Dormach is the dog of Gwyn ap Nudd, who aids him hunting the souls of the dead. We have only one reference to Dormach by name in medieval Welsh literature. This is from ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ in The Black Book of Carmarthen (1350).
In this poem Gwyddno has died and is wandering the misty hinterlands between Thisworld and Annwn. There he meets with Gwyn, who offers him protection and slowly reveals his identity as a gatherer of souls. Gwyn introduces Dormach, then Gwyddno addresses the dog.
In Welsh this reads:
Ystec vy ki ac istrun.
Ac yssew. orev or cvn.
Dorma ch oet hunnv afv y Maelgun.
Dorma ch triunrut ba ssillit
Arnaw canissam giffredit.
Dy gruidir ar wibir winit.
Over the past two centuries this verse has been translated into English in various ways. The most recent and best translation is by Greg Hill (2015):
My hound is sleek and fair,
The best of hounds;
Dormach he is, who was with Maelgwn.
Dormach rednose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.
Much controversy has surrounded the name, which is written twice as ‘Dorm ach’, with a letter erased. John Rhys assumed this was an ‘r’ giving ‘Dormarch’ with march meaning ‘horse’ ‘wholly inapplicable to a dog’.*
Rhys suggested ‘Dormach’ should instead be written as ‘Dormarth’, ‘a compound made up of dôr, ‘door,’ and marth.’ He went on to claim that marth is a ‘personification of death’ ‘of the same origin as the Latin mors, mortis… perhaps, the Marth which was the door of Annwn.’ Dormarth means ‘door-death’.
Rhys’s translation is now considered unconvincing. There is no evidence the letter was an ‘r’ and its erasure is viewed as a genuine correction. According to The Dictionary of Welsh Language, ‘Dormach’ means ‘burden, oppression’. There is textual evidence of its use from the 14th century until the 18th century. These meanings fit with medieval Christian conceptions of Gwyn and his dog(s).
Rhys notes that in Wales Bwlch Safan y Ci, ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, is a metaphor for death and bears similarities with the English ‘jaws of death’ and German Rachen des Todes ‘jaws of death’. This argument for Dormach’s association with death and the door of Annwn seems sound. In the Brythonic and Germanic traditions we find corpse-dogs: Cwn Annwn (of whom Dormach is a member and perhaps their leader being ‘the best’) and Gabriel Ratchets, who hunt the souls of the dead and are viewed as death portents. To pass through the jaws of these dogs is to die and go to the next world.
In many world myths, dogs act as guardians to the lands of the dead. The most famous is Cerberus, who guards Hades in Greek mythology. He is variously depicted with one, two, three, or fifty(!) heads, one or more stinging serpent tails, and sometimes with a mane of snakes or snakes down his back.
Intriguingly, in The Black Book of Carmarthen, the scribe has sketched an image of Dormach with a dog’s head and near Cheshire cat-like grin, a dog’s forelegs, and a long body tapering to two serpent tails. He bears a striking similarity to Cerberus and may also have been viewed as a guardian of Annwn.
Part-dog, part-serpent, this image reminds me of the watery, subliminal imagery from the temple of Nodens/Nudd, Gwyn’s father. On a mosaic are two sea-serpents or icthyosaurs. On a mural crown Nodens is accompanied by icthyocentaurs with heads of men, front hooves of horses, and fish-tails.
Rhys notes by Dormach he is ‘reminded of the the medieval pictures of hell with the entrance thereinto represented as consisting of the open jaws of a monster mouth.’ He refers to the tenth century Anglo-Saxon Caedmon manuscript where the devil lies chained to a tooth and demons deliver sinners into the gaping maw.
This shares similarities with the Urtecht Psalter (1055) from the Netherlands which features not only Hell Mouths but a ‘Hades Head’ (could we be looking at shared cultural representations of Pen Annwn, ‘Head of the Otherworld’?). The 11th century Anglo-Saxon Harley Psalter replaces the Hell Mouths with clefts, pits, vents, and chimneys leading into hollow hills where souls are tortured.
