Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld
There is a curious connection between dogs and travel to the realm of the dead. It can be found particularly in Indo-European mythologies, although it also occurs in Egypt, Siberia, and north America. According to the Vedic mythology of ancient India, for instance, the deceased must pass by the four-eyed dogs of Yama, king of the dead; and Greek mythology tells of the dog Kerberos, popularly endowed with three heads, who watches the entrance to Hades. Mention must also be made of the white, red-eared hounds of Celtic myth. But the idea of the underworld watchdog appears to have reached its fullest, and most complex expression among the Germanic peoples.
In Scandinavia, hounds are associated with Niflheimr, the mortuary land ruled by the grim queen Hel. The Eddic poem Baldrs draumar (Balder's Dreams) tells how Odin rides to Niflheimr to ascertain the meaning of the dreams that have been troubling his son. On the way,
Also in the Poetic Edda, in the Fjolsvinnsmal section of the poem Svipdagsmal, two dogs guard Lyfjaberg ('Mount of Healing') the otherworld dwelling of the maiden Mengloth, which is surrounded by a wall of fire, and a clay wall called Gastropnir. H.R. Ellis Davidson  has convincingly identified Mengloth with the goddess Hel, on the grounds that there are enough significant parallels between Niflheimr and Lyfjaberg to suggest that the rulers of the two places were also probably meant to be one and the same. The two dogs are worth a closer look:
Gifr means 'Greedy'; as does Geri. The latter is also
the name of one of Odin's two wolves - the other is Freki, whose
name has the same meaning. As Bruce Lincoln has
To Lincoln's notion we may add the simple observation that the dog's common role in human communities makes it a natural candidate for the part of guardian of the underworld. But there is much more than that to be said for it. Dogs and wolves are closely related, in traditional mythology as well as in nature. The Old English epic poem Beowulf describes the monster Grendel and his mother in terms that leave little doubt as to their lupine nature - among the words used to describe them are: werga, werhtho, heorowearh, brimwylf, grundwyrgenne, all of which contain the elements wearg/wearh or wylf. Grendel is also called a scucca (demon), from which the second element of the name of Black Shuck, the supernatural dog encountered by nocturnal travellers in East Anglian folklore, is derived. It is also said of Grendel that him of eagum stod ligge gelicost leoht unfaeger, 'from his eyes shone a fire-like, baleful light' .
Grendel and his mother are both haunters and guardians of a burial mound in marshland, and are given an aquatic aspect to match - brimwylf, for instance, means 'water-wolf'. This brings to mind the bodies of water - usually rivers, but sometimes a lake or sea - that are invariably supposed to surround the Indo-European underworld, and those of some non-Indo-European cultures. This brings us, strange as it may seem, to St Christopher.
In Christian popular tradition, St Christopher was a giant who carried travellers across a river. The story is well known, and does not need to be repeated here. But Old English traditions of the saint are rather unusual. According to the Old English Passion of St Christopher, se w s healf hundisces mancynnes, 'he was of the race of mankind who are half hound'. The Old English Martyrology elaborates upon this: he was thaere theode thaer men habbath hunda heafod & of thaere eorthan on theare aeton men hi selfe, 'from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other'; furthermore, he haefde hundes haefod, & his loccas waeron ofer gemet side, & his eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra, & his teth waeron swa scearpe swa eofores texas, 'he had the head of a hound, and his locks were extremely long, and his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, and his teeth were as sharp as a boar's tusks' .
It is plain that this is not quite the patron saint of travellers that we are told about at Sunday School. It is a peculiarly Old English view of St Christopher. He resembles the monstrous Healfhundingas, a race mentioned in two Old English texts: The Wonders of the East and The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. More to the point, he resembles the lupine monsters of Beowulf. Like most other Indo-European traditions, the Germans seem to have conceived of an otherworldly ferryman who conducted the dead to the underworld; indeed, Odin was so pictured during the Viking Age. It seems reasonable to suppose that St Christopher's occupation and location struck a traditional chord familiar to Anglo-Saxon ears, and that the legend was consequently coloured by Germanic underworld motifs.
