Tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds are prevalent throughout the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles, from tales of Black Shuck in East Anglia to stories of Barghest in North Yorkshire. These terrifying beasts have even made their way into English Literature in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil, and its appearance is usually regarded as a portent of death. It is often associated with electrical storms and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways. The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern, as it has numerous precedents in a wide range of European myths. For example, there is the shape-shifting pooka of Celtic folklore, which was said to have a predilection for taking on the guise of a spectral hound when it appeared in animal form. It is notable that throughout European mythology black dogs seem to have an almost universal association with death: the Welsh Cŵn Annwn were the hounds of the underworld; the Norse Garmr was the blood-stained watchdog that guarded the gates of Hell; and the Greek Cerberus was the three-headed hound that prevented those who crossed the river Styx from ever escaping. It is possible that the black dog, which similarly tended to have ominous connotations in British folklore, is a survival of these beliefs although it should be noted that there are some mythical hounds in Britain that are said to behave rather more benevolently, such as the Gurt Dog in Somerset.
Black Shuck is the name given to the ghostly black dog which is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia, and as such forms part of the folklore of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and the Cambridgeshire fens. The name of this particular hellhound may derive from the Old English word scucca meaning ‘demon’ (as in succubus), as Black Shuck is often recorded as an omen of impending death. According to East Anglian folklore, the spectre haunts a variety of landscapes, primarily coastline, graveyards, sideroads, crossroads, bodies of water and dark forests. The coming of Black Shuck is usually said to be preceded by a blood-curdling howl, although his footfalls make no sound and his paws leave no prints. One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. One day in 1577 Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors at Blythburgh to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can still be seen at the church to this day. On Dartmoor, the notorious squire Cabell was said to have been a huntsman who sold his soul to the Devil. When he died in 1677, spectral hounds are said to have appeared around his burial chamber. This tale of a ghostly huntsman who is said to ride with black dogs inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was to become the best known of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, as well as a landmark tale of mystery and the paranormal in its own right. The Devon Wishthounds (‘Wisht’ is a dialect word for supernatural phenomena) are a related traditional folklore phenomenon apparently related to the Germanic dogs of the Wild Hunt. The Gurt Dog (‘Great Dog’) of Somerset is regarded as relatively benign and is said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen. Other black dogs have been said to help lost travellers find their way home and are more often helpful than threatening; such benign accounts of spirit dogs became more regular towards the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.
The one glaring exception to this is the tale of Barghest, which came to be a major influence on Bram Stoker when he wrote his horror masterpiece Dracula. Barghest is the name often given in the north of England, especially in Yorkshire, to a legendary monstrous black dog with huge teeth and claws. There are stories of Barghest entering the cities of Whitby and York occasionally, where, according to legend, it preys on lone travellers in the cities’ narrow alleyways. In the novel by Bram Stoker, when arriving at Whitby aboard the ship Demeter, Dracula takes the form of a large and ferocious dark dog, a scene which was directly inspired by the local legend of Barghest. Following Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles, demon dogs have made their way into popular culture. Also inspired by the Barghest legend, a ghostly hellhound appears in the children’s book The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis. More famously, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Harry’s divination teacher sees The Grim, which is represented by a black dog in the tea leaves and, much like Black Shuck, is an omen of death. This particular black dog takes on more positive connotations when it is later revealed to be Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, an ‘animagus’ in beast form. The phrase ‘Black Eyed Dog’, which was a term for depression first used by Winston Churchill, was popularized in the music of the enigmatic English folk musician Nick Drake (click to read my previous post on him). In the obscure fields of cryptozoology and cryptobotany, the figure of the black dog is officially classified as a cryptid, i.e. a creature or plant whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and is therefore regarded as highly unlikely. All those tales do make you wonder though….