What we have here is the two of the most bad-ass guards of the Netherworld. If you think Cerberus made you pee your pants, you sure ain’t seen nothin’ yet, not even these two. They’re Cowhead and Horseface, [牛头马面 niu tou ma mian] and they’re scary as hell (haha), as seen in this verse:
“The Bull-head demons
The Horse-face demons
With iron spikes and bronze gavels,
They strike till faces contort and blood flows down;"
[Admittedly, I don’t think demons should be in the plural form because they’re the only ones with this kind of funky appearance.]
Like all guards, they have the required armour, weapons and all that jazz, but did you know they also brought souls down to the Underworld? Bet you didn’t see that coming. I don’t know how they can guard this place and bring back souls, but hey - being a god means you’re like, everywhere 24/7 and on call all the time.
And why not? You see, Cowhead and Horseface used to be, well, a cow and a horse who worked tilling the land. When they died, King Yama was real impressed with them, and he needed hard workers to run hell smoothly, so he was all, “All right, Imma make you the guards of hell, yo,” and he gave them a human appearance.
So like, they should have ruled hell this way forever right? Wrong!
Too bad Cowhead and Horseface dealt with humans all the damn time and had to listen to their complaints, and the dead could talk your ear right off. The worst part of the job was being on earth all the damn time because mortals could track you down and beg you not to take them or their relatives or whatever, which was what happened.
See, there was this Squire called Ma, and he had like a shit ton of concubines but only one son. And you know we Chinese people like male heirs, and he really wanted to throw a huge-ass birthday party for his son so he went to see a fortune teller.
So then like, he went to the fortune teller to ask for his son’s fortune, and the prophet was all, “Dude, your son is supposed to die on his eighteenth birthday!”
The Squire nearly went batshit insane.
But the prophet was all, “Dude, chill. All you gotta do is to bring food to this secret location and beg for your son’s life, and all will be good, man.”
So the Squire was like, kay, and he walked all the way to see Cowhead and Horseface, climbing up the steps up to this temple to get to them.
When he got there, these two people were like, playing chess, so he brought the food down and said, “Hi, it’s not like I need your help or anything, but here’s something for you to eat.” Cowhead and Horseface were all like, “Cool! Thanks!” and started eating.
But they knew - like, duh! - that this man wanted something, so they asked the Squire what he wanted and the Squire was all, “Well, don’t take my son please. He’s gonna turn 18 this year and he’s my only heir,” all that jazz.
Then Cowhead and Horseface were like, “No way, man! Rules are rules and besides, King Yama would like, totally punish us. I mean, you can’t like, twist the rules of hell you know.”
But the Squire pleaded like mad, getting on his knees and all, so they were like, “Kay, whatever. We kind of needed more time to finish the chess game anyways,” and didn’t go grab the soul of the Squire’s son.
Yay for the Squire, but there was trouble for these two.
See, King Yama found out, and he got so mad that he changed their faces back to their animal form, and they became these freakish half-human, half-animal beings that you see all the time.
It ain’t that bad, though - I’m sure they scare the shit out of all those evil spirits - that is, if evil spirits still had shit to be scared out of.
And that’s my cool story, bro.
Also, the quote is from this website and you can check out some more badass depictions of them over there as well.