At this point, we must return to the Grendel family, and to Odin's wolves. Grendel and his mother are several times characterised by compounds of the word wearg or its variant wearh, which may be more familiar to readers of J.R.R. Tolkien in its continental German form warg, although it has similar forms in other Germanic tongues. This is a complex word: it is often used simply to mean 'wolf', but it also denotes an outlaw or the state of outlawry, in which case it refers to those who have committed crimes that are either unforgivable or unredeemable, and who are cast out from their communities and doomed to wander until they die. Outlaws were traditionally forest-dwellers, and could be legitimately killed.
It would be easy to assume that outlaws were called warg simply because their offences were of an especially savage kind, and that they were likened to wolves, wild, bestial, and uncivilised, as a result. Anglo-Norman law, for example, stated that the outlaw would 'be held to be a wolf and . . . be proclaimed 'wolf's-head'' . Interestingly, the Frankish Lex Salica uses the phrase wargus sit ('he shall be a warg') of a despoiler of buried corpses . But warg is not a straightforward word. It is derived from an Indo-European *wergh-, 'strangle', via Germanic *wargaz. It is suggested that the use of warg and its variants in Germanic legal codes, as a condemnation, 'originally was a magico-legal pronouncement which transformed the criminal into a werwolf worthy of strangulation' . The Indo-European antiquity of this notion is demonstrated in Hittite texts which include the phrase zi-ik-wa UR.BAR.RA ki-sa-at, 'thou art become a wolf'; and the name LU.MES hurkilas, denoting demon-like entities who are set to capture a wolf and strangle a serpent - hurkilas being derived from the same root as warg . The warg, in this analysis, is a strangler, but one who himself requires strangulation.
The Lex Salica is not alone in condemning corpse-violators as warg. Exactly the same thing can be found in the Lex Ripuaria, and in the laws decreed by Henry I of England. Medieval Scandinavian legal texts, however, tend to apply the cognate term vargr to those who kill by cowardly means, and to oath-breakers; however, the term is almost always used in compounds, which suggests that the archaic point has been lost. Ultimately, a warg is an outlaw, one who has literally become a wolf in the eyes of his fellows: a warg can become what he is by being outlawed, for murder or oath-breaking; or he can be oulawed for what he already is, a warg, a worrier of corpses.
The traditional method for disposing of outlaws was hanging, a punishment that is only a minor variation on strangulation. This was the prescribed way of sacrificing to Odin. As the poem Grimnismal says, 'Odin's hall is easy to recognise: a vargr hangs before the western door...' . Odin is known as Hangaguth, 'God of the Hanged'; in Old English, Old Saxon, and Old Norse, the gallows is known as the 'warg-tree'. Strangulation is implied by a number of references to the ropes or snares of the death-goddess in Indo-European myth; and here the name Mengloth, 'necklace-glad', may be significant, especially as one of the walls that surround her Lyfjaberg is the clay wall called Gastropnir, 'Guest-Strangler'.
The situation thus far can be summarised as follows. Firstly, the land of the dead is guarded by a canine or lupine creature. Secondly, that land must be reached by crossing a body of water. Next, warg applies to men who are legally wolves - or werewolves, for that is what we are dealing with here - and are condemned to the noose. Lastly, the references to Grendel in Beowulf further suggest that the dogs or wolves who guard or bar the way to the underworld are themselves warg.
There are two more things to note before we can progress further. One is an interesting kenning in another Eddic poem, Helreith Brynhildar: this is hrot-garmr, 'howling dog', which stands for fire, and in this case refers specifically to Brynhild's funeral pyre. The other is the wall of fire that surrounds Mengloth's Lyfjaberg. This is paralleled in several other medieval Norse texts by walls of flame that surround otherworld realms. The two ideas could be linked: after all, cremation is itself a wall of fire that is a boundary between this world and the next.
