Whisht hounds (also Wish hounds, Wisht hounds, Wist hounds) Spectral hellhounds that haunt Wistman’s Wood and vicinity in Dartmoor in Devon, England. Whisht is an old West-country term for “spooky” and is derived from Wisc, a name for the Norse god of wisdom and war, Odin (Woden). The hounds are also called Yellhounds and Yeth-hounds in some parts of Devon.
The Whisht hounds are headless and glowing black. They roam the moors with their master, Odin, who carries a hunting horn or hunting pole. Sometimes their master is said to be the Devil or Sir FRANCIS DRAKE; he is either astride a horse or on foot. The hounds are said to chase the souls of unbaptized children. Another story holds that the hounds themselves are the souls of unbaptized children who return to hunt down their parents.
Persons unfortunate enough to meet the hounds supposedly die within a year, if they do not perish that very night. It is particularly dangerous to meet them head-on. Anyone who sees the hounds must immediately lie face down with arms and legs crossed and repeat the Lord’s Prayer until they have passed. Dogs who hear the Whisht hounds baying are certain to die.
The Whisht hounds most frequently are about late on Sunday nights. Baying and breathing fire and smoke, they sweep across the moors and end their run by vanishing over a crag. According to lore, anyone who pursues them goes over the cliff to his death.
Writing in the Quarterly Review in July 1873, R.J. King gave this description of the Whisht hounds:
The cry of the whish or whished hounds is heard occasionally in the loneliest recesses of the hills whilst neither dogs nor huntsmen are anywhere visible. At other times (generally on Sundays) they show themselves— jetblack, breathing flames and followed by a swarthy figure who carries a hunting pole. Wise or Wish, according to Kemble, was the name of Woden, the lord of “wish” who is probably represented by the master of these dogs of darkness.
The hounds’ haunt is suitably spooky: the moors are quiet, save for a nearly constant, low, moaning wind. Wistman’s Wood is filled with eerie-looking, moss-covered oak trees, half-buried boulders, and an occasional pile of sheep bones, the remains of some predator’s attack. Nearby are the ruins of a haunted prehistoric village. The hounds are said to emerge from the wood every St. John’s Eve (Midsummer Eve).
The Whisht hounds have been seen since 1677 in the area of Buckfastleigh. In that year, legend has it, an evil man named Sir Richard Cabell was swept off to hell on the night he died. His body was interred in a pagoda in the local churchyard. Whoever pokes a fi nger through the keyhole of the structure will have the end of it chewed by a ghost.
The hounds also have been seen at Buckfastleigh Abbey near Yelverton, along Abbot’s Way, led by the ghost of Sir Francis Drake.
Reports of the hounds dwindled in the late 20th century, perhaps because of a decline in belief in folklore and the supernatural. Both the Whisht hounds and Black Shuck, a spectral BLACK DOG, have been credited with inspiring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
- Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins – Brownies – Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- Brown, Theo. Devon Ghosts. Norwich, England: Jarrold Colour Publications, 1982.
- Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assn. Ltd., 1973.