Utrecht Psalter with Hades Head
In these representations we find a mixture of pre-Christian Brythonic and Anglo-Saxon beliefs about the dead passing through the jaws of death to a world beneath the earth demonised and made hellish. Hell Mouths also appear on the left-hand side of Christ in the bottom corner surrounded by the demonic imagery of Hell (Heaven is on his right) in Doom paintings from across medieval Europe.
These depictions are clearly influenced by the Bible. In Isaiah 5:14 we find the lines: ‘Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers’ and in Numbers 16.32: ‘and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions.’
In the Book of Jonah, Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic sea creature. In the Hebrew text it is called a dag gadol, ‘huge fish’, in the Greek ketos megas ‘huge fish’, a term associated with sea-monsters, and in the Latin ketos is translated as cetus ‘whale’. Jonah is described as being in ‘the belly of hell’, ‘cast into the deep’: ‘The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.’ Jonah’s ‘soul fainted’, he offered up a prayer to God, and the whale vomited him up. Here we have a clear depiction of Jonah passing to and returning from another world. ‘Hell’ is translated from Sheol, the Hebrew name for the land of dead.
‘Jonah and the Whale’ by Pieter Lastman (1621)
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus compares his death, journey to Hell, and resurrection with the story of Jonah: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ The sea-monster’s belly and Hell are equated.
In ‘The First Address of Taliesin’, in The Book of Taliesin, the riddling bard poses the question:
Pwy vessur Uffern,
pwy tewet y llenn,
pwy llet y geneu,
pwy mein enneinheu?
What is the measure of Hell,
how thick is it veil,
how wide is its mouth,
how big are its baths?
Here ‘Hell’ is translated from Uffern, which derives from the Latin Inferno, and is used synonymously with Annwn. Margaret Hancock links the geneu ‘maw, jaws’ with the Hell Mouth and the ‘Hell monster’ in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: a ‘great-scaled beast’ with one hundred heads who carries fierce battalions ‘beneath the roof of his tongue’ and ‘in (each of) his napes.’ This beast, like the ‘black-forked toad’ and ‘speckled crested snake’ in whose flesh a hundred souls are tortured ‘on account of (their) sins’ is evidently a death-eater and it seems likely Dormach played a similar role.
These creatures appear to be native to the Brythonic pagan tradition and to Annwn. Whilst they appear monstrous to Christians, from a pagan standpoint, they might be seen as having an essential, albeit unpleasant, function in devouring the dead and acting as vehicles for their passage to the Otherworld.
Of course, such passages are not limited to the dead. As the journeys of Jonah, Jesus, and Taliesin show, the living can pass to Annwn and one of those ways is by entering the jaws of a devouring creature.
Is there some deep and universal truth in the image of the jaws of death? Are pursuit by a monstrous beast, being swallowed, devoured, spat out, integral to the journeys of our souls in life and in death? If this is the case should the ‘oppression’ of Dormach ultimately be seen as liberating, his ‘burden’ the key to release from our fear of death as we pass through his jaws to gain knowledge of the Otherworld?
*Rhys gives no argument for this and I disagree. The name of Arthur’s dog, ‘Cafall’, may derive from the the Latin for horse, Caballus, and mean he was as big as a horse. Bran, the dog of Gwyn’s Irish cognate, Finn, shared Dormach’s colouring with ‘two white sides’ and ‘a fresh crimson tail’ and his head was shoulder high. In the Irish myths we also find dog-headed figures with horse’s manes. There is therefore no good reason why Dormach should not be seen as horse-sized or even as horse-like.
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Awen & Awenydd
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Philip A. Bernhadt House, Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature, (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)
Sarah Kemple. ‘Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts’, Anglo Saxon England, (2003)
Biblical quotes from Bible Hub
With thanks to Linda Sever for passing on Sarah Kemple’s illuminating article.