This takes us, indirectly, back to warg. The Roggenwolf ('rye-wolf') of German rural folklore is a demon that lives in grainfields and ambushes peasants, strangling them. This creature, essentially a type of werewolf, is represented at harvest-time by the last sheaf, which is called 'Wolf' and tied up to nullify its malignance. Like Grendel, the Roggenwolf has a sinister mother, the Roggenmutter or Kornmutter. Another lupine connection is the fungus ergot, which is particularly associated with rye. This fungus, which gives the grain an unpleasant appearance, is sometimes known as Wolf or Wolfszahn ('Wolf-tooth'). Mary R. Gerstein  suggests that there is an etymological link between ergot and warg: she presents a number of examples where variants of warg are used to imply moral or physical corruption or disease, and in some they are coupled with the term represented in Old Norse by argr and ergi, and in other Germanic languages as earh, earg, arag, arug, and so on. This is basically a term used to denote passive homosexuality, and is specifically applied to the recipient in anal intercourse. It is also used to describe Odin, as a consequence of his use of the magical technique called seithr, an art appropriate to women. Gerstein's idea is that, just as warg indicates the transformation of man into wolf, arg denotes the notional change of man into woman. Arg and its cognate forms form the third corner of this etymological triangle.
Ergot contains a number of interesting substances, chief among which is lysergic acid, from which the hallucinogen LSD is made. Poisoning by ergot (ergotism) used to occur frequently in Europe. Among the symptoms of this virulent, and often lethal, condition are: disruption of motor control functions, causing tremors and writhing, wry neck, convulsions, rolling eyes, and speechlessness; dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, panic attacks, and delusions; extreme thirst, uncontrollable appetite; feelings of extreme heat, or even cold, with itching and tingling, swelling and blistering of the skin. Ergotism was known by a variety of names: St. Anthony's Fire, and - to the physicians of seventeenth-century England - 'suffocation of the mother'. In other words, the symptoms of ergotism mimic lycanthropic behaviour, and can often lead to a fairly convincing simulation of death by strangulation (wry neck) or suffocation . In addition, the presence of lysergic acid is capable of taking the victim on a very bad trip indeed. From the observer's point of view, the symptoms are also superficially similar to rabies. Ergotism or rabies could explain the popular belief that lycanthropy is transmitted through the bite of a werewolf; and in this context ergotism may be the more likely candidate.
Furthermore, the itching and burning sensations caused by extreme vascular constriction - often a prelude to tisse necrosis, gangrene - could also be construed as a foretaste of the fires of hell, and the experience would augment the effects of the lysergic acid. The growth of ergot is stimulated by certain atmospheric conditions: it grows best in overcast and damp weather. Epidemics have been linked to volcanic eruptions, particularly in Scandinavia; and the presence of nearby marshland or lakes is enough to moisten the air sufficiently to facilitate the growth of ergot . To this we must add the simple fact that rye has long been the traditional, staple grain of Germany and Scandinavia; although ergot is by no means exclusive to that cereal. With that in mind, it may useful to note that the most commonly accepted interpretation of the controversial name Beowulf is 'Barley-wolf', which hints at the same theme, and adds the notion of the warrior as one who can change into a ravening beast, a lycanthropic transformation that is also expressed in the Norse term berserkr, 'bear-shirt'.
It is difficult to summarise this complex argument with clarity. The
basic Indo-European (or even Eurasiatic) myth, of the dog that keeps watch
over the realm of the dead, has been augmented by the peculiarly Germanic
idea of the outlaw as wolf, and as a foredoomed sacrificial victim. The
term warg may originally have applied exclusively to those guilty
of desecrating buried corpses, or perhaps even those who killed in a
cowardly manner. The latter, if the etymology of warg is
The phenomenon of ergotism apes both the lycanthropic state of the warg and - thanks to the lysergic acid present in the growth - the journey to the otherworld. It also gives the victim an unpleasant precognition of the flames of the funeral pyre, the wall of fire that must be crossed to reach the land of the dead. As we have seen, this fire is itself characterised in one poem as a dog, and in German folklore the fungus that causes the foretaste is called a wolf, or the tooth of a wolf.
The liminal status of the dog, and its role as guardian, has been dealt with in more detail in Bob Trubshaw's Black dogs: guardians of the corpseways. It remains only to emphasise that this analysis underscores the argument presented there.
1: My translation.
Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 1994.