The Lore and Legend of the Black Dog

 

hellhound

Image of the Hellhound

Introduction

Legends and tales about phantom Black Dogs occur aplenty in the British Isles and elsewhere (Parkinson, 2011). Indeed, though primarily British phenomenon, mythology is particularly rich in legends about dogs (Trubshaw, 2011), though Scotland has few instances (Brown, 1958). In the Highlands though there is the belief in the cu sith or green ‘fairy dogs’.

The main feature of the Black Dog legends is that, apart from being essentially nocturnal, is in its having roots in both persons and locations (Brown, 1978). Also, as a portent of death in association with the devil, the creature is always black, and always a dog. Black Dogs have been sighted in the Isle of Man, Brittany, and the Channel Islands. The persistent, widespread and variable Black Dog stories (Brown, 1958), shows that “…the phenomena of phantom dogs is a complex mix of folklore, sightings, and local superstitions, which has its roots far into the past.” (Parkinson, 2011).

Even though the majority of phantom dogs have no known cause or history there have been claimed to be three separate species of this ‘ghost’ (Brown, 1958) which are (1) a shape-shifting demoan hound; (20 a large shaggy black coloured dog and; (3) a dog that appears only at certain times in specific locales (Parkinson, 2011). The barguest type is a shape-shifter which no true Black Dog ever does.

Nature and Habitat

The dog possesses five definable characteristics which are: (1) it is ‘man’s best friend’ in the sense that it freely associates with humans, and has been regarded as an animal symbol of a vampire; (2)it protects humans and their property, and thus is a guardian; (3) it is believed to be able to see malevolent spirits including the ‘Angel of Death’; (4) it scavenges offal and decaying meat; (5) just as does the wolf the dog also howls at the moon (Brown, 1978). These are the features that underpin most mythology, superstition and folklore concerning dogs. No other animal shares all of these attributes.

The Black Dog is usually described as larger than a normal dog with large glowing red eyes. Some are viewed as benevolent creatures whereas other opinions state that “…the Black Dog is looked on as a bad omen, ill luck, disaster or death attending his appearance…” (Rudkin, 1938). Examples include Padfoot and Bogey Beast from Yorkshire and Black Shruck from East Anglia.

black struck

Black Shruck.  Source: public domain.

Black Dogs are often associated with crossroads, ancient trackways, and places of execution especially as a gallows or gibbet was often placed at a crossroads. Such places are the haunt of the Black Dog. The assumed habitat of the Black Dog is its natural home of a road, by a stream or river a place of passage from one place, one realm, to another. At these junctures they are often encountered.

Black Dogs also haunt prehistoric burial sites, and hollowed or burnt out trees, and sometimes are actually associated with a family or particular person (Brown, 1958). Their habitat can include isolated burials and old sites of battles. As portents of death Black Dogs have been sighted in churchyards where they are called Kirk or Church Grims. In this guise these creatures frequent liminal places such as “…ancient lanes, trackways, crossroads, old churchyards and prehistoric sites.” (Parkinson, 2011).

Distribution and Locale

Black Dog appearances vary from locality to locality (Parkinson, 2011), but the majority are linked to a specific locale. Regional variation of the creature shows that half are “…associated with movement from one locality to another: roads, lanes, footpaths, ancient trackways, bridges, crossroads, gateways, doorways, corridors and staircases.” (Brown, 1978).

Black Dogs occur “…frequently in England and Ireland in places known to be Scandinavian settlements.” (Rudkin, 1938). In Wales the apparition is known as the ‘Dog of Darkness’ or gwyllgi and is related to the mythical and ghostly Cwn Annwn. Black Dogs are sometimes known by a familial patronymic such as the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles or the Dog of the Haynes, or similarly to the the family seat attachment of the Irish banshee.

The occurrence of Black Dog sightings is noted in two main areas (Brown, 1958), which are : (1) Cambridge, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, along the roads, coasts, fens and in churchyards where they always have an ominous aspect. However, in Lincolnshire the Black Dog is never feared (Rudkin, 1938). In Staffordshire the Black Dog is known for haunting wayside graves and wells (Brown, 1958).

The following list delineates the geographical distribution of named Black Dogs (Bord, 1981; Brown, 1958; Brown, 1978). In Lincolnshire there is Hairy Jack; Lancashire has Skriker, Trash, Shag, the Barguest, and Bogey Beast; Yorkshire provides us with Skriker also, plus Padfoot; Somerset is the home of the Gurt Dog or Great Dog; Devon the Yeth or Yell Hound; Cumbria provides the Capelthwaite; Suffolk the Galleytrot, with the Mauthe Doog in Scotland and the Isle of Man; other names also include variously the Churchyard Beast, Kirk Grim, Shug Monkey, Hateful Thing, Swooning Shadow, Gyltrash, Oude Rode Ogen, Dip and Tibicena.

