsh vapours.

- A Crown of Swords, Mindtrap

It is a volcano, in other words, and these emit sulphurous vapours. So the smell of burned sulphur or brimstone that the Darkhounds leave is a parallel to the fires and noxious vapours of hell, rather than God’s righteous wrath.

The protection of running water

In folklore, running water is considered pure and thus a protection from evil spirits. Likewise, Darkhounds will not stop until you put running water between you and them (The Fires of Heaven, Gateways). Some malevolent spirits of myth are particularly vulnerable to running water. The best example of this is the nuchlavis or nuckelavee, a hideous Scottish sea spirit that is very malevolent towards humans. It can take any form it wishes, bleeds black blood if cut, and smells of rotten eggs and spoiled fish. However, it is easy to escape by crossing over running water such as a creek or river. The nuchlavis has some similarities with Darkhounds: they both smell bad and avoid running water, and the nuchlavis has black blood and poisonous breath while Darkhounds have poisonous blood and saliva (The Fires of Heaven, Gateways.)

Touching Hearthstones

Before the Last Battle, Perrin believed that touching hearthstones kept you safe from Darkhounds (Crossroads of Twilight, The Scent of a Dream). The hearth has been the symbol of security and normality throughout history.

In Ancient Greece, the center of life was the domestic hearth, which was also used as a sacrificial altar. Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, represented warmth, happiness and safety.

Similarly, in Ancient Rome, the welfare of the whole city was believed to depend on the preservation of the sacred flame kept in the temple and attended by the Vestal Virgins, priestesses of the goddess Vesta (the Roman equivalent to Hestia).

In more modern times, the hearth is revered in the US ethos and is a prominent image in public speeches. For instance, President Lincoln in his inaugural address said:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone (italics mine), all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Another U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a series of "Fireside Chats" during his terms of office in the 1930s and 1940s to reassure the populace while war and economic hardship were raging.

For Harriet Beecher Stowe, the hearth was the symbol of both family and patriotism. And Whittier’s poem on the hearth: and shelter, warmth and health,
And love's contentment more than wealth

gave a whole school of American poets their name as the Fireside Poets.

Since the hearth is a powerful talisman of shelter in our psyche, it is no wonder that Robert Jordan has characters that believe that merely touching hearthstones may protect against such an evil as the Darkhounds.


Written by Linda, June 2004 and updated August 2013


Ryamano said...

I want to add the part about encountering darkhounds in a crowwroads during the twilight.

In Crossroads of Twilight we learn that that is specially dangerous.

In Brazilian-African religion of umbanda, offers to Exu (spirits) are made at crossroads. They're called "despacho".

In umbanda and Brazilian folklore it's said that ghosts are more likely to appear at a crossroads during twilight, at the end of the day or beginning of the day, to eat/consume those offers. People are very afraid to meet those ghosts at the time so the more superstitious try to avoid crossroads at those times.

Linda said...

Thank you Ryamano. This is a modern continuation of very ancient folklore that RJ was referring to. I wrote about the European version, specifically Ancient Greek, but you are right, these customs are prevalent elsewhere too.

Rowena said...

Another interesting read! I love how in-depth you go in your analysis of Jordan's world.

A couple of things I noticed, you wrote ' The Cwn Annwn or Hounds of Annwn (Hounds of Hell)' but the Cwn Annwn were only regarded as such by Christians misunderstanding or wanting to defame pagan beliefs ( and subsequently they were the only ones who suggested the Wild Hunt was led by Satan, as 'Hounds of Hell' must belong to him. I feel the distinction is very important and should be included.
Secondly, some Wild Hunts were indeed rumoured to chase animals, such as boar or wild horse ( I hope this is useful and not annoying!

Thanks for the fascinating article!

Linda said...


Jordan's themes of myth turning to legend, time distorting knowledge and mistaken knowledge means that the distortions are just as true as the original.

This essay hasn't been updated for AMOL yet, so the chasing animals aspect of the Wild Hunt
hasn't been added yet.

Anonymous said...

There is in the Hary Potter series a reference to the Grim - a dark big hound appearing - as bringer of death. It appears prominently in
"The Prisoner of Azkaban".
See e.g.

Plenty to be found on the grim's legend, see e.g.

Also prominent in Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6)

Linda said...

Yes, Anonymous. These myths are common and many authors have used them; Jordan's usage being earlier than Rowlings.

Anonymous said...

I amd disappointed that you didn't mention Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath as modern examples of stories that re-use various aspects of those tales. The Cwn Annwn make their appearance as the Morrigan's dogs in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; in The Moon of Gomrath the Wild Hunt, the Einheriar of the Herlathing pretty much take centre stage.