Everyone knows dogs are man’s best friend, so it’s no surprise that tales of ghostly hounds are a staple of British Folklore. However, not all of these puppers are friendly, so they say. In fact, some of them are downright spooky.
Although they vary from region to region, these supernatural hounds are described as huge, spectral forms, usually black in colour, and often with large, red or yellow eyes that glow like coals. They are often associated with death, crossroads and former execution sites. Some say they are connected to the devil, some prefer the theory that they are closely related to faerie courts.
Let’s investigate three regional examples of these hellish hounds.
Possibly one of the most well known examples of Black Dog Folklore is the Black Shuck. Local across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, the name itself is thought to derive from the ancient word for ‘shaggy’, and most people agree he’s not the sort of dog you‘d offer a belly rub.
This malevolent hound is thought to be an omen of death, reportedly responsible for an attack on a church in 1577, which resulted in the deaths of two people and left behind three, long claw marks on the church door, that remains to this day.
It is often said that the smell of brimstone lingers where the dog is sighted, leading to the belief that the dog is the Devil incarnate, however, in some tales, the Black Shuck is said to accompany solo travellers down dark lanes, so as to protect them from robbers and highwaymen. A good dog indeed.
The Church Grim features in British and Nordic folklore and is Black Shuck’s benevolent cousin. Although said to be able to take the form of any animal, it is most often seen as a large, black dog, who protects the church and graveyard from unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells.
Upon the opening of a new church, it was often believed that the first soul to be buried there would be tasked to guard against the devil. So as to spare a human soul from this fate, a dog would often be the first buried, thus becoming the church’s spectral guardian.
This folk belief is similar to that seen in tales of the Devil’s Bridge – a popular motif in which the Devil builds a bridge in return for the first soul who crosses it, only to be outwitted when an animal is sent across first – usually, a dog.
However, much like our friend Black Shuck, the Church Grim isn’t all kisses and rainbows. Some say to catch a glimpse of the dog foretells the death of the viewer, or one close to them. In parts of Yorkshire, the Church Grim is said to ring the bells at midnight, signifying a death that will soon occur.
Cŵn Annwn and The Gwyllgi
I couldn’t end this exploration without including the Welsh versions of the legend.
The Gwyllgi, is a singular beast who operates much like other Black Dogs of British Folklore. It is said to take the form of a large, black mastiff and appears to travellers on lonely roads to foretell their deaths.
However, the Cŵn Annwn – translated to “Hounds of Annwn”, the Welsh otherworld -and are the spectral hounds of the realm and its Kings.
Similar to other black dog legends, to sight them is to foretell death and much like the Banshee, the same is said for their howling.
However, these phantom hounds are not necessarily malevolent beings, and are sometimes seen as accompanying the dead on their travel to the afterlife.
The Cŵn Annwn are sometimes thought to be accompanied by Mallt-y-Nos, or “Matilda of the Night”, a crone who rides with Arawn – the King of Annwn. She is said to be a banshee-like woman who’s wails drive the hounds. Together, they make up members of The Wild Hunt according to Welsh folklore regarding it.
What do you make of these phantom pups?
Personally, I think all dogs are good dogs and the folklore surrounding them just goes to show how fond we really are of them. Just as our belief in ghosts helps us face our own mortality with the hope of something more to come, these tales of phantom hounds promise us that our four-legged friends will be there in the afterlife with us. I hope mine will be.
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