Prehistory

Dogs have existed, in historical perspective from around 18,000 BC, as associated with humans. Dogs were used to herd reindeer in the regions of the north circa 13,700 BC (Zeuner, 1963). The evidence indicates dogs “…have been not only man’s close companions for many millennia, but also providing very specific spiritual guardianship.” (Trubshaw, 2011).

Archaeology and mythology indicate a special role for dogs with a symbolic relationship to humans. Probably domesticated properly some 10,000 years ago (Zeuner, 1963), their domestication “…may well have commenced in the Pleistocene age and was certainly present by Mesolithic times.” (Brown, 1978). In Britain, at the Neolithic site of Flag Fen dogs were ritually sacrificed to become the spirit guardians of the community.

Mesolithic Natufians of the Levant show that excavated cattle and horse bones were those of animals still in the wild state, whereas sheep (caprovines) and dogs were the first species domesticated. In Semitic and Moslem lands, however, the dog is viewed as unclean meaning that the dog “…had once been of sacred significance very remotely in time.” (Brown, 1958).

Supernatural Guardians

The most common superstition concerning Black Dogs is that they are an ominous portent. The legends of the Black Dogs has few parallels in world mythology (Trubshaw, 2011), and as guardians they are seen as protectors of the portals or liminal passages down to the Otherworld of the dead (Brown, 1978).

The Black Dog has an association with witches and as transformational forms are not regarded as offensive. In witchcraft the Black Dog is regarded as being familiar of the Devil, the creature thus symbolises the Devil during the witch transformation. The Black Dog is believed to be the Devil in Germany and most Scandinavian lands. Sometimes the Devil as Black Dog, appears to witches in this form according to the witches of the Highlands, who called him ‘ane black tyke’ (Williams, 1941).

Extending the supernatural or numinous connotations of the Black Dog, they are seen as Guardian Hounds. In this role they are perceived as  ‘dogs of passage’ being associated with entrances to the otherworld via the rivers of death (Brown, 1978). In other words “…black dogs (as some form of archetype appear at places of ancient sanctity.” (Parkinson, 2011). The idea of the dog guardian is encountered in the folklore of the Church Grim. In this role the Black Dog fills the shamanic role of a guide or psychopomp to the underworld (Trubshaw, 2011), functioning  as guardian to the liminal zone. This aspect is reflected in the association of Black Dogs with death rituals in Persia, Tibet and India (Brown, 1958), still observed by the Parsees of India.

The dog ritual was very prominent in Celtic religious practice with the animal afforded a special role in Britain and Gaul with the ghost of “…regarded as a symbol, must represent some universal guardian of the threshold personified in various cultures…” (Brown, 1978). Again, this suggests a connection of Black Dogs with some underworld or chthonic ritual (Green, 1982), with hellhounds accepted as holding an “…intermediary position – that at the border of this world and the next, between life and death.” (Trubshaw, 2011). Hunting hounds recur in the literature of ancient Ireland and Wales, where they are symbolic as underworld messengers.

Mythology

In mythology dogs are regularly associated with death. Welsh legends have the Cwn Annwn and Garmr, whereas Greek myth has the hound of hell called Cerberus. In northern mythology the lupine nature of the Black Dog is found with the Black Suck. Hellhounds are found in Greek, Celtic, Roman, German, Indian, Armenian and Iranian mythology. The Celtic horse goddess Epona was was sometimes accompanied by dogs as was the German and Dutch goddess Nehellenia. Dogs in ancient Rome were used as propitiatory sacrifices to the goddess of births called Genita Mana (Cook, 1905).

Prehistoric and mythic examples of phantom and supernatural dogs are found from the Near East to Greece and as far as the New World. Around 3000 BC the character of the goddess Artemis was seen as the Terrible Mother as well as the Bear Mother with the dual nature of nurturer and destroyer (Brown, 1978). The duality of Artemis was expressed as the virgin mother contrasted with the cruel huntress, a form of the terrifying and overwhelming bear (Kerenyi, 1958, Gimbutas, 1974). Again, the chaste huntress Diana also presided over births known by her title ‘Opener of the Womb’ (Gimbutas, 1974). As with the chthonic Hecate, who owned the three headed Cerberus, Diana as with Artemis, had her own hunting dogs.

