There have been many tales told down through the ages of dogs, usually black or darkly coloured, haunting ancient places – often on ancient pathways – as harbingers of death. But it’s another kind of dog, a greyhound, or more probably a Grey Hound (or wolf?) that concerns us today.
There are several dolmens across Wales, remnants of ancient burial chambers, which are known by names which roughly translate to the “Lair of the Grey Hound”, the “Grey Bitch’s Lair” or other variants along the same lines.
Lletty’r Filiast on the Great Orme at Llandudno, Gwal-y-Filiast (St Lythans) near Barry, Twlc y Filiast at Llanglydwen, Carmarthenshire and Gwal-y-Filiast (Dolwilym) at Narberth in Pembrokeshire are all examples of these names.
But where do these names originate?
The dog is the oldest domestic animal, traceable to the paleolithic, since when dogs have enjoyed a peculiarly close relationship with humans, sharing their hearths at night and guarding the home, working during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. This close symbiotic relationship with people is reflected in the early literature where dogs seem to have clear connections with the Otherworld.
Greyhounds are specifically mentioned in the early Welsh literature: they formed some of the many gifts presented to Pwyll by Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Two greyhounds accompany Culhwch, when he sets out in all his splendour to visit his cousin Arthur, in ‘Culhwch and Olwen.’
(quotes taken from Bob Trubshaw: “Black Dogs, Guardians of the corpse ways”)
There are folk tales in Ireland of heroes which show evidence of the importance of hounds in Celtic culture. One of the most popular Irish heroes, Fionn MacCumhal, had an aunt, (or possibly sister?) Tuiren, who was transformed in the Otherworld to a hound bitch and gave birth to pups. Her sons subsequently remained in that form, serving as loyal companions to their cousin.
One has to wonder if these names survive as a racial memory of some kind of ancient ‘Greyfriars Bobby‘ hunting dog, hanging around it’s master’s final resting place, or whether the burial chambers (which would have contained possibly dismembered body parts) attracted wild animals, including wolves, looking for a possibly easy meal? Or is it simply that the structures now resemble what we might consider “kennels”, somewhere for the beasts to settle down for the night, sheltered from the worst of the weather?
If any linguists/etymologists can ‘shed’ any light (sorry!), we’d be interested to hear from you in the comments.