The goddess Hecate was the sombre goddess of death whose duality also encompassed her role as the protectress of childbirth, who was also, as was Artemis “…accompanied and appeased by dogs.” (Brown, 1978). Hecate was therefore closely linked to dogs and Cerberus the Otherworld guardian with three heads was her pet. Not only this the goddess herself was often portrayed with three heads as well as linked to the Dog Star called Sirius. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks the hellhound guarded Hades. Cerberus originally had fifty heads but his three heads were eventually, in myth, equated the three heads of Hecate.

myth dogs

Cerberus shown on a an ancient Greek black and red vase.

A trivium is a place in classical times where three roads met, in other words a crossroads (Brown, 1966). In the time of the Romans the Black Dogs were believed to haunt the vicinity of wells. In mythological terms the trivium was regarded as a “…feminine entrance to the underworld of death – and possibly rebirth – employing the symbol of the inverted triangle, the female pubis.” (Brown, 1978). The trivium illustrates another feature of Hecate where she hovered at the crossroads in the form of a hound (Rohde, 1925).  Therefore the sinister aspect of the trivium is its “…popular association of Hecate with witch-meetings, with gallows, and gibbet sites, and with the burial of suicides, all accompanied by dog visions…” (Trubshaw, 2011).

In ancient Egypt the god Anubis was the jackal or dog-headed psychopomp also known originally as An-pu. Another earlier name of An-pu was Imy-ut which menas ‘he who is the skin’ or placenta. This actually refers to the unborn child. Anubis as a psychopomp was also referred to as the ‘Opener of the Paths’ . When Anubis is referred to by his name Impou we find two meanings, one of which refers to a young dog and the other a young child.In other words there is a duality in the nature of Anubis in relation to life and death.  Anubis in ancient and early Egyptian religion is associated with the Dog Star of Sirius (from which the term ‘dog days’ meaning the dry parched season is derived). Another association is between Anubis and the Cerberus of the ancient Greeks. Not only as a psychopomp but also because Cerberus was originally the goddess Hecate (Graves, 1979).

Anubis

Anubis.  Source: public domain.

In ancient Greece, unlike Egypt there were no jackals but there were wolves. For example the Lycian god Apollo as the wolf had many temples dedicated to him. The word lyceum originates with the worship of the lupine Apollo as does the term lykogenes which means ‘born of the wolf. Mythology, archaeology and folklore contain echoes of phantom dogs acting as protectors and guardians of the underworld from time immemorial, and this implies “…the Black Dog be studied as an aspect of a person at every stage of life, appearing as the protector which only manifests itself visually at times of crisis – death, danger, illness….” (Brown, 1978), the phantom, the ghost.

References and sources consulted

Bord, C. & Bord, J.  (1981).  Alien Animals.  Book Club Associates, London.

Brown, T.  (1958).  The Black Dog.  Folklore.  69 (3).

Brown, T.  (1966).  The Triple Gateway.  Folklore.  LXXVII.

Brown, T.  (1978).  The Black Dog in English Folklore.  In: Porter & Russell.

Carter, A. (1979).  ‘Company of Wolves’ in The Bloody Chamber.  V. Gollancz, London.

Cook, A. B.  (1905).  The European Sky God.  Folklore.  XVI.

Davidson, H. E.  (1943).  The road to Hel.  Cambridge.

Davidson, H. E.  (1993).  The lost beliefs of northern Europe.  Routledge.

Eliade, M.  (1951).  Shamanism.  Pantheon, New York.

Gimbutas, M.  (1974).  The Gods and  Goddesses of Old Europe.  London.

Graves, R.  (1979).  The Greek Myths.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Green, M.  (1992).  Animals in Celtic life and myth.  Routledge.

Hesiod.  (1981).  Hesiod and the Theognis.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Howells, W.  (1949).  The Heathens.

Kerenyi, K.  (1958).  The Gods of the Greeks.

Levy, G. R.  (1948).  The Gate of Horn.  London.

McEwan, G. J.  (1986).  Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland.  Robert Hale Ltd.

Murray, M.  (1921).  The Witch Cult in Western Europe.

Parkinson, D.  (2011).  Mysterious Britain.co.uk.

Porter, J. R. & Russell, W. M. S. (eds).  Animals in Folklore.  D. S. Brewer, Folklore Society.

Rohde, E.  (1925).  Psyche.

Rudkin, E. H.  (1938).  The Black Dog.  Folklore.  XLIX.

Simpson, J. & Roud, S.  (2003).  Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.  OUP, Oxford.

Temple, R.  (1976).  The Sirius Mystery.  Sidgewick & Jackson.  London.

Trubshaw. B.  (2011).  Black Dogs, the Guardians of the Corpse Ways.  At the Edge.  Indigogroup.co.uk.

Virgil.  (1995).  The Aeneid.  Wordsworth Classics, London.

Williams, C.  (1941).  Witchcraft.

Zeuner, F. E.  (1963).  A History of Domesticated Animals.  London.

